Does the Bible force a woman to marry her rapist?

It’s sometimes claimed that the Old Testament forces a woman to marry her rapist, and that this demonstrates just how repugnant the Bible can be. The claim often forms part of an argument that seeks to disqualify the Bible from moral discourse in our modern world, or at the very least limit it.

Those wishing to defend the Bible against such a vile stance are often at a loss. There is sometimes an attempt to “soften the impact” by arguing that the laws do not deal with rape (non-consensual sex), but with seduction in which one partner brings the other around into consenting to sex.

Neither angle really grapples with the issues or the logic of the biblical data.

The relevant laws about sexual misconduct come from Deuteronomy 22:13–30. These laws deal with a range of circumstances, and rape is certainly among them (see below). The reference to “rape” is conveyed by the use of the Hebrew word תפש (tapas), which means “to hold onto” or “to hold down.” This is not a neutral word referring metaphorically to someone convincing another to their point of view, as perhaps a conniving seducer might convince a would-be partner to sleep with him. It is the language of violence, and it does not allow for consent. The word is used to describe the action of Potiphar’s wife on Joseph—not of her words to persuade him to sleep with her, but of her grabbing his clothing without his consent, and which he then had to abandon as he fled from her. She was not letting him go, forcing him to squirm out of his clothing and run off naked to escape her.

Nonetheless, the claim that the Bible forces a woman to marry her rapist is incorrect. It misunderstands the purpose and contours of the laws about sexual misconduct and, unfortunately, twists them into the rhetoric of misogyny.

It is important to understand the ancient context of these laws, as well as their casuistic nature—that is, they are not exhaustive legislation covering all eventualities, but scenarios from which one derives a range of principles to apply in various circumstances. There actually is considerable flexibility in these laws.

The bottom line: the Bible does NOT force a woman to marry her rapist. Rather, it holds the rapist accountable for everything he’s got.

Here’s an excerpt from my commentary, Deuteronomy: One Nation under God (Sydney South: Aquila Press, 2016) dealing with the laws on sexual boundaries that are relevant to this issue (pp.260–71).

WARNING: The issues are both explicit and disturbing. Reading is for mature adults.


Sexual boundaries (22:13–30)

Deuteronomy 22:13 moves the discussion on to sexual boundaries. The connecting idea is once again a garment: the previous section finishes with regulations about garments, and the first scenario of improper sexual conduct here (22:13–19) likewise centres around a garment (22:17).

It is important to take all the laws in this section together, as isolating them from each other can lead us to [p. 261] grossly misconstrue their intent. When read in isolation, some of these laws appear repugnant and immoral to our modern sensibilities. However, when we interpret them within the context of the wider section, Deuteronomy’s wider concerns, as well as the ancient historical context, we see how these laws do have proper ethical intent. We must remember that these laws are given in casuistic form, rather than comprehensive legislative clauses. The various scenarios invite comparison with each other, which is how they give us the necessary leverage for inferring the ethical principles and purposes that they represent.

The first two scenarios (22:13–19 and 20–21) deal with perceived sexual misconduct and the issue of virginity. The next four scenarios (22:22, 23–24, 25–27, and 28–29) deal with adultery and rape, while the final scenario (22:30) deals with incest. Let’s deal with each in turn.

The first scenario (22:13–19) sees a man marry a woman, but when he goes to sleep with her believes that she is not a virgin. The issue of crossing boundaries is seen in the way the Hebrew here expresses the sexual act. It uses expressions such as the man ‘coming into’ the woman (22:13), or ‘coming near to’ her (22:14). This implies both entry into a private room, as well as the intimacy of sexual penetration. The implication is that sex breaks down the boundary between two people to unite them as a single unit.

The issue of virginity is a critical one. The law focuses on the woman’s virginity rather than the man’s here because the woman is the one who carries and bears children. The lack of comment on male virginity should not be construed as men having freedom to ‘sleep around’, while women do not. In fact, the need for female virginity prior to marriage and the prohibition of adultery (5:18) imply the need for male virginity prior to marriage also. If a woman is found to have lost her virginity prior to marriage, it is possible that someone other than the man she has married has fathered her children. This compromises the identity and cohesion of a family, and blurs lines of familial responsibility and inheritance. The accusation of such [p.262] promiscuity is very serious, so evidence needs to be produced in line with the covenant’s principle of objectively establishing the facts behind any charge.

In this case, the evidence produced by the woman’s parents is a cloth (22:17). Presumably this is a sheet on which the newly married couple slept together, showing evidence of bleeding from the stretching or tearing of the woman’s hymen during intercourse. Of course, this raises the question of what would happen if the woman’s hymen did not tear during intercourse, or if it had torn before marriage through innocent, mundane activity. Again, the casuistic nature of this law must be borne in mind. The law demonstrates one example from which a larger principle is to be inferred. As such, the law does not limit the admissible evidence to a bloodstained bed sheet. Other evidence may certainly be brought forward in the woman’s defence. Furthermore, when we remember that no capital charge could ever be successful without the confirmed testimony of two or three witnesses (17:6), we realise how difficult it would be to prove the case against the woman here. If the woman or her family were unable to produce any forensic evidence of her virginity, her guilt is not thereby assumed. In line with 17:6, there must be positively corroborated evidence that the woman had indeed been wilfully promiscuous. This is why this scenario must also be read in conjunction with those that follow, for they present other cases of sexual misconduct that affect the interpretation of this law. These other cases demonstrate, for example, that this law could not convict a woman who has been raped, for although she is no longer a virgin, she herself is innocent of misconduct. A woman is not to be blamed for being a victim (see also below). This law also does not deal with a woman who had been previously married and, therefore, would no longer be a virgin on her second marriage. The casuistic nature of this law means that it presents a very specific example from which wider implications must be interpolated.

While this law obviously prohibits women from engaging in sexual promiscuity, it also shows that no man may simply [p.263] use a woman for sexual gratification and then abandon her. On the contrary, sex is put in the context of permanent committed relationship. Casual sex is, therefore, not an option for anyone—male or female—and neither is casual divorce. Accordingly, if the man’s accusation against the woman fails, and indeed it would be impossible to convict her of promiscuity without the verified testimony of two or three witnesses, the man is punished (22:18), and his right to divorce the woman is revoked (22:19). In addition, he is required to pay damages for defaming the woman through his accusation. This law, therefore, aims to enshrine sex within marriage, and also promote sober attitudes towards sex among both men and women.

We may be tempted to see the revoking of the man’s right to divorce here as unnecessarily harsh on the woman, who seems to be given no choice in the matter. However, this is not the case. The law does not say the woman is unable to divorce the man. The right is only denied to the man in this scenario. Furthermore, the principle being demonstrated is that divorce is never to be entertained lightly. We must also bear in mind the situation of women in the ancient world. There was no public education or widespread literacy; no housing options, employment opportunities, or social security; no police, charities, clubs, or other social infrastructures that might allow women in the ancient world to live independently. This is why women and children were particularly vulnerable in the ancient world. They depended on being attached to a family unit headed by a man who could physically protect and provide for them. For a woman, this began with the household of her father. When she was of age to bear children, she would join the household of her husband, and become firmly established within the family line by providing it with children. If she outlived her husband, she would hopefully join the household of one of her sons. Unlike today, therefore, bearing children was not merely a matter of personal choice for a woman. It was vital for her livelihood [p.264] in a relatively undeveloped society.[1] Thus, this law is not denying the woman any rights, but rather ensuring that she is adequately protected for the rest of her life. It preserves her opportunity to bear legitimate children who will inherit from their father, especially in the face of false accusations that imperil that opportunity, and gives her ongoing access to a husband’s resources.

Scenario 2 (22:20–21) sees the charge against the woman’s virginity proved true. As implied by 17:6, this means that the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt by the corroborated evidence of two or three witnesses. In that case, the death penalty is exacted on her. This raises the issue of what is done to the man who had taken her virginity, which this scenario does not deal with. However, this is not an exoneration of that man. Taken in isolation, this law might be interpreted as privileging patriarchy and male domination. On the contrary, though, the scenarios that follow demonstrate that a man involved in illicit sex is also subject to the death penalty. Again, this is why it is important to take all the scenarios in this section together, rather than in isolation. Together, these scenarios provide a fuller understanding of sexual ethics in ancient Israel.

Scenario 3 (22:22) is a plain case of adultery. If a man sleeps with a married woman, both he and the woman are put to death. This is simply an expansion of the seventh of the Ten Points (5:18). Note that there is no statement about the man’s marital status here. It is irrelevant to the charge, because the law defines adultery around a married woman. It is the biology of procreation that drives this definition. If a man sleeps with two women and both fall pregnant, there is no doubt about the paternity of the children. This is partly why the law permits an Israelite man to take more than one [p.265] wife (cf. 21:15–17) and for this not to be viewed as adultery.[2] However, if a woman sleeps with two men, there is doubt about the paternity of her children, which damages family cohesion, as well as lines of kinship and inheritance. Adultery, therefore, is the situation in which a married woman sleeps with a man who is not her own husband. Both the woman and the man involved in this illicit act are to be purged from the Israelite community.

Scenario 4 (22:23–24) deals with a man sleeping with a woman who is betrothed to another man. The incident is placed within a town (22:23). This, in part, is how we see boundaries as the structuring principle of this law: the incident occurs within ‘city limits’, so to speak, in contrast to Scenario 5 that follows. The point of this is to demonstrate that if the man were sexually assaulting the betrothed woman, she could scream and be heard by others in the town. The fact that she does not scream in this scenario suggests she has consented to intercourse, so that both she and the man who sleeps with her are guilty of sexual misconduct. The critical issue here is that the woman is betrothed to another man, so that the paternity of her children is placed in doubt by her conduct. Therefore, as in the previous case (22:22), both the man and the woman are executed when proved guilty.

Once again, it is important to remember the casuistic nature of this scenario, which does not exhaust all possibilities. For example, the scenario does not deal with a man assaulting a woman and preventing her from screaming. A man might, for instance, take a knife to the woman’s throat, or have her gagged as he attacks her. In this case, one can hardly expect the woman to scream and attract attention. Therefore, it would be a gross miscarriage [p.266] of justice to condemn her to death for not doing so. But Scenario 4 here does not condemn a woman merely for not screaming. That would be to misinterpret its purpose. On the contrary, the lack of screaming in this particular scenario is indicative of the woman’s consent to intercourse with a man to whom she is not betrothed. Consent is demonstrably the critical factor. This scenario presents a typical example to establish a legal norm, rather than an extreme example to determine legal limits (that comes in Scenario 5). Consent, not a lack of screaming, is a major consideration in cases of sexual misconduct. Both the man and the woman in Scenario 4 engage in consensual intercourse, and both are guilty of sexual misconduct, because the woman is betrothed to another man.

Scenario 5 (22:25–27) presents the important counterbalance to Scenario 4. In Scenario 5, the betrothed woman is clearly assaulted, but this occurs in the countryside—outside the city boundary. This location sets up an extreme situation to contrast directly with the previous one: the woman here screams, but she is too far away for anyone to hear her and come to her aid. As in Scenario 4, screaming is the cipher for the issue of consent. While the woman in Scenario 4 consents to intercourse, the woman in Scenario 5 clearly does not. Therefore, the law does not condemn the woman in Scenario 5 in any way (22:26). She is an innocent victim.

There are a number of important factors to unpack here. First, the woman in Scenario 5 is not blamed in any way for the attack upon her. It does not, for example, blame her for dressing a particular way, flirting, or otherwise leading the man on. These do not even enter consideration. The blame for the assault is laid solely upon the man who attacked her. This shows that sexual assault is never deemed an acceptable response to anything. The perpetrator can never blame the victim for provoking him. Therefore, the victim is always innocent and assault is never condoned. Second, the law does not see rape as a subcategory of adultery. Rather, 22:26 equates rape with murder. This acknowledges the profound impact that rape has: it imposes a kind of living death on the [p.267] victim. Third, equating rape with murder shows not only the enormity of the crime, but also the magnitude of the healing required after it. For the victim, the path to restoration is akin to a resurrection. Rape is not something a victim can just ‘get over’. The victim requires significant and sustained care. There is even the possibility that the victim will never fully recover from the psychological scars inflicted on her. As such, the man in Scenario 5, to whom she is betrothed, becomes a very important figure. He is able to marry her and provide her with ongoing care, protection, and provisions within the context of a permanent committed relationship.

This final factor helps to explain the logic at work in Scenario 6 (22:28–29). This scenario is identical to Scenario 5 with one key difference: the woman is not betrothed. When such a woman who has not been spoken for is raped, the penalty on the perpetrator changes. He is not put to death, but rather is forced to marry the woman without the option of ever divorcing her, and he must pay a fine of fifty silver shekels to the woman’s father.

