A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Changing (?) Definitions of Rape

I just published a new session in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project:  Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon:  David’s Family Curse? The entry deals primarily with the trans-generational dynamics of 2 Samuel 11-18, how the themes of David’s later life spill over into those of his family.  I talk about David’s fukú , the language that Junot Díaz  uses in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to describe a family curse. But there’s a lot more to discuss  in these stories of David and his children, including the way that different people and different cultures think about rape.

In the United States, the legal definition of rape involves mutual consent.  If a person does not consent to sexual activity or is unable to provide informed consent (as with mental illness or status as a minor), then any sexual contact (violent or not) is considered rape.  Since the 1970’s consent has been required even in cases of marital relations.


This understanding of the role of consent in sexual activity assumes some level of equality between partners.  Consent cannot be assumed to be freely given if the initiator threatens another with violence or holds a position of authority over her/him. Of course, pure equality is rarely achieved.  Social status, physical strength, economic resources, and unspoken social mores privilege some over others.  In 1987, Andrea Dworkin argued that since men hold more power in American society than women, all heterosexual sex is by definition rape.  More recent studies have stressed the way in which power is always negotiated between parties, claimed more of a role for women’s agency in their sexual relations, and traced how sexual relations between LGBT folks do and do not mirror those of heterosexuals.

The narrator of the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 does not share the modern concern with mutual consent.  Bathsheba’s voice is never heard–not her yes, her no, or even her maybe–and the difference in status between her and her king would disqualify this encounter as freely chosen. What bothers the narrator far more than Bathsheba’s feelings is the fact that David has taken a woman who belongs to someone else.  The parable that the prophet Nathan uses to trick David into self-condemnation suggests this as well:  Bathsheba is compared to the pet of one man who has been unjustly taken by another.  Indeed, nowhere in the biblical narrative are Bathsheba’s feelings about anything recorded.

In the account of Amnon’s rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13,  the narrator evokes more empathy for the raped woman.  We hear her protests and her weeping.  But, here again, the issues seem different than a modern rape account might raise.  Tamar pleads with her rapist not to turn her aside but to ask for her hand in marriage:  she is presented as more concerned with her “ruination” than having been penetrated against her will.

Other women in this account are “taken”  without mention of their consent and/or feelings.  In 2 Samuel  16, Absalom lies with his father’s concubines in order to demonstrate his virility and dominance over his father.  In 1 Kings 1, a young woman is sent to lie with David as a test of his manly power, without any mention of her consent and/or motives.

Additional biblical passages demonstrate that while the “ravaging” of women is lamentable, but not because of the lack of consent.  The story of Dinah in Gen. 34 relates that Shechem loves Dinah, but it never reveals how she feels about him. The comment in 34:5 that Dinah has been “defiled” may reflect the perspective of Jacob or the narrator that the union was improper for a whole host of reasons (such as Shechem’s ethnicity and/or the lack of a prior agreement between fathers).  In the prophetic books, literal and symbolic threats of rape abound.  Zechariah 14:2 announces a dire future as one in which “women will be raped.”  Nahum 3 describes the city of Nineveh as a prostitute and outlines her pending assault by Yahweh in sexual terms.  In the latter case, I have argued that the real threat in Nahum 3 is not to Woman Nineveh but to the king of Assyria who cannot protect his “woman.”  (See Nahum in the Sheffield Readings series.  A revised edition will be released in fall/winter 2009.)  Lamentations evokes sympathy for the raped Woman Jerusalem, but it also describes her fate as punishment for sin.

Sadly, many of the ancient worldviews regarding rape still exist today.  Rape of a country’s women is still considered a way to humiliate its male soldiers.  Many people in authority still believe that they deserve to have sex with those “under” them.  But that doesn’t mean that these attitudes are a given.  American legal definitions and social attitudes toward rape have changed over time–not enough, but they have changed.  The change didn’t just happen by a gradual process of enlightenment.  It happened because people were willing to protest demeaning laws and to push for change.


That’s why it’s important to point out that the sexual assumptions that run throughout the Bible aren’t always the highest and most humane possible.  The Bible reflects an ancient culture’s assumptions about gender, power, and sex and, when necessary, they need to be challenged.

One way to take up this challenge is to insist on hearing about rape from the survivor’s point of view.  To see, if only imaginatively, through the eyes of Bathsheba, Tamar, David’s concubines, Abishag, and the countless others who might have their own story to tell about what’s so wrong about rape.



One Response to Changing (?) Definitions of Rape

  • Great article! A new book out might interest you- Bathsheba’s Lament by Lorita Boyle. It’s the story told from Bathsheba’s perspective.

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