In this post, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert discusses her research on the topic of marriage and rape.

Marital rape became criminalized in the United Kingdom in a landmark court case in 1991. Its illegality was formalized in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Despite this, intimate partner violence (IPV), including sexual violence, remains common.

Johanna will be writing on the topic of marriage, intimate partner violence, and the Bible for the Shiloh Project Routledge Focus Series, Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible. If you have an idea for a volume in this series, please see here for further details and contact us at [email protected]. Routledge Focus volumes are concise (20,000-50,000 words) and are usually published within 12 weeks of submission.

The Bible, Marriage and Violence

In the Bible as in our contemporary world, marriage is no barrier to violence. Indeed, marriage and violence (including sexual violence) can be very much enmeshed. I will turn to the Bible shortly, but speaking from my own context, the grim statistics of domestic violence, rape, and murder committed by an intimate partner, or former partner, speak loudly and clearly to affirm this.

And yet, right up to the present, the Bible continues to be used – highly selectively – to defend, or proof-text, ideas about marriage that entirely erase this persistent presence of violence in marriage.

In both Jewish and Christian traditions, certain biblical texts are widely cited to construct an aetiology of marriage, and to reject the word ‘marriage’ for same-sex unions. The text most often referred to is Genesis 2:18-24. According to one Christian website, this passage demonstrates that ‘Marriage was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden at the time of man’s creation as a union between a man and a woman’ (and see here for a previous post on marital violence in the Christian church).

Similarly, Andreas Kostenberger, an influential figure in Southern Baptism and author of God, Marriage, and the Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, laments that marriage is under siege today and urges a return to what he calls its ‘biblical foundation’.

Kostenberger succinctly summarises what he deems the ‘biblical’ brand of Christian marriage: ‘Marriage is a covenant, a sacred bond between a man and a woman instituted by and publicly entered into before God and normally consummated by sexual intercourse’. He also identifies six sins (or sinful compromises) that have corrupted ideal biblical marriage. These are polygamy, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, sterility and gender role confusion. Whereas he concedes that sterility is not always the result of personal sin but sometimes ‘a simple fact of (fallen) nature’, the other five are sinful and aberrant choices that deliberately defy divine design.

According to Kostenberger, God desires marriage to be a monogamous union for life between a cis-masculine man and a cis-feminine woman who have sex only with each other and bring forth many (or at least some) children. He is approving of the household codes of the New Testament and of the injunction for wives to submit to their husbands. But any possibilities for such unions and hierarchies leading to or inscribing domestic violence or marital rape receive no mention or consideration, and spousal violence is not listed among the sins of marriage or as indicative of ‘fallen nature’.

My aim here is to challenge this erasure of what the Bible says about marriage in terms of gender-based and intimate partner violence. Moreover, it is important to stress that for all Kostenberger’s claims about the Bible offering fulsome advice on contemporary marriage, it is actually largely silent about this issue.

The Bible offers little if any detail about the formalities of a marriage ceremony. Annalisa Azzoni (2014, 486) states of the Hebrew Bible that in terms of the ‘specifics of the ceremony, the evidence is scant’, while Mary Rose D’Angelo (2014, 501) writes of the New Testament that attention to marriage is ‘scattershot and limited’.

There is no information about the age at which marriage might take place – though some commentators state with confidence that sexually mature girls were quickly married off (e.g. Blenkinsopp 1997, 77). There is some indication that it is desirable for marriages to be arranged by parents but little is said about the couple’s assent to marry. One possible exception is Rebekah’s expression of willingness to marry Isaac, without even setting eyes on him first (Genesis 24:57-58).

Polygamy is common. As Azzoni points out, ‘marriage in the Hebrew Bible cannot be described as being between one man and one woman, but instead between a man and all the women sexually available to him in his household’ (2014, 484).

Consanguineous marriage (such as to a first cousin) receives repeated mention (e.g. Genesis 29; Numbers 36:11-12; Joshua 15:17 and 2 Chronicles 11:18-20) but marriage to someone of another ethnicity is sometimes (explicitly and implicitly) abhorred. Esau’s Hittite wives disgust his mother and Jacob is prevented from taking a Canaanite wife (Genesis 27:46-28:6). Solomon is faulted for what is depicted as the sin of taking foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8; Nehemiah 13:26). Ezra laments the marriages of the people of Israel to foreign women, which has led to ‘mixing’ and thereby, presumably, diluting or polluting ‘the holy seed’ (Ezra 9:1-2). Only expulsion of foreign wives from the community can restore the covenant with God (Ezra 10:1-3) and only separation from foreign spouses can avert guilt (Ezra 10:10-11; cf. Nehemiah 10:28-30). So much for the ‘biblical foundation’ of marriage…