To our modern sensibilities, the outcome of Scenario 6 sounds preposterous, as it appears to commit a victim permanently into the hands of her assailant. However, this is most certainly not the intent, and also why we must read this scenario in tandem with the others that precede it. As we have seen, ancient societies were relatively undeveloped, and so lacked the necessary infrastructures that could allow women to live independently. It simply was not an option at that time. As such, the perpetrator in Scenario 6 is given a stay of execution, not because he is less guilty than the perpetrator in Scenario 5, or because the unattached woman is somehow less valuable than the woman who is spoken for. Far from it! The perpetrator is allowed to live so that he provides economically for the victim for the rest of his life. This is why he is refused the right to ever divorce her. It ensures that his victim has complete access to all his resources for her own wellbeing for the rest of her life. It is the closest thing the ancient world had to suing someone ‘for all they’ve got’.

[p.268] There are a few further points to state about this situation. First, this scenario employs what we might term a retrieval ethic. It recognises that the crime against the woman deserves the severest penalty under the Law: death. However, in this case, carrying out the severest penalty might leave the woman destitute. She is not betrothed to any man, and there is a strong likelihood that another man would not take her in marriage, or that she herself might not wish to marry anyone. Since women were so vulnerable in the ancient world without male protection and provision, this potentially imperilled the woman. Rather than make her suffer further, in addition to the consequences of rape, this law seeks to mitigate her plight by ensuring economic compensation for her in perpetuity, as well as the opportunity to bear children who might care for her in her old age. Bearing children provided women with security in the midst the rigours of ancient life. The perceived lenience towards the assailant here is actually designed to retrieve the situation in some measure for the victim.

Second, although this law states the perpetrator must marry the victim without recourse to divorce, it does not force the victim to marry him. In fact, a woman in this situation may legitimately refuse to marry her attacker. To us this might seem a more suitable outcome, as it would remove a woman from the vicinity of her attacker. But it seems so to us largely because of the many options for independence available to women today. Such options simply did not exist in the ancient world. So even though this law does contain such flexibility, the extreme vulnerability of women in the ancient world meant that it could inadvertently compromise a victim’s long-term wellbeing and standing.

We see this demonstrated in 2 Samuel 13, where King David’s son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar. After the assault, Tamar begs Amnon not to send her away (2 Samuel 13:16), using the basic language associated with divorce. By sending her away, Amnon was potentially consigning her to a life without the possibility of marriage and, therefore, a life outside the protection of a family or clan structure. This [p.269] was more than just a life lacking opportunity. It could result in life-threatening poverty and exploitation. Tamar’s fear of destitution is, therefore, palpable. Amnon, however, callously throws her out after assaulting her, leaving her vulnerable. Fortunately for Tamar, her brother, Absalom, becomes her protector and provider. However, because Tamar is not betrothed, and Amnon does not marry her, she is denied the opportunity to entrench herself within a family by contributing children who might also care for her in old age. As such, the text describes Tamar’s fate as ‘desolate’ (2 Samuel 13:20).

Tamar’s situation also highlights some of the other outcomes that might arise from an assault like that in Scenario 6. For example, a rape victim’s male relatives—her father, a brother, or a nephew—might plausibly provide her with ongoing care. The logic in the cluster of scenarios here in Deuteronomy 22 means that in such situations, the attacker would most likely be executed, in line with the severity of the crime.[3] While this may seem a preferable outcome to our modern sensibilities, it also confines the victim to the margins of family life. It deprives her of a woman’s most fundamental contribution to ancient society, which also ensured her wellbeing: childbearing within a family.

This cluster of scenarios demonstrates how vulnerable women in the ancient world were. Ultimately, there was no ‘good’ outcome for a rape victim, for she was inevitably at some disadvantage that could not be undone. This highlights the importance of the final of the Ten Points (5:21), which enjoins people to live responsibly, rather than in the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, power, or gain. People were to treat others with dignity and respect in accordance with nature and circumstance, recognising the impact of their actions on others. This promotes both self-awareness and [p.270] social awareness more broadly. Men in particular, as the powerful of society, were to use their power in the responsible service of others to build a cooperative and safe society. They were not to treat women as objects for self-gratification or personal gain, and relationships were not to be trifled with. Sex, with its procreative power, was not to be treated casually or abusively, but within the context of ongoing committed familial relationship. The normative place for sex was within marriage, which provided a natural institution for the nurture of family. Rape is never condoned, but is equated with murder. These scenarios show that a rapist must always be held responsible for the crime, the victim is never to be blamed, and the ongoing wellbeing of the victim is of the utmost importance. These laws aim to prevent the abuse of power, protect and provide for the vulnerable, and protect family life as the basic dynamic at the heart of society.

