An Asian Christian woman living in London blogging about the everyday issues of religion

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Rape and the Bible

The subject of rape is a highly emotive one for obvious reasons and currently dominates our global news because of the arrest of the former head of the IMF. Many people have said to me that they cannot believe in the Bible because of the amount of violence contained therein, rape included, that seems to have been approved by God. While I dispute the latter I still remain disturbed by the easy references to rape in the Old Testament.

Here are some passages:

''They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan." Judges 21:10
The inference here is that these poor women were taken back to the camp and raped.

"Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves." Numbers 31:18

How do you explain to non-believers that some of the laws of the Old Testament are not followed anymore and the God we know of today does not condone rape or any form of violence against women? The social laws of the New Testament carry a spirit of compassion and empathy. When I put forward this argument I am accused of 'cherry picking' from the bible. Surely, the answer lies in the fact that Jesus was sent down to establish new social laws which render these acts wrong.


  1. The Israelites obviously told these stories of rape, as did the Romans with the rape of the Sabine women. The problem only arises when you draw the conclusion, that, firstly, the story is historical, and secondly, that God approves.

    The story of the rape of the women of Jabesh-Gilead and Shiloh in Judges 21 looks like a folk tale, and it makes no claim that God approved of what happened. The comment at the end, 'In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes' might be taken to suggest that the passage was edited by someone who didn't approve at all!

    I think we need to examine our assumptions about the Bible rather carefully!

  2. Dear Robert,
    Thank you for leaving a comment. I accept what you say. However, it does remain rather hard to explain to non-believers sometimes that parts of the bible are interpretations of particular authors and not the literal word of God.
    God bless.

  3. I think you are cherry picking.
    As I don't believe that anything in the Bible is the word of God, except the words of Jesus who is God, I never have to explain such passages.

  4. MadPriest:

    I think the fact that "Word of God" most often refers to the evangelical protestant beliefs about the Scriptures is a key issue here- hence why I'm reluctant to use the term to refer to anything other than Jesus Himself.

    From the earliest time, Christians have interpreted all of the Old Testament, even the other books of the New Testament, through the lens of the Gospel accounts. That's why in the ancient church, only the Gospels were permitted to sit upon the altar.

  5. Yes. I wish the Church of England would remove the proclamation "This is the word of God" from after the non-gospel readings in our liturgy. It is only a very small percentage of the members of our denomination who believe it and it sends out a confusing message to people not aware of the subtleties of Anglican belief.

  6. The Old Testament is also far more beautiful and meaningful when viewed as a chronicle of progressive revelation, utilizing the Near-Eastern genres of the time. Leviticus doesn't make too much sense, for example, without understanding the fundamental purpose of Near-Eastern law codes.

    And the Typology! Orthodox Protoprebyter Thomas Hopko spoke on this point, saying (and I paraphrase) "every word of the Old Testament is about Jesus Christ."

  7. But didn't Jesus say that he came to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy?The apostles too made frequent references to the authority of the Old Testament.

  8. MP, great to see you here.
    Nicholas -welcome.

  9. Yes, CL. That's what the other commenters have been saying. You can only read the OT through the gospels. And part of that is looking at OT accounts of rape and saying that they are repudiated by Jesus.

    Prophecies in the OT were human prophecies. They were usually about the eventual redemption of God's people. Maybe they were wishful thinking. Maybe they were good guesses based on a true understanding of a loving God. Most prophecies in the OT never came true. But the hope of the prophets is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

    I read the OT and learn much from it. But it doesn't have to be the word of God for that to happen. If that were true nothing written by anyone since the day the canon was set in stone has any worth. And we know that isn't true.

  10. Thanks for the welcome, Chelliah!

    I wasn't trying to imply that the Prophets were not actually energized by the Holy Spirit. But as St. Paul says, their revelation was partial; Christ's is complete.

    More importantly, the Old Testament has authority *when in its proper context*, that is, in the interpretive tradition of Christ and his Apostles. We get into major (often deadly) trouble when certain individuals claim the Old Testament interprets itself.

  11. I've been here all day. Where have you been?

  12. Doing American things like changing tires and deep-frying maltose-fed beef, of course!

    Take, for example, the harsh law code of Leviticus. According to Semitic religion scholar Christine Hayes, Leviticus is in the format of an Assyro-Babylonian vassal treaty- that is, it's sort of a "mad lib" that the Hebrews filled in with their God's proclamations, or what they thought God would want, or how their God chose to use the fallen systems around the Hebrews-- depending on what interpretation you go with.

    Here is a very important principle: Near-Eastern law codes like Hammurabi's Code were not decrees of barbarism; they were often decrees of stability instituted to combat tribalism. For example, Hammurabi's code fixes the penalty that must be paid for a man who is cheated at the pub- in order to limit the retributive actions of his family. "Eye for an eye" limits "Eye for your wife, children, parents, land and livestock." It decrees less violent penalties for surgeons who commit offenses, because their cultural information and abilities are too valuable to lose.

    To see this principle in action, we need only read accounts of the desert tribes of Yemen and Oman; those who follow the tribal law limiter that Muhammad put in place look with horror and disgust upon the excesses of those who surpass it in violence and brutality.

    Is this system perfect and perfectly merciful? No. But an ancient belief of the Christian faith is that God works within the wills and circumstances of confused and fallen individuals.