Sex, Rape and Social History – The Case of the Bible


One does not have to look far to find indications of the normalization of sexual violence (a phenomenon known as rape culture) in news articles, pop culture or, indeed, the Bible.

Recent press coverage of Adam Johnson, the ‘Rape Clause’, and responses to rape storylines in Broadchurch and Emmerdale are but a handful of instances demonstrating the complex attitudes bound up in public understandings of rape. Can the Bible – given its considerable influence on Western culture – contribute to the discussion? And if so, how? The new Shiloh Project, which I co-direct with Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth, seeks to answer that very question.

The Bible is of limited value for reconstructing specific events of the past. For the social historian, however, the Bible holds more promise. When it comes to social values, attitudes and laws concerning sex, the Bible has undeniably had tremendous influence.

For example, one biblical commentator claims that the biblical incest laws ‘have had greater effect on Western law than any comparable body of biblical laws’. 1 The kinship and marriage laws (known as consanguinity and affinity laws), which were used in Christian Europe over centuries, were directly derived from biblical incest laws. 2 They were also used rather fluidly. In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled (following the birth of two daughters and no sons) on the grounds of a blood relationship in the fourth degree. Next, however, Eleanor married Henry (who would become Henry II of England): her cousin in the third degree!

The rape laws and narratives of the Bible also hold out promise for explorations of attitudes to rape throughout history. Male-male rape is threatened twice (Genesis 19 and Judges 19) and in both cases the rapists are invited to violate women instead – with the implication that rape of a woman is less abhorrent and less ‘wrong’ than the rape of a man.

In Judges 19, one of the most horrendous narratives of the entire Bible, a nameless woman, the wife of a Levite, is cast out to a group of thugs and gang-raped all night. Her body is dismembered and its parts sent to the tribes of Israel. This leads to a war, which leads to the exclusion of a tribe, which leads to more rape: because seizing a group of women for wives is deemed preferable to the extinction of a tribe.

The Bible is not for the squeamish. There are many more examples of biblical rape texts. King David ‘takes’ Bathsheba, the woman he sees bathing – and (in spite of the romanticised retellings in film versions) the likeliest scenario is that she was not asked for her consent and raped. 3 King David’s son Amnon rapes Tamar, who is his half-sister. Jacob’s daughter Dinah (whose tale is another often portrayed in pop culture as one of romance) is raped by a local prince.

Often the rape of women in the Bible is depicted in cavalier ways. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to the king of Egypt and to Abimelech of Gerar . Sarah hands Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate child-bearer and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel do the same with their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. No words identify such actions as trafficking or rape.

The Biblical legal texts prescribe that if an engaged woman is raped in an urban area, she and the rapist shall both be killed – because she should have screamed for help and (tellingly) because the rights of another man (i.e. the man to whom she was engaged) have been violated.

If the rape occurred in the countryside, however, only the man is executed – because the woman may have screamed and not been heard. By implication raped women are ‘damaged goods’ and potentially co-responsible for their violation. A phenomenon known as ‘victim-blaming’ is something we regularly see played out in contemporary media accounts of rape.

In cases where a raped woman was not engaged, a fine must be paid to her father and the rapist must marry the raped woman, with no possibility of divorce. It is clear that notions of female autonomy and consent are barely present in the Bible and that rape is often a matter of male ownership and competition. This is something we have recently seen in news coverage regarding Article 308 in Jordan which would have allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.

Religions play a significant part in both confronting and perpetuating the myths and misperceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures. As such, it is essential that we begin to consider how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

The Shiloh Project, a joint initiative between the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland, is a new research centre which seeks to explore rape in the Bible and also its reception, resonance and afterlives in contemporary settings. The Shiloh Project is named after the women of Shiloh who are seized for rape marriage as a ‘solution’ to prevent the extermination of the tribe of Benjamin. This is a particularly poignant story in the light of the abduction of the girls of Chibok by Boko Haram.

This article was originally published on History Matters. Read the original article.

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. Her main research interests in the Hebrew Bible focus on self-conscious emotion terminology, ideological-critical readings of prophetic literature, African-centred interpretation, sexuality, and family dynamics. Johanna is co-director of The Shiloh Project and a member of SIIBS. Her latest book is First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: London, 2016).

Header image: The Levite of Ephraim and His Dead Wife. Jean-Jacques Henner circa 1898 [via Wikicommons].


  1. Calum M. Carmichael, Law, Legend and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18–20 (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p.1.
  2. For a full treatment of incest in the Bible, see Johanna Stiebert, First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 596 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2016).
  3. Biblical scholar David J. A. Clines puts it well when he states, ‘the sex is essentially an expression of royal power, and it is much more like rape than love’ (in his Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible, JSOTSup 205; Gender, Culture, Theory 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p.226.
Tags : AbrahamConsentHagarRape Culture
Johanna Stiebert

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