Rape in the Ancient World

In 2 Samuel 13, we read about the horrible situation of Amnon and Tamar, which we talked about last time. However, one aspect of the story bears a closer look. As Amnon begins to force his sister, she cries out:

No, my brother, do not degrade me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this outrageous thing. As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the outrageous fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you (2 Sam 13.12–13).

Even after Amnon had raped Tamar, is disgusted with her, and attempts to throw her out of his house, we read she tries, once again, to convince him to marry her: Tamar said, “Please do not commit this sin: sending me away would be even worse for me than the first wrong you committed against me!” But he would not listen to her (2 Sam 13.16).
Although the story is undoubtedly horrific, this point is particularly confusing to most readers of the modern West. Why on earth would Tamar want to be married to Amnon, her rapist? This request and solution seems absurd. 
If we look deeper, past this narrative and into the laws of the Hebrew Bible and its surrounding world, we see that this has a solid background. Although the solutions for rape of a betrothed woman were treated as a capital crime, there were other solutions for the rape of a free woman. This solution is attested in the Bible as well as in law collections throughout the ancient Near East (ANE):

If a man rapes a free woman who is not betrothed and they are discovered, the man who lay with her should pay the girl’s father her bride price of 50 shekels of silver and become his wife because he degraded her: he loses the right of divorce forever (Dtr 22.28–29).

If a man rapes a young woman—one who was unmarried and unbetrothed and still a virgin and has no other claim on her for marriage—whether that man acted inside the city or in the field, whether at day or at night, in a street or a barn, or during a harvest or festival. . . . he must pay the girl’s father the full bride price and he must marry her, and he cannot divorce her. If the father is unwilling to accept the marriage, the man must pay triple the bride price instead (MAL $A 55).

If a man rapes a daughter in the street and her father and mother did not know him, but he comes forward and admits to the father and mother that he raped her and said “I would have her as a wife” then her father and mother should give her to him in marriage” (YOS 1 28 v 3–25).

The practice of forcing a woman to marry her rapist is barbaric enough that it has become typical ammunition in the arsenal of  “But what about…”s  for those attempting to attack the Bible (see the graphic to the right). There is some truth to this objection. The solution is awful. But a closer look at the context of the ancient world should at least enlighten the practice, even if does not—to our minds—excuse it.
It should surprise no one to learn that the ancient world was heavily skewed towards men. Although there were some distinctions between societies, the overwhelming majority of Mediterranean cultures in the ancient world devalued women and treated them as little more than slaves (if they were free) and worse than property if they were slaves. They had few legal rights that were not attached to their status as wife or daughter and, therefore, dependent on a man. A survey of the laws of Mediterranean societies are filled with situations where women could not own property, could not initiate divorce, could not find reputable work outside of the clan, and were viewed as objects. In each of the above cases, we see that the woman’s valuec ame from her sexual status. It is no surprise that we read Tamar’s plea to Amnon was for him not to “degrade her” (2 Sam 13.12), or the ANE laws themselves are viewed from this angle of degradation (e.g., Dtr 22.29). In the Middle Assyrian Laws, we read that even though this woman—who is no longer a virgin—is valued at less, he must pay full value for her ($A 55), a clear indication that the issue is viewed through this lens. The Assyrian law understood that, now that she was no longer a virgin, that she was no longer worth the amount that the rapist would have to pay, but he must still pay it because he had made her that way.  We see an echo of an attempt to leverage this law by Dinah and Shechem in their attempt to force Jacob, who would not have offered his daughter in marriage to a Canaanite, to allow their marriage (i.e., by introducing a legal fiction of rape, when in fact it was consensual).

Shechem said to his father and to Dinah’s brothers: “Let me find favor in your eyes, and whatever you say to me I will give. Set high the amount of bride price and marriage gift, and I will give whatever you ask! Just let me have her as a wife! (Gen 34.11–12).

In other words, the society of the ancient world did not value women as individuals. The Bible—and ancient literature, as a whole—is filled with stories that hinge upon the social, political, and economic frailty of women cut off from her male relatives (simply look at a search for “widows,” or consider the famous story of Naomi and Ruth). And—although this should go without saying—marriages were not contracted for love. The goal of marriage was to provide continuity for the family line which was considered (at least by the Hebrews) a way to ensure an afterlife. Love had nothing to do with it. In this exchange-oriented society, men received sexual exclusivity, the work provided by the wife for the clan, and a reputable mother to give legitimate children. As the Greek orator, Demosthenes, noted, “We have mistresses for pleasure, slaves for daily service to our bodies, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of the household” (Demosthenes, De Neaera, 59.122). Women received legitimacy, status, protection, and provision after the death of their fathers. Marriage, even if the woman was later divorced, would provide her with a bride price that she could use to support herself and keep from selling herself as a slave (who would be at the pleasure of her master) or a prostitute (see Mat 5.32; 19.9 for the expected requirement for a divorced woman to have to turn to prostitution in order to support herself).

In this horrific world, where the options for women were limited to marriage, slavery, or prostitution and the options for a “degraded” woman were slavery or prostitution, the mandate to force the rapist to marry his victim was actually meant as a protection for the woman.
Thankfully—as horrific as our current society still is to women—we no longer live in a society where this is the still the case. Women can work outside the home, they can provide for themselves and their families, and they are no longer (entirely) at the power of their abusers and forced to choose between marrying a rapist or living a destitute and short life of famine, whoredom, and death. Even before we get on our high horse to condemn the ancients for being so unenlightened, let us remember that even those of today who should know better (including women and feminists, themselves!) often engage in this same sort of devaluation. More importantly, we should remember that we should not  import our (supposed) modern, enlightened sensibilities onto the situations of the distant and cultural past. Instead, let us direct our attention to the much-needed requirement to continue to upend the predatory imbalance of power between men and women in our world, today, recognizing that we are all—male and female—created in the image of God.

Most importantly, let us remember that the culture of the Bible is not the culture of 7th century Israel, 1stcentury Rome, or even 1950s America (whatever some would have us believe!). The Bible does not deal with ideal situations, where there would be no rape at all or where people would provide for a woman regardless of her sexual status, but with the awful realities present in the world. It recognized the “hardness of people’s hearts” and sought to limit the damage to the victim to the greatest extent possible. It was not a perfect world, but it attempted to create the “Die beste aller möglichen Welten.”Next time, we’ll look at the case of the rape of a slave.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

One thought on “Rape in the Ancient World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: