‘Legitimate Rape’ in the Bible

This is an article by Morgan Reinhart. It appears in the November/December 2012 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.

Note: All URLs and images below are my own additions, because I thought they’d be helpful.

On August 19, 2012, Republican Representative Todd Akin of Missouri launched himself out of obscurity and into the headlines of CNN and the New York Times by proclaiming this about conception and pregnancy: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin displayed impressive linguistic economy. In fewer than twenty words, he implied that traumatized women can set their uteri to airplane mode, hinted that pregnant women who claim rape are lying, and outraged more than half of the nation’s electorate. Akin, a conservative Christian, also continued a time-honored biblical tradition of dismissing the rights of female victims of sexual assault.

A hint that rape might not always be that bad (by scriptural standards) comes from the conspicuous absence of “Thou shalt not commit rape” from either of the two versions of the Ten Commandments. However, in those commandments God did find time to prohibit the coveting of cattle and sassing of parents, which gives you an idea of how non-consensual sex ranks in Yahweh’s list of offenses. I once heard a female minister say that Jesus greatly improved the treatment of women, considering that ancient Jews used to list wives with husband’s property, and that rape victims were once forced to marry their rapists. What this preacher failed to mention was that the latter practice was, in fact, mandated by the Good Book.

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 states: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” In other words, you break it, you buy it.

I’m generally irritated by how Jews and Christians cherry-pick from scripture, but since 20 percent of women in the United States experience rape or attempted rape, I consider Judeo-Christian hypocrisy a blessing in this case. If such a law actually was applied in this country, imagine the grisly spectacles that would ensue in terms of marriage ceremonies, exchanging of vows, wedding receptions, and family reunions. The heart-warming phrase “to have and to hold” would take on a sinister subtext. The sanctity of marriage would truly find itself in danger.

Judeo-Christian apologists have defended the barbaric law by saying that 1) The victim could elect to not marry her rapist, 2) The victim’s father could choose to refuse to marry the victim to her rapist, and 3) Forcing a victim to marry her rapist was a form of social and economic protection for the victim since no man in ancient Jewish culture would marry a girl sullied by such a violation at the hands of another man.

These defenses are easily invalidated. First, nowhere in the Bible does it say that the victim has a choice. Second, if the choice is left to the father, a woman or girl still might be forced to marry her rapist. Third, the notion that she is being protected falls apart in the modern example of sixteen-year-old Amina Filali of Morocco, who killed herself with rat poison in March after being forced to marry her rapist according to Moroccan law. If you don’t think that at least a sizeable minority of women in Filali’s situation would kill themselves, please see a psychiatrist. Filali’s choice was rational: Every day for the rest of her life she would have been forced to share the bed of the man who had raped her, and as her legal husband, he would have had the right to repeat the initial act thousands of times over hundreds of hours. This young girl, whose “husband” also beat her for several months, would have borne children in danger of physical or sexual abuse. Innumerable Hebrew women and girls suffered this exact fate thanks to Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

The standard Judeo-Christian rebuttal is that as terrible as the law seems to modern Westerners, the law was progressive for its time: it was the best remedy that could be managed in a culture where a rape victim would face a life of spinsterhood, ostracism, and destitution. In fact, it wasn’t: the Bible could have ordered that a rapist cannot marry his victim, but must provide financial support for her for his entire life. For that matter, the Bible could have ordered that rape victims are in no way sullied or unmarriageable, while their attackers are both. Yahweh had no compunction about killing a man for collecting firewood, so why not enforce these laws with the same threat? Finally, the law in Deuteronomy actually endangered all young and unmarried women by incentivizing rape. Is a pretty young woman in the Arabian Peninsula out of a man’s league in beauty or social status? Would her parents never in their right minds consider him as a suitor? Deuteronomy gives that scoundrel a means to secure her for life. Indeed, “abduction marriage” is a not-unheard-of practice in regions of Africa and Central Asia even today.

Nevertheless, although the Bible dictates unpleasant ways that rape is to be handled after the fact, it never actually permits rape in the first place, does it?

