Rape in the Hebrew Bible

Most people avoid talking about rape because it is a traumatizing experience for those involved in non-consensual sexual intercourse.  Rape is also a frightening experience because the perpetrators may use force or violence against their victims. In today’s society, unwanted sexual assault happens to both men and women of any age.

Rape of women and men also happened in Israel and in all societies of the Ancient Near East.  However, there have been very few books dedicated to the study of rape in the Bible. Susanne Scholz has been teaching and writing about sex for many years.  Now, she has written a book to study the rape texts found in the Hebrew Bible.

Her book, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) is a study of the many cases of rape in the Hebrew Bible and how the message of the text provides help to victims and survivors of rape today.

Scholz’s goal “is to provide readings of biblical rape texts that endorse a hermeneutics of meanings and present the Hebrew Bible as a ‘sacred witness’ to rape in the lives of women, children, and men” (p. 23).

Scholz begins her book by discussing the pervasiveness of rape in the world today.  She discusses several feminist studies on rape and introduces recent studies on rape in the Hebrew Bible, among them Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror, Renita Weems, Battered Love, and J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women.

The book studies rape texts in the Hebrew Bible as understood from a feminist perspective.  Each chapter deals with a modern classification of rape. Each chapter begins with a study of a specific form of rape and then relates biblical cases of rape to different categories of rape.

Chapter 1, “Breaking the Silence,” deals with acquaintance rape.  Scholz begins by discussing the reality of acquaintance rape in today’s society and then deals with the rape of Dinah, the rape of Tamar, the rape of Abishag the Shunammite, and the rape of Susanna, a story that appears in the Septuagint addition to the book of Daniel.

Chapter 2, “Subjugated by Gender and Class,” deals with the rape of enslaved women in the Bible.  She begins by relating stories of rape and slavery in nineteenth-century America and then deals with the stories of Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah, and the royal concubines.

Chapter 3, “Controlling Wives,” deals with cases of marital rape fantasies. Scholz begins by discussing the phenomenon of rape in marriage and then discusses the cases of Sarah, Rebekah, Hosea’s wife, and the story of Bathsheba and David.

Chapter 4, “Regulating Rape,” studies the laws in the Hebrew Bible and in the Ancient Near East dealing with the problem of rape.  In this chapter she studies rape laws in the book of Deuteronomy and in the Code of Ur-Nammu, the Laws of Eshnunna, the Code of Hammurabi, the Middle Assyrian Laws, and the Hittite Laws.

Chapter 5, “Gang Rape,” deals with rape in times of war and peace. Scholz begins by discussing the atrocities against women in wars fought in the contemporary world and then deals with the rape of the concubine in Judges 19 and the kidnaping and rape of the women from Jabesh-gilead and from Shiloh (Judges 21-22).

Chapter 6, “Losing Power,” deals with the rape of men. Scholz begins with a study of male rape and the sociological problems confronted by the men who are the victims of rape.  She then deals with the cases of Ehud and Eglon, Potiphar’s wife and Joseph, Lot and his daughters, and Samson and Delilah.

Chapter 7, “Resisting the Theology of a Rapist,” is an essay against the poetics of rape in prophetic literature.  Scholz begins by discussing rape metaphors in contemporary language and then deals with “divinely authorized rape in prophetic speech.”

Scholz summarizes this last chapter by saying that “our investigation considered the prophetic ‘theology of a rapist,’ which depicts even God as an endorser and perpetrator of sexual violence, probably the theologically most disturbing chapter of this book” (p. 209). To Scholz, “the biblical rape metaphor should not be classified as ‘sacred’ witness” (p. 208).

To understand how Scholz approaches the text, it becomes important to understand the hermeneutic principle that guides her interpretation. Scholz’s hermeneutic principle is that “a reader’s interpretative interests shape biblical meanings” (p. 30).

The problem with this kind of hermeneutics is that it places upon the reader the responsibility to decide whether or not a text deals with rape.  Scholz recognized this problem in the introduction to the book.  She wrote: “The process of classifying a biblical text as ‘acquaintance rape’ or ‘marital rape’ requires imaginative work” (p. 24).

Thus, some of the texts where Scholz sees a case of rape, may be interpreted differently by a person who approaches the text with a different presupposition. The reason for this ambiguity is that there is no unique word in the Hebrew Bible for  “rape.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “rape” in English versions (Judges 20:5 NRSV) is עָנָה (‘ānâ), a word that is often translated as “afflict,” “oppress,” “humble.”

On the other hand, as Scholz emphasizes, some people are not willing to acknowledge the presence of rape in the Bible with the result that the reality of rape in the Bible may not be taught in the life of the church. Thus, using her hermeneutic paradigm and a feminist perspective, Scholz seeks to read the biblical text in light of a culture of rape that permeates today’s society.

Readers of this book may not agree with some of Scholz’s interpretations of the text.  Others will be turned off by the use of a queer reading of Judges 19 (pp. 144-146) and of sadomasochist hermeneutics to understand texts in Jeremiah and Job.  However, readers will agree that the Hebrew Bible provides a sacred witness to rape in the past that can provide a redemptive message to the victims of sexual violence in the present.

This book challenged me to be more aware of the reality of rape in the Hebrew Bible and contemporary society.  The problem of rape must be addressed and eliminated from our world. Scholz’s book helps us reflect on the many aspects of rape in the Bible and provides a resource for study and reflection on this very difficult and troubling subject.

I would like to thank Fortress Press for making Sacred Witness available for review.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Note:

If you are unable to see the Hebrew letters in the essay, download the Biblical fonts and install them on your computer.  Download the fonts here.

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