Marry your rapist? Female POWs as war trophies? Does the Old Testament really condone rape?

When attacking atheism, Christians will say without God, there is no objective right or wrong. With no divine lawgiver, everything is permitted. Rape might be taboo, but there is no way the atheist can say that it is truly evil. If the skeptic knows a bit about the Old Testament, they might be glad you brought up the R-word. “Oh really!? Well, then how can morality be based on a divine lawgiver that condones and allows rape?”

Admittedly, there is some funky sounding stuff in the Old Testament. For example:

  • We read in Judges that the Israelites hatched a scheme to allow the pathetic Benjaminites to essentially rape 400 women at Jabesh-Gilead so their clan’s population wouldn’t die out. (Judges 21:10-24)
  • Moses seems to have made room for female POWs to be war trophies. (Numbers 31:17-18, Deuteronomy 20:10-14)
  • And we read in Deuteronomy that God “punishes” rapists by paying a bridal fee while the victim has to marry her rapist! (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

When was the last time you heard these passages taught in Sunday school? There’s no sense in hiding from these verses, so let’s deal with them head-on.

Did God approve of the rape of the women at Jabesh-Gilead?

Judges 19 tells us an awful story of rape and civil war that erupted between the Levites and Benjaminites. Similar to the Sodom and Gomorrah story, a group of Benjaminites wanted to gang rape a Levite man staying the night in the Benjaminite city of Gibeah. The master of the house gave them his concubine instead and she was found dead on the doorstep the next day. The tribe of Benjamin refused to punish the people of Gibeah, so the Levites declared war.

In retaliation for their evil, the Levites killed 600 Benjaminites. Israel became concerned that the tribe would become extinct. So they decided to start a war in Jabesh-Gilead and gave 400 virgins to the Benjaminite men. There weren’t enough virgins to go around, so they devised a wicked scheme to kidnap the rest of the women they needed from Shiloh.

This is horrible. What in the world is happening here? Here is the thing – when critics bring this passage up, they fail to mention that God commanded none of this. If you’ve ever read Judges, it describes a generation that forgot God. (Judges 2:10) The chapter ends with the author saying “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him.” (Judges 21:25) This theme is repeated throughout the book. (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1)

God isn’t involved with their actions, and nothing is being prescribed. These verses no more endorse rape than Lamentations 4:10 authorizes cannibalism. These are horrible tragedies reported about a nation that forgot God and became like the nations around them.

Did God approve the rape of Midianite virgins?

Numbers 31:17-18 reads: “So now, kill every male among the dependents and kill every woman who has gone to bed with a man, but keep alive for yourselves all the young females who have not gone to bed with a man.”

POW women treated as war booty? This doesn’t sound very good.

To understand this passage we need some context. In Numbers 25, the Midianite women seduced the Israelites into worshiping Baal at Peor. Baalism isn’t just idolatry but is also involved in perverse sexual practices – temple prostitution, adultery, bestiality and the like. Because of this, God commanded to wage war against the Midianites as capital punishment. Rather than obeying Moses, the Israelites spared all the women. If you read this passage by itself, it sounds like God is saying keep the virgins as spoils of war.

But no, these women were spared because they were innocent of seducing the Israelites. And rather than the Israelites being allowed to keep them as sex slaves, they were given security and the ability to assimilate into a new culture. And there were laws in place on how to treat them.

Here’s Deuteronomy 21:10-14: “When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take some of them prisoner, and if you see a beautiful woman among the captives, desire her, and want to take her as your wife, you are to bring her into your house. She is to shave her head, trim her nails, remove the clothes she was wearing when she was taken prisoner, live in your house, and mourn for her father and mother a full month. After that, you may have sexual relations with her and be her husband, and she will be your wife. Then if you are not satisfied with her, you are to let her go where she wants, but you must not sell her or treat her as merchandise, because you have humiliated her.”

So God didn’t allow the soldiers to have sex immediately with these women. They were given a month-long period to adjust before a marriage could even happen. If the soldier decided not to marry her, she had to be let go.

To our modern ears, this still sounds creepy. We don’t like the idea of arranged marriages of female survivors of war. But in the aftermath of an ancient battle, her life was spared, she had the ability to integrate into Israelite society and find future security in a foreign land.

Marry your rapist?

One of the most troubling passages regarding rape is found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29:“If a man encounters a young woman, a virgin who is not engaged, takes hold of her and rapes her, and they are discovered, the man who raped her is to give the young woman’s father fifty silver shekels, and she will become his wife because he violated her. He cannot divorce her as long as he lives.”

This law sounds horrifyingly unethical. Who in their right mind would want to marry their rapist?

We need to understand the culture to get what’s going on here. A woman who lost her virginity in that time and place would be undesirable for marriage. Without the support of a husband, she’d live a life of poverty and social separation.

Earlier we read that if a man raped a woman who was already married or engaged, the man was put to death, showing God took rape pretty seriously. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) But in this case, the rapist was kept alive to guarantee the victim’s financial security. This was something the unmarried did not have.

Exodus 22:16-17 says that the father doesn’t have to allow this arrangement in the case of premarital sex – which likely also included rape. He could just take the 50 shekels for the daughter to be taken care of. If that wasn’t enough, the perpetrator still had to pay and had to provide for her the rest of his life. While Moses permitted divorce in other cases (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), he didn’t permit divorce in this case.

While this still might seem really strange to our modern ears, an example from King David’s family helps us understand the context of the times. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. (2 Samuel 13:1-20) While she begged him not to rape her, afterward she begged Amnon not to send her away. She told Amnon that doing so was more evil than the rape itself. This might seem crazy and shocking to us, but her perspective is in step with the rape law from Deuteronomy.

Jesus and Rape

Most importantly, we need to remember how Jesus interpreted the ethics of the Old Testament. When asked about “no-fault” divorce in the Pentateuch, Jesus said it was permitted by Moses because of their hardness of hearts. He then pointed to the original intention before the fall and then raised the standards of the law. (Matthew 19:3-12) There is a big difference between commission and permission.

Knowing the fallen nature of man, Yahweh made allowances for behaviors like no-fault divorce or allowing men to marry war captives, but compared to ancient near-east societies around them these laws were actually progressive. Plus centuries later, Jesus then greatly raised the standards of the law – he didn’t just say “don’t commit adultery” he said, “don’t even look upon a woman with lust.” (Matthew 5:27-30)

Jesus lifted the requirements because after his death and resurrection because he would send the Spirit to indwell believers, empowering them to live life by God’s original creational order norms. (Galatians 5:22-23)

It’s amusing that detractors who are swift to say that the Old Testament laws are immoral are also quick to say that Jesus’ standards were way too high! Moreover, as a Pharisee and expert in Jewish law, Paul says that husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies and to lay down their lives for their wives. (Ephesians 5:26-33) He teaches that men and women are equals in Christ. (Galatians 3:28)

God doesn’t condone or approve of rape

You can’t just rip these verses out of the Old Testament without an understanding of the cultural context and God’s original intention. This tactic is one of the skeptic’s favorite ploys to make God out to be the bad guy, but after closer inspection, we’ve seen that God isn’t supporting rape at all.

Jesus is the ultimate standard for morality. On atheism, there remains no objective standard to even judge what they find immoral in the Bible. And using Old Testament passages out of context as clobber verses is just a red herring.