Article Dec 11, 2017

God is not silent: What the Bible teaches about sexual assault

The Bible neither covers up nor ignores sexual assault. In fact, biblical law shows how the Lord takes up the cause of the victim and the vulnerable. Deuteronomy 22:25-27 safeguarded the survivor of sexual assault from being unjustly blamed or ignored. In ancient Israel, this law established a pattern, an ethical framework by which God’s people could discern specific situations that it didn’t specifically address. And, like all of God’s laws, it reveals his character.

Isolated and overpowered

Deuteronomy 22:25-27 presumed the innocence of the unbetrothed woman who was sexually assaulted. This law notes that she was found in a field, a contrast to the previous law in vv. 23-24, which occured in a (presumably) populated city. The scenario describes a woman who was isolated from help.

Along with the location described in this law, the language is also significant. Unlike either of its two surrounding laws—both of which address the category of a woman’s guilt or innocence in sexual integrity (vv. 23-24; 28-29)—Deut 22:25-27 includes the Hebrew verb chazaq, which, in this form, implies violence.[1] Chazaq can refer to the violent overpowering of another person,[2] and, in the context of this text, describes coercive force, i.e. rape.[3] The two accounts of rape in the Bible that occurred after the Law was given—The Unnamed Concubine in Judges 19, and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13—both include this word, chazaq.[4]

Biblical law was revolutionary for the dignity of women.[5] Scripture recognized rape as a violent crime. In fact, biblical law  considers rape on par with murder. She was the non-consenting victim of premeditated violence.[6] The attacker alone is held guilty. Because she was overpowered and did not consent, the victim is considered blameless.[7]

Consent is the key factor here. Many women who have been assaulted share how they froze during the attack. They couldn’t move. They couldn’t even scream. And they didn’t even understand why. In the aftermath, they wonder if they did something wrong. I believe this passage of Scripture comes to their defense. The issue was not how the woman expressed her lack of consent. The issue was that she did not consent. She was overpowered, exploited, and unwilling. And, according to the principle expressed in this law, she was innocent.

Another aspect of this law rivals our modern Western culture: The woman was believed on the basis of her testimony. Biblical law sides with and defends her, despite the lack of witnesses. This law not only found her blameless, but also allowed no inference that she was at fault for the attack. In other words, the problem was not that she had done something to be assaulted; the problem was that someone assaulted her.

Our responsibility

For the Israelite woman who was raped, this text ensured that she was heard. She was believed. These laws created an environment in which a survivor of assault already knew that she would be safe and protected by the community. In our own communities, this should reinforce our responsibility to treat accusations of rape as credible.[8]

After analyzing reported cases of sexual assault over a 10-year period, a 2010 study found that between 2 and 10 percent of accusations were false.[9] Yet, even this fails to represent the rarity of false accusations, since it only includes reported cases. This same study also found that many victims of sexual violence did not report the crime because they “did not think anything would be done about it.”[10]

Biblical law sets a different precedent. When the survivor of assault revealed what happened to her, she would be believed. The people of God came to her defense. The severity of sexual assault in biblical law compels us to hear, protect, and defend the dignity of every woman, especially the one who breaks her silence about rape.

God was not silent about rape. He defended the woman who had been sexually assaulted. He believed and protected her. And so must we.

Notes

  1. ^ Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [HALOT] vol. 2, ed. and trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), s.v. “qzx.” seize, grasp, catch with violence. This action that is amplified by the verb’s root meaning (i.e., seize or grasp with strength, or make/become strong [against]) Francis Brown, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [BDB] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), s.v. “qzx.”
  2. ^ Other appearances of qzx in the Hiphil stem also signify violent force. qzx in the Hiphil stem appears in Deuteronomy 25:11-12, which describes a woman who, in an attempt to help her brawling husband, seizes the genitals of the man with whom her husband is fighting. This verb is also used to describe David’s attack and seizure of a lion or a bear that had taken one of his lambs (1 Sam 17:35) and the battle in which David’s men seized their opponents and stabbed them (2 Sam 2:16). Perhaps most notably, qzx in the Hiphil stem appears in the narrative describing Tamar’s sexual assault (2 Sam 13:11). Incidentally, the 2 Samuel 13 passage does not use the terms bkv (v. 23-24) and fpt (v. 28-29) to describe the rape.
  3. ^ Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, New American Commentary, vol. 4 (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 1994), 305. This point is also noted in Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 295.
  4. ^ Concerning the Unnamed Concubine (Judg 19), qzx appears in reference to the Levite, perhaps a device employed by the narrator to convey his guilt. And, describing the rape of Tamar, qzx ((2 Sam 13:11, 14) appears twice, conveying the incident’s forceful nature. In light of this, one may reasonably conclude that subsequent biblical narrators understood this contextual use of qzx to mean sexual violence, and therefore, coercion.
  5. ^ Compare biblical law with the Codex of Ur-Nammu from Sippar, which determined the attacker’s punishment according to the woman’s social status [James R. Baker, Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1992), 4.]; or Middle Assyrian Law, which allowed the father of an unbetrothed rape victim to abuse the wife of his daughter’s attacker [Milestone Documents, “Middle Assyrian Laws,” A55, accessed April 23, 2016, https://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/middle-assyrian-laws/text.
  6. ^ Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 249-50. “Like the victim of homicide who is forcibly overcome in a premeditated hostile act, a woman raped in the field is also a victim of force and premeditated hostility. Such a victim cannot, therefore, be considered a consenting party to the act.” Craigie: “As in a murder case, the woman was an unwilling victim of an attack; she suffered as a result of that attack, but was in no sense culpable.” Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, 295.
  7. ^ In the interest of space, I won’t address Deut 22:28-29 here, except to say that the Hebrew describes an entirely different scenario than a sexual assault. Most of our English translations mistakenly say verses 28-29 depict a rape. The Hebrew tells a different story. For a full treatment of this law, please read chapter 5 of my dissertation, “Old Testament Laws Concerning Particular Female Personhood and Their Implications for Women’s Dignity.” (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, 2016).
  8. ^ This is not to imply any endorsement of mob-rule, or the eschewal of the presumption of innocence until proof of guilt. Rather, it is to affirm that, statistically, most reports of sexual assault are indeed credible. False accusations do occur, yet, as criminologist Freda Adler has noted, “Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.”
  9. ^ David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote, “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (2010): 1318, accessed April 23, 2016, http://www.icdv.idaho.gov/conference/handouts/False-Allegations.pdf.
  10. ^ David Cantor, et al. “Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct,” 21 September 2015 (Rockville, MD: Westat, 2015), iv, accessed April 24, 2016,  https://www.aau.edu/uploadedFiles/AAU_Publications/AAU_Reports/Sexual_Assault_Campus_Survey/AAU_Campus_Climate_Survey_12_14_15.pdf.
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