More Rape in the Hebrew Bible ?

More Rape in the Hebrew Bible ?

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


S. Gravett, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, No. 3, vol 28, pp. 291 – 293.


The Hebrew words in this article are small images and for technical reasons are not showing up. But can be viewed in the attched PDF link at the reference.

The authors of Ezekiel 16 introduce the city of Jerusalem as the adulterous wife of YHWH. Born in the land of the Canaanites to an Amorite father and a Hittite mother [v. 3], she is abandoned as an infant, saved by YHWH,

But then left to grow up alone and poor [v. 5] until puberty when YHWH sees her, desires her and becomes her lover and then her husband [v. 8]. YHWH showers her with gifts [vv. 10-14], but she turns to other lovers [vv. 15-34], resulting in her brutal condemnation.

She is given into the hands of her former lovers, who tear apart her home, rape and rob her [vv. 38-39], then stone and mutilate her [v. 40] in the sight of many women [v. 41]. Chapter 23 offers a markedly similar account in the story of two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah.

Representing the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem [v. 4], these women become YHWH’s lovers [vv. 4-5], the mothers of his children [vv. 4, 37] and, by implication only, his wives [vv. 37-39, 45].

After an explicitly detailed accounting of their sexual conduct [vv. 5-8, 11-21, 36-44] , a series of brutal punishments ensues [vv. 9-10, 22-35, 45]. A final oracle in vv. 46-49 reiterates this violence as YHWH calls for a public lynching, stoning, mutilation, rape, the murder of the women’s children

And the destruction of their homes, as a warning to all other women not to become adulteresses. Understanding the sexual violence in these passages demands a close look at the ways the word

  functions. In 16.8, when coupled with the verb  and accompanied by all of the proper rituals, it denotes an act of sexual intercourse that falls within the boundaries of acceptability for such intimacy by sealing a marriage.

By contrast, when paired with the verb [16.36, 37; 23.10, 29] this stock or more common idiom refers to illicit sexual liaisons. For example, in 16.36 YHWH accuses his wife of multiple acts of sexual in. delity, graphically describing how sexually prepared or ‘wet’ she became for her many lovers. Then the text reads:

  [ ‘you exposed your genitals’], meaning ‘you engaged in sexual intercourse outside of your marriage’. By taking a lover not her husband, the woman Jerusalem violates the legally defined parameters for sexual expression and thus her conduct, her exposing herself, can be labeled ‘adultery’.

No need exists for the technical term here since Ezekiel follows the phrasing of the Priestly codes in Leviticus. A problem with variant translations becomes apparent only one verse later, in 16.37,

When the authors use the same terminology but for different effect. Here, YHWH calls together the woman’s lovers, arrays them like a military force around her, and declares:

 Taking the pairing of     and  to mean sexual congress, YHWH may be inciting a rape by exposing her genitalia to the former lovers, that is, by making her sexually available to them.

The men respond by ‘seeing’ her nakedness, a phrase used in Lev. 20.17 to indicate incestual [ marital?] relations, and in Gen. 9.22 and Lam. 1.8 to speak of actions that can be read sexually.

 Occurring in situations indicating force, the phrase here indicates that her husband and former lovers trap her much like an army laying siege to a city or a mob preparing for a lynching.

The third masculine plural ending on the preposition  as well as the use of  in the third masculine plural, suggests more than one man took part in the attack and indicates the assault was a gang rape. This reading corresponds with the events narrated in Ezek. 23.10 and 23.29.

Ezekiel 23.9-10 describes the punishment of Oholah or Samaria by YHWH through the agency of her lovers, the Assyrian Army ‘I gave her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the sons of Assyria’. 

Described as men she once lusted after, these men uncover her genitals, take her children captive, and then murder her. In an armed invasion of a city, the violations of rape, followed by the seizing of children before murder makes a logical, even though disturbing, kind of sense. Similarly, in 23.28, YHWH gives Jerusalem into the hands of her former lovers.

Twice identified as men she no longer desires [vv. 22, 28] and once [v. 28] as men she hates, the author[s] of this section provide direct evidence that she in no way welcomes their sexual advances.  Indeed, v. 29 says that they ‘deal with her in hatred’, that is, they take all of her property, before leaving her naked.

A variety of other prophetic texts make use of similar language to describe the fate of women in war. Nahum 3.5 speaks of Nineveh as a whore and promises God’s retribution on her: ‘and I will lift up your skirts over your face and I will cause nations to look upon your genitals and kingdoms upon your shame’.

Isaiah 3.16-17 harshly condemns the women of Zion for their arrogance and seductiveness, resulting in YHWH laying bare their genitalia. Likewise, in Isa. 47.2-3, YHWH forces the virgin daughter of Babylon into service.

Before her veil is removed, her legs uncovered, her robes stripped away, and her genitals uncovered revealing her shame. Why bray concludes:

the reference in the first half of the verse is to sexual intercourse. Probably the implication is that a young female slave Babylon will be subjected to the final humiliation of being forced to accept the casual sexual attentions of any man who happens to want her [1]

In writing on Hab. 2.15, Roberts offers a similar argument when more powerful nations cause weaker neighbors to get drunk in order to look on their nakedness

Though the particular word Habakkuk uses for nakedness [ m¨’ôr ] occurs only here, synonyms for related words are often used describe the shameful treatment of land or cities [ Isa. 47.1-3; Nahum 3.5 ].

The metaphor was rooted in the actual practice of leading away prisoners of war naked [ Isa. 20.4; Chron. 28.15; see ANEP, nos. 358-359], not to mention the widespread sexual abuse of women characteristic of ancient imperial conquests. [2]

Although Roberts sees this connection only when the text does not involve an adulterous woman, the correlation holds even in such a context. Indeed, the pervasiveness of this language depicting wartime conquests strengthens the case for reading the idiom in Ezekiel not as part of the sentence for a woman caught in adultery, but as the rape

 of women, specifically of Israelite and Judean women, during armed invasions by their enemies. The element of infidelity enters the picture only as explanation of God’s cause for turning away from the chosen people.

Translations of rape make sense here as the idiomatic turns of phrase in Hebrew obscure what the prophets depict as happening at the hands of people’s enemies and of God.

While ancient readers possessed familiarity with the colloquial expressions that made the actions described clear, modern readers simply lack the cultural contexts to accomplish such connections and to understand these texts as about rape unless the translator renders them as such.

References and Notes:

[1]R.N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 [ NCB; London: Oliphants, 1975 ] , p. 120.

[2] J.J.M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah [ OTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1991 ] , p. 124.