Rape in the Bible
Unfortunately, most ancient men and women had an unreal understanding of women. When they looked at women, they saw beings that do not exist, because their thinking was twisted and stifled by their ignorant and bigoted culture. It was as if they held a diamond in their hands but saw it as an odious pre-historic crawling creature that disgusted them, so they cast it away. Thus, it is no surprise that the opinions of rabbis in the Talmuds are mixed and include some rather disparaging and embarrassing comments about women.
Two biblical episodes
This negative attitude affected the understanding of some people of the two biblical episodes concerning concubines who had nonconsensual intercourse. In both instances a son slept with his father’s concubine – apparently in order to show that he was the proper successor of his father, for ancient civilizations used sexual conquest as a demonstration that a son was seizing his father’s role.
Other biblical rapes – of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, by the non-Israelite Shechem, and Tamar by Amnon, generally recognized as her half-brother – demonstrate the same senseless and pernicious attitude. However, those stories include other side issues and, more importantly, those rapes do not involve the negative responses of husbands, which is the focus of this essay.
The first story involves Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben, and is recounted in a single verse, in Genesis 35:22: “And it came to pass, when Israel [Jacob] dwelt in the land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.” Jacob’s reaction to Reuben’s nefarious act is not mentioned in the Bible. However, some commentators contend that Genesis 49:3–4 contains his response. Jacob recognizes that Reuben is his firstborn, but says, in essence, that Reuben will be punished for his daring act and will not receive the inheritance rights of the firstborn. He will “have not the excellency because you went up to your father’s bed and defiled it.”
The second instance, occurring centuries later, concerns Absalom and his father David. In II Samuel 16:22, “Absalom went in unto his father’s [ten] concubines in the sight of all Israel.” II Samuel 20:3 describes David’s reaction, “the king took the ten women, his concubines, whom he had left to keep the house [when he ran from Absalom, and whom Absalom came and arrogantly defiled], and put them in ward [secluded them], and provided them with sustenance, but went not into them.”
Neither Jacob nor David act strongly in punishing their sons for the reprehensible acts – Reuben receives a monetary fine and David does not penalize Absalom at all for his behavior; indeed, he mourns his son loudly and publicly after Absalom is killed. However, both Jacob and David treat their concubines badly. Jacob, as we will see, is seen by many scholars and rabbis as avoiding the innocent Bilhah after the rape. David too decides not to have sexual intercourse with his concubines once Absalom had sex with them. He secludes them, prohibiting them from having sex with anyone, but provides them with food in their seclusion. Needless to say, people with modern sensibilities would question Jacob’s and David’s behaviors.
We will examine four approaches to these two tales.
- Does Judaism believe that raped women are defiled and no longer permissible to their husbands?
- Why did Jacob cease having relations with his concubine after she was ravaged?
- Why did David feel that he did not want to have sex with the concubines raped by his son Absalom after his son’s assault?
- What can diverse views on the subject tell us about the thinkers who held them?
Raped Women Are Defiled: The View of Nachmanides, Kimchi, and Bechor Schor
The sages, as we might expect, differ as to whether women are tarnished and tainted by non-consensual rape to the extent that their husbands can no longer have relations with them.
Nachmanides contends that Reuben slept with his father’s concubine for mercenary reasons. He imagines, although the Bible does not even hint at it, that Bilhah was the only woman left with whom Jacob could have children. The Bible states that Rachel died. Nachmanides assumes that Leah was too old to give birth and that her servant Zilpah was also aged or had died. If Bilhah gave birth, Nachmanides argues, attempting to read Reuben’s mind, Jacob would have another child and Reuben’s share of the inheritance would be reduced. So he slept with Bilhah, defiled her, and made it impossible for Jacob to sleep with her again.
David Kimchi (also called Radak, 1160–1235) and Joseph Bechor Schor (born c. 1080) shared his view. They write that when Jacob heard what Reuben did, he separated from his concubine, and this, they say, is hinted at in the end of the verse, which records the otherwise unnecessary statement that Jacob had (only) twelve children.