This section closes with an apodictic law prohibiting a man from marrying his father’s wife (22:30). The woman in question is not described as the man’s ‘mother’. This means the law has a broad application to any woman who was married to the man’s father, such as a second wife or a concubine, as well as the man’s own mother. By using the language of marriage (literally, ‘taking’), the law extends the prohibition on such sexual relations even beyond the time of the father’s death, for a woman could not be married to both a father and his son at the same time. This law distinguishes Israel from some of its neighbouring cultures, such as Assyria and pre-Islamic Arabia, which permitted a man to marry his stepmother after his father’s death. The rationale for the law is that such a relationship represents a crime against the father, even though he may be dead. The implication is that any woman married to a man’s father became kin—a status that endured beyond the father’s death, thus making any relationship with her incestuous. This also represents a clear boundary between the generations within a family. If a man married his stepmother, the children of their union could be considered both the [p.271] children and step-grandchildren of the woman, resulting in relational confusion. Thus, while the six scenarios before this law deal with respecting the relationships of peers, this law extends relational integrity across the generations by drawing a clear boundary between them.


[1] Sterility also had a profoundly tragic influence over a woman’s long-term livelihood. This dynamic that saw a woman’s survival attached so closely to her childbearing ability may also stand behind the statement in 1 Timothy 2:15.

[2] Another reason that the Law allows Israelite men to take more than one wife is that men were usually physically strong enough to provide physical protection and sustenance to women and children in what was an undeveloped society. Men, though, had to provide amicably and equitably for their compound families (see Deuteronomy 21:15–17).

[3] To that end, we note that Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, who took her into his care, eventually kills Amnon for the rape (2 Samuel 13:28–29).

You can purchase Deuteronomy: One Nation under God HERE, or the Kindle version HERE.

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Why did Jesus die?

Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which I’ve touched up slightly. In the lead up to Easter, I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.


I really enjoy the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question “Why did Jesus die?” On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna in the highest!’ was not an exclamation of praise, the way it is often used today. Rather, it was a slogan. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘To the rescue!’ ‘In the highest’ does not refer to people’s praise reaching the highest heaven, but rather an urging of Jesus to reach for the highest echelons of power in his rescue of Israel. Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God.

The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet. And by claiming the right to bring the temple down and rebuild it, he was making a clear claim to be the rightful Davidic king of Israel—the son of David who builds the temple and establishes a permanent kingdom (cf. 2 Sam 7:11–13).

JerusalemTemple

Visualisation of the Jerusalem Temple. Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation

To the Jewish authorities, for whom the temple was their institutional power base at the heart of Jewish identity, Jesus was dangerous. For the remainder of the week, they worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle—one of his twelve commissioners (i.e. ‘apostles’) responsible for the dissemination of Jesus’ claims and for gathering people around him. The arrest occurred at night, as Jesus and his other eleven commissioners were trapped in an olive grove in the Kidron Valley, just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus gave himself up to his captors, and successfully pleaded for the release of his followers, who then abandoned him.

Jesus was taken under arrest, questioned and tried overnight. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the houses of former High Priest, Annas, and his son-in-law, the incumbent High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that they tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty.

However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty, given a beating, and sentenced to death.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few years earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. If they wanted Jesus dead, they would have to ask Pilate to enact the death penalty.

Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus was harmless. Jesus had been separated from his followers, was unarmed, and did not really hold any human power. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them.

However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, stripped naked, and barbarically nailed to a cross where he was left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers—his eleven remaining ‘commissioners’ and other hangers-on—reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had arrested Jesus and ensured his execution, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era of forgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing


¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.

Have we found the seal of the prophet Isaiah?

News comes this week of the discovery of a bulla (the clay imprint from an inscribed seal), and some are asking whether it belonged to the prophet Isaiah. The bulla was discovered in wet sifting of material taken from an excavation trench in the Ophel area of Jerusalem (just south of the temple mount). A fuller report from The Times of Israel can be found here.

