How Do We Honor The Victims of Rape in the Bible?

This article first appeared on The Salt Collective, February 19, 2019, this edition includes minor grammatical edits.

Recently a friend questioned how we understand rape in the Biblical texts, whether it is a sex act or an act of violence.

This is a vital question because so often we gloss over sexual violence in our Sunday and Bible study readings without a second thought. Yet, as a people called by the Gospel—a Good News of justice and liberation—how can we ignore something in our sacred scriptures that we know, in our guts, is so wrong?

Let me begin by saying to those who have been touched by sexual violence directly, know that you are whole and holy. Know that Jesus, who preached a Gospel of justice and liberation, welcomes you to his table.

For those who have been touched by sexual violence indirectly—and if you are a living breathing human being then that is you—know that part of your call and membership in God’s kingdom is to speak about against these injustices. Not just against the perpetrators and predators, but against those who would seek to silence and blame survivors. The Kingdom calls us to cast light onto the shadows.

We have, in Jesus, a great example of the prophetic call to speak out against the injustice of sexual and gender-based violence.

In the Gospels, Jesus honoured sex workers who at the time had virtually no rights or standing in their communities. He sat and dined with them, which was a taboo. He spoke publicly with women who had “bad reputations” (like the Samaritan woman at the well) and made them evangelists, disciples and apostles.

The Samaritan Woman - John 4:1-42
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman from Vie de Jesus Mafa, Cameroon 1973

Jesus is not interested in victim blaming but calls out predators. Jesus refutes the objectification of God’s creation and the prioritization of our own entitlement over the autonomy of others (Matt. 5:27-30). Jesus continually admonishes the powerful who abuse and oppress others and stands in solidarity with the marginalized.

But what about the rest of the scriptures? How can we even call these scriptures sacred when they reduce violence against women, children, and men, to side comments in the greater story?

Especially when these stories are used to continue cycles of abuse and harm, blaming and silencing survivors.

Well, I thought I would share some of the tools I use to help myself read deeply and see God’s justice at work in these texts.

It can be unhelpful for us to try and put our modern understanding of rape and sexual violence onto the text. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone these coercive and abusive acts of sexual violence, but when we read the blasé attitudes of the text’s authors it is important to think about how they understood two things: personhood and property.

Today, we affirm the full personhood of all genders, and (mostly) all ages (let’s be honest that we often do not see children as full persons, and instead put them into the “vulnerable persons” category along with disabled and elderly people). When we explore how the Bible treats sexual violence we must understand that not all of the people we read about are considered full persons in the text.

There is a parallel closer in time. Enslaved Africans in North America were not considered full persons under the law, and under the legal and social framework of slavery, the rape of Black bodies was an issue not of personhood but of property. This egregious injustice was opposed by the Abolition and Civil Rights movements, and continues to be addressed by our contemporary insistence that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Understanding this helps us see how women, children, and slaves were seen in the Biblical texts.

These people were not seen as persons but as property

The ancients understood sexual violence differently. Bathsheba’s story is an example of this (2 Sam. 11). David’s sin is not committing sexual violence against her, but transgessing the property rights of her husband, and then killing him to conceal the crime. To the story, Bathsheba is an object, not a person.

However, today we can’t read this text without naming that David used his authority to coerce sex from Bathsheba. He did not honour her as a full person but saw her as an object to be used. He treated her body as an idol to his own selfishness and entitlement. It was not right when the story was written, and it is not right now. Yet, the way we talk about it has changed.

David and Bathsheba by Marc Chagall
David and Bathsheba by Marc Chagall

We must also be aware of how gender changes the narrative around sexual violence in the Biblical text.

Women and children are considered property, so transgressions against them are different than transgressions against men. You might even struggle to find examples of sexual violence against men in the Bible.

It is there, although in my experience it gets even less attention than violence against women.

One instance is the attempted rape of the angels in Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11). Lot offers his virgin daughters to the mob to preserve the hospitality he extends to God’s messengers. This story shows that Lot would rather have his honour damaged by the rape of his daughters (his property) than fail in his role as host. Men’s bodies are prioritized over women’s bodies.

Later on, Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him to continue their family line (Gen. 19:30-38). This story functions as a “comedic” origin story of Israel’s enemies—the Moabite and Ammonite peoples—not as a commentary on sexual coercion.

Women raping men is seen very differently in the text, and there are a number of seductive female figures who have coercive sex with men. They are seen as comedic tricksters—think of Tamar who seduces Judah under false pretences (Gen. 38), or Jael and the apocryphal Judith who coax men into their tents and then kill them (Jud. 4, Judith).

Paul, too, has strong feelings about those who perpetrate coercive sex; specifically, older men having sex with younger men (1 Cor. 6:9, Rom. 1:26-27). Yet, that has more to do with the issue of “feminizing” the submissive partner. The bottom is seen as taking the unnatural “female” position, but Paul seems totally fine with topping, i.e. the natural “male” position.

It is obvious the text is uncomfortable with rape and sexual assault, but the “why” doesn’t make as much sense to us today. That is something we need to reconcile when reading ancient stories and searching them for wisdom in the present day.

How do we read justice and liberation in these texts?

Paul can be incredibly helpful here, though feminist readers for generations have struggled with the letters attributed to him. Galatians, especially, offers us a vision of the Kingdom that affirms the wholeness of each of God’s children.