Exodus 21:7-11 states: “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”

Some conservative Christians and Jews focus on all the “niceties” (as Sam Harris put it in The End of Faith) that the Bible provides for this sex slave, while praying you ignore that the Bible permits a father to sell his daughter as a sex slave in the first place.

For those not convinced that the rights of a sexual assault victim were a low priority in the Bible, and that “legitimate rape” had a niche in biblical law, consider this: Deuteronomy 21:11 permits Israelite soldiers to force war captives into marriage; Numbers 31:18 states that, after the Israelites slaughtered the adult Midianite males, Moses ordered the soldiers to take all the young girls “who have not known a man by lying with him and keep alive for yourselves”; and Deuteronomy 22:23-24 makes clear that if a (betrothed) virgin is raped in a city and doesn’t cry for help, she should be stoned to death along with the perpetrator.

Representative Todd Akin, take heart. Although your stunning bigotry endangered your chance at reelection; although your conjunction of “legitimate” and “rape” embarrassed the GOP and outraged the Democratic Party; although you re-traumatized up to one-fifth of the nation’s women; although you implied it doesn’t count if a woman doesn’t struggle, you did not offend your God. Apparently, in his eyes women are mere vessels, mere carriers of progeny, mere satisfiers of male bedtime will. So long as certainty of paternity is preserved, and so long as life is cherished between conception and birth, issues of consent and women’s rights melt away before biblical tradition.

As the saying goes, “What God has brought together, let no man tear asunder.”

Morgan Reinhart is an active member of the secular community in Seattle, Washington, and a graduate of Western Washington University with a B.A. in public relations. His Twitter handle is @TruthOverCmfort, which encapsulates his life attitude.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • wisiti

    Great analysis. My only problem is that you didn’t address the main defense of these kinds of biblical laws – at least, this its the defense I always hear. Evangelical Christians claim that all of the laws of the old testament were made moot by the new covenant under Jesus. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from using old testament laws to support homophobia and, as you’ve made clear here, suppression of women.

  • Fargofan

    It bugs me that Christians try to explain away horrible verses, by putting them in historical context…. Then they talk about absolute, objective morality and criticize other people for “moral relativism.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001627228091 Alexander Ryan

    Meanwhile, apparently anti-gay marriage advocates think that gay marriage will destroy biblically defined marriage.

  • Peter White

     The New Covenant under Jesus is made moot by the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    My least favorite argument is that these laws were already “progressive” for that time, so that makes it okay. These same people will manage to argue that Jesus’ message to be nice to other people was also revolutionary. These are very tame ideas of progressive and revolutionary.
    I remember just feeling so sad at the time I saw these verses. God could sentence people to death over incredibly minor sins, but as far as rape and women’s rights goes: “Oh, you guys like raping women? You see them as property? Hmmm…well I’ll give that thousands of years of thought and get back to you. Just keep on doing what your doing and here are some guidelines about the best ways to do it. Also, here are some great tips for punishing your slaves while I think about it!”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    Well there are no good guidelines about gay property (whoops, I mean marriage) in the Bible! How much does a man pay for another man in dowry? What does a newly purchased groom have to sacrifice? What if a man is raped and doesn’t scream? What if a man gets a second husband?
    Straight marriage in the Bible comes with so many well-thought out rules that help us with many relevant problems. I don’t think we can figure out gay marriage without God to spell all this out for us.
    Also, can a gay man speak in church or should he wait till he gets home and ask his husband? We just don’t know.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    What I always say is “How could this EVER be okay with a perfect god???”

  • Guest

    Taking examples from old testament is akin to taking examples from the fallen man who had disobeyed his god. How does bad things which happened in the old testament, if it is history, justify disobedience then and now? Did the bible god communicate with the wrong doer that that was acceptable behavior?

  • MBaxter
  • http://oldgaylawyer.blogspot.com/ Eamon O’Connor

     Well said Julie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    “How does bad things which happened in the old testament, if it is history, justify disobedience then and now?”

    Because the god of the old testament is a prick?  Do I get a cookie?

