By Barbara Martin


A question about sexual assault


In the Old Testament, a woman wasn’t considered raped unless she called out for help. I’d like to believe simply that Jesus’ covenant of grace supersedes Old Testament laws, but it is still very painful to grapple with this.


This is a question that could take a long time to answer because it is one that has many complicating layers to it. I will try to answer as concisely as I can in the limited space that I have.

In trying to answer this question based on the passage from Deuteronomy 22:13-30, I sat with Dr. Michael McKelvey, associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. He was able to help me understand the meaning of these passages.

The heading of this particular portion of scripture is “Laws Concerning Sexual Immorality.” We tend to read these Old Testament passages through the lens of our 21st-century mindset rather than in the context into which they were given. These were principal laws applied on a case-by-case basis and grounded on the evidence given. We need to remember that they were given in the context of the Mosaic administration and were unique to the theocratic state of Israel at the time. At that time, Israel did not have an earthly king; God was their king and His law the sole source of justice. Accordingly, this is not for the church today, just as we don’t stone people for committing adultery in the 21st century, because we don’t live in a theocratic state and the church is not the source of legal justice.

The overall principle of the theocratic state was about holiness being upheld in the community of Israel, a call to be holy even as God is holy. During this time, God’s laws emphasized that His people, Israel, must have appreciation for and a pursuit of the holiness of God, and anything unholy must be purged. If you look at verses 21, 22 and 24, you will see the statement, “So you shall purge evil from your midst.” God wanted evil purged from His community, as Israel was supposed to be a visible representation of God to the nations surrounding them.

The overarching command in these verses is that you shall not commit adultery. If you read these verses carefully, you will see that God’s desire is to protect women. But to see this, you need to remind yourself of the cultural setting of this passage. Throughout these verses, there is a theme of justice and the severity of sin. “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones; the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So, you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

In these verses, the female is a betrothed virgin, which meant she was under the binding contract of marriage even though the marriage had not yet been consummated. In these verses, a man meets her in the city and lies with her. This does not imply rape. The fact that she didn’t cry out for help implies that this was a consensual act. In the small cities of Israel at that time, the walls of houses weren’t that thick, so if she had cried out for help, someone would have heard it and rendered aid. The principal law implies there was no resistance.

Compare this to Deuteronomy 22:25-27: “But if, in the open country, a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.” (Deuteronomy 22:25-27)

These verses are talking about rape. The word “seized” is used which, in Hebrew, means the man forces her with strength; he man-handled her. She is considered innocent, but the man is considered guilty.  This was not a consensual act; she cried out for help, but no one was there to rescue her. In fact, this is an act of aggression by the man and is treated like murder, so the man was to be put to death.

Again, compare to Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.”

If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed and seizes her (a different Hebrew word for “seize” than found in 22:25), this could imply rape or might suggest the man is holding on to or grabbing hold of her and lies with her. In other words, this could point toward an aggressive seduction since the Hebrew wording is different. If they are found, he must marry her. He has violated her and humiliated her in terms of her reputation, so he must pay her father 50 shekels of silver, which at that time was above the normal bride price. Also, he cannot divorce her, a protection for her in the culture at this time.

Remember not to look at any of this through a 21st-century lens but through the lens of the ancient world, which is very foreign to us. Women at that time had extreme difficulty surviving without a husband, and culturally, her life and meaning was tied to being married and bearing children.

When we understand the world of the ancient Near East, we see in these verses that God actually does care. He cares about the purity of His people, He desires to regulate the community life of Israel under His rule, and He puts laws in place to protect women. And since God deals with His people progressively over time, when we get to the New Testament, Jesus shows the fullness of God’s revelation and care as well as what the law was meant to do (see, e.g., Matthew 5-7). Just as we address children where they are in relation to their age and understanding, so God has addressed His people where they are. He knows what His people need based on where they are in history.

Also, the covenant of grace does not begin with Jesus. It begins in Genesis 3:15 when God promises to redeem humanity from their rebellion and sin. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise, and everything in the Old Testament is God’s way of moving us toward the cross of Calvary so that we can be forgiven by grace. Even the Mosaic administration is a part of the covenant of grace, as God graciously comes to a sinful and rebellious people to show them their need of Him and His mercy, and to point them to the coming Redeemer who will take away all their sins.

If someone you know has been raped

Please understand, rape is a trauma. It is a crime of violence and should be treated as such. The following is a list of do’s and don’ts that can help you help someone who has survived rape. This list is from Diane Langberg’s book “On the Threshold of Hope: Opening the Door to Hope and Healing for Survivors of Sexual Abuse.”

Do …

  1. Let her know that it is often better to have given in to her attacker than to have resisted him.
  2. Assure her the rape was not her fault.
  3. Encourage her to write down the details of what hap She will find that easier to do immediately after the incident rather than later, when she is being questioned or pressured to remember.
  1. Encourage her to report the crime but remember that it is ultimately her decision to make.
  2. Encourage her to go to the emergency room or police immediately if the rape has just occurred.
  3. Go with her to report the attack or to the emergency room. It is very traumatizing to be examined immediately following a rape, especially by a male doctor.
  4. Encourage her to seek professional help. Someone trained to deal with the aftereffects of rape will be able to help her sort through what happened.


  1. Don’t evaluate the victim according to a preconceived stereotype of what kinds of women get raped.
  2. Don’t press for details of the attack.
  3. Don’t react with visible shock, horror and disgust.
  4. Don’t accuse her of being partially to blame.
  5. Don’t discourage her from reporting the rape.
  6. Don’t criticize her for not resisting hard enough.
  7. Don’t urge her just to forgive her attacker and not report it.
  8. Don’t even hint that she might have been spared if she had asked God for help or done something differently.


Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, clinical coordinator of the Counseling Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, has her own private practice at RTS.