“[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28 NRSV)

Susanna and the Elders by John A. Austen, 1920
Susanna and the Elders by John A. Austen, 1920

We are each whole and holy, set apart as God’s children. When another transgresses against our bodies in acts of violence and hatred they vandalize the very image of God on earth (Gen. 1:27).

We can also call on stories like Susanna’s in Daniel 13, lifting up a Biblical image of justice that rejects the use of coercive and abusive power, calling us to a great image of justice.

A justice that affirms the inherent value in all bodies, regardless of the human categories we put on them, calling each whole and holy.

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In the Face of Fear,​ We Persist

This sermon was prepped for Wesley United Church, Montreal’s Sunday morning service on June 24th, (Year B, Proper 7, 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49).

David and Goliath, what a fantastic story! An ancient Hebrew legend, that reminds me of the stories my parents used to read to me before bed.

It has everything that makes for a great bedtime story! A young peasant boy whose destiny is greater than his father’s sheep pastures… A horrible monster not even the strongest man in the army can defeat… Jealous brothers… A king to impress who will shower our young hero with unimaginable gifts….

It is also a dramatic introduction to the man, who would be king, as David is anointed secretly just verses before the story we read today.

Human beings love legends and myths because they touch on our greatest hopes—to be chosen, to be brave, to do good and great things.

Is it any wonder that this story, beloved by folks of all ages, was preserved in the collection of ancient texts we call The Bible?

Yet, in our daily lives, there is little epic adventure like we read here… We don’t live in the world of legends and fairytales. Stories like this, that once may have captured our imaginations, become difficult to put our hope into….

Because, the Goliaths we come across in our lives can’t be defeated with a small rock.

Every day proverbial monsters come out on the battlefield and heckle us—they remind us of our failures, of the situations we can’t control, the regrets we carry with us, and the burdens that wear us down.

As we get older, we laugh at stories like this one.  Believing them would make us naïve. We smile and shake our heads because we know better.

… We know better? Or is it that we know our own fear all too well?

***

God doesn’t ask David to go and do the impossible out of nowhere.

David tells Saul how he has been protecting his father’s sheep against wild animals. And, though this challenger appears more intimidating—with taunts and bravado—David can recognize Goliath for what he truly is: a bully. And, David has faced bullies before.

1 Samuel tells us that David grew up as an insignificant nobody in a large family; when Samuel went to visit them and asked to meet all of Jessie’s sons they didn’t even remember the runt out in the pasture with the sheep. David has been fighting wild animals, and cruelty from his loved ones, his whole life—out with the sheep and God to keep him company, he has been building resilience.

Bravery is a tricky thing; a muscle we have to train. It is a reality of the human condition that this growth is a result of pain and suffering. We fall down and learn that despite how much it might hurt, it doesn’t break us. And, so we get up and begin again.

We start with small acts, small risks, and we start to learn our limits and our strengths. We don’t go after Goliath all at once, and certainly not without backup.

***

A friend recently commented that he was surprised by how much I travel because I get really anxious when I travel. It’s stressful, and it can be challenging for me enjoy myself in the moment—but I still do it. Because anxiety doesn’t get to bully me into living a half-life.

We all have bullies in our lives, proverbial or real, and stories like these tell us that this challenge has been a part of the human experience for millennia. It is an exaggerated story to point us to a very real truth: human resilience and courage are integral to our story, and to God’s.

Madeline L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, once said that:

“We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are.”

Isn’t that the driving plot of the Bible? Unqualified but courageous people called to do so much more than their families, communities, and countries thought they could?

***

Last time I was with you, I used a quote from the movie Evan Almighty, where God says to another character:

“Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous?”

The Older Testament stories for the lectionary this summer speak of just that—young people called by God to do amazing but hard things. Our Bible stories tell us of men and women who take risks in their stories…

In the face of fear, David persisted against Goliath.

In the face of rejection, Samuel persisted in delivering the message God gave him.

In the face of poverty, Ruth persisted to care for her mother-in-law.

In the face of death, Esther persisted to save her people from genocide.

In the face of an enemy army, Deborah persisted in leading the Israelites to victory.

Though we might not be called to lead an army into battle, the Spirit invites us, too, to courageous acts both big and small. Our daily lives are filled with opportunities to step up, despite that knot in our stomach…

Have you ever stopped to help someone in need, who was being hassled by someone else?

Spoken up when a comment was going to be let go, even though it was hurtful and wrong?

Taken a stance for equality, even if it meant being the unpopular person in the room?

These are our moments, where we’re called to be brave, to do good and great things!

And, like David, we don’t do this alone. For some, it’s the overconfident certainty of youth that helps them march out onto the battlefield. For others, it’s being part of a community who’s committed to their work. For some of us, it’s a nagging belief that there is something good and true out there beyond us, that desires a world filled with justice.

***

The stories we read together in this place, these ancient stories, inspire us and point us towards hope… Hope is the thing that makes the risk worthwhile. It is a belief that the seemingly impossible task can be accomplished.

But, we don’t get there all at once—trust, just like bravery, is a muscle we learn to flex and strengthen. So we gather in this place and share stories, old and new, about goodness, about failures and triumphs; strengthening one another for the challenges ahead.

We add our own stories to this faithful collection.

So, may the Spirit grow within you this week… a courageous heart ready to persist in the face of fear, and return you to us next week with plenty of stories to share. Amen.