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Isaiah Bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which potentially belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar).

The bulla is fragmentary. In the upper register, it seems to have had a pictorial representation of some kind, though it’s hard to make out what it was. It might be something similar to the winged sun disk observable on the seal of King Hezekiah (see picture below), but there is just too much broken off to be sure.

Beneath this there are two lines of writing. The first line contains the letters לישׁעיה (lyšʿyh), which means “Belonging to Isaiah.” The name was almost certainly common in ancient Judah, so this alone does not indicate that the bulla came from the seal of Isaiah the prophet. It’s the second line that is of interest. The second line is incomplete, but the letters נבי (nby) are clearly seen at the beginning of the line. There are two things this could possibly be:

  1. It might be a name, Nabi or Nabiah (“Yahweh has prospered”) which is not found in biblical texts, but is attested outside the Bible.
  2. It might be part of the Hebrew word נביא (nbyʾ), which means “prophet.”

So which is it?

Well, first of all, a comment about the letters on the bulla. They represent good Paleo-Hebrew script that conforms with the type seen on other seals/bullae from the 8th–6th centuries BC. We can, for instance, find very similar letters on the bullae of King Hezekiah. The issue with seals and bullae, though, is that because they are so small, one doesn’t expect a huge variation in the form of letters. So a wide timeframe is the best we can do. Isaiah the prophet, though, who lived the late 8th to early 7th century BC, certainly fits into this timeframe.

Second, the bulla was found in a controlled excavation. It would be good to get more details on exactly where it was found. At present, all we know is that it was found in material taken from “an Iron Age layer close to bedrock that was near a foundation trench cut for a wall of a Herodian vault.” How we do we know the layer dates to the Iron Age? And which portion of the Iron Age did it come from?

Finally, is it likely that this is the seal of the prophet Isaiah?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so, though I can’t completely discount the possibility. I have three reasons for this.

  1. The final letter א (aleph), which would make the Hebrew noun for “prophet,” is not there. Admittedly, the bulla is broken at this point, so we can’t be sure if it was. But we just don’t know if we’re grappling with the noun for prophet, or just a name.
  2. If the second line refers to a “prophet,” it seems quite unusual that it would be missing the Hebrew definite article, which is just a single letter placed at the front of a word: הנביא (hnbyʾ). There is ample room for it. Although we do have job descriptions in the second line of seals and bullae, these always seem to be definite expressions produced by the grammatical construct state. We see this, for example, on Hezekiah’s seal, where he is named [מלכיהו[דה (mlkyhw[dh])—”the king of Judah.” But there’s nothing to indicate such a grammatical construct state here, which makes the lack of a definite article fairly glaring.
  3. It’s totally normal to have a patronym (father’s name) on the second line of a seal, even without “son of.” There seems to have been plenty of room to have included the word בן (“son of”) on this line, but it’s quite normal for it to be missing.
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Bulla of “Hezekiah, King of Judah,” with pictorial representation of a winged sun disk in the centre.

These three factors lead me to conclude that it’s more likely this is the seal of some called “Isaiah [son of] Nabi” or “Isaiah [son of] Nabiah,” than to be the seal of “Isaiah the prophet.” However, even though the lack of a definite article on the second line is significant, I can’t discount the possibility that it might be referring to a prophet in more stilted terms: “Isaiah. Prophet.” In that case, the status of the biblical prophet, Isaiah son of Amoz, especially in the royal court of Hezekiah, means this might be from his personal seal. And this makes us wonder what document he might have sealed with this bulla?

But, as I said, this is, in my estimation, the less likely interpretation. It’s possible, and certainly plausible that this is Isaiah’s seal. But I don’t think it’s probable. I think it’s the second most likely explanation. I believe in this case we simply have the seal of another, less historically illustrious Isaiah, who was the son of Nabiah.

Lifting the Curse on the Ground (Genesis 3)

Genesis 3 tells a story of woe in idyllic paradise. After the sneaky snake tempts the woman, both she and the man eat fruit from the tree that Yahweh God had forbidden to them. Consequently, the couple now find themselves with the stark realisation of their nakedness, and dread over what the deity will think of them. And so, when they hear his steps in the garden which they are supposed to tend, they hide in fear and shame.

After a quick interrogation, Yahweh God determines the guilt of all involved, and issues curses upon them—on the snake, the woman, and the man.

