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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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.

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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Genesis 19: Has Lot Lost The Plot?

Have you ever been shocked by Lot’s suggestion to the mob at Sodom in Genesis 19? Have you ever been puzzled by why he would ever do such a thing? Well, it’s because the narrative has such a magnificent twist that even our modern translators have been fooled by it. All is not as it seems, folks!

I’ve written an article for Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, titled ‘Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19.’ The article examines this plot twist. Here’s the abstract:

In Genesis 19, Lot tries to stave off the predatory mob of Sodom by offering his daughters for pack rape. Scholars treat this ‘shocking offer’ in various ways, but a common thread is an appeal to ancient Near Eastern codes of hospitality. This article examines some of these treatments of Lot’s proposal, both positive and negative. It then puts forward the case for a new understanding of the narrative on the basis of ‘unknown detail omission’, in which the narrator deliberately withholds information from the reader, only to reveal it at a later point in the narrative. The narrator of Genesis 19 exploits ambiguities in the narrative and a reaction of disgust at rape to fool the reader into viewing Lot’s words and actions a particular way. However, when the narrator reveals a key detail later in the narrative, the reader is surprised and forced to re-evaluate the entire episode. This then frames Lot’s shocking offer in a new light, and the reader comes to a new conclusion about Lot’s character.

Click HERE to read the article.

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Thinking better about linguistic dating of Biblical Hebrew

Here’s one for the Hebrews and Shebrews.

51i9zzm-zbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_51ooyvykrsl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Conventional wisdom says that Early Biblical Hebrew (aka Standard Biblical Hebrew or Classical Biblical Hebrew) came first, and then Late Biblical Hebrew. But when you actually analyse the evidence, this view starts to unravel. Ian Young, Robert Rezetko, and Martin Ehrensvärd have argued very convincingly that Early Biblical Hebrew and Late Biblical Hebrew were not linear diachronic developments, but rather contemporaneous styles of Hebrew in antiquity. This means that it’s practically impossible to date a biblical text based solely on linguistic criteria. Their compelling argument can found in their two volume work, Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, and their more recent Historical Linguistics and Biblical HebrewOnce you “see” their argument, you can’t “unsee” it. They look at the evidence in such a logical way that it makes you wonder why it has taken Hebraists so long to see what is so obvious.

Yet many Hebraists still don’t see it. It almost feels like they’re looking at one of those pictures that have a “hidden” 3D shape (a stereogram, like this). They claim to be finding the 3D shape. And if you can’t see it, it’s because you’re not looking at the right way. Try squinting or staring beyond the page. But the irony is that the picture isn’t one of those 3D shapes! It’s just a normal 2D picture. They’ve been looking at it all wrong, and yet the real picture is there staring them in the face.

So the old and disproven paradigm persists. It seems to be dying a slow death, as evidenced by a few recent articles.

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Robert Rezteko

Young, Rezetko, and Ehrensvärd have clarified their position in a paper titled “Do We Really Think That Ancient Hebrew Had No Chronology“.

Robert Rezetko has also put together a few responses to recent studies working with the old paradigm. They are well worth the read:

I hope scholars, especially the younger ones, start just looking plainly at the evidence instead of squinting and forcing a particular paradigm onto it.

No, those ancient Hebrew ‘sticky notes’ do not necessarily prove the Bible was written early

Christianity Today has published an article that comments on a recent study by the Epigraphic Hebrew Project examining the handwriting on some ancient Hebrew documents through digital technology. The headline reads:

Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on Bible’s Age.

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The study itself demonstrates that the cache of sixteen documents from the remote desert outpost of Arad on the edge of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 600 BC had six distinct authors. The claim of the Christianity Today article is that this seemingly high rate of literacy in Judah’s monarchic period is forcing secular scholars to acknowledge that the biblical documents were probably written early (that is, before the exilic era). This is certainly the direction in which Walter Kaiser Jr., who is cited in the article, takes the evidence.

Unfortunately, the study that this article is commenting on doesn’t actually shift secular scholars closer to Evangelicals on the Bible’s Age. Indeed, some of the other scholars mentioned in the article (Alan Millard and Christopher Rollston) advise serious caution. There is a plethora of problems with the headline of the Christianity Today article.

