Does the Bible require a woman to marry her rapist?

One of the reasons why people like Steve Chalke are asking us to re-evaluate the nature and role of Scripture is because of some of the challenging texts that seem to go against our contemporary cultural ethics and even against Christian morality.


One of the examples given of this is Deuteronomy 22:28-29 which the NIV translates:

“28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels[c] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.�?

Now, I want to think through how we engage with a challenging text like this.  The Steve Chalke approach would essentially say:

  1. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 does not fit with our understanding of Christ’s love because it requires something that is unloving for the woman.
  2. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 are not the direct words of Christ and therefore we do not have to treat them as coming equally from God. What we have here is a culture bound attempt to understand what God would advice here.
  3. The important thing here is that society is not just treating the woman as property or casting her out as shamed but is making a partial attempt to provide for her.

I want to suggest that there are two reasons why this approach doesn’t work

  1. We cannot avoid the fact that Deuteronomy claims to be a revelation of God’s Word. There is no suggestion that it is simply a human record of Israel’s perception. As I have said elsewhere, we cannot accept the claim for Christ which the whole of Scripture makes for itself whilst denying it to the rest of Scripture. If we cannot trust Deuteronomy to give us God’s inerrant word then why Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
  2. I don’t think that this approach does take us very far with taking Scripture seriously. Rather it enables us to make quite a shallow point about broad ethical principles before moving quickly on. On the other hand, treating Deuteronomy 22:28-29 as God’s inspired and inerrant word requires us to stop and wrestle with it even if it leaves us feeling somewhat disturbed and uncomfortable.

With that in mind I want to take another look at those verses in context.

  1. How the Old Testament Law works

I think it is helpful to start by thinking about how the Old Testament Law functioned. I want to suggest that it works as a series of concentric circles of detail and application.  The inner core is the summary of the Law. We are to love the Lord our God with our whole hearts and our neighbours as ourselves. The Ten commandments then expand on this.  We love God when we do not worship other gods, make idols or take his name in vain. We love Him when we keep the Sabbath day holy and when we honour our parents (because they are the ones who teach us his decrees). We love our neighbours when we don’t murder, steal, covert or commit adultery.  The third circle expands on this when Deuteronomy provides details in the style of case-law. What are you meant to do in each situation?

Finally, the book of Proverbs helps us to see that we engage with God’s Law through the category of wisdom. This means that we are meant to look at the whole counsel of God and think about how it applies to our situation. The Hebraic way of enabling this seems to be to set out provocative statements which at first glance appear contradictory but are actually creating the outer boundaries so we can look at what to do in each context.

This means that when we look at Deuteronomy 22, it is important to think about what the Law’s concern is here. I want to suggest that we have been too quick to read our modern criminal category of rape across onto the text. This means that we assume that the wrong to be rectified is to do with force, consent and shame (especially because of our understanding of shame cultures).  We assume that Deuteronomy resolves the problem through an honour/shame approach whereas our approach is to deal with guilt/punishment (and the assumption seems to be that our approach is superior).

Now, if Deuteronomy 22 is expanding on the Ten Commandments, then it is expanding on the command “Do not commit adultery.�? If this is the case, then the immediate concern here is not so much to do with force, consent or even shame. Rather the primary issue is to do with what does it mean to honour marital faithfulness in our context.  This does not mean that when a case had to be heard that the judges and elders would not want to consider issues including force, consent, physical harm etc. It simply means that this isn’t the primary focus here.

I also want to suggest that the “shame�? card has been somewhat overplayed. Yes, ancient Israel would have operated in an honour/shame/communal context rather than a guilt/punishment/individualist one. However, the assumption that a woman who has had sexual intercourse is somehow so defiled and shamed that future marriage is impossible is ruled out by Deuteronomy 24:2. Women who had been married and divorced could still remarry and the Law’s provision for this seems to suggest it was a real possibility. That is not to say that your prospects wouldn’t be seriously reduced but that they were not impossible and the Law had other ways of dealing with things.

Finally, on the point of how the Law functioned, I want to suggest that if a “rape case�? was presented to the clan elders, then what we have seen about wisdom means that they wouldn’t simply say “The penalty is prescribed in Deuteronomy 22:28-29). They would have wanted to consider all the pertinent parts of the Law that had a bearing on the case. In other words they would look at those statements in the wider context of the rest of the passage and what the Law said elsewhere.

  1. What Deuteronomy 22 says

The case in verse 28-39 comes at the end of a string of cases.

–          What happens if a man wants to divorce his wife and accuses her of being unfaithful to him prior to marriage? (v 13-21)

–          What happens when a man and woman are caught together in adultery (v22)?

