Rape in the Bible is a very misunderstood subject, complicated by the fact that the Hebrews had no actual word for rape. It’s further misunderstood when words that don’t actually mean rape are translated as rape in English. Critics love to isolate English passages like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in the NIV that suggest a rape victim must marry their rapist, and too many Christians are ill-equipped to defend these passages. Now, there are already ample word studies on the topic of why this reading is incorrect, so rather than expound on that, I thought I would cover an overlooked subject: how did the Hebrews conceptualize rape without a word to describe it?
The mere absence of the word in their language is seen as a problem for the skeptic, and tries the faith of some believers too. After all, how moral could the Bible be if the writers didn’t even know what rape was? This line of questioning presupposes that one must know a word before one can understand a concept, which is patently false. In my own experience, I’ve been surprised to learn that terms I didn’t even know existed for concepts I had discovered all on my own. But, you may ask, shouldn’t an exhaustive penal code like the Mosaic law be able to categorize sex crimes more specifically? Again, words aren’t necessary for differentiation as long as context is clear. After all, a lot of people couldn’t tell you the difference between a misdemeanor, larceny, or felony, but they could still comprehend that in concept these are all illegal. The significance of technical terms like “involuntary manslaughter” or “third degree murder” may not be known by everyone, yet they still know the conceptual difference between accidental killing and murder. And despite the limits of the vocabulary, the Mosaic law does extensively itemize sexual offenses, both consensual and involuntary.
Single language speakers often fail to understand how little languages overlap, and that nuances present in one language may be lost in translation. For instance, it’s common for English speakers to state that the Greeks had multiple words for love, which is an inaccurate understanding of language; if the Greeks had considered agape to be “love”, for instance, then they would not have considered eros to be “love.” Greco-Roman society probably would have been just as amused by our linguistic inability to parse eros from agape as we are of the Hebrew language limitation of separating sex as rape from sex as making love.
But just like the Greeks had a word for them (ask your mother if you don’t know what I’m talking about), did the Hebrews identify rape without actually calling it out? Could they have skirted around the subject euphemistically? I believe there’s evidence to suggest such a literary device, similar to Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak it’s name.” There appears to be a unifying trope that runs through the three rape narratives in Scripture, starting with the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34.
Before proceeding, however, I think it’s noteworthy to point out that in all three cases, not only does the rapist does not marry his victim, but instead they all receive some of the most brutal retribution in the Bible. After Dinah had been violated, but before two of her brothers killed every man in the city, the deed is mentioned as “a thing that should not be done.”
Now Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done. Genesis 34:7
This phrase is echoed in the epilogue to the next rape narrative, found in Judges 19. Literarily, the book of Judges is essentially Genesis gone wrong. Jephthah fails to be Abraham, Samson pales compared to Joseph, and in this passage indisputably similar to the story of Lot, Israel has become the new Sodom. While some additional gory details escalate the incident to which this phrase refers to beyond just rape (the phrase has some additional words as well), it is telling that it appears in the same situation.
Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!” Judges 19:30
The last case in our study is the infamous rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. This passage once again heavily mirrors Genesis, with allusion to Joseph (a victim of a false accusation of rape) in the similarity of Tamar’s cloak. Tamar’s plea in the middle of the act itself includes this exact same verbiage:
“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. 2 Samuel 13:12
While I can’t say with certainty that this was a common Hebrew circumlocution for the concept of rape, that’s what it seems to be within the confines of Scripture, at least. Terminology like this suggests that absence of the particular word was not due to ignorance or moral deficiency as in the skeptic’s accusations, but rather that the ancient Hebrews were just as repulsed by rape as we are today. Far from being a white elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about, it shows that not only could they not utter it, their method of describing it was in terms of something so unimaginably awful it should never be done.