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Does the Bible Blame Women for Rape?

Many women, including me, endure the tragic experience of Scripture being misused against them, often by men. It can be difficult to untangle Scripture’s truth from man’s manipulation. But even when the Word is handled rightly, some passages are difficult to engage as a woman. They seem unfair or even cruel.

Could any passage be as troubling for women as Deuteronomy 22?

A decade ago, Rachel Held Evans raised this passage in A Year of Biblical Womanhood. To be biblical, Held argued, women had to marry their rapists. To be biblical, Christians should stone anyone caught in an adulterous affair. To be biblical, Christians should kill a woman who didn’t cry out as she was being raped. To fully engage Evans’s argument would require dealing with her definition of “biblical,” which is outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless, she raised legitimate questions: How should we understand Deuteronomy 22? And does its inclusion in the Scriptures mean the Bible cannot be trusted to guide and direct women today?

These questions can’t be completely answered in a single article. But we can begin to make sense of them by considering both history and hermeneutics. We’ll start by looking at the specific situations described in light of their historical context. Then we’ll zoom out to consider this passage in Scripture’s larger story. As we do, please keep in mind that this article is addressing a specific textual question rather than offering counsel for victims of sexual assault.

Questions about Deuteronomy 22—as much as questions around eschatology, soteriology, or ecclesiology—require a hermeneutic. We need a holistic way of reading Scripture’s long story to understand this chapter. Jesus is that hermeneutic, the lens through which we must read the Bible. Let’s consider what Deuteronomy 22 says and then seek to understand what it means for women today.

Laws on Sexual Ethics

Deuteronomy 22:13 begins a section of the law on sexual ethics. It first deals with a husband’s false accusation that his wife had sex before marriage. Verses 15–19 outline a process for the wife to prove her innocence and, if this is found true, for the husband to be punished. The law protected women in this situation from false accusations.

Verse 22 then deals with a man and woman caught in adultery. They must have been found in the act, so they’re protected from false accusations based only on hearsay. The penalty was stark—the couple would be stoned to death—but it was the same for both the man and the woman.

Verses 23–27 then deal with the rape of a woman engaged to another man. The man who raped her was to be stoned to death. The Scriptures say violating a woman in this way is akin to a man murdering his neighbor. If the sexual act occurred outside of town, it was assumed the woman didn’t consent and she was protected from punishment. But here’s where the tricky part comes in—if the act occurred within the city, it was labeled as rape only if the woman cried out. This is worth a brief excursion.

Remember the Law’s Purpose

A 2023 New York Times article highlighted the number of women who, as a response to the trauma of rape, shut down rather than cried out during the act. Though I’ve never experienced rape, I’ve had this response to other trauma in my life. I sink into myself and have been accused of not caring in times of crisis. But sometimes I can’t process what’s happening. Mentally, I descend into a bunker and close the door, slowly opening it inch by inch over time to take in the circumstances that forced me into my mental fortress.

Not everyone reacts this way to trauma, but many naturally do, and it can be a helpful coping mechanism in some situations.

At first reading, Deuteronomy 22 seems unfair for requiring a woman to cry out. But it’s important to remember the law wasn’t only given to prescribe punishments for violations; it was given to teach God’s people how to live before the violation ever happens. Deuteronomy 6 explains that these commandments, rules, and statutes were given to God’s people so that “it may go well with [them]” and “that [their] days may be long” (vv. 1–3). Parents were instructed, “Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (v. 7, CSB).

When my sons were 2 and 4 years old, we attended a cooperative preschool. The teachers taught a safety curriculum, and one lesson was on abduction. We taught the kids to yell and scream nonstop until someone came to help. We practiced, and we repeated the instructions. Similarly, in Moses’s time, if Jewish moms and dads were teaching their children God’s law, their daughters were taught through Deuteronomy 22 to cry out if they were taken against their will. They were taught they didn’t have to submit to rape, that someone would come to help.

The law wasn’t only given to prescribe punishments for violations; it was given to teach God’s people how to live before the violation ever happens.

Don’t read this explanation as blaming rape survivors or their parents. I’m not saying that if a woman doesn’t cry out during rape, she must not have been trained by trusted adults ahead of time. And I’m not saying that being trained would guarantee a woman would cry out. Individual responses to trauma are complicated.

The point is much bigger—in an unjust world where women seemed to experience harsher consequences if they resisted rape than if they gave in, God’s law taught daughters to resist and call for help. This law was an aid to a broader world that had no protections for women at all, where rape, apart from such laws, was an acceptable norm. It taught fathers and society to protect women, it taught women they had agency when attacked, and it punished those who violated them.

