Sex, Rape and Social History – The Case of the Bible

One does not have to look far to find indications of the normalization of sexual violence (a phenomenon known as rape culture) in news articles, pop culture or, indeed, the Bible.

Recent press coverage of Adam Johnson, the ‘Rape Clause’, and responses to rape storylines in Broadchurch and Emmerdale are but a handful of instances demonstrating the complex attitudes bound up in public understandings of rape. Can the Bible – given its considerable influence on Western culture – contribute to the discussion? And if so, how? The new Shiloh Project, which I co-direct with Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth, seeks to answer that very question.

The Bible is of limited value for reconstructing specific events of the past. For the social historian, however, the Bible holds more promise. When it comes to social values, attitudes and laws concerning sex, the Bible has undeniably had tremendous influence.

For example, one biblical commentator claims that the biblical incest laws ‘have had greater effect on Western law than any comparable body of biblical laws’. 1 The kinship and marriage laws (known as consanguinity and affinity laws), which were used in Christian Europe over centuries, were directly derived from biblical incest laws. 2 They were also used rather fluidly. In the twelfth century, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled (following the birth of two daughters and no sons) on the grounds of a blood relationship in the fourth degree. Next, however, Eleanor married Henry (who would become Henry II of England): her cousin in the third degree!

The rape laws and narratives of the Bible also hold out promise for explorations of attitudes to rape throughout history. Male-male rape is threatened twice (Genesis 19 and Judges 19) and in both cases the rapists are invited to violate women instead – with the implication that rape of a woman is less abhorrent and less ‘wrong’ than the rape of a man.

In Judges 19, one of the most horrendous narratives of the entire Bible, a nameless woman, the wife of a Levite, is cast out to a group of thugs and gang-raped all night. Her body is dismembered and its parts sent to the tribes of Israel. This leads to a war, which leads to the exclusion of a tribe, which leads to more rape: because seizing a group of women for wives is deemed preferable to the extinction of a tribe.

The Bible is not for the squeamish. There are many more examples of biblical rape texts. King David ‘takes’ Bathsheba, the woman he sees bathing – and (in spite of the romanticised retellings in film versions) the likeliest scenario is that she was not asked for her consent and raped. 3 King David’s son Amnon rapes Tamar, who is his half-sister. Jacob’s daughter Dinah (whose tale is another often portrayed in pop culture as one of romance) is raped by a local prince.

Often the rape of women in the Bible is depicted in cavalier ways. Abraham offers his wife Sarah to the king of Egypt and to Abimelech of Gerar . Sarah hands Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate child-bearer and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel do the same with their maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah. No words identify such actions as trafficking or rape.

The Biblical legal texts prescribe that if an engaged woman is raped in an urban area, she and the rapist shall both be killed – because she should have screamed for help and (tellingly) because the rights of another man (i.e. the man to whom she was engaged) have been violated.

If the rape occurred in the countryside, however, only the man is executed – because the woman may have screamed and not been heard. By implication raped women are ‘damaged goods’ and potentially co-responsible for their violation. A phenomenon known as ‘victim-blaming’ is something we regularly see played out in contemporary media accounts of rape.

In cases where a raped woman was not engaged, a fine must be paid to her father and the rapist must marry the raped woman, with no possibility of divorce. It is clear that notions of female autonomy and consent are barely present in the Bible and that rape is often a matter of male ownership and competition. This is something we have recently seen in news coverage regarding Article 308 in Jordan which would have allowed rapists to avoid jail by marrying their victims.

Religions play a significant part in both confronting and perpetuating the myths and misperceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures. As such, it is essential that we begin to consider how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

The Shiloh Project, a joint initiative between the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Auckland, is a new research centre which seeks to explore rape in the Bible and also its reception, resonance and afterlives in contemporary settings. The Shiloh Project is named after the women of Shiloh who are seized for rape marriage as a ‘solution’ to prevent the extermination of the tribe of Benjamin. This is a particularly poignant story in the light of the abduction of the girls of Chibok by Boko Haram.

This article was originally published on History Matters. Read the original article.

Johanna Stiebert is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. Her main research interests in the Hebrew Bible focus on self-conscious emotion terminology, ideological-critical readings of prophetic literature, African-centred interpretation, sexuality, and family dynamics. Johanna is co-director of The Shiloh Project. Her latest book is First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: London, 2016).

