Feedback: Does the Bible Teach Sexual Assault Victims Must Marry Their Attacker?

by Troy Lacey and Avery Foley on April 16, 2018
Featured in Feedback

The Bible says it’s ok to beat your slaves as long as they don’t die immediately. Another is rape victims being forced to marry their attacker. I can’t think of any context where either of these things would be acceptable to me.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement along with big-name stars and politicians being called out for sexual assault and harassment, the topics of sexual assault and rape are in the public eye more than ever before. And some people, such as in the feedback above, are claiming the Bible teaches that such victims must marry their attackers.

We have addressed this misguided feedback in two separate articles. We recently addressed the question, “Does the Bible Encourage Masters to Beat Their Slaves?

First, Some Background

Before we dive into the Bible passage in question, let’s remember the historical context. This is the Mosaic Law, given to the people of ancient Israel. In that time of history, men did not often interact with women before they were married. Women generally ran or helped run their father’s or their brother’s household until they were married. Then they transitioned to running their husband’s household (as per Proverbs 31, this could include buying and trading, as well as typical domestic work). In most cases, outside of nobility, the only other class of women was prostitutes.

Because she was under the authority of her father or brother until that authority transferred to her new husband, a woman had little opportunity to engage in male relations without deliberately sneaking around behind the back of her father, brother, or husband.

Rape = Death Penalty!

But if a man finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter. For he found her in the countryside, and the betrothed young woman cried out, but there was no one to save her. (Deuteronomy 22:25–27, NKJV)

People who claim the Bible teaches that victims must marry their rapists conveniently ignore the verses immediately preceding the text they cite (verse 28). These verses clearly address rape and the penalty of death for the attacker. The text clearly says to “do nothing to the young woman,” because she did nothing wrong! The text actually compares rape to murder. God took sexual assault far more seriously than our Western courts do today.

God took sexual assault far more seriously than our Western courts do today.

How can a victim be forced to marry her attacker if the attacker is executed for his crime?

The same chapter tells us that, in a rape situation, if a married woman and a man are caught having relations in the city where it is possible for the woman to be rescued, but she doesn’t cry for help, they are both guilty of adultery and are to be put to death for their sin (verses 23–24).

A Poor Translation

With this context in mind, let’s look at verses 28–29 in several translations:

If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (ESV)

If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days. (NKJV)

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (NIV)

Exodus 22:16–17, which seems to be a restating of the same law, sheds some light on this passage:

If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.

There are two possible interpretations of these verses.

If a man and an unmarried woman arranged to meet (or met by chance, as could happen to herdsmen and women watering the family livestock) and secretly engaged in relations, there needed to be some type of law governing such a situation. And this is the situation quite possibly being addressed in these two verses.

The use of the word rape in place of the Hebrew תּפשׂ (taphas) in Deuteronomy 22:28 is a poor translation on the part of those involved with the NIV and other translations. This Hebrew word taphas means “to lay hold of, grab, or handle.” If Moses had wanted to unambiguously state rape here, he could have done so easily with either חזק (chazaq as in verse 25) or ענה (‘anah as in Genesis 34:2), both of which can carry the connotation of rape (prevail upon, force, become strong). Because he did not use that word, what is likely being referred to here is consensual relations before marriage (fornication). The added phrase “and they are found” adds weight to this interpretation as does “seduces” in Exodus 22:16.

The result of this fornication is that the man must pay a fine to the woman’s father and (if the father consents) he must marry her with no option for divorce, ever.

However, some interpret this passage as referring to a rape situation, but one that is different from the preceding verses because the woman here is unmarried and is not betrothed.

In that case, the death penalty is not instituted. Instead a price is to be paid and the man is to marry the woman he assaulted—if her father gives permission per Exodus 22:17. Few fathers are going to give their daughter in marriage to a rapist.

But in a culture where a woman who lost her virginity was considered unmarriable, this might be a better alternative than being single and destitute if her father or brother were unable to care for her (see 2 Samuel 13 where it appears Tamar would rather have married her rapist and half-brother, Ammon, then lived in shame her whole life. This may seem very odd to women in the West, but we live in an entirely different time and culture than women in ancient Israel). This could be a more compassionate thing to do than kill the man, leaving the woman with little hope of ever marrying, bearing children, or having her own household.

Rightly Handling God’s Word

In an attempt to discredit the Bible, many people pull verses out of context and ignore the culture of the time. We must be careful to “rightly [handle] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) as we “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).


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