–          What about if a man is caught with a woman who s betrothed to someone else (v23-27)?

–          What happens if a man is caught with a woman who is not yet betrothed (v28-29)?

As I suggested above, the focus is on sexual immorality -what happens when there is unfaithfulness. This means that the case in verse 23-27 is not primarily designed to answer “What do we do about rape?�? although it touches upon that subject and so helps to answer the question. The issue is that there are two people who are accused of adultery. What happens? Well, both are punished. However, the law acknowledges that there are cases when both may not be culpable. What happens if the woman has been forced? She is innocent of any wrongdoing and the man is punished. The case goes on to consider burden of proof and recognises that it will differ based on context. It is easy to cry for help and get attention in the town with others close by than in an isolated place.

Then we come to verses 28-29. The question here is what happens when the woman is not yet betrothed. Now careful observers note that v25 uses a different word to describe the man’s actions to v 28. In verse 25 he is described as forcing himself. In verse 28 a word is used (taphas) that has an interpretative range including seizing, catching, handling, holding, surprising and taking.  This has led some to question whether v25 and 28 are describing the same action.  So, whilst the NIV translates this as “rape�? other translations include:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her…�? (ESV)

“If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her..�? (KJV)

“Suppose a man has intercourse with a young woman who is a virgin but is not engaged to be married.�? (NLT)

So, the question here is what it means for the man to take hold of her. Is it about force or is it about a couple losing control? There may be an issue about taking without consent here but the focus seems to be more on taking the daughter from the family without the father’s consent to give her in marriage. She has not been betrothed.[1]

An added factor to be considered is what happens next. “…and they are found.�? Implicit here in the discovery of both together is that both are in some way complicit.  We are not asked to check whether or not she could have done something to prevent this, the possibility of her crying out is not discussed.

I suspect that we have been tempted to read v 28-29 as a development of v25-27 rather than a fourth example of martial unfaithfulness.

In each case, the question being answered is “How do we encourage faithfulness�? this includes deterrents including fines and even the death penalty but it also includes the possibility that one way of safe-guarding marriage and restoring those involved is to encourage them to enter into faithful, life-long marriage.

Looking to other texts

As I mentioned above, someone looking to decide on a specific case would want to see how wider Scripture informs the decision.  We would want to consider what Scripture says about violence and harm caused to others for example. But then there are also verses that appear to deal with similar cases.  So, Exodus 22:16-17 is of particular interest here

“If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to anyone and has sex with her, he must pay the customary bride price and marry her. 17 But if her father refuses to let him marry her, the man must still pay him an amount equal to the bride price of a virgin.�?

The case looks like a parallel version of Deuteronomy 22:28-29 although it is explicitly clear here that the man has seduced the woman.  Once again, the guilty party is held to account and must marry the woman.  However, note that an exception is built in. The father may refuse to give his daughter to marry. So, it is not an automatic given that the wedding would go ahead. Now there are all sorts of reasons as to why a loving dad might choose not to give his daughter to marry in such a cultural context. I suspect that one reason would be the character and behaviour of the suitor including if he has a prior history for aggression and sexual violence. This reminds us as well that the responsibility lies with the offending man to make the life long commitment but not for those who have been wronged to be compelled to reciprocate.

The Big Mistake

Wisdom requires that we are fully informed of all the data needed including everything that Scripture has to say as well as the facts of the case. It also means that we don’t expect one or two verses to carry more applicatory weight on their own than they were intended to.

This is the mistake I believe that people make when they dive in and assume that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires rape victims to marry their attackers.

The failure we see in a liberal approach is two-fold

  1. It assumes that the only legitimate questions that the Bible must seek to answer are the ones that we are asking. It is a modernist approach. The possibility that Deuteronomy 22 is designed to answer different questions isn’t properly engaged with. This is not to say that we cannot answer those questions Biblically but to do so means that we must start by understanding all the texts that contribute to the answer correctly and in context.
  2. It misses the opportunity to engage in a deep and rich way manner with the text.


A commitment to Biblical inerrancy is essential to a deep and rich engagement with God’s Word it compels us to wrestle with challenging texts to ensure that we understand and apply them correctly.

[1] Note some online commentators make quite a thing about the language change so that this is their central point to the extent that they are adamant that only consensual sex is in view (see e.g. see also )  . I’m not sure on this yet -and am hoping to follow up when I have a bit more access to a wider range of commentaries. I certainly think it raises some questions but I think the primary issue here is that the passage isn’t trying to answer the question “What should we do about rape?�? but rather what should we do about sexual immorality.

Related To Does the Bible require a woman to marry her rapist?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *