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What we miss when we downgrade Old Testament abuse stories to sexual peccadilloes.
My family and I were driving to the movie theater recently and Game of Thrones came up in our conversation. Having never read the book or seen the HBO show, but figuring reviews and trailers gave me all I needed to know, I pontificated, “Game of Thrones is popular only because it’s about sex and violence.” To which my son Noah responded, “Sex and violence—sounds like your books, Dad.”
The reason I write about sex and violence is that the Bible—especially the Old Testament, where I spend most of my time—talks about sex and violence. A lot. It includes stories of fornicators, adulterers, prostitutes, polygamists, ethnic cleansing, fratricide, infanticide, and other forms of cruel activity.
But the Old Testament is also full of sexual violence. We read of rapists, pimps, and other perpetrators of sexual exploitation. The Bible, then, is not that different from Game of Thrones—or better yet, the news. Every day we seem to hear about sexual assaults on college campuses, in the military, and even in churches. Sadly, many of us are no longer shocked when we hear such horrific news.
This reality makes studying sexual violence in Scripture all the more pressing. Paul said all of Scripture—including what we might consider the R-rated stories of the Old Testament—is God-breathed and can train us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17). It’s not that we skip over such stories, but that we tend to use euphemisms when telling them. We don’t pay close attention to the details, and as a result miss what the biblical authors intended to communicate. Stories not just of prostitutes, adulterers, and fornicators, but also of sexual predators and human traffickers, teach us profound lessons about God and his grace. He came to redeem all people, even those who are sexually violent, as the genealogy of Jesus shows.
Abraham: The Pimping Patriarch
The first story we tend to euphemize is that of Father Abraham. Abraham—the second man mentioned in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ family history—gets off to a great start by obeying God’s call to leave his homeland. But not all was well with the patriarch. We give him due honor for his astounding faith. And sure, we recognize he slept with his wife’s female servant. But when describing how he trafficked his wife, we soften the details.
Shortly after arriving in Canaan, he leaves for Egypt to avoid a famine. Because of Sarah’s beauty—at age 65—he orders her to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister and not his wife. That way no one will kill him in order to marry her (Gen. 12:12–13). Since Abraham and Sarah were half-siblings, the message was half true. But since their prime relationship was that of husband and wife, it was half false.
Upon arrival, the Egyptians praise Sarah for her good looks, just as Abraham had predicted, and Pharaoh takes her into his harem. To thank Abraham for sharing his “sister,” the ruler rewarded him richly with animals and male and female servants. While the text is somewhat vague, the language that Pharaoh “took her” suggests sexual engagement.
God called Abraham to be a blessing to all families of the earth, including his own. But he does the opposite here. He was more concerned about his own safety than his wife’s wellbeing and dignity. (And Abraham repeats this cowardly, selfish act in Genesis 20.) Sarah must have felt betrayed, and Pharaoh suffered because of Abraham’s deception: God sent plagues to punish Pharaoh for taking Sarah as his wife (Gen. 12:17). The only one “blessed” in this scenario is Abraham. He essentially trafficked his wife and profited richly, and it didn’t take long for sexual exploitation to creep up again in his family.
Tamar: The Pious Prostitute
Abraham’s great-grandson Judah had three sons. The oldest son, Er, married a Canaanite woman named Tamar, but he was wicked in God’s eyes, so God killed him (Gen. 38:7). Judah then told his second son, Onan, to “go into” Tamar in order to perpetuate Er’s line. Levirate marriage—in which the oldest brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow—troubles many of us today, but it was common for the ancients and was later codified for God’s people (see Deut. 25:5–6).
Onan did go into her, but whenever he slept with her, he “spilled his semen on the ground” so she wouldn’t get pregnant (Gen. 38:9). The reason? Onan knew the offspring would not be his, but his older brother’s. That meant Onan would not get the firstborn’s inheritance. Onan’s behavior—sexually exploiting Tamar while depriving her of the dignity of motherhood—was wicked in God’s eyes, so God killed him, too.
Noticing a pattern with his sons, Judah decides not to give Tamar to his third son, Shelah. Judah tells her to live as a widow in her father’s household. So when Tamar realizes Judah is doing nothing to continue Er’s line, she schemes a creative plan. Shortly after Judah becomes a widower, Tamar dresses up like a prostitute and sits along a road on which she knows Judah will soon travel. Judah sees her and assumes she’s a prostitute, not his sneaky daughter-in-law, so he approaches her and promises to pay the standard fare (a goat), which he would send later. She agrees, but only if he gives her some collateral now. He hands over the ancient equivalent of his wallet—a signet, cord, and staff—and he “goes into” her. She finally conceives, and Er’s line survives.
However, when Judah discovers that Tamar is pregnant—not knowing that he is the father—he orders for her to be killed. Since Tamar is pregnant with twins, his command will involve the execution of not only his daughter-in-law, but also his own children. It looks bad for Tamar, until she sends a message with Judah’s possessions, saying, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these” (Gen. 38:25). Judah then exclaims that his prostituting daughter-in-law is more righteous than he.
Judah was a deceptive, sexually immoral, and hypocritically judgmental father-in-law. But after this episode, he is a changed man. Later, he offers himself as a slave in place of his youngest brother, Benjamin, to the man in charge of the grain in Egypt—his brother Joseph—whom he had sold to slave traders 22 years earlier (Gen. 44:33). Unlike Judah, Tamar was simply attempting to do what was right—albeit, she did so imperfectly. God killed Er and Onan for their wickedness, but protected and blessed Tamar.
