CONTENT WARNING for rape myths.
Deuteronomy 22:23–24 has too often been used as a biblical precedent for one of the worst rape myths.
When read a certain way, it suggests that a woman is to blame if a man rapes her, because she didn’t scream loud enough. Or at the very least women should scream if they’re raped, and if they don’t, they bear at least some guilt.
Both ideas are monumentally false — as anyone who knows anything about consent and freeze responses will tell you.
But if that’s the case, what does a Bible-positive Christian make of these verses? Is it possible to interpret them as anything other than a toxic product of ancient patriarchal misogyny? Well, I believe it is.
I’m going to be very good and limit myself to 200 words in each of the seven sections of this post (the intro, five things, plus interlude) so forgive me if I don’t deep dive the detail. I’m using the scholarship of Carolyn Pressler, Cynthia Edenberg, Alexander Rofé and, by no means least, Sara Milstein. Details at the bottom of the post.
Right, let’s do this.
23 If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry out in the city, and the man because he humbled his neighbor’s wife; so you shall put away the evil from among you. (NKJV)
1. Redaction is not the same as authorial intent
Wait, what? Bear with me.
Redaction is about editing a text for publication. Deuteronomy 22:23–24 falls within a wider set of laws (Deuteronomy 22:13–29) probably put together during the late monarchical period (Josiah’s reign). (See this post for why scholars think this.) The redaction was done by men, for men — hence the laws address men (Pressler, p57).
This complicates how we interpret the laws, but it doesn’t mean the author intended to promote the values of patriarchy or toxic masculinity. Seriously, none of these laws consider extenuating circumstances when the man has illicit sex; his guilt is never up for debate. The only questions are the penalty and whether the woman shares his guilt.
My inner feminist does not have a problem with this.
However, other factors played a part in how the laws were arranged, including: (i) whether the redactor had pre-existing laws or wrote new ones, (ii) whose questions he principally wanted to address (answer: men’s), and (iii) methodical presentation.
Problem is, when women read this passage, they ask what values the redactor wanted to promote. So if we want to answer the questions of women, we have to discern the laws’ purposes without distortion from the male-oriented redaction.
2. A betrothed woman could ‘cry out’ after she was raped
It’s very easy to assume:
- when the woman cries out she’s trying to prevent the man raping her, and
- if he does rape her, she shares in his guilt.
I think both assumptions are false.
Any lawmaker with a brain would have known (a) a rapist could silence his victim forcibly, and (b) even if the woman cried out, there’s no guarantee, even in a city, that help would come.
And this is exactly what happened to Tamar, King David’s daughter, in 2 Samuel 13:1–22.
But wait. Look at what the Amplified translation says in 2 Samuel 13:19 (bold mine):
So Tamar put dust on her head [in grief] and tore the long-sleeved robe which she had on, and she put her hand on her head and went away crying out [for help].
Tamar cried out for help in the city, after she was raped. And no one, no one blamed her.
So, maybe the ‘crying out’ of Deuteronomy 22:23–24 isn’t about preventing rape. Maybe really it’s about the woman going public.
What difference does that make? Well, she wouldn’t go public if she was consensually having an adulterous affair — and that’s what this law is really aiming at.
3. Even if this law was intended to be extreme, it’s not about rape
I grant you, these laws were not redacted during a time of half-measures — and this one carried the death penalty. Edenberg (p52–53, 58, 60) argues the scribe had a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual misconduct and Pressler similarly says he wanted to emphasise the seriousness of the crimes.
But that doesn’t mean this law was designed to criminalise victims of rape.
Whoever wrote verses 23–24 probably also wrote two other laws in verses 20–22, because they all have the same phrase, “you must purge the evil from Israel.” (Pressler) They’re all extreme, but I’d say none of them is about criminalising innocent women.
I’ve written extensively about verses 20–21 elsewhere. Meanwhile verse 22 (adultery with a married woman) doesn’t consider the woman’s possible innocence, even though any lawmaker with a brain would know a married woman could be raped.
What’s my point? For sure, the scribe had an agenda when he wrote and/or redacted these three laws in verses 20–24. But it’s a big stretch to say he wanted to criminalise victims of rape. And remember, he placed this law right next to another one (verses 25–27) that says woman can be innocent (more below).
4. Verses 23–24 are not a case, they’re a counter-case
To understand the scribe’s values, we should read verses 25–27 first, and verses 23–24 second.
“Wait, what?” I hear you say. Trust me, keep reading.
Laws often have an ‘if’ section (protasis) and a ‘then’ section (apodosis). Verse 23 is the protasis:
If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, 24 then
Did you notice what’s missing? It doesn’t say, “And if she doesn’t cry out…”
Crying out isn’t mentioned until the apodosis.
This is significant.
Milstein explains (bold mine):
There appears, then, to be a logistical tension between implied rape in the protasis and implied consent in the apodosis. This sequence is indeed unusual in the context of ancient Near Eastern law. While a number of laws concerning illicit sex provide justification for a woman’s guilt, none suspends the reason for her guilt to the apodosis. [p629]
And later (italics original):
Both the internal and external data thus suggest that Deut 22:23–24 was composed as a countercase to verses 25–27, where the woman does shout for help and is treated as an innocent victim. [p631]
Interlude: so what does Deuteronomy 22:25–27 say?
Well… (bold mine):
25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbour, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.
Look at the bits in bold: this law speaks up for the woman five times (Pressler, p52). Someone was trying to make a point.
Oh, and unlike verses 20–24, there’s no “you shall purge the evil,” so it’s likely these verses were written before verses 20–24 and designed to stress different principles.
Notice also that there’s no proof the woman screamed. The scribe is speculating and doesn’t assess the woman’s consent. Essentially:
(even if) she cried out, there would have been no one to (hear and) save her. [Milstein, p637]
So, if verses 25-27 are the case (not the counter-case), they set a far-reaching precedent of compassion towards the woman.
5. Bottom line: our interpretation of verses 23–24 cannot upend verses 25–27
Let’s wrap up.
The harsh laws of verses 20–22 were inserted amongst earlier laws concerned with women’s innocence (verses 13–19, 25–29). The later laws assert that married and betrothed women are still capable of serious sex-related offences.
And OK — I’m a feminist, but I won’t argue with that.
Meanwhile, the redactor wanted to emphasise the grievousness of adultery. OK, fine.
That doesn’t mean the city law was applied literally or in isolation.
The country law in verses 25–27 is clear that men are always responsible for illicit sex, and women shouldn’t be criminalised in the absence of evidence. Given how the country law stresses the grievousness of rape, we can’t say the city counter-case upends that. Especially when we weigh in the example of Tamar.
“Because she did not cry out” was not a values statement. Instead, it was a redaction designed to contrast an illicit consensual affair against a rape.
I accept there are unresolved problems; these laws assume patriarchal constructs of virginity and they don’t directly consider how a rape survivor might be afraid to disclose. But the bottom line is this: verses 23–24 aren’t instructions to criminalise rape victims.
And they never were.
If you liked this, you might want to watch this half-hour video I posted on Facebook that walks through the redaction process for the whole of Deuteronomy 22:13–29.
If you found this helpful you might also like:
- Was Deuteronomy written by Moses?
- Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to)
- How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)
- Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.
My research sources for this post were:
- Milstein, Sara J. “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Independent Logic of Deuteronomy 22:25–27.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137.3 (2018): 625-43. Web
I am absolutely THRILLED to say that Milstein’s paper is now available for free download on Academia.edu.
- Pressler, Carolyn, and Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (1991): ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web.
- Edenberg, Cynthia. Ideology and Social Context of the Deuteronomic Women’s Sex Laws (Deuteronomy 22:13–29) Journal of Biblical Literature 128.1 (2009): 43–60. Web.
These sources also quote from:
- Rofé, Alexander. Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant Henoch 9 (1987): 131–59.