Editor's Note: This is an Evangelical Press Association award winning article.
“Does Scripture talk about rape and consent?”
This question was posed by a young lady who recently visited my office. As a college chaplain, I have the unfortunate privilege of hearing heartbreaking stories of rape, abuse, and incest from my students. Many are in my office because a) they know it is a safe space and b) they are wondering where God and their faith fit into their experiences of abuse. Many students are navigating these questions while they date in search of lifelong partners. Too often, sexual violation of one form or another takes place within those relationships.
Both secular and Christian culture normalize behaviors from manipulation to sexual assault. When it comes to dating and sex, concerns over extramarital sex often overshadow all else, setting the stage for abusive patterns to develop. Some women have experienced abuse and blame themselves. Others don’t realize what they endured was abuse.
While it is not addressed nearly enough from the pulpit, Scripture has important information about power, patriarchy, and sexual rhetoric. When we miss these elements in reading the Bible, we are more likely to misinterpret what we see in the world around us.
Two of Scripture’s most informative passages on rape are right next to each other in 2 Samuel: the rape of Tamar in chapter 13 and the rape of Bathsheba two chapters earlier. Our view of what is and is not sexual violence in our own context is often mirrored in how we tend to read and interpret these two stories.
Tamar’s account fits how most of us define rape. There is little dispute that this is a story of rape. The text outlines the insidious plot by Amnon (her half-brother), the scene of deception, and the trapping of Tamar. The author writes how Tamar pleads and begs for solutions that will keep Amnon from raping her, but to no avail. Due to social stigma, she then has to live out the remainder of her life in shame. While the Hebrew text does not use the word “rape” (there is no ancient Hebrew parallel to our term), everyone agrees this was a rape. It is obvious to us. First, Amnon wanted to have sex with his half-sister, something our culture considers deviant. She resists and he ignores her pleas. He then then sends her away and wants nothing more to do with her. Every element of this story fits our presuppositions about rape.
The rape of Bathsheba is much more controversial and reveals our biases about sexual violation and the victim’s role.
I always grew up hearing about David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Despite feeling that she had been wronged in some way, I never thought much more about her experience. It was also much nicer to think that King David’s short-comings had more to do with adultery (a normative deviance among people I knew) than rape (never considered acceptable in my circles). So why do many Christians so easily call Tamar’s story rape but not Bathsheba’s?
Resistance is a key variable in our definition of rape. Tamar resisted, but Bathsheba’s account does not record resistance. We tend to assume this means she was a consenting partner, so we put her experience in the category of “adultery.” We even assign her some of the blame. The truth is quite different.
To read Bathsheba’s story faithfully, we need to understand power dynamics.
Power and Sexual Abuse
Before stories of his abuse helped launch the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein was undeniably one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Several actresses who filed reports against Weinstein mentioned how he wielded power to abuse them.1 Rosanne Arquette said that Weinstein “made things very difficult for me for years.” Uma Thurman mentioned how she confronted Weinstein but he threatened to derail her career if she reported him. In her interview, Salma Hayek claimed Weinstein’s advances could quickly turn to rage.
I don’t think he hated anything more than the word ‘no.’ The range of his persuasion tactics went from sweet-talking me to that one time when, in an attack of fury, he said the terrifying words, ‘I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.’
Weinstein had the power to act on his threats and victims knew it. This explains the ease with which he exploited and also generally shows why victims do not always fight back. Their resistance could make a bad situation much worse.
In her book, Scars Across Humanity, Elaine Storkey writes, “Power inequalities, in these cases in terms of age, strength and money, often go along with incidents of rape. These factors can be even more noticeable when the rapist is well known, and when the surrounding community allows a veil of silence to cover his behaviour” (126). We have done just this with King David. We often miss them, but the power dynamics present in this story give us every reason to believe that what happened to Bathsheba is rape, not a consensual act of adultery.
First, in the Old Testament world, to be summoned by a king was no small thing. Failing to appear was a matter of life and death. She could not simply refuse to appear.
Second, even according to Hebrew law, this likely would have been considered rape. The law made the distinction of rape or consent based on verbal resistance by the victim and whether or not that resistance could be heard by witnesses. If a man raped a woman in a rural area, where she could not be heard, he alone was guilty (Deuteronomy 22:23-27). As Sarah Bowler notes in Vindicating the Vixens, “If Bathsheba cried out, no one would dare enter the king’s chamber to stop him. In that sense there was little difference between a man raping a woman in the country and a king raping a woman in his palace chambers” (84). Bathsheba had no agency or say in what the king did to her.
Third, many assume that Bathsheba’s bathing on the roof was a form of sexual entrapment, but God apparently didn’t see it that way. When the prophet Nathan confronts David, he likens Bathsheba to a ewe lamb who is kidnapped and devoured (2 Sam. 12:1–6). This rendition leaves no question as to how she is viewed by God. She was a victim through and through. Yahweh sends his prophet to tell her and Uriah’s story because they share no blame in David’s actions.
What About Us?
I cannot count how many times I have sat with a young woman and explained to her that the experience she just described to me is, in fact, rape. I watch their faces as it dawns on them that the trauma symptoms that brought them to my office are a result of rape or sexual abuse. Like most people in US culture, their view of rape encompasses Tamar’s experience but not Bathsheba’s. Their psyche absorbed the trauma but their definitions did not allow them to realize that they had endured sexual abuse. Complicating matters is the fact that unlike Tamar or Bathsheba, these abuses often happen within the context of a romantic relationship. If Christians are to show the world what godly relationships grounded in a biblical sexual ethic look like, then we have work to do.
We need to challenge cultural narratives about sexual violence. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have clarified that we still view rape as a stranger attack in a dark alley with a screaming, fighting victim. The Bathshebas of our society endure silently either because they are disempowered by the threats of their abuser, or because they don’t have a vocabulary for an abusive sexual encounter. Culture has driven this narrative and Christians have not countered it. So where do we start?
First, we need to pursue a fuller understanding of Scripture. Sarah Bowler observes that “a true understanding of [Bathsheba’s] tale holds crucial ramifications for how Christians respond to a world filled with abuse and saturated with misunderstandings about sexual misconduct” (83). If we hold up both Tamar’s and Bathsheba’s stories and fail to call them both rape, then we fail to understand the widespread sin that lurks in our institutions and churches.
Second, we need to have a deeper conversation about consent. On my campus, I am surrounded by messages about the importance of consent. However, not everything that looks like consent is actually consent. Women in similar situations to Bathsheba or Harvey Weinstein’s victims might seem like they are consenting, but they are not. Consent under duress is not consent.
Our culture has made consent the lowest common denominator of what qualifies for good, appropriate sexual encounters. As long as everyone is a consenting adult, whatever you do is okay. Yet the young women I see feel a weight of shame for not speaking up when they were truly unsure about the sexual acts they were being asked to perform. They were taught that consent makes an experience okay, but never that compliance is not consent.
In the church, our children hardly learn about consent at all. The primary message about sex is simply “don’t have sex unless you’re married.” Let’s also talk about why marriage is the best context for a sexual relationship. That includes, among other things, that marriage is (or should be) a relationship without the kind of power imbalance that underlies so much sexual abuse. Consent is also about more than sex, but respecting boundaries and others’ agency. And when it does come to sex, research shows that equipping our kids to make informed decisions reduces the odds of them having premarital sex!2
The church also tends to treat consent within marriage as a non-issue, as if saying “I do” grants permanent consent. In truth, everything from sexual manipulation and coercion to rape can and does take place in the context of marriage. Research shows that between ten and fourteen percent of married women will be raped during their marriage.3 Those who are married still need to understand the dynamics of power and consent.
Third, we should be creating a counter-narrative to a patriarchal power structure that affirms sexual entitlement. We live in a world where the media teaches boys that a woman saying “no” to his advances is just playing hard to get. That he will win her over with persistence—and she will thank him for it. Children are taught that boys and men can be trusted to make rational decisions, while girls and women make erratic, emotional decisions. I could go on. Sadly, churches are complicit, regurgitating these narratives with a misunderstood and misapplied Bible story as evidence. These patterns set up young people for unhealthy relationships, romantic or otherwise.
We must learn from Tamar and Bathsheba. If we do not, we are doing a disservice to our spiritual formation, our relationships, and our witness in the world. In the Bible and in our own world, we blame those who God holds blameless. We fail to see or address our own contributions to the epidemic of abuse that plagues our society. Instead of recognizing the role of power dynamics in abuse, we actually teach couples that God created men to have power over women! The Bible says otherwise, but we are often blind to its truths. The past is still informing issues relevant to our current lives. In an era of #ChurchToo and #MeToo, Tamar and Bathsheba still speak with weight and truth.
1. Zach Seemayer, “Harvey Weinstein, 1 Year Later: Where Everything Stands Now.” Entertainment Tonight, October 2018, https://www.etonline.com/harvey-weinsteins-sexual-abuse-scandal-1-year-later-where-everything-stands-now-89080.
2. “International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education: An Evidence-informed Approach for Schools, Teachers and Health Educators” UNESCO, 2009, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000183281.
3. “Quick Guide: Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse,” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, April 2018, https://ncadv.org/blog/posts/quick-guide-domestic-violence-and-sexual-abuse.