The Bible and RapeAuthor: Dr. Craig Keener
Steve and Celestia Tracy travel from the U.S. each year to provide ministry to women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have endured rape and sometimes sexual mutilation at the hands of militias there.
Some of these women were young girls; some were mothers violated in front of their own children. The heartbreak that Steve and Celestia report is overwhelming, but they endure malaria and other hardships because the need for counseling and healing is so great.
Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the world’s highest reported rates of rape; one study in 2011 even suggests 400,000 rapes occurring there per year, or more than 45 per hour. According to this study, about 12 percent of the women in Congo have been raped by outsiders; 22.5 percent suffered sexual violence from partners. Although rape is more common in the east, it is reportedly still too common throughout the country; although the majority of victims are female, males are also sexually assaulted. Fearing HIV, a number of husbands have abandoned their wives when the wives were violated by soldiers.
Not only in Congo, but elsewhere in the world many, especially women and children, suffer traumatic sexual abuse, sometimes at the hands of those closest to them (for example, in the case of children suffering incest). Although the proportion is lower than in Congo, rape happens often in the United States as well.
It is important for victims of these crimes not to be left to feel alone; most of all they need to be reminded that God is on their side. What they have suffered is not their fault. God is near the broken but far from the proud.
Although God is on the side of the rape victim, some rape victims have been made to feel the opposite. Nearly two decades ago, when I was a fairly new seminary teacher, a student told me about a teenager in her congregation who had been gang-raped. Aside from the trauma of physical and psychological violation, this young woman had been saving herself for marriage and felt devastated morally. At the time, we were studying in class the story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar, and my student went back to assure the young woman that she remained a moral virgin in God’s sight.
That the Bible sets a high standard for sexual purity should motivate the Bible’s readers to take sexual violence all the more seriously—and to leave the blame only with the responsible party.
The Bible offers a few examples of rape, always portraying it as a horrendous crime. In 2 Samuel, David’s sin unleashed suffering on his household, beginning with Amnon’s rape of his half-sister, after which he despised her (2 Sam 13:1-17). Tamar so lamented her virginity that she never married (13:18-19), though as a king’s daughter she would have retained many suitors. Tamar’s brother Absalom avenged her by killing Amnon; while Absalom went too far (and may have had additional motives: his older brother Amnon stood one step closer to the throne than Absalom was), the narrative portrays graphically the devastation of rape.
Earlier, Dinah’s brothers had avenged her rape by killing the rapist and (to avoid retaliation) all the men in his community (Gen 34:1-31). Again, this went too far (see Gen 49:5-7), but it illustrates how seriously siblings took the responsibility to provide their sisters protection from sexual predators.
Jesus tells us that Israelite law fell short of God’s eternal ideals (Mark 10:5); those laws nevertheless at least limited some abuses for ancient Israelite society. In Israel, if a man violated a virgin, and her family refused marriage, the man had to pay a dowry equal to that of virgins (Exod 22:17). This helped to provide for her future marriage to someone else (in a society where most men preferred to marry virgins) and helped to restore some of her honor. Because she had not invited what happened to her, she remained a moral virgin. Likewise, if one could not know either way whether the woman was forced or not, she was to be given the benefit of the doubt and the case treated as rape (Deut 22:25-27). There are many elements of Israelite law that we would view as inadequate for us today, but at the least this principle may be safely inferred from it: a person who is raped is recognized as a terribly violated, innocent victim who deserves protection and support.
The good news of Christ liberates from sin. But Christ is also good news to those who have been sinned against, because Jesus suffered not only for us but with us. When he was unjustly executed, his death pronounced judgment on the miscarriages of justice and the oppression of the innocent in this world. To those who have been wounded against their will, he reminds you: It was not your fault. His own nail-pierced hands offer healing and new life.