Header image: The Levite of Ephraim and His Dead Wife. Jean-Jacques Henner circa 1898 [via Wikicommons].


  1. Calum M. Carmichael, Law, Legend and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18–20 (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1997), p.1.
  2. For a full treatment of incest in the Bible, see Johanna Stiebert, First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 596 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2016).
  3. Biblical scholar David J. A. Clines puts it well when he states, ‘the sex is essentially an expression of royal power, and it is much more like rape than love’ (in his Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible, JSOTSup 205; Gender, Culture, Theory 1 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), p.226.
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The Greatest Taboo? The Surprising Truth of What the Bible Says About Incest

Incest sparks strong emotions – and today, in many cultures at least, they are largely negative. But has it always been thus? Or is the taboo peculiar to certain times and places?

Incest taboos are often said to be universal – and sex with a close relative (one’s parent, child, or sibling) is widely considered particularly depraved, as well as detrimental and stigmatising for any offspring who might result from such a union.

Such figures as Josef Fritzl and Frederick West have scaled the heights of notoriety in part because of violent, exploitative incest committed against their own children.

And yet incest also seems to be everywhere: in high and low-brow literature – from Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – as well as in film and especially popular television – think Game of Thrones, Brookside, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. It is also a trope in gothic horror.

Curiously, too, in popular culture, incest is not infrequently depicted as consensual and – especially when it is between a good-looking brother and sister – even as romantic.

Nevertheless, judging from the press over the last few weeks, anyone would think that familial sexual relationships were a completely new phenomenon and that until recently, incest was kept at bay by strong social taboos. However, whether familial sexual relationships are indeed considered to be incestuous (that is, illegal, even criminal) or not depends on the social and cultural context. Moreover, attitudes to incest tend to be gendered and heteronormative.

With relatives who were once separated increasingly able to trace each other (through DNA testing, social media, and reunion services), stories of siblings, or of a parent and childreunited are more common. And not infrequently, such reunions transpire in mutual attraction and love – which has been hitting the headlines recently.

A taboo too far?

This phenomenon is known as GSA – Genetic Sexual Attraction Syndrome – and not infrequently affects relatives who did not spend the formative years together and who meet as adults. When people do spend early life together, a different psycho-social mechanism, called the Westermarck effect, functions to suppress erotic bonding. It is almost never the case that romantic, consensual erotic bonding happens between family members who do spend early life together.

Some of the public conversations now turn to whether incestuous unions – where they are consensual and between adults – should be tolerated and decriminalised. Indeed, in Sweden half-sibling marriage is already legal and the jurisdictions of some other countries, too, do not penalise such acts.

Love: but is it legal?

Media stories only portray heterosexual familial partnerships, however, so there’s precious little coverage on brothers or male close family relations who’ve experienced GSA after a period of separation. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, of course, but the coverage says a great deal about such being a cultural “taboo too far” for us. By contrast, popular cultural representations of heterosexual sibling incest is often eroticised, with the woman frequently portrayed as a feminine ideal: beautiful and sexy. In such story lines, incestuous relationships function to add an extra thrill of the illicit. The most recent public examples of GSA, however, reveal the mundanity of many of the cases, despite the scandalous tenor of the journalists.

The media coverage provoked by biological mother and son Kim West and Ben Ford, the latest couple to go public with their experience of GSA, has been queasy, voyeuristic and sensationalist, with assertions that familial sexual relationships “are on the rise”. Suggestions that familial sexual relationships are increasingly common suggests that they’ve been very rare in the past; however, even a text as ancient as the Bible outlines prohibitions for incest, suggesting that familial sexual relationships occurred frequently enough to warrant the introduction of behavioural guidelines.

The Bible’s verdict

Despite the seemingly clear rules around incestuous relationships – just as popular culture toys with the titillation and taboo of the topic – biblical depiction is ambiguous. Yes, there are the Levitical laws that prohibit sex with a string of family members (one’s sibling, parent, certain in-laws … but not one’s son or daughter!), but then there is also the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19, seducing their father and bearing sons, which offers no (certainly no explicit) reproof. The daughters even draw attention to incest by calling their sons “Moab” (Hebrew for “from the father”) and “Ben-Ammi” (“son of my people”)!

