The Bible does address the issue of rape. As expected, when the Bible mentions the crime of rape, it is depicted as a gross violation of God’s design for the treatment of the human body (Genesis 34). The Bible condemns rape whenever it is mentioned. For example, there is a particular passage in the laws given to the nation of Israel before entering the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership. This passage (Deuteronomy 22:23–29) spoke directly against forcing a woman into a sexual encounter against her will, or what we know today as rape. This command was meant to protect women and to protect the nation of Israel from committing sinful actions.
Deuteronomy 22:23–27 gives guidelines on what constituted rape and specifies the punishment for a man who raped a betrothed woman. In a sexual assault, the betrothed woman was responsible to actively resist the rapist, if possible—she was to “scream for help” (Deuteronomy 22:24). If she failed to resist when she could have done so, the law viewed the situation as consensual sex, not rape, and both parties were guilty. If the assault took place in an isolated area, the law gave the woman the benefit of the doubt, assuming she had resisted her attacker, and she was not held culpable (Deuteronomy 22:27). The law stipulated that a rapist was to be killed by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:25). Though the Mosaic Law was for the nation of Israel during the time of Moses, the principle is clear that rape is sinful in the eyes of God and, under the law, led to the most extreme punishment possible—death for the rapist.
There are some difficult passages in the Old Testament in relation to this issue. One is Deuteronomy 22:28–29, “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.” If the rape victim was not betrothed, then the rapist faced different consequences.
We must see Deuteronomy 22:28–29 through the lens of ancient culture. In those days, social convention treated women poorly. They couldn’t own property. They couldn’t get a job to support themselves. If a woman had no father, husband, or son, she had no legal protection. Her options were slavery or prostitution. If an unmarried woman wasn’t a virgin, it was extremely difficult for her to get married. If she wasn’t marriageable, her father didn’t have much use for her.
God’s punishment on the rapist of a virgin—a monetary fine and lifelong responsibility—was designed to deter rape by holding the rapist responsible for his actions. He ruined her life; it was his responsibility to support her for the rest of her life. This may not sound fair to modern ears, but we don’t live in the same culture they did. In 2 Samuel 13, Prince Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar. The horror and shame of being violated yet unmarried made Tamar beg him to marry her (her half-brother!), even after he had rejected her. And her full-brother, Absalom, was so disgusted with the situation that he murdered Amnon. That’s how highly virginity in women was prized back then.
Critics of the Bible also point to Numbers 31 (and similar passages) in which the Israelites were allowed to take female captives from nations they conquered. Critics say this is an example of the Bible’s condoning or even promoting rape. However, the passage says nothing about raping the captive women. It is wrong to assume that the captive women were to be raped. The soldiers were commanded to purify themselves and their captives (verse 19). Rape would have violated this command (see Leviticus 15:16–18). The women who were taken captive are never referred to as sexual objects. Did the captive women likely eventually marry amongst the Israelites? Yes. Is there any indication that rape or sex slavery was forced upon the women? Absolutely not.
In the New Testament, rape is not mentioned directly, but within the Jewish culture of the day, rape would have been considered sexual immorality. Jesus and the apostles spoke against sexual immorality, even offering it as justifiable grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:32).
Further, the New Testament is clear that Christians are to obey the laws of their governing authorities (Romans 13). Not only is rape morally wrong; it is also wrong according to the laws of the land. As such, anyone who would commit this crime should expect to pay the consequences, including arrest and imprisonment.
To the victims of rape, we must offer much care and compassion. God’s Word often speaks about helping those in need and in vulnerable situations. Christians should model the love and compassion of Christ by assisting victims of rape in any way possible.
People are responsible for the sins they commit, including rape. However, no one is beyond the grace of God. Even to those who have committed the vilest of sins, God can extend forgiveness if they repent and turn from their evil ways (1 John 1:9). This does not remove the need for punishment according to the law, but it can offer hope and the way to a new life.