  • Baby_Raptor

    If I understand you correctly, you’re asking how the Old Testament can be used as a reason to not follow the christian god.

    The bible talks about how god is great, wise, merciful, loving, the perfect moral authority, ETC.

    It also talks about how he’s unchanging. 

    So, you’re setting up the god who did these things, these horrible, disgusting things, as the absolute moral authority, the perfect being.

    People who find these kinds of things abhorrent are NOT going to agree with the idea that the god who did this is worthy of worship/following. 

    Get it now?

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Have… have you been drinking the bong water, by any chance?

  • Beau Quilter


    Put on your reading glasses. The bible god did not communicate with the wrong doer. He was the wrong doer. He ordered the behavior.

  • kagekiri

    Ha, you should’ve heard my sister’s defense of Biblical rape and slavery, after I’d thrashed her attempts at the “it was good for its time” defense.

    Basically, she dodged by saying “well, you don’t know the original Hebrew, so you just don’t have the context.”

    Of course, that’s also stupid as hell, because if something so straightforward as “marry your rapist” or “beat your slaves” can be so horribly mistranslated as to mean entirely opposite things, then the Bible in English is absolutely untrustworthy and no one should read it in English, ever.

    And the fact she lives by the English-translated Bible without ever deferring to Hebrew or Aramaic originals is all the more reason to see this as a back-handed attempt to keep the Bible inerrant and dodge moral responsibility.

  • http://profiles.google.com/korinthian Sutra Stevens

    20 percent of all women in USA experience rape or attempted rape? Holy hell.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    And that’s only the rapes that are reported…

  • Patterrssonn


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    Actually I’m pretty sure that includes the potential unreported rapes. When they do anonymous surveys, it comes out to 1/6 or 1/5, but when they do reported rapes, it’s a much smaller number.
    Otherwise that percentage would be more like 40% or more which doesn’t seem as likely.

  • Golfie98

    What your sister also fails to see is that her argument (about not knowing the original Hebrew) can also be used against any piece of scripture rendering the whole lot unintelligible or there being any certainty in what any of it means.

  • Stev84

     Can’t be a Christian without being a hypocrite

  • RobMcCune

     Most of the passages quoted above are laws the bible says were laid down by your dear fluffy lord. Unless you actually believe much of the old testament to be false, you have to believe he ordered people to be ‘disobedient.’

  • http://amavra.wordpress.com/ MotherDemeter

    CN: non detailed discussion of rape
    These verses and more were extremely damaging to me as a child.  I was very sheltered and raised in a conservative “biblical literalist” church of christ where we read through the Bible in Sunday school repeatedly.  I already had a passing familiarity with these passages when I was raped at age 9.  Afterwards I turned to my trusty bible to find these passages of “comfort”.
    I knew I wouldn’t be made to marry my rapist, or stoned to death, but the implication in these passages is clear nonetheless   They told me I was broken and worthless and shameful, bringing dishonor to my family.  The story of the rape of Tamar in particular I read over and over. This is probably the most detailed and personal account of a rape in the bible with the victim’s perspective mentioned at all so it was all I had to go on.  She even offered to marry her rapist but he refused her – and was killed, her brother became an outlaw and a rebel for killing him and was later also killed.  She remained desolate for the rest of her days.  

    I didn’t tell anyone.  I have come through it all okay, but to be perfectly honest, the bible, and the way it was supposed to be the literal word of god, probably damaged me more than the rape itself.  These were supposed to be the words that god, the creator of everything, the god who was supposed to love me and I was supposed to worship above all us, GOD said these words, wrote them down and made sure they would be kept through the ages and given to me to read.   

    I can’t accept anyone trying to just wave these verses away.  They were certainly fucking meaningful to me.

    ~this subject hits close to me, and I don’t often comment here but I do read frequently~

  • Sergio Castro

    Thank you for adding your personal perspective to the discussion. My heart aches for you. How anyone could justify child rape using a 2000 year old text is beyond me.

    I am so very grateful I live now, and in a (somewhat) civilized nation. Even so, we need to speak out loudly and vehemently against these antiquated values. The fact that a 9-year-0ld girl was harmed by them sickens me. Children and women are human beings and should be valued, not violated.

  • Ibis3

    I don’t know but between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 sounds about right to me, in my experience, as far as women I’ve talked to about it. Of course, that’s including all those rapes that those like Aiken wouldn’t consider legitimate (date rape, partner rape, marital rape, coercive rape, too drunk to consent rape, too asleep/unconscious to consent rape, too young to consent rape). ETA: In fact, that might be a little low, now that I think about it.

  • napoleonsolo

    “Indeed, ‘abduction marriage’ is a not-unheard-of practice in regions of Africa and Central Asia even today.”

    “Abduction marriage” was practiced in Italy as late as the 1960′s. 

    Not 1860′s, 1960′s. In fact Italy had a law allowing for rapists to get off scot free if they married their victim. That law wasn’t repealed until 1981. If you look at the story of Franca Viola, it is incredibly shocking:


  • http://twitter.com/Kardashev1 Kardashev

    Don’t forget 18 where he says “18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” For believers, they still believe in heaven, so that means the laws still stand. Those 613 laws (like thou shalt not vex a stranger, suffer a witch to live, and others) are still in effect. Jesus didn’t explicitly say the opposite and it’s intellectually dishonest to say he did. Not only that but it was cleverly dishonest to forget the verse after it.

  • Georgina

    while I fully understand why Amina Filali of Morocco killed herself, I fail to understand why she didn’t poison her rapist first. 

  • C_mat

    Could have. Should have. So God could have made Israel institute a law that the rapist must be put in jail. Agreed. That the rapist must provide financial support all his life. Uh? Don’t know. The rapist could have been a bum, a poor man. I guess he could be forced to work and provide financial support, but then he wouldn’t be in jail. OK. Agreed. Now God could have forced Israel to respect the woman and treat her well. Agreed. God could force Israel to find someone to marry her. Agreed? No, disagree. Could he really? Could he really convince these Hebrew slaves who had just left to Egypt to marry a non-virgin? He could convince them, but he would never force. And so the woman is to either kill herself like you suggested (so is that the only fate left for raped women by the way? Must there be no redemption for them? No hope at all?),  live  a spinster the rest of her life with the offspring of the rapist most likely, and/or hope that the rapist would be able to financially support her, while most of the society probably treats her like dirt, despite God ordering them not to. Great solution.

    This is what God actually tells Israel to do: if the rapist rapes a married woman, stone the rapist to death! If he marries an unmarried woman, and the father can still get the daughter married, great. Stone the guy again. But if no one will marry her, the rapist will now be forced to marry her and take her into his family and provide for her the rest of his life. That would be his punishment, not hers. by the way, it was not so easy in those days to set your eyes on a beauty and abduct her. You usually got beaten up and killed. Remember Jacob’s pyscho sons. And by the way, marriage in those days was not having repeated sex and pleasure. It was about producing children and enlarging your clan. That’s all that mattered to them. Which is why, concubines and additional wives was not considered wrong. You had to build the clan up, the community, the nation. 

    But then comes in God. Why would he allow that? Isn’t that plain wrong and does it not contradict what he desired from the beginning? Of course, it does. Jesus himself says so. But what is a God who allows free-will to do? Force these people to understand that it must not be that way, but this? No. But once they understood, once they saw the light, once they realized from within….that it is ok to marry the raped virgin….of course individuals saw it time and again, but society took time, just like it does today. Go to India, where I come from by the way or parts of Asia and Africa….it still takes time…..the only recourse for many raped women in India by the way is death. They have no hope….because no one will accept them unlike North America, where 10 men will be ready to marry them, because of the lingering effects of Christian faith. Today a woman can work and support herself and live. In those days, the whole village knew who you were. Without a man, you could not work. So what hope would the woman have? None. Is it better to have no hope and die because of society?

    Despicable as it seems, forcing the rapist to rectify his wrongs in that time by marrying his victim was the best possible solution…