Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Hebrew Word for Rape

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.

Tamar from 2 Samuel 13

Thamar by Alexandre Cabanel


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Modern Snobbery

One of my biggest pet peeves today are modernist snobs, like people who refuse to watch black & white movies or silent movies just because they’re old.  Perhaps the best example of this is when people ask me what the point is in watching classic movies on Blu-ray because, after all, they didn’t even have HD back then.  Ok, I realize those who watch movies on their phones probably wouldn’t know this, but 1080p will never compare to the resolution of film.  That’s right, that old-fashioned analog projector at the silent movie theatre actually presents films better than your expensive, state-of-the-art HD TV.  Oftentimes, we’re so accustomed to the superiority of the next generation of technology that we lose sight of the advances that got us from A to B.  We use cell phones even though the average person has no idea how they work, yet we consider ourselves more advanced than everyone in history before us who didn’t have a cell phone just because we do.  It’s a natural human tendency to view older technology as primitive, and while it may be, this view becomes snobbery when we start to equate primitive with stupid.

Modern snobs tend to have a low opinion of our ancient ancestors.  After all, if they lived before the Enlightenment or the Renaissance then they have little to offer us in this day and age.  Yet drop these modern snobs in the wilderness without their modern technology and most of them wouldn’t know how to survive at a stone age level.  The ancients may not have had combustion engines or the scientific method, but even primitive civilization requires a great deal of sophistication to function.  Perhaps the biggest error made by the modern snob is to judge a past civilization’s progress from the vantage point of modern advances.  This is not to say that civilizations cannot be judged for lack of progress or regressive social change, as seen with the spread of Islam today, just that forward moving progress should be acknowledged even when a society is in transition.

Enlightenment fundamentalists can be particularly guilty of this judgmental attitude.  The new atheist revision of history holds religion responsible for any perceived lack of progress in the world until the emergence of reason in the 18th century, and then gives credit of all subsequent progress thereafter to the decline of religion.  This is an obvious myth because the 18th century atheists proved to be even more oppressive of dissent than their religious contemporaries, as evidenced by the Cult of Reason and the Reign of Terror.  While atheist societies were young compared to the scope of their religious predecessors, they wasted no time in stacking up a body count to eclipse all of the religious wars in recorded history.  Far from pioneering the way towards progress, the atheists that emerged were a product of their time, a product that could have only arisen at that point in history because of the progress made by their ancestors.  Today’s atheists often try to take credit for the advancements of society in general, when the reality is they have little understanding of how civilizations develop from precedent and accumulated knowledge, nor how few of their most esteemed values actually originated from atheists.

A favorite criticism of the enlightenment fundamentalist is the Mosaic Law.  Their greatest champions like Richard Dawkins draw the majority of their anti-Christian ammunition from misrepresenting the Old Testament as a backwards law code by today’s standards, without acknowledging the advancements that it presented for civilization at the time it was delivered.  Critics are quick to point out slavery, seemingly harsh punishments, and perceived misogyny in the Pentateuch, while ignoring advances like the Jubilee, limits of excessive punishment (which is the intended meaning of “an eye for an eye”), and protection of women.  They also conveniently overlook the fact that these causes were not historically championed by atheists until more recently.  Despite its egalitarianism, the Enlightenment fathers still valued property law over human rights and did little for the cause of abolition, which was largely a Christian movement resulting from an increased emphasis on Christianity from the Second Great Awakening.  The United States Constitution’s compromise on slavery shows just how difficult it is for the architects of any new civilization to change longstanding practices overnight.  American progress towards abolition is routinely criticized for being too slow by modernists, who’ve never lived with legal slavery.  While it’s easy for those of us living in an economy with no dependence on the slave trade to judge even the abolitionists for being too soft on slave owners, we also have the luxury of not having to fight a bloody Civil War to end that institution once and for all.  Likewise, the Constitution did not afford women the vote, but this right was won later following another Christian revival period.  Nevertheless, the Constitution was a watershed moment in the evolution of law and freedom, as was the Mosaic Law for its time.

One particular remnant of America’s past that atheists have heavily criticized are blue laws.  Seen as enforcing religious standards on a secular society, blue laws stem from traditional observance of Sunday as a day of rest and no work.  Now that global economies operate 24/7, these days blue laws are generally more of an annoyance in that they merely restrict commerce of certain “vice” items, such as alcohol, cigarettes, or tampons.  Admittedly, forbidding the sale of tampons on any day of the week was ridiculous, but the original spirit of the law in line with the 4th commandment served an important social purpose.  While atheists may have a knee-jerk aversion to consecrating any day as “holy”, a day off is sacred to the worker in the simplest definition of the word, meaning inviolate or cherished.  We need to remember that these laws date back to the time when slavery was still legal, so guaranteeing every worker a day off every week was a necessary human right.  Abolition was just one of the many reforms that needed to be installed before society was ready to abandon compulsory days of rest.  Today we have the benefit of countless other improvements often taken for granted: 40-hour work weeks, hourly wages, overtime, sick time, vacation time, etc.  Worker’s rights are now protected under a complex law code instead of a simple umbrella, but the present status quo would have been unattainable without its antecedent principle, embedded in religion.  Most modern atheists don’t even consider that striking this law from the books even just 150 years ago would have been a license for slaveowners to abuse their workers, and would have been a far cry from liberating.

Today’s atheists have inherited a civilization that they couldn’t have built themselves.  Attempts to create an atheistic civilization in Revolutionary France or any Marxist experiment have been colossal failures.  Some atheists may view religion as a nursemaid that carried civilization to maturity, which can abandon religion now that atheistic reason is here to move us forward, but this is an erroneous assumption:  the precedent of freedom of conscience can be traced to the Puritans, much to the surprise of modern snobs; education of both sexes of all classes was an early Christian innovation; women’s suffrage and abolition have already been traced to their Christian roots; and despite however much atheists complain about Christians impeding gay rights in the US, we still have gay marriage legal in several states and DADT has been repealed, while you don’t find same sex marriages or openly gay servicemen anywhere in all of China.  In virtually all aspects of reform, atheists find themselves trailing behind theists, and particularly Christians.  Rather than being ready to take the wheel, atheists have been backseat drivers to Christian progress.

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