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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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.

Isaiah-Seal-impression-1024x640

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.
HezekiahBulla

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.

desert-447244_640

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.

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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Is there a covenant at creation?

A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.

In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people at particular times. In each case, God doesn’t merely initiate a relationship. In all instances, God and the people with whom he entered into covenant were already known to each other. But, as is the case with marriage, a covenant brings two parties together in a new and specific type of relationship that the covenant then regulates. So also God initiated specific types of relationship through the various covenants in the Bible.

For example, in the Abrahamic covenant, God becomes the private family deity of Abraham’s household, and Abraham becomes the clan leader who is led by God and his promises. At Sinai, God becomes Israel’s head of state and national deity, and the Israelites become his subjects and citizens living in his land. With David, God becomes the father figure of Israel’s ruling dynasty, and the Davidic king becomes the ruling ‘son of God’ by adoption.

In light of this, was there a covenant at creation?

When I mean ‘creation’, I’m specifically thinking about the early chapters of Genesis. There are a few creation accounts elsewhere in the Bible, such as the ‘conquest of chaos’ idea (see Job 26:12–13; Ps 74:12–17; 89:10). But I want to focus attention on the beginning of Genesis, which lies at the heart of most theological discussion about creation and covenant.

There is no specific mention of a covenant in Genesis 1 and 2. This, however, is not enough to say that there was no covenant. Notice, for example, that the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7 does not use the word ‘covenant’, but it clearly is one. It is explicitly called a ‘covenant’ in Psalm 89:3–4. So we need to delve a little deeper to see whether the concept of a covenant is there at creation, even if the word is not.

When we realise that a covenant initiates a particular relationship that does not occur naturally, we begin to see that creation does not actually need a covenant. That is, God does not need to enter into a specific legal agreement with creation in order to be its creator. God simply is the creator because he created. Similarly, creation does not need a covenant to be recognised and regulated as being a creation. It simply is a creation because God created it. So all of creation is by nature in a creaturely relationship with God, because he created it.

Furthermore, in the act of creation, God imparts an inherent nature to each created thing. Notice, for example, how God creates various ‘kinds’ of things in Genesis 1, each of which is distinct from all other things. In fact, Genesis 1 portrays creation not merely as God bringing things into existence, but more so about distinguishing things from each other, and assigning to each a place that is appropriate to its nature. The result is a very good order of things—an intricate, beautiful, and dynamic configuration that we call ‘nature’.

God creates human beings in Genesis 1 to be his image within creation—something that nothing else in the rest of creation has. So when God creates, he doesn’t just create generic stuff. Rather, he creates specific things that have a specific nature, function, and place.

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What does this mean for the relationship between God and creation? It means God relates to everything in creation not simply as a creator of generic ‘things’. Creation is not God’s factory conveyor belt! God relates to creation as a talented creator of a multitude of masterpieces that each has its own distinctiveness. There is no need for a covenant to stipulate how God should relate to all of creation, for the relationships all flow naturally out of the fact that God created all things. God no more needs a covenant to relate to creation as its creator than an artist needs a covenant with his canvas.

In Genesis 2, God creates the man and commands him not to eat from a particular tree in the garden. Many people see this as a covenant. However, it’s just a command—not a covenant. It is not initiating or regulating a specific kind of relationship. Rather, God issues the command because he is the man’s creator. The natural creator-creature relationship means God is the one who commands, and human beings are the ones who obey.

An analogy might help to illustrate this point. Think of a mother telling her young child not to play with the power point. What is it that gives the mother the authority to demand this? It’s the fact that she is the child’s parent. There is no need to establish a covenant between the mother and her child to give the mother this authority. She simply has the authority because of the natural relationship she has with her own offspring. In the same way, the command that God issues to the man is not based on a covenant, but on the simple fact that God created the man.

When people talk about a covenant in Genesis 2, they do so for good theological reasons. For example, they might want to talk about the faithfulness of God towards creation. Covenant is actually a good category for this, because adherence to an agreed contract is a good way of describing faithfulness. However, such discussion uses covenant terms in a purely metaphorical sense. We might say figuratively that God has a ‘covenant’ with creation to obey him, in the same way we might say a sculptor has a ‘covenant’ with the stone to obey him. When humans sin, we might describe this as ‘breaking the rules’. These are all healthy, didactic ways of looking at things, but they are figurative.

Alternatively, some may see a covenant at creation as providing the means for God, who is completely divine and holy, to interact with his creation, which is quite simply not divine. Without such a covenant there may be no means for God’s creation to understand him as creator and what he requires of them. Yet this almost implies that God did not really endow his manifold creations and creatures with their own distinctive natures. Yet each created thing or being receives its being and nature from the creator—not from a covenant. So God requires no covenant to interact with his creation, and did not use one in the beginning. He simply relates to all of creation as its creator by virtue of creating everything and endowing everything with its respective being and nature. God and creation are in a natural relationship, making a covenant at creation superfluous.

So while talking about a covenant at creation is motivated by good, understandable intentions, it is actually not necessary. Furthermore, it isn’t supported by any biblical texts. Even Hosea 6.7, which is often used as evidence that there was a covenant with Adam, is reminiscing about the violation of a treaty at a place called Adam—a town located on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. A covenant at creation is simply not theologically mandated by Scripture.

How does any of this matter?

