Recently a friend questioned how we understand rape in the Biblical texts, whether it is a sex act or an act of violence.
This is a vital question because so often we gloss over sexual violence in our Sunday and Bible study readings without a second thought. Yet, as a people called by the Gospel—a Good News of justice and liberation—how can we ignore something in our sacred scriptures that we know, in our guts, is so wrong?
Let me begin by saying to those who have been touched by sexual violence directly, know that you are whole and holy. Know that Jesus, who preached a Gospel of justice and liberation, welcomes you to his table.
For those who have been touched by sexual violence indirectly—and if you are a living breathing human being then that is you—know that part of your call and membership in God’s kingdom is to speak about against these injustices. Not just against the perpetrators and predators, but against those who would seek to silence and blame survivors. The Kingdom calls us to cast light onto the shadows.
We have, in Jesus, a great example of the prophetic call to speak out against the injustice of sexual and gender-based violence.
In the Gospels, Jesus honoured sex workers who at the time had virtually no rights or standing in their communities. He sat and dined with them, which was a taboo. He spoke publicly with women who had “bad reputations” (like the Samaritan woman at the well), and made them evangelists, disciples and apostles.
Jesus is not interested in victim blaming, but calls out predators. Jesus refutes the objectification of God’s creation, and the prioritization of our own entitlement over the autonomy of others (Matt. 5:27-30). Jesus continually admonishes the powerful who abuse and oppress others, and stands in solidarity with the marginalized.
But what about the rest of the scriptures? How can we even call these scriptures sacred when they reduce violence against women, children, and men, to side comments in the greater story?
Especially when these stories are used to continue cycles of abuse and harm, blaming and silencing survivors.
Well, I thought I would share some of the tools I use to help myself read deeply and see God’s justice at work in these texts.
It can be unhelpful for us to try and put our modern understanding of rape and sexual violence onto the text. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone these coercive and abusive acts of sexual violence, but when we read the blasé attitudes of the text’s authors it is important to think about how they understood two things: personhood and property.
Today, we affirm the full personhood of all genders, and (mostly) all ages (let’s be honest that we often do not see children as full persons, and instead put them into the “vulnerable persons” category along with disabled and elderly people). When we explore how the Bible treats sexual violence we must understand that not all of the people we read about are considered full persons in the text.
There is a parallel closer in time. Enslaved Africans in North America were not considered full persons under the law, and under the legal and social framework of slavery, the rape of Black bodies was an issue not of personhood but of property. This egregious injustice was opposed by the Abolition and Civil Rights movements, and continues to be addressed by our contemporary insistence that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Understanding this helps us see how women, children, and slaves were seen in the Biblical texts.
These people were not seen as persons but as property
The ancients understood sexual violence differently. Bathsheba’s story is an example of this (2 Sam. 11). David’s sin is not committing sexual violence against her, but transgessing the property rights of her husband, and then killing him to conceal the crime. To the story, Bathsheba is an object, not a person.
However, today we can’t read this text without naming that David used his authority to coerce sex from Bathsheba. He did not honour her as a full person, but saw her as an object to be used. He treated her body as an idol to his own selfishness and entitlement. It was not right when the story was written, and it is not right now. Yet, the way we talk about it has changed.
We must also be aware of how gender changes the narrative around sexual violence in the Biblical text.
Women and children are considered property, so transgressions against them are different than transgressions against men. You might even struggle to find examples of sexual violence against men in the Bible.
It is there, although in my experience it gets even less attention than violence against women.
One instance is the attempted rape of the angels in Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11). Lot offers his virgin daughters to the mob to preserve the hospitality he extends to God’s messengers. This story shows that Lot would rather have his honour damaged by the rape of his daughters (his property) than fail in his role as host. Men’s bodies are prioritized over women’s bodies.
Later on, Lot’s daughter get him drunk and sleep with him to continue their family line (Gen. 19:30-38). This story functions as a “comedic” origin story of Israel’s enemies—the Moabite and Ammonite peoples—not as a commentary on sexual coercion.
Women raping men is seen very differently in the text, and there are a number of seductive female figures who have coercive sex with men. They are seen as comedic tricksters—think of Tamar who seduces Judah under false pretenses (Gen. 38), or Jael and the apocryphal Judith who coax men into their tents and then kill them (Jud. 4, Judith).
Paul, too, has strong feelings about those who perpetrate coercive sex; specifically, older men having sex with younger men (1 Cor. 6:9, Rom. 1:26-27). Yet, that has more to do with the issue of “feminizing” the submissive partner. The bottom is seen as taking the unnatural “female” position, but Paul seems totally fine with topping, i.e. the natural “male” position.
It is obvious the text is uncomfortable with rape and sexual assault, but the “why” doesn’t make as much sense to us today. That is something we need to reconcile when reading ancient stories and searching them for wisdom in the present day.
How do we read justice and liberation in these texts?
Paul can be incredibly helpful here, though feminist readers for generations have struggled with the letters attributed to him. Galatians, especially, offers us a vision of the Kingdom that affirms the wholeness of each of God’s children.
“[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28 NRSV)
We are each whole and holy, set apart as God’s children. When another transgresses against our bodies in acts of violence and hatred they vandalize the very image of God on earth (Gen. 1:27).
We can also call on stories like Susanna’s in Daniel 13, lifting up a Biblical image of justice that rejects the use of coercive and abusive power, calling us to a great image of justice.
A justice that affirms the inherent value in all bodies, regardless of the human categories we put on them, calling each whole and holy.