One Talmudic Opinion: Why Did David Not Resume Marital Relations?
The Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 2, 3, offers two diametrically opposed reasons as to why David refrained from resuming sexual relations with his concubines – both based on the understanding that the violated women were not defiled. The Talmud recognizes that rabbinical halakhah only forbids resuming sexual relations with an adulterous wife. The Talmud suggests that David focused on himself. He either voluntarily decided to abstain from having relations with his concubines in order to punish himself for his misbehavior with Bat-sheba or he refrained because he felt that it was wrong for a king, who holds a highly respected position, to live with women who had relations with another man, even if they were raped.
It seems clear to modern thinking that those who, like Nachmanides, Bechor Schor and Kimchi, insist that women are defiled when they are raped and cannot resume relations with their husbands are articulating an unfair and unreasonable ruling. Why should innocent women be punished?
The talmudic explanation of why David ceased having relations with his raped concubines is not much better. Granted, the Talmud states that David could have resumed relations with his concubines, but the Talmud attempts to justify why David did not do so by focusing on David’s concept of himself, not his feelings for others. Is David’s behavior morally defensible? Should innocent women be treated in this fashion? Should their future lives be determined by the self-interested whim of their husbands? Isn’t it arrogant for a husband to say, “I feel more pious by not resuming relations with you even though I am allowed to do so”?
The answer is clear: women should not be shunted to the side like used and spoiled clothing either because the law forbids the resumption of relations or because of a husband’s attempt to show piety.
Maimonides and Other Talmudic Statements
Maimonides’ opinion on the subject is more reasonable. He rules that relations may be resumed and does not attempt to justify Jacob or David’s behavior in abstaining from having sex with their concubines. In fact, he states nowhere that Jacob disregarded Bilhah after the rape.
Maimonides opposed the thinking of Nachmanides, Kimchi, and Bechor Schor. In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:6–19, he states:
When a woman commits adultery…he is obligated to divorce her and is forbidden to have sex with her. [However] a woman who committed adultery unknowingly or who was raped is permitted to [have sex with] her husband…[whether] she was raped by a non-Jew or a Jew.
This reflects the teaching in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 33b and Ketubot 51b and other places.
Yevamot states that if a man mistakenly sleeps with a betrothed woman, she may resume sexual relations with her husband after waiting three months. The waiting period helps identify the father of a child born to the woman within nine months after intercourse. If she is not pregnant after the three-month period, it is clear that no child was conceived during the intercourse.
Ketubot states that if a woman is kidnapped and raped, as long as she did not consent to the intercourse, she may resume relations with her husband. If the outrage began with compulsion and ended with her consent, she is still permitted to her husband because even during the time that she willingly participated with her abductor she is deemed to have acted under compulsion because the kidnapper “plunged her into an uncontrollable passion.”
 Commentary to Genesis 35:22.
 Commentary to Genesis 35:22.
 This law does not apply to husbands, who are allowed by biblical law to have more than a single wife.
 The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55b, also attempts to absolve Reuben and David of any guilt. It says regarding David that he did no wrong because Bat-sheba was divorced when he took her. It insists that: “Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error.” All he did was remove his father Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s tent, where Jacob had placed it in order to have relations with her, and set it instead in his mother Leah’s tent; he felt that Jacob was shunning his mother. Most of the biblical commentators, including Nachmanides, Bechor Schor and Kimchi, recognize that this is not the plain scriptural meaning, and that the Talmud is attempting to whitewash the incident.
The Mishnah Megilah 4:10 states that when the practice existed that the Torah was read in the synagogue in Hebrew, followed by a translation for the audience in Aramaic, the verse containing this incident was not translated intentionally. Although unstated, the reason was obviously that the Hebrew original is unclear as to exactly what occurred, and the rabbis, protecting Reuben’s reputation, were concerned that the translation would reveal embarrassing facts.