Well, if there was a covenant at creation, sin would merely be ‘breaking the rules’. While this might have some significant repercussions, sin would be purely a legal thing. It would be something that is external to the ‘sinner’. Theoretically, then, the remedy for sin could consist of God vetoing Covenant 1.0, thereby nullifying sin and its effects, and then starting again by issuing Covenant 2.0.

richard-dawkinsRichard Dawkins reflects this kind of scenario when he questions the character and justice of God. He asks, quite perceptively, why it is necessary for the God of the Bible to send his Son to die a bloody death for sin. Why could God simply not forgive sins with a wave of his hand, as it were? Can’t God just simply waive the penalty and move on?

It’s a good question!

Dawkins raises it to highlight what he perceives to be the absurd character of the God of the Bible. But Dawkins fails to account for what sin actually is and does. When we realise that there is no covenant at creation, we see that sin is not about ‘breaking the rules’ that are external to the sinner. If it were, sins could be excused, just as a teacher might excuse an unruly student and not put him on detention. But it’s because humans are in a naturally occurring creaturely relationship with their creator that sin is so devastating. Sin damages our inherent being and nature as good creatures of a good creator. This affects us at the core of our being. This is an existential problem—not just a legal violation of an external code. Furthermore, since humanity is over all creation as God’s image, the breaking of human nature affects the rest of creation, too. Human sin has led the entire creation to become ‘fallen’.

If sin were a violation of a covenant, God could upgrade the covenant, issue a new one, or just ‘wipe the slate clean’ and move on. But these are simply not sufficient for dealing with sin. A covenant can alter one’s legal status, but it cannot alter one’s nature. It would be like thinking that a marriage could somehow change a person’s gender. It simply can’t!

incarnation-450x300This is why the cure for sin requires the Incarnation. It takes God himself to become a human being—the image of God—and so redefine human nature. Christ is the new Adam—the one who fixes human nature and relates rightly to God. It is Jesus’ entire human life that is redemptive—not just his death and resurrection. He overcomes the devastation of human nature, which every human suffers. And because of humanity’s place as God’s image over all creation, the redemption of human nature entails the redemption of all creation.

This is why Paul depicts the Christian as ‘a new creation’ in whom ‘everything old has passed away’ and ‘everything has become new!’ (2 Cor 5:7). This is not just a change of status, but a change of nature—a regeneration.

If there is a covenant at creation, sin is an infringement and salvation is about being assigned a new status. But if there is no covenant at creation, sin breaks humanity’s inherent nature and fractures the entire relationship between God and creation. This requires nothing less than God becoming human and recreating humanity. This is precisely what he does in the person of God the Son. To be ‘in Christ’ is to be regenerated into this newly created reality—a new creation.


This is a slightly reworked version of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.

What is a Covenant?

The word ‘covenant’ gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.

Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like ‘promise’, or ‘agreement’. But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.

So what is a covenant?

A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.

There are some relationships that occur naturally and, as such, don’t need covenants. These are largely biological. For example, the biological parents of a child don’t need a covenant to become the parents of their child. They don’t need to ‘sign on the dotted line’, because their child is by nature theirs and they are by nature the child’s parents. The child’s birth certificate doesn’t create the parent-child relationship. It simply acknowledges the existence of their naturally occurring relationship.

However, when a couple adopts a child that is not genetically their own, they do need to ‘sign on the dotted line’. They must go through a formal process that initiates the relationship, and then recognises it as specifically a parent-child relationship. Once the covenant is made, no one has the right to question the parent-child relationship, because it has been formalised and continues to be regulated, despite the relationship not occurring naturally.

In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people. It’s not enough to say that God makes certain promises or agreements with people, because that doesn’t necessarily define what kind of relationship God initiates and maintains with them.

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That’s also why we must say that there is more than one covenant in the Bible. God does not relate the same way to the various parties with whom he makes covenants. Each covenant creates a different kind of relationship. The covenants certainly relate to each other (excuse the pun!), because God is party to them all. And they also share some common themes and promises. But in each case, God initiates a different kind of relationship and, therefore, he regulates them in different ways that are appropriate to the kind of relationship that the covenant establishes.

That’s why, for example, God doesn’t give the Law to Abraham, but to Moses and the nation of Israel. God makes a covenant with Abraham to be his personal, household deity, with certain associated promises (land, descendants, name, blessing to others). So he relates to Abraham in a very personal way, usually with implications for Abraham’s family and where his household should be. Law would be an inappropriate way for God and Abraham to relate to each other within this covenant. But at Sinai, God creates a covenant with Israel to become the nation’s head of state—their patron deity. Law is an appropriate means of regulating a relationship with an entire nation as a socio-political entity located in a particular territory. And that’s why he gives the Law to Moses.

There is a positive and a negative side to a covenant. The positive side is that it brings two parties together. The negative side is that these two parties may not otherwise naturally have associated with each other. This is why stipulations are brought to bear on the relationship. They keep the relationship going and regulate it, for otherwise there is a danger of the relationship dissolving.

We can see this positive and negative side, for example, with the covenant that God forges with Israel at Sinai. It’s positive in that it reflects God’s gracious and loving initiative towards the Israelite nation. The negative side is that it implies God does not have a natural relationship with them. God has to enter the relationship with Israel to be their head of state in a conscious and deliberate manner. And he regulates it through the Law and the sending of prophets.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at whether there is a covenant at creation and what implications the answer might have.


This is a reproduction of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.