Understand the Law in Its Own Culture

This leads to verses 28–29. If a man raped a woman who wasn’t engaged, the rapist was commanded to marry his victim. Note this law wasn’t directed to a woman to marry her rapist, because, in ancient cultures, a woman had few rights about such things. Apart from the law, she was powerless to affect the outcome either way.

This passage doesn’t reflect a Western cultural understanding of choice in marriage. The individualistic mindset predominant throughout Western culture has a hard time grasping the value of marriage decisions made for the good of the community as a whole rather than the individual alone. When the community flourished, particularly in rugged settings without modern conveniences, the individual flourished, and vice versa. Many Eastern and African cultures today still reflect such a communal understanding of marriage.

The common practice outside of God’s law for a rape survivor was that her family killed her because of the resulting shame (a practice still occurring in some cultures today). Mankind was bent far away from basic human dignity at this point in history, some 1,400 years before Jesus’s birth. If a rape survivor’s family didn’t kill her, she was left to live in shame with no options for a future life with a family. Often, the only way she could support herself was through prostitution.

When Deuteronomy 22 was written, there were few sexual protections for women. This law therefore moved culture forward by giving women some protection, creating a counterculture in its wake. It held the man responsible for the consequences he created in his sin against the woman. He had to pay her father a price worthy of the woman he violated, and he could never divorce her. The law required him to remove the victim’s public shame and restore her to a position of dignity in her community through marriage. The abuser was made to value what he took by force.

I’m thankful to live in a culture that doesn’t cast on a woman the same shame and condemnation that was the norm in ancient times (and is still the norm in parts of the world). But in that culture, God pressed on his people a way forward that didn’t just make the victim marry; it also required a sizable payment for the privilege of marrying her. God’s plan didn’t just remove the woman’s public shame; it also provided for her security by requiring a monetary commitment to her and her family.

See the Law in Light of Jesus

Considering the historical context of Deuteronomy 22 helps us begin to make sense of its challenges. Let’s now consider it within the context of the whole Bible and how Jesus taught us to understand the Old Testament law.

After Jesus’s resurrection, he met his disciples on the Emmaus road and began to explain to them everything from the Old Testament that pointed to his life, death, and resurrection. He included the law of Moses in his explanation (Luke 24). Did he specifically include Deuteronomy 22 in that discussion? We don’t know, but it’s possible. Regardless, he made clear that the law as a whole pointed to him.

Jesus gave additional information in Matthew 5:17. He said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. John 8 gives us a real-time illustration of what he meant. The religious elite threw at Jesus’s feet a woman who had been caught in adultery—she’d violated the laws in Deuteronomy 22. Though the pair was caught in the act, the man wasn’t thrown at Jesus’s feet as the law instructed. It’s not surprising that sinful hearts had perverted the law at this point to favor the man over the woman.

God’s law taught daughters to resist and call for help.

Jesus then wrote something in the dirt. Was it the name of the man caught with her? Was it the names of women the male scribes and Pharisees had sinned with? Whatever Jesus wrote, the woman’s accusers fell away one by one. Jesus then told her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

Jesus didn’t tell her that her sin of adultery didn’t matter, that it was no longer a problem to break the law in that way. He didn’t abolish the law. Instead, he fulfilled it in a way no one else could: by obeying the law perfectly himself. And he didn’t condemn the woman because, in a short time, he’d hang on a cross paying for the very violation of the law of Deuteronomy 22 for which she’d been thrown at his feet.

Even Hard Laws Reflect a Good God

Paul later taught in Galatians, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal. 3:24–25).

The law was good, but it wasn’t everything. The law was good, but it wasn’t final. The law was good, but Jesus is better. This is the general context, the hermeneutic, through which we must approach Deuteronomy 22.

This chapter’s laws on sexual faithfulness are hard, but they reflect a good God who is faithful to his vows. He told his people through the prophet Hosea,

I will take you to be my wife forever.
I will take you to be my wife in righteousness,
justice, love, and compassion.
I will take you to be my wife in faithfulness,
and you will know the LORD. (Hos. 2:19–20, CSB)

Some modern scholars don’t believe John 8’s story of the woman caught in adultery was part of the original text (see the notes in modern Bible translations like the ESV and NIV), but we see the same theology here in the book of Hosea. Hosea’s bride committed adultery, yet God told the prophet not to stone her as the law instructed but to pursue her. God told Hosea to redeem her, to buy her back from her sexual slavery, and to restore her to an honored position in his home—because God also does this for us. God’s faithfulness is good for us, and because we’re created in his image, our faithfulness to our vows is good as well.

God is good, and his Scriptures are good. Stay engaged with the hard parts. Wrestle with them. Pray through them. They tell a long but good story, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. O daughter of God and member of the Bride of Christ, don’t let anyone convince you God’s Word isn’t good for you.

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