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Topics: Marriage, Rape, Sex, Womanhood

Did Old Testament Law Force a Woman to Marry Her Rapist?

March 5, 2018
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“If you were not already engaged when the rape occurred, you and your rapist were required to marry each other, without the possibility of divorce.” –Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood

“The laws [in Deut 22:23-29] do not in fact prohibit rape; they institutionalize it…” –Harold Washington, St. Paul School of Theology

“Your objective divinely inspired Bible is full of sanctioned rape.” –Official Twitter account of The Church of Satan.

It’s a frequent accusation about Scripture’s treatment of women.

But is it really what the Bible says?

Like all biblical law, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 reflects God’s character; when we see the meaning of the Law, we see the heart of the Lawgiver. This law describes how the community of Israel responded when an unbetrothed virgin was violated through premarital sexual intercourse.[1]

The verb used to explain what happened to the woman is תָּפַשׂ (tāpas). Tāpas means to “lay hold [of],”[2] or “wield.”[3] Like חָזַק (ḥāzaq, the word for “force) used in vv. 25-27, tāpas can also be translated as “seize.”[4] Unlike ḥāzaq, however, tāpas does not carry the same connotation of force. As one Hebrew scholar explains, tāpas does not, in and of itself, infer assault; it means she was “held,” but not necessarily “attacked.’[5]

There’s a delicate difference between these two verbs, but it makes all the difference. Tāpas is often used to describe a capture.[6] Tāpas also appears in Genesis 39:12; when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, she seized (tāpas) him to wear down his resolve. This is distinct from ḥāzaq, which describes a forcible overpowering. Daniel Block notes that, unlike the law in verses 25-27, this law has neither a cry for help, nor an account of male violence.[7] It’s likely that the woman in verses 28-29 experienced overwhelming persuasion, perhaps an erosion of her resolve, but not necessarily a sexual assault.

This does not mitigate the seriousness of the act. This woman was indeed violated; she was dishonored and humiliated.[8] However, verses 28-29 do not necessarily indicate she was raped. Had the author of Deuteronomy, Moses, (and the Holy Spirit who inspired him)[9] intended to depict this as a sexual assault, it seems unlikely that he would have chosen tāpas instead of ḥāzaq – the verb used just before it. Given the lexical differences between ḥāzaq and tāpas, and how closely they appear in these two consecutive laws, it seems more likely that these two distinct verbs are meant to convey two distinct scenarios.

Further, tāpas does not appear in either of biblical stories describing sexual assault that were written after the Law.[10] When later biblical authors depicted a rape, they used the ḥāzaq (which appeared vv. 25-27) rather than tāpas. We can reasonably conclude that the biblical narrators (and again, the Holy Spirit) knew the difference in meaning between ḥāzaq and tāpas within the context of sexual violence, and they used these verbs with their meanings in mind.[11]

One more detail: Unlike the previous two laws in vv. 23-29, this points out that the man and the woman were caught in the act.[12] Whereas verses 25-27 refer to the man and the woman as separate persons, verses 28-29 refer to them as a unit.[13] One Hebrew scholar sees this detail as another reason to believe vv. 28-29 did not describe a rape, but rather mutual consent.[14]

Based on all the evidence, we can conclude that the unbetrothed virgin in verses 28-29 was not necessarily the victim of an assault. Therefore, to claim that the Bible required a woman to marry her rapist is a misinterpretation – and a misrepresentation – of this law. Again, this is not to say that she was not mistreated or taken advantage of; she most certainly was. Yet, this law does not carry the same connotation of force as the previous scenario in verses 25-27.

For the young woman in Israel, this law ensured that she would not be objectified and discarded. Her seducer was required to make restitution with her father, was compelled to marry her, and was forbidden to divorce her. In a culture where a woman’s marriage equated to her financial provision, this law ensured her security. Further, the woman faced no punitive consequences for being seduced. Assuming the act was, in fact, consensual, she was not shamed and ostracized.

Under Hebrew law, a man was forbidden to exploit a woman as an object of pleasure. He was held accountable publicly for his indiscretion and held responsible for her future wellbeing.[15] In other words, he couldn’t use her and lose her. Far from exploiting or oppressing women, this passage shows that biblical law held men accountable for their sexual behavior.


[1] Deut 22:28-29 differs from the two laws just before it, in that it does not name a specific location to determine the woman’s consent.

[2] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, vol. 4, ed. and trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), s.v. “תָּפַשׂ”.

[3] BDB, s.v. “תָּפַשׂ”.

[4] HALOT, vol. 4, s.v. “תָּפַשׂ”.

[5] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992), 286.

[6] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, vol. 4, s.v. “תָּפַשׂ”. This verb appears in 1 Kings 18:40, when Elijah commanded the people to seize (tāpas) the prophets of Baal, as well as in 2 Kings 14:13, when King Joash captured Amaziah.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lyn M. Bechtel, “What If Dinah Is Not Raped?” JSOT (June 1, 1994): 26.

[9] 2 Tim 3:16-17.

[10] Cf. the discussion on the Degradation of an Unbetrothed Virgin (Deut 22:28-29) and its use of תָּפַשׂ.

[11] This assumes that later biblical authors were intimately familiar with and frequently interacted with earlier biblical texts—what some scholars refer to as intertextuality, defined here as “the interrelationships between the various books of the OT.” John M. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 156.

[12] Daniel I. Block, The Gospel According to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 163.

[13] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, vol. 2, s.v. “מָצָא.” The use of מָצָא “to find” in this law underscores this point. According to HALOT, this instance of מָצָא should be rendered “to be discovered,” or “caught in the act.” Here, מָצָא carries the same connotation as its appearance in verse 22, which describes a consensual act.

[14] Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, 286.

[15] Ibid., 164. As Block explains, “the man must fulfill all the marital duties that come with the rights to sexual intercourse, and in so doing guarantee the security of the woman.” Block, The Gospel According to Moses, 163.

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