The curse on the man involves a curse on the ground:

“Damn the ground on your account!
With hardship will you eat of it
all the days of your life.
Both thorn and thistle will it sprout for you,
so that you must eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your nose will you eat bread,
until your return to the ground.
Since you were taken from it
—for dust is what you are—
then to dust will you return.”

— Genesis 3:17b–19 (my translation)

As a result of this curse, the man and the woman are expelled from the paradise garden they were tending, with its variety of fruit-bearing trees. They are sent out into a barren world (cf. Gen 2:5–6), in which the ground is their enemy. Their efforts at toiling no longer yield them the lush fruits of paradise, but the thorns and thistles of frustration. They are forced to work harder than they ever have before, with the sweat of their exertion pouring down their nose. Even then, they will collapse into the hostile ground, or earn the measliest of crusts that will send them foraging for any wild plant in the open field that they can find. And in the end they will die a miserable death.

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This sorry situation explains why God found Cain’s offering of the “fruit of the ground” despicable (Gen 4:3–5). Cain could not cultivate anything meriting the status of an offering. He simply brings to the altar whatever he finds sprouting from the ground, rather than what he works to produce. Abel, on the other hand, evidently figures out a way to earn a crust while the curse is in effect: don’t eat the grass, but rather raise and eat the animals that eat the grass. And of these, he offers the firstborn of his flock—the most significant product of his personal work. For this entrepreneurial and respectful effort, he earns Yahweh’s favour.

Yet, the curse on the ground remains, and life for humanity is bitterly harsh. It is a wretched existence that, generations later, leads Noah’s parents to wish (or prophesy) of their son,

“May this one give us relief from our work,
from the hardship of our hands,
from the ground that Yahweh damned.”

—Genesis 5:29 (my translation)

I’ve often heard preachers say that we still live with the effects of this curse today. After all, the curse on the ground was just one of several that Yahweh pronounced. Snakes still slither along the ground, as the curse upon the snake stipulated; women give birth in the most horrendous pain, as the woman was cursed in the garden; and the grave is the destiny of us all, as the man’s curse promises. So the earth is also cursed, and the frustration and futility of work are reflective of this.

However, this is not quite right.

To think that the curse on the ground is indicative of our reality today is actually a mistake. For when we read on in Genesis, we find that Yahweh lifts the curse on the ground. After the “uncreation” of the flood, Noah emerges from the ark into a renewed, pristine world, and offers Yahweh a sumptuous sacrifice.

Noah now built an altar to Yahweh, and took some of all the clean animals and some of all the clean birds, and offered them as incinerations on the altar. Yahweh now smelled the appeasing aroma, and Yahweh said in his heart, “I no longer curse the ground on account of the man, even though the intent of the man’s heart be evil from his youth. And I no longer strike down all life as I have just done.”

— Genesis 8:20–21 (my translation)

The lifting of the curse on the ground means that the earth no longer functions as a source of utter frustration for humanity. On the contrary, the earth begins to respond to human cultivation as fruitfully as it did in Eden. Humanity’s agricultural pursuits no longer yield unpalatable brambles. Instead, with human endeavour, the ground can explode in fecundity, allowing humanity to continue the task for which Yahweh originally employed the man in the paradise garden: cultivating the ground. No longer are humans forced to forage for the odd wild plant. The hardship of the past is gone.

Just to underscore the point, with the curse now lifted, Noah decides to become a novice farmer. Evidently, the earth responds to his rookie efforts a little too well:

Noah now began to be a man of the ground. He planted a vineyard, drank some of the wine, and got drunk.

— Genesis 9:20–21a (my translation)

The wish of Noah’s parents, that he give them relief from the hardship of the curse, came true. Accordingly, from Noah onwards, humanity pursues agricultural farming and pastoral farming with great success.

From this, there are three implications I’d like to reflect on.