David: The Raping Monarch
The Old Testament includes several rape stories, including the gang rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) and the rape of Tamar—who was probably named in honor of Judah’s daughter-in-law—by her half-brother Amnon, the oldest son of King David (2 Sam. 13). But perhaps the most notable is one that most people don’t associate with rape: David and Bathsheba.
The story is familiar. David is at home in Jerusalem when he should have been off at war with his men and the army of Israel. Walking around on his roof one evening, David notices an attractive woman, Bathsheba, bathing. He summons her, they have sex, and she conceives. When David’s plans to cover up the scandal fail, he has her husband, Uriah, killed in battle.
David messed up—big time. But we soften the story by reducing the affair to consensual adultery. Some say Bathsheba must have known David was watching her, so she could have resisted him. In the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, Bathsheba wants David to be enticed.
But why blame her? She could have been fully clothed and using just a bowl. The text doesn’t say she was naked. And the text doesn’t say she knew she was being watched. Finally, women generally didn’t say no to men—not in ancient societies like theirs. And subjects certainly didn’t say no to kings. While the first half of the story is ambiguous about the extent of her guilt, the second half is pretty clear about who is to blame.
The text and the characters point the finger at David. God blames David. “The thing David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). The text doesn’t say the thing “they” or “David and Bathsheba” did. Just David.
The prophet Nathan blames David. Nathan tells a story about a rich man who stole and slaughtered his poor neighbor’s ewe lamb in order to feed a hungry guest (2 Sam. 12:1–4). Blaming Bathsheba, even in part, would be like blaming the ewe for getting eaten.
David blames David. At the end of Nathan’s story, David says the man—who represents him in the parable—deserves to die (2 Sam. 12:5). Based on the huge power differential between the king and his subject, it’s more accurate to call this power rape rather than adultery. Bathsheba couldn’t say no. She didn’t even have a choice.
Sexual violence was rampant in the ancient world, as it is today. And the biblical authors didn’t ignore stories of sexual violence or euphemize the details. Rather, they narrated the stories of sexual violence and exploitation in depth—so much so that in Tamar’s case, readers wonder, What’s this long interruption about Tamar doing in the middle of the Joseph story? And while the New Testament praises the good deeds of men like Abraham and David, it doesn’t sweep their sin under the rug.
Ancient genealogies often boasted impressive fathers, ignored forgotten mothers, and omitted anything embarrassing. But Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew deviates from the typical formula. It includes four women, which would have been considered weird. But the weirdness gets taken to astronomical levels as we examine who these women were. The first woman mentioned isn’t Eve, Sarah, or Mary, but the pious prostitute Tamar. The second woman, Rahab, is another prostitute. The third is a widow, Ruth—whose act of uncovering Boaz’s feet was gutsy and unconventional, to say the least. And the fourth woman is referred to simply as “the wife of Uriah”—the power rape victim Bathsheba.
Many pastors and authors like to signal out the women in Jesus’ genealogy, all of whom appear to be Gentiles. But we don’t talk about Abraham and David—who were perpetrators, not victims, of sexual sin. When it comes to discussing sex scandals, we apparently feel more comfortable talking about women than men. And we’re skeptical—sometimes even condemnatory—of the victim.
Ultimately, we can’t say definitively why God chose not to kill David. The fact that David was spared does not mean, however, that David’s sin had no ramifications. It certainly did. Bloodshed, fratricide, and rebellion marked the later years of his reign (2 Sam. 13–1 Kings 2). Two of his sons, Amnon and Absalom, were also rapists—and both of them were killed, though the text doesn’t explicitly state that God did the killing. But God had told David through the prophet Nathan that judgment would fall upon his house (2 Sam. 12:10). This announcement got David’s attention and likely prevented him from repeating these sins of rape and murder.
The consequences for sexual violence are severe indeed, but God’s mercy toward repentant sinners is even greater. When we talk about sexual violence and help victims, we need to remember that God’s grace is far more powerful that human sin—as egregious and damaging as it can be. Scripture teaches that when humans behave badly, God behaves graciously. He not only forgives repentant sinners, but also gives aid, strength, and healing to victims of abuse. Jesus, the offspring of both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, came to redeem not only their lives but ours as well.
The gospel tells us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s redemption. To be sure, the sin of perpetrators of sexual violence needs to be taken seriously. We cannot ignore sexual violence when it arises in our communities. We should acknowledge these tragedies for what they are, and address them appropriately. If a member of a church confesses a crime like rape, for instance, it will need to be reported to the police immediately. But we also need to proclaim to them the message of God’s forgiveness, knowing that God calls us to extend his grace to people taking big risks in confessing their sin. And we are wise to realize that even severe consequences of sin are opportunities to experience God’s grace and redemption (Heb. 12:7–11). God disciplines his children and uses human judgment as a part of his care for them.
Scripture teaches us that God works in and through messed up people—even ones with some of the worst sexual baggage we can imagine. Scripture doesn’t avoid talking about sexual violence. Nor does it use euphemisms to soften the severity of sexual abuse. It presents reality as it is. Sin has tragic consequences. But God works in and through consequences to work out redemption.
David T. Lamb is associate professor of Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and author most recently of Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan).