The Metaphor of Sexual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: A Recent Post by Non-Alchemist

“I will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look
on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame.”
Nahum 3:5, NRSV

The Bible is full of sex. This is sometimes masked by English translations of the text, but it is most certainly there. For example, in Genesis 26 the Philistine king Abimelech, entranced by Isaac’s wife Rebekah, is led to believe that she is Isaac’s sister and therefore eligible to be taken as a bride. But his expectations are dashed when, in v. 8, we are told that he saw out his window Isaac mĕṣaḥēq Rebekah. The participle, from ṣĕḥaq (and related to “Isaac”), is translated formally in the English Standard Version as “laughing.” While this is technically accurate, it is surely not the best translation of the word since it doesn’t exactly fit with the narrative. Why would Abimelech come to the conclusion in v. 9 that Isaac and Rebekah are actually married because he witnessed Isaac “laughing” with Rebekah? Closer to the meaning is how mĕṣaḥēq is rendered in the NRSV: Abimelech “saw him fondling his wife Rebekah.” The verb is loaded with inuendo. 

Other texts in the Hebrew Bible try to mask sexual inuendo with not-so-subtle metaphors. The clearest example of this is the Song of Solomon, a poem about a young couple and their obsession with one another. James Kugel notes that this short text is viewed by many scholars “as part of the great ancient Near Eastern tradition of love poetry, with its conventional descriptions of the lovers’ physical beauty and its frank exaltation of eroticism. Indeed, if we read through its light veil of metaphor, the Song is sometimes shockingly graphic in its description of the couple’s embraces.”[1] For example, the female protagonist speaks of the sweet taste of her lover’s “fruit” as she sits in his shadow (2:4) and how her love “thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him” (5:4). Marc Zvi Brettler notes that the image of the vineyard found throughout is perhaps a “symbol [that] plays on the visual similarity between a cluster of dark grapes and the pubic triangle.”[2] Despite this sexual imagery, some interpreters both of the Jewish and Christian traditions all but neutered the text in a bid to downplay the inuendo.[3]

If the aforementioned examples fall into the category of voluntary sexual acts, there are others that do not. In some cases, this is quite obvious, despite the fact that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for “rape.”[4] For example, in the book of Genesis we read about the rape of Dinah at the hands of Shechem (Genesis 34:1-2).[5] Similarly, in 2 Samuel 13 David’s daughter Tamar is raped by Amnon, her half-brother (2 Samuel 13:14).[6] In other places, the sexual violence is strongly implied. For example, in Numbers 31 Moses orders the Israelite military which was exclusively male “to kill every male among the little ones [of the Midianites], and kill every woman who has known a woman by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18). That is, for sexual use.[7] This is sexual slavery in all but name. Another example of sexual violence that is implied can be found in the story of David’s tryst with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. As monarch, David is able to request Bathsheba to be brought to him and he has the unilateral ability to have sex with her. But this imbalance of power calls into question whether this encounter could have been consensual. Wilda Gafney writes, 

When David sends for Bathsheba, she does not have the option to refuse his invitation; nor do his men have the option to refuse to bring her. The description of her going with the messengers may suggest to some readers that she complies or participates willingly. However, the absolute power of an ancient Near Eastern monarch combined with the absence of her husband’s protection greatly reduce Bathsheba’s ability to consent to the sexual encounter.[8]

Attributing to David the aura of a rapist may sit uncomfortably with many in conservative Christian circles (though they have no issue whatsoever with the notion that he is a murderer) but if this reading of the Bathsheba pericope is correct it certainly makes David out to be something of a sexual predator, complicating the claim of the Deuteronomistic Historian that he was “a man after [Yahweh’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). 

Or does it? In a recent post by Non-Alchemist, we see various passages in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible wherein Yahweh uses the imagery of sexual violence to compare the punishment due to humans for their sins. For example, in Isaiah 3:16-17 Yahweh declares that he would “lay bare” the “secret parts” of “the daughters of Zion” on account of their haughtiness. What the NRSV renders as “secret parts” is a euphemism for genitalia. In other words, Yahweh would sexually shame the daughters of Zion for their purported wickedness. But if sexual violence is inherently evil and God abhors it, then whence this comparison? How could a God who thinks rape and sexual abuse are wicked use that imagery as a metaphor for his punishment of his people (or others)? To state the problem more acutely, if sexual violence is horrendous and immoral then how is it that God can dole out punishment that is seemingly as horrendous and immoral? It is reminiscent of honor killings wherein a male relative perceives that his honor and/or the honor of his family have been diminished by the actions of a female relative, for which the only recourse is murder.

Perhaps David truly was a man after Yahweh’s own heart after all.

[1] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 515.

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 264.

[3] See Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 345; Brettler, How to Read the Bible, 262-263.

[4] Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 322. 

[5] Interestingly, when Dinah’s brothers get revenge for what was done to her, her father Jacob is more upset at how tarnished his reputation will be on account of their activity and the possible effect that will have (v. 30). The brothers respond to their father with a rhetorical question: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (v. 31)

[6] Like Jacob in Gen 34, David does nothing about the violation of his daughter. 

[7] Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction of the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 150.

[8] Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 214.

Featured image: Corona Monroe (Wikimedia Commons)

8 thoughts on “The Metaphor of Sexual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: A Recent Post by Non-Alchemist

  1. “There are a lot of voices in the Bible. We have to make a choice.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure that using the metaphor of God stripping someone naked is the same thing as saying that God will literally rape someone.

    To use a more intense example, I used to play a lot of online games, and sometimes people would talk about “raping” the other team, or “we got raped” when they lost badly. I think that imagery is wildly inappropriate and we should choose not to use it, but at no point would I equate the use of that imagery with actually raping someone.

    And that’s a very direct use of rape as imagery. The Isaiah passage is about Israel’s oppression of the poor (vv. 13-15). The stripping of their clothes contrasts the rich clothing and jewelry in which the oppressors have bedecked themselves (vv. 18-23). These oppressors will be made ugly (v. 17) and naked in contrast to their wealth and vanity. It’s not God saying, “I am literally going to rape you as a punishment.”

    We could discuss whether or not such prophetic imagery is appropriate according to modern standards or even the standards of the day. Maybe it isn’t. But I think your critique at the end is (very uncharacteristically I might add) failing to deal with the text honestly and is a little more in service to get to a criticism.


  3. I’m not quite sure I made the claim that Yahweh said he was “literally” going to rape anyone. Moreover, you are equating “sexual violence” with “rape” and while rape is a form of sexual violence it is not the *only* form of it. The idea of stripping an opponent naked to expose their genitals is inherently sexual and is, in fact, a form of violence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, let me begin by affirming with you that stripping an opponent is a form of violence and it certainly has sexual connotations at least insofar as as a culture considers the exposure of genitalia to be shameful. I closely connected the notion with rape because it seemed to me like you very closely connected these in your last paragraph, even by ending with a comparison of David imitating God in this way.

      Nonetheless, we’re still confronted with:

      1. This is prophetic imagery. God did not remove anyone’s clothing, either. We might decide this imagery is unacceptable – certainly the OT attributes many things to God that we consider unacceptable. At the same time, imagery is not an act nor a tacit approval of that act. If the coach of a baseball team tells his players, “Let’s get out there and bury those guys!” I might decide that’s an inappropriate image, but I wouldn’t think that he was actually killing them or approving of murder.

      2. This image stands in the context of the surrounding passages. The Israelites are oppressing the poor. They deck themselves in jewels and fine clothes. God will strip them of these things.

      Again, we might decide that it’s inappropriate to use imagery like that regardless of intent, but the image is part and parcel of the accusation. You dress in finery, and you will be stripped of that finery and put to shame (i.e. the exposure). This is a long way from someone just threatening sexual violence because they approve of sexual violence. There may be other passages where such imagery does not fit the context so well and may be a more obvious example; I don’t know.

      Anyway, the only reason I’m bringing this up is that this seems so uncharacteristic of the way you typically handle passages, which is with a respect both for context and an understanding of the ancient culture that would produce such a text and what it would mean to them. Your last paragraph reads like it came from a Sam Harris book. “Look, sexual violence is wrong, but here’s God condoning it! Guess God’s pretty evil after all, huh?”

      It should go without saying that my interest here is not to say that the Bible never portrays terrible things about God. But I do think the conclusion you drew from this passage is a very long reach.


      1. A couple of things and I’ll leave it at that.

        First, the intention of my post was to show that the prophetic literature portrays God as using the metaphor of sexual violence to express the punishment with which he will punish those who sin. I never claimed God would rape or otherwise sexually violate anyone. The issue is that if such sexual violence is ordinarily evil, then the God depicted in these texts is one that thinks the *actual* punishment he doles out is the equivalent of sexual violence. Given how traumatic and terrible sexual violence is, why would anyone wish to give out any punishment that is its traumatic equivalent? That strikes me as not only unhelpful but barbaric and wicked.

        Second, I set all that up in the context of a post written by my friend the Non-Alchemist who discusses these texts. In his post, he is attacking particular fundamentalist/literalist readings of the biblical texts. I should have made that more clear in my post, though I still stand by what I wrote.

        Thanks for commenting!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “The issue is that if such sexual violence is ordinarily evil, then the God depicted in these texts is one that thinks the *actual* punishment he doles out is the equivalent of sexual violence. Given how traumatic and terrible sexual violence is, why would anyone wish to give out any punishment that is its traumatic equivalent?”

        Well, but you’re covering a lot of ground by boiling away all the historical particulars of the image to get to “sexual violence.” Again, the image is of a rich oppressor bedecked in finery being stripped of it. It’s not “sexual violence” in the abstract done as “punishment” in the abstract.

        Stripping someone is certainly traumatic. I know kids who had their pants pulled down in gym class and it was traumatic, no doubt, and should not have happened. I’m not sure I’d feel precisely the same way if someone pulled Robert Mugabe’s pants down in public, and I’d feel even less the same way if someone used “pulling his pants down” as imagery to describe what they were going to do to Robert Mugabe to remove him from power.

        I mean, I guess we’re just not going to see eye to eye on this one. I don’t think it’s a sound interpretive principle to lift a line from an ancient text, pull out its most abstract categories, and then say that’s what the text means. But, again, you usually don’t do this. I just wanted to point out that I think you did it in this case and I mean no offense. I like your writings a lot.


  4. I completely agree that the concept of the deity gleefully describing himself as an accessory to gang rape is a problem. For me it’s part of the larger problem of the Bible’s misogyny.

    I don’t fault the previous commenter for not feeling that there is an issue. I myself didn’t see it for decades. Then last year while looking for something else entirely in Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, this jumped out at me: “In his relations with Israel, the Lord has been like an outraged husband who, just before he rips off his wife’s blouse and smashes her in the mouth, screams out the damning word ‘Slut!'”

    This led me to Renita Weems’ Battered Love: Marriage, Sex and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, among other things. Francesca Stavrakopoulou also covers the topic very forthrightly and vividly in chapter 8 of God: An Anatomy.

    Liked by 2 people

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