First of all, there is no real agreement on the age of the ‘The Bible’ amongst anyone, be they ‘Evangelical’ or so-called ‘secular’ scholars (honestly, the division implied by that terminology is just grating!). After all, we’re talking about a stack of different documents that developed over centuries, with very few overt statements about authorship and time of writing. ‘The Bible’ wasn’t written in one go. It eventually coalesced into the collection we know today as ‘The Bible’, but exactly when the documents began their life is almost impossible to pin down.

Second, the study this article is commenting on simply shows that elite professionals in the monarchic era could write—exactly the kinds of people whom we would expect to be able to write. It doesn’t show that literacy was widespread. On the contrary, one of the documents in this collection includes a man protesting that he could read something for himself, which implies that literacy wasn’t widespread. So six individuals wrote sixteen documents! This does not mean that suddenly most people in ancient Judah could write two or three biblical books! Finding some buttons does not necessarily mean you’ve found an entire tailored suit.

But thirdly, even if literacy in the monarchic era was very widespread, this tells us nothing about when the various biblical documents were written. All it tells us is that people could write. And that’s a very different thing to knowing when these specific biblical documents were written. You see, you only need one person who knows the alphabet, owns some ink and parchment, and has some imagination, and you have yourself a document. This could be at just about any time. Why, it could be early, or it could even be late.

The study itself states that the kind of literacy levels that the Arad documents demonstrate only occurs again in c. 200 BC. The implication seems to be that it’s unlikely the biblical documents were written in the intervening period (600–200 BC) when literacy levels were lower. But there are so many problems with this inference. First, the claim relates only to the region of Judah. It says nothing about literacy levels outside of Judah. Second, the claim uses blank evidence (little apparent writing in 600–200 BC) as a warrant for reaching a positive inference (it’s unlikely the biblical documents could have been written in this period). But logically this is unwarranted. To state it another way, a lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. It could be that we just haven’t found all the other document caches like the one from Arad that date to this period. We just don’t know! Third, you don’t need most of the elite, let alone most of the population, to be reading and writing to create conditions conducive to the writing of texts like the ones in the Bible. You just need one competent literate person who can ‘put pen to paper’. And that person could write for themselves, or even for a whole group of people. One person can pen the imagination of hundreds! And fourth, since there evidently were biblical texts that were written in Judah between 600 and 200 BC (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah), the very low literacy levels actually count for nothing.

So, just because a few army officials in Judah could read and write in 600 BC does not mean biblical authors wrote all the biblical documents very early on. At best, it helps establish a terminus a quo for mundane Hebrew writing in the region of Judah (which in this case is only c. 600 BC), but not an actual date for writing biblical texts. Using the same logic employed in the article’s headline, we could just as easily say that Evangelicals must shift closer to secular scholars who argue for late dates (c. 200 BC), because the evidence this study is based on is about mundane literacy at the very end of the monarchic era, and surely fine literature takes longer to develop than mundane ‘sticky notes’.

In actual fact, the literacy levels do not contribute all that much to the discussion about the dating of biblical text. That depends on numerous complex criteria. Literacy is important—you need it in order to have documents! But there are so many other criteria to consider, such as references to historical persons and events, form and genre, theological development, purpose, possible influences and their direction, redaction, transmission, preservation, manuscripts, etc. The list goes on!

Unfortunately, headlines like this one given by Christianity Today are misleading. They promote a sense of tribalism as well as wishful thinking amongst Christians, which in turn leaves Christians grasping at air but thinking they’ve grabbed something solid. It’s just not constructive. And even the headline is at odds with the comments of the two main experts cited in the article.

Surely we can serve the Christian public better than this!

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Remains of the ancient fortified outpost of Arad, Judah, where the cache of documents was found.

 

 


My good friend and colleague, Prof. Ian Young (University of Sydney), has also written a brief response to the study on the Arad documents for the Huffington Post. It’s well worth reading and can be found HERE.

Christopher Rollston’s blog article on the study can be read HERE.