The revered patriarch Abraham mentions rather casually that his wife, Sarah, is also his half-sister. David’s son Amnon becomes obsessed with and rapes his sister Tamar. This event is certainly depicted as villainous and cruel on Amnon’s part but Tamar’s words, as she tries to prevent the rape, suggest sibling marriage is an option.

Close-kin marriages – between fathers and daughters and between siblings – were certainly known in Egypt, right up to and including Cleopatra, who married two of her brothers consecutively.

The Bible, as usual, however, offers no clear advice going forward.

Katie Edwards, Director SIIBS , University of Sheffield and Johanna Stiebert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Rape Culture in the Christian Church

A blog post entitled ‘She Only Said “Yes” Once’ recently made its way around Christian circles. In the post, Pastor Reggie Osborne laments the state of sex education in the United States and argues instead for an approach which considers consent as an event which happens most meaningfully at the wedding altar. Osborne writes:

On, July 28th, 2001, the answer we gave each other before God and everyone was: “Yes.”  “Yes,” until the day that we die.

Yes, I could kiss her. Yes, I could sleep with her. Yes, I could steal glances of her in the shower because I think she looks great even after 5 kids. She said, “Yes,” to me, forever.

I wasn’t asking for a one night stand or permission to touch her after a party. I was asking for forever, and that’s what she gave me. That’s what I gave her.

She has never had to say it again. She said “yes” only once. She meant it to last. I meant it to last. It has lasted fourteen years. It will remain in effect until death parts us.

In the comments section, several readers challenged Osborne to comment on the danger of this perspective on consent, particularly for victims of spousal rape. Pastor Osborne quickly clarified his position, affirming every person’s right to refuse sex, but seemed surprised such a point might be raised.

While Pastor Osborne’s follow-up comments demonstrate that he does not endorse spousal rape, the fact that it wasn’t on his radar when writing the post is evidence of a wider pattern within the Christian community. That is, ignorance of and scepticism about the prevalence of rape culture. In short, for many Christians, rape culture is an unfamiliar concept. Those that know something about it often deny or undermine its existence.

Rape culture is an environment in which sexual assault and other forms of abuse of women are normalized in the media and in popular culture. It occurs ‘where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent’. These acts of violence can occur not just at the physical act of rape itself but also at the level of other kinds of physical touch as well as at the more subtle level of language, gesture, and imagery.

Whatever you think about the ways in which the Bible represents violence towards women, the Christian church has contributed to the normalization of such violence. Perhaps the most frequently cited recent example of rape culture within Christianity is the purity/modesty movement, which places primary responsibility for sexual purity on women, portraying men as largely helpless against ‘immodest’ females.

Perhaps less frequently discussed but familiar to most Christians are sexually charged Christian youth group games, popularized by such organizations as Young Life. One apparently popular game is ‘Kissing Rugby’, a version of which involves a girl sitting in the centre of a circle, guarded by another girl, while a boy tries to manoeuvre his way past the guard to kiss the girl. In some contexts, youth leaders join in as well. Another game, ‘Balloon Squeeze’, is described like this:

Each pair gets a balloon to put between them. Without using hands, they have to pop balloon first. Can do it “most in a minute” too. Beware of any “risqué” popping techniques ‘cause you know those kids and they’ll do it to get laughs!

In this way, even from an early age, Christian girls are simultaneously taught to bear the burden of warding off sexual violence and placed in vulnerable and confusing situations where boys are encouraged to touch and grope their bodies.

But even in churches which recognize the dangers of these widespread practices and avoid them, Christians nevertheless have inherited and been influenced by a likewise destructive longstanding theological tradition. From the early church through the Reformation and beyond, theologians (almost always male) have interpreted biblical narratives about sexual violence in ways which ‘reinforce patterns of subjugation, silencing, and violence against women’.

In short, although some have begun to explore how rape culture is fostered and perpetuated within the Christian church, there is considerable work to be done, particularly when it comes to its subtler expressions. As a linguist, I’m interested in how language expresses and reflects rape culture in Christianity. For example, in a corpus of popular (primarily American) sermons on divorce, I am currently examining instances where Christian pastors mention domestic violence from the pulpit. My analysis of these will form the basis of a chapter for the first Shiloh Project edited collection on Rape Culture and the Bible.