  1. The earth is not cursed. It is, rather, a source of wellbeing for humanity, and it is a human responsibility to care for it. The current environmental issues we face on the planet are not because of God, but because of our own irresponsibility.
  2. Work is not a curse. When Yahweh put the man in the paradise garden of Eden, he commissioned him to work it. There was no sense that the man simply had to snap his fingers to achieve his work goals. There was, rather, the expectation of hard work, but with commensurate reward. As the man cultivated the earth, so it would yield to him, and reward his efforts. The curse that God placed on the man was that the earth would no longer yield to him, making his work futile (“the sweat of your nose” could also be translated as “the sweat of your frustration”). But this situation was temporary, as the Noah narrative indicates. Work is part of God’s good intention for humanity, and decent reward for decent effort should be the way we operate. Indeed, as Abel’s example demonstrates, God is pleased when we work well and honour him.
  3. We need to stop preaching that the earth is cursed. This includes rethinking the meaning of passages like Romans 8:18–21:

For I think that the sufferings of our present time are not equal to the future glory that is to be revealed to us. For the expectation of creation is awaiting the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was subjected to aimlessness, not willingly, but by the one who subjected it, in the hope that that same creation will be liberated from its servitude to decay into the liberation of the glory of the children of God.

— Romans 8:18–21 (my translation)

This passage is often preached with reference to Genesis 3, and it’s not hard to see why. But if Paul knew his Bible (and he most certainly did—especially the early chapters of Genesis!), he was probably not arguing that the earth continued to be cursed into his own day. Perhaps Paul was specifically looking at the curse on the earth in a typological manner—a precedent, rather than an ongoing reality. Or perhaps Paul saw creation as having an inherent nature of aimlessness—cycles of life and decay, which imbue it with a metaphorical desire to break out of the cycle—to attain an eternal destiny that can only be achieved in God’s greater purposes in Christ. Perhaps there is another explanation. Either way, I don’t think it’s tenable to view Paul as arguing that the curse on the earth was ongoing.

All this is not to suggest that humanity and the world is not “fallen.” Once sin entered the world, it could not be taken back, and we continue to live with the consequences of sin—our own, as well as that of others. Rather, it’s simply to say that we should read the Bible more closely than we do, and base our theology on its entire witness, not just parts of it. As we read Genesis, we see God lift the curse on the ground, and so we should distinguish that curse from the evident tendency to death and decay that we (still) see in the world around us.

Is the new Jerusalem Papyrus Authentic or a Forgery?

The Israel Antiquities Authority recently announced the find of a new papyrus apparently dated to c. 700 BC, which seems to mention the delivery of wine to the king in Jerusalem. While the IAA declared it genuine, I still have my doubts. And leading epigrapher, Christopher Rollston, does too. He has ten points that should make us pause and re-evaluate. You can find his brief blog article HERE.

 

Deuteronomy: One Nation under God

I’ve recently written a commentary on the book of Deuteronomy. It’s titled Deuteronomy: One Nation under God. It’s published by Aquila Press as part of the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ Series.

The commentary is for the layperson. It divides Deuteronomy up into 13 sections and explains the text in its Old Testament context. Each section also traces how the respective portion of Deuteronomy informs the rest of the Old Testament, particularly as the grounds for understanding the life of Israel as Yahweh’s covenant nation. In addition, it lays out how to read Deuteronomy in light of the New Testament. It thereby aims to show how Christians may read Deuteronomy as Scripture.

The commentary is available at the CEP store online and Koorong bookstores for AUD $24.99.

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321 pages. ISBN 9781925041903.

How Did Biblical Hebrew Change?

Robert Rezetko has responded to a recent article by Avi Hurvitz in Biblical Archaeology Review on how Biblical Hebrew changed over time. Here’s Robert’s abstract:

s200_robert-rezetkoIn a hot-off-the-press popular article in Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 2016), Avi Hurvitz discusses “How Biblical Hebrew Changed.” It is certainly true that Biblical Hebrew evolved over time, but the particulars of how that happened are more complex and debated than Hurvitz acknowledges. The example that he discusses, ʾiggeret and sēfer for “letter,” is a case in point.

You can read Robert’s whole article HERE at Bible Interpretation.

This interaction demonstrates yet again how the discussion about the dating of Biblical Hebrew on linguistic grounds is often framed too simplistically. Robert exposes some of the extra issues that are often in a kind of ‘blind spot’ for many participating in the discussion. Yes, Hebrew did develop over time, as every language inevitably does. However, the connection between Standard Biblical Hebrew (aka ‘Classical’ Biblical Hebrew or ‘Early’ Biblical Hebrew) and Late Biblical Hebrew is not one of linear development from one to the other. It isn’t even the standard ‘S’ curve development. These were two styles of Hebrew that were contemporary for quite a long time.

Late Biblical Hebrew is not the child of Standard Biblical Hebrew, but its sibling.

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