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 when a man rapes a woman, and he succeeds, she shares equally in his culpability because she didn’t scream sufficiently. Even less extreme interpretations hold that 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-honouring 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 leveraging 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 purpose
Redaction is the process of editing a text for publication. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 falls within a wider set of laws (Deuteronomy 22:13-29) probably redacted together during the late monarchical period (Josiah’s reign). This was done by men, for men — hence the laws address men (Pressler, p57).
Now, although these laws were written in a patriarchy and for a patriarchy, that doesn’t mean they don’t challenge patriarchy or toxic masculinity. Seriously, none of them 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.
Meanwhile, various factors drove how the laws were arranged, including: (i) whether the redactor had pre-existing laws or wrote new ones, (ii) whose questions he wanted to address first (answer: men’s), (iii) what ideology he wanted to promote, and (iv) methodical presentation.
In other words, the concerns of women were unlikely to be key in how these verses were compiled. So, if we want to answer the questions of women, then we need to make sure that our discernment of the laws’ purposes isn’t distorted by the male-oriented redaction.
2. A betrothed woman could ‘cry out’ after she was raped
It’s very easy for us to read verse 24 and and assume that:
- the sole purpose of the woman crying out is to prevent the rape from taking place, and
- if he succeeds in raping her, she shares in his guilt.
I think both assumptions are false.
Logic says the lawmaker knew that (a) a rapist could have silenced his victim forcibly, and (b) even if he didn’t and she cried out, there’s no guarantee, even in a city, that help would come.
Consider also how the Amplified translation describes Tamar, King David’s daughter, after Amnon overpowered and raped her. In 2 Samuel 13:19, it says (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, but after she was raped.
So, whilst the ‘crying out’ of Deuteronomy 22:23-24 could be about preventing rape, much more significantly, it’s the woman going public. She wouldn’t do that if she was consensually having an adulterous affair — and I reckon affairs are what this law is really aiming at.
3. Even if this law was intended to be extreme, it’s not about rape
Edenberg (p52-53, 58, 60) argues this law was written in a cultural context where Israel had forsaken YHWH; there was therefore zero tolerance for any disobedience with foreign gods and, by extension, any illicit sexual conduct. Similarly, Pressler (p56) argues the scribe wanted to emphasise the seriousness of the crimes.
Even if we accept the above, that doesn’t mean this law criminalises victims of rape.
Whoever wrote verses 23-24 probably also wrote verses 20-22, because they all have the expurgation formula, “you must purge the evil.” (Pressler)
I’ve covered verses 20-21 elsewhere. They’re likely idealised (Rofé) and in any case aren’t about sex.
Verse 22 meanwhile (adultery with a married woman) doesn’t even consider the woman’s possible innocence. Reason alone would therefore suggest this law is not about rape. But there is more evidence from verses 25-27 (rape in the country), because these strongly assert that betrothed women can be innocent.
(Also remember: no one in the Hebrew Bible was actually executed for adultery.)
So, before we can take verses 23-24 as criminalising city-dwelling victims of rape, we have to get over their similarity to verses 20-22 (which have alternative, compelling explanations), and their differences from verses 25-27 (more below).
4. Verses 23-24 are not a case, they’re a counter-case
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…”
Instead, the whole “she did not cry out in the city” 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 then (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]
In other words, to understand the logic and precedent, we should read verses 23-24 as if they’re placed after verses 25-27.
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 I put in bold: this law speaks up for the woman no less than five times (Pressler, p52). Someone was trying to make a point.
Oh, and unlike verses 20-24, there’s no expurgation formula. Again, this means 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. Our interpretation of verses 23-24 cannot upend verses 25-27
Let’s pull this all together.
The law of the betrothed woman in the city was likely written alongside two similar laws (verses 20-22). Sandwiched between other laws concerned with women’s innocence (verses 13-19, 25-29), they assert that women, of all marital statuses, are capable of serious sex-related offences.
And OK — I’m a feminist, but I won’t argue with that.
Meanwhile, the redactor was probably writing to a culture where they wanted to emphasise the grievousness of adultery. OK, fine.
That doesn’t mean that verses 23-24 were understood literally; even if they were, they weren’t necessarily applied literally.
Meanwhile, verses 25-27 make it pretty clear that men are always responsible for illicit sex and women should not be criminalised in the absence of evidence. Given how the country law stresses the grievousness of taking the woman’s life, it is implausible to say the city counter-case upends that. Especially when you weigh in the example of Tamar.
I accept there are unresolved problems; these laws assume patriarchal constructs of virginity and they don’t directly consider how a 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 enjoyed this you might also like:
- 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.