More specifically, I am looking at how language is used to conceal or expose violence, obscure or clarify perpetrators’ responsibility, conceal or honour victims’ resistance, and blame or else contest the blaming of victims. I’m also interested in the extent to which pastors appeal to the authority of God and the Bible to justify their statements regarding spousal abuse and its relevance for divorce.

So far, language about domestic violence in these sermons points to the following conclusions: First, only a small minority of pastors mention domestic violence directly. And second, among those pastors in the corpus who do mention domestic violence, all but one minimize perpetrator responsibilityconceal violenceblame victims, and conceal the resistance of victims.

Take, for example, the following excerpt from one frequently accessed sermon from the public archive, Sermon Audio.

The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and … leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.

Here, the pastor employs victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. A particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim in the way he introduces his invented dialogue with a victim. Note his use of evaluative ‘oh’ (highlighted above), where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves.

Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual (young) woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.

The pastor also appeals to authority, contrasting God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of violence. He here teaches that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands.

Considering the statistics regarding domestic violence, it is highly likely that a victim or potential victim of violence sat in the pew when each of the sermons in the divorce corpus was originally preached, not to mention the many women who have since downloaded them. Messages about spousal abuse such as these reinforce a culture in which Christians blame women for the violence they suffer and command them to be silent about what they endure.

In short, these pastors are preaching rape culture. As one countercultural pastor, one of the only pastors both to directly mention and condemn violence against women, asked:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God?

Might we also add, what pastor is it who preaches rape culture? In my view, any Christian who wishes to disassociate from rape culture will need to answer these questions more directly and convincingly. And urgently.

Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research has consistently focused on examining the ways in which seemingly inclusive large institutions establish community boundaries via language and, in some cases, marginalize and exclude vulnerable members. She is currently working on compiling several corpora of religious texts.

Image: Wedding rings and the Bible. [Via Pixabay]

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Sexual Violence and Rape Culture in the New Testament

All too often when people think about violence in the Bible, they focus on the Old Testament and ignore the New. People tend to imagine that the Prince of Peace rejects violence, and situate Jesus and the God of the New Testament in opposition to the Old Testament God; this kind of oppositional reading is problematic in many ways, not the least in its historic contribution to anti-Semitism, but also ignores what the text itself says.

In fact, the New Testament is full of violence and suffering, violence which is condoned by Jesus himself. Even in the Gospels, Jesus demands that eyes be plucked out and hands cut off as a result of sin, and threatens the earth with bloody violence. The Book of Revelation, written in the first or second century CE, is widely read as early Christianity’s rejection of the sinful, violent Roman Empire and the hopeful expectation of justice for true believers. This understanding of the Apocalypse overlooks the rampant violence omnipresent in the text, which depicts sexual violence as a punishment ordained by God. As John Marshall says, “Sexualized violence against women is one of John’s primary modes of depicting God’s judgment.”

Revelation’s views on rape are not unique, but rather participate in prevalent attitudes about gender, power, and war in the ancient world. In antiquity, sexual violence and rape were frequently depicted as just punishments for conquered peoples. The defeat of an army represented a power dynamic between enemies, where the victors upheld the masculine role of empowered penetrator and the conquered were made effeminate in their weakness, their penetrability. This dynamic is preserved in art, such as the 5th century BCE Eurymedon Vase.

The vase depicts a nude Greek soldier, victorious and with his erect penis in his hand; the reverse shows a defeated soldier from the Battle of the Eurymedon River bending at the waist, with hands raised in fright or submission. The inscription reads, “I am Eurymedon, I stand bent forward.” The vase represents mainstream ideas that equate defeat with penetration and victory with forced sexual conquest: rape. The Roman period continues this trend; Roman coins minted to commemorate the defeat of various provinces, including Judea, depict Rome as a tall, virile soldier, often holding a phallic sword; the soldier looms over a bent female figure in distress, representing his power in gendered and militaristic terms at the same time. It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that Revelation not only portrays its enemies in feminised terms, but also punishes them with sexual assault.

There are two sections in Revelation where sexual violence is most notable. In Revelation 2:22–23, the Son of God passes judgement on various churches in Asia Minor. He singles out one woman from Thyatira, Jezebel, who is a prophetess:

“Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”

While many translations shy away from the sexual violence implicit in the threat, the text’s repeated references to sexual immorality, in the context of a work that operates on the principle that ‘the punishment fits the crime,’ implies that rape is an appropriate punishment for this ‘false’ prophetess.