Alexandre Cabanel, Ruth Gleaning

Returning to the matter of the undesirability of exogamy, Ruth may be a good woman but her Moabite ethnicity is clearly ‘an issue’ – for all her goodness – because it is mentioned over and over again (1:4, 22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10). Indeed, as has been widely suggested, the raison d’etreof the book may be to account for the pesky Moabite in David’s lineage by making Ruth, while undeniably a Moabite, a model Moabite whose exceptional virtue (sticking by her mother-in-law, adopting Israel and its God, working hard, marrying whom she is told, and handing over her baby to her Israelite mother-in-law) counteracts the perceived blemish of her ethnicity. Biblical marriage is quite widely associated, it seems, with notions of religio-ethnic purity – and with the violence needed to enforce this (cf. Numbers 25:6-18; Nehemiah 13:25). Yet despite this, Kostenberger does not address the racist ideologies inherent in these texts – he does not even count this issue among the sins of ‘fallen nature’.

In the Hebrew Bible, betrothal and marriage are, above all, agreements to move women from the sphere of authority of the natal home, particularly the father, to that of the spousal home. A wife’s lackof authority vis-à-vis her husband is illustrated in a number of biblical texts; for example, Numbers 30:6-15 stipulates that during marriage, a man has the power to nullify or validate ‘his’ woman’s vows and this decision, moreover, facilitates divine forgiveness (v. 12). A husband’s power is thus linked to God’s, and biblical marriage is repeatedly associated with gender hierarchy and ownership of women.

Moreover, marriage is an institution associated with sexual violence. Rape may be a catalyst for or precursor to marriage. Abram has non-consensual sex with his wife’s slave, Hagar, and subsequently takes her as a ‘wife’ (Genesis 16:1-4). Rape as a segue to marriage is also evident in the ‘marriage’ by abduction of the young women of Shiloh by men from the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 21:20-23). The law of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, whereby a man who seizes and has sex with an unbetrothed virgin must pay her father a fine andmarry her, is also a veritable invitation to ‘marriage’ via rape.

John Everett Millais, Benjamin seizes the daughters of Shiloh (1847)

Marriage can also be a ‘solution’ to rape, especially when sexual assault compromises the woman’s marriageability by taking away her virginity. This is the logic underlying the law of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, and also 2 Samuel 13, where Tamar pleads with her half-brother Amnon to marry her both before (v. 13) and after (v. 16) he rapes her.

Rape can also occur in marriage. This is possibly hinted at in Genesis 31:50, where Laban, before departing from Jacob and his daughters, enjoins his son-in-law not to ‘ill-treat’ (NRSV) his wives. The verb here is from the Hebrew root ‘-n-h, which is used in other Hebrew texts to designate sexual violence against women (see Gravett 2004). Similarly, in Genesis 26:8, King Abimelech sees Isaac doing something to his wife; the verb used to describe Isaac’s behaviour (from the root ts-ch-q) is usually translated as some form of sexual touching, such as ‘caressed’ (NIV) or ‘fondled’ (NRSV). Yet Susanne Scholz (2010, 91) argues that the verb has ‘rape-prone’ connotations, as it certainly does when Potiphar’s wife uses it to accuse Joseph of attempting to sexually assault her (Gen 39:14, 17) (Scholz 2010, 91).

Neither a rapist’s desire to subsequently marry his rape victim (Genesis 34:3-4), nor generous payments to her family in the aftermath of rape (Genesis 34:12; Deuteronomy 22:29), nor delaying sexual intercourse for a month in a forced marriage (Deuteronomy 21:13), nor formalizing a union to facilitate rape (Genesis 16:3) should hide or neutralize the multiple connections between marriage and rape evoked in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars such as Kostenberger, who advocate for the preservation of ‘biblical marriage’ in contemporary contexts, need to engage with this issue and consider more deeply the problematic contours of what ‘biblical marriage’ actually entails.

In a soon-to-follow post, I will continue this conversation, looking at violence in marriage with a focus on Numbers 5:11-31. This text prescribes the ritual of what a man should do if he suspects his wife of adultery, and thus considers another form of intimate partner violence engrained in the biblical conception of marriage.


Azzoni, Annalisa. 2014. ‘Marriage and Divorce (Hebrew Bible)’. InThe Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies(Volume 1). Edited by Julia M. O’Brien, 483–88. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1997. ‘The Family in First Temple Israel’. In Families in Ancient Israel.(The Family, Religion, and Culture). Edited by Leo G. Perdue, Joseph Blenkinsopp, John J. Collins and Carol Meyers, 48–103. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. 2014. ‘Marriage and Divorce (New Testament)’. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies(Volume 1). Edited by Julia M. O’Brien, 497–502. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Gravett, Sandie. 2004. ‘Reading ‘Rape’ in the Hebrew Bible: A Consideration of Language’. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28, no. 3: 279–99.

Scholz, Susanne. 2010. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.

Tags : biblical marriageBook of RuthHagarmarital rapemarriage

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