Violence against women is a tragic reality in our world today, as it has always been since the fall of humankind. We live in a sin-corrupted realm, which includes sexual and gender-based aggression. It should come as no surprise that many Bible stories contain accounts of violence against women, just as any record of present-day society might also include.
Some Bible readers have interpreted the ill-treatment of women in the Bible as justification for abusing and subjugating women. However, Scripture does not promote violence against women; neither does it present it as an appealing option. While some biblical stories appear neutral on the topic, most accounts depict the mistreatment of women in either an openly or indirectly critical light.
Readers who wish to correctly interpret what the Bible says about violence against women must understand the cultural backdrop that provides the setting for the Bible’s narrative. The ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman worlds of the Bible were male-dominated, patriarchal societies in which men held all the social, economic, legal, and domestic power. A women’s principal role was to become a wife and mother. Thus, most women were dependent on men—either their fathers, husbands, brothers, or sons—for their entire lives, leaving them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
In the Old Testament, God called His people to protect, care for, and promote justice for vulnerable members of society, such as widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:19; 27:19; Isaiah 1:17; Zechariah 7:10). Nevertheless, in legal, financial, and domestic matters, the law almost always favored the interests of men (Deuteronomy 22:13–21, 28–29; Numbers 5:11–31). In cases of rape, the offender was to receive the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:25–27).
By New Testament times, the Bible speaks more candidly to men regarding violence against women. Colossians 3:19 commands, “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly” (NLT). In Ephesians 5:25–33, Paul condemns the mistreatment of women, urging men to love and care for their wives in the same way “they love their own bodies” (NLT). Peter teaches believing husbands to treat their wives with honor and respect as an “equal partner in God’s gift of new life” (1 Peter 3:7, NLT).
By this time, women were gaining a slightly more influential place in society. Jesus included women on His ministry team (Matthew 27:55; Luke 8:1–3), and women were named as influencers in the early church (Romans 16:1–3, 7, 12; Philippians 4:2–3; 1 Corinthians 16:19).
Physical and sexual violence against women is recorded in several biblical passages:
Hagar was forced to become a surrogate mother for Abraham and Sarah. The maidservant was further abused by her mistress, Sarah, who became jealous and treated Hagar harshly. Eventually, Hagar and her son were cast out of the household into the desert. But God rescued, cared for, and blessed Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16:1–16; 21:8–21).
Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was abducted and raped by Shechem (Genesis 34:1–31). Jephthah’s daughter fell victim to her father’s lack of faith and misguided vow (Judges 11:12–40). In a horrifying scene of violence against women, the men of Gibeah savagely gang raped and murdered a Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:11–30). This story illustrates the increasing violence spreading throughout the land in the days when “Israel had no king” (Judges 19:1; 21:25) as the nation drifted further away from God.
David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba definitely involved a power imbalance and is another example of a woman being victimized. As king, David used his position of power to take what he wanted, and Bathsheba had no real choice in the matter (2 Samuel 11:1—12:31). God’s displeasure and condemnation were directed at David, not Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1–15). David’s son Amnon perpetuated the violence against women, raping his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1–39).
While God may seem to be silent about the abuse in many of these accounts, the criminality of the offenses is apparent when viewed within the whole context of Scripture. In the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2–11), Jesus unambiguously revealed God’s heart toward violence against women. Attentive readers will note the woman’s vulnerability as the men in the story bring her forward and call her out as the only transgressor—dehumanizing her as if she were the embodiment of sexual sin. But Jesus defended the woman, treating her with dignity and compassion.
Violence against women (or any person) in the Bible must be understood and interpreted according to God’s condemnation and prohibition of every kind of abusive behavior. God hates violence (Psalm 11:5; Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 45:9; Malachi 2:16). He calls believers to love and protect the innocent and vulnerable (Luke 10:30–37; Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 4:5). The Lord comes to the aid of those who are threatened by violence (2 Samuel 22:49; Psalm 18:48; Matthew 2:13; Luke 22:50–51). Scripture overwhelmingly demonstrates that violence against women is unacceptable in God’s eyes and among His people (2 Samuel 22:3; Psalm 72:14; Galatians 5:14; Romans 13:10).