Likewise, the Whore of Babylon, the author’s female symbol for Rome, is also threatened with sexual violence; the angel explains that the Great City of Rome will be made desolate and naked, implying again that her promiscuous behaviour should be punished by sexual violation, condoned by God. Despite the fact that the Whore is a symbolic woman (rather than actual woman, like Jezebel), the reinforcing of sexual violence as punishment contributes to a culture in which rape is understood as not only acceptable, but necessary in order for the “right side” to emerge victorious, masculinity intact.

The question of sexual violence as punishment, unfortunately, remains all too relevant. From popular culture to present day wars, rape persists as a means of control. All too recently, American soldiers were found guilty of sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison after photos showed evidence of soldiers raping male and female prisoners; even if not directly influenced by the biblical texts, the notion that victims of sexual assault need to be “innocent,” as one of the guilty soldiers insisted, hearkens back to ancient ideas about warfare, rape, and power.

Even films seeking to make light of contemporary preoccupations with the apocalyptic end up repeating and reinforcing the rape culture that persists from antiquity to the present day. The 2013 film This Is The End, directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, received a lot of attention at its release for its rape jokes, which include a joke whose punchline is that Emma Watson is overly paranoid about being raped; James Franco admitting to having sex with Lindsay Lohan when she was so intoxicated that she thought he was someone else; Channing Tatum naked, bound in chains, as the sex slave of Danny McBride; and perhaps most memorably, the rape of Jonah Hill by a well-endowed black demon. As Nico Lang at Thought Catalogue states, “…rape is explicitly an act of gender and power. It asserts roles and hierarchies of dominance, and when we make a world where it’s easier for Jonah Hill to get raped for ‘acting like a woman,’ we create a world that perpetuates female sexual assault. We continue to demonise femininity and promote the exact toxic masculinity that This Is the End, at its best, wants to satirize.” Just as Revelation, a text that purports to reject the trappings of the Roman Empire, inevitably reinscribes gendered violence as right and appropriate, so too This Is The End props up rape culture with its rape jokes.

Author: Dr Meredith Warren is a member of The Shiloh Project, lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Deputy Director of SIIBS. Meredith’s main research interests lie in the cultural and theological interactions among the religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and especially metaphors of food, eating, and the sense of taste. You can find Meredith on Twitter @DrMJCWarren.

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Why ‘The Shiloh Project’?

Our name refers to a story replete with rape in the closing chapters of the book of Judges. Judges is rife with brutalities and recounts a time of military skirmishes before there was even more organised warfare in the days of monarchy. The book ends with events at Shiloh and comments, on a closing note, that in those (chaotic and violent) days there was no king, so each man did as seemed right in his own eyes.

In Judges 20 an inter-tribal war begins between ‘the people of Israel’ and the tribe of Benjamin (which is also part of Israel). The catalyst for this war is the brutal gang rape of the Levite’s wife – a gang rape that is preceded both by the threat of male rape of the Levite and by the cavalier offering up for rape of his wife and a host’s virgin daughter (Judges 19). The war has divine backing – though the Israelites have misgivings about fighting their own kin (Judges 20.23).

After Benjamin is defeated there is more upset, because the Israelites had sworn an oath at a place called Mizpah, not to give their daughters in marriage to the Benjamites. But if the Benjamites had no access to wives, how would the tribe survive?

A ‘solution’ is found: one group, from a place called Jabesh-gilead, had not sworn the oath at Mizpah. So, Israelite soldiers went to Jabesh-gilead and killed all the men and all the women who had had sex with a man. But all the female virgins were brought to Shiloh to become wives for the Benjamites. These virgins, however, prove insufficient for the Benjamites and ‘compassion’ (Judges 21.15) transpires in a further scheme: the Benjamites are to seize the young women of Shiloh as they come out to dance in the vineyards. Any Israelite male – father or brother – who is unhappy about this is told to be ‘generous’ (21.22).

We know nothing more about these women of Shiloh – they have no voice. The text is filtered through a lens of male demands for progeny and posterity. But we can resist the women’s invisibility and insist on giving them a voice. We can imagine their ordeal and demand that this story is not overlooked. In our own time, resonances with rape in war and with the abduction of the girls of Chibok by Boko Haram makes this particularly poignant.

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