Ethics,  Law,  Old Testament

Does the Bible Command a Woman to Marry Her Rapist?

Critics of the Bible often say Scripture is anti-women when it comes to the issue of rape. After all, doesn’t the Bible command a woman to marry her rapist? This is a common argument, and critics point to Deuteronomy 22:28–29 as evidence that the Bible is hopelessly out of touch with ethical norms and common decency. Deuteronomy 22:28–29 reads as follows:

Photo of a woman, symbolizing the oppressive rapist

“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days” (NASB).

Does this passage teach that a girl who is a rape victim must marry her rapist?

Some would argue there is no rape in Deuteronomy 22:28 on the basis of the verb used. Although the Hebrew verb is different in verse 28 than in verse 25, they are synonyms, and the LXX translates them the same way, indicating rape is most likely in view here. So, if rape is in view, why would the Bible even suggest that a woman marry her rapist?

To answer why the woman is told to marry her rapist, we must examine the context of this law. The context of this passage gives us two important considerations:

  1. Deuteronomy 22:28–29 law is casuistic.
  2. Deuteronomy 22:28–29 is only one part of a cohesive section that should be considered as a whole.

The Casuistic Nature of Deuteronomy 22:28–29

To the first point, Biblical laws are typically defined as either casuistic or apodictic. Apodictic laws state general principles. The Ten Commandments are the most famous example of apodictic laws (e.g., Exod 20; Deut 5). Laws such as “You shall not murder” or “You shall not steal” give general principles but lack concrete examples by which they are illustrated.

Casuistic laws, on the other hand, give concrete cases in which principles must be extracted from the details of the specific scenario given. Casuistic laws are usually given away by the if/then structure.

It is important to understand that casuistic law was never intended to be ultimate. Rather, it was intended as a template by which the elders of Israel could evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis. An easy example of this would be the casuistic law in Exodus 22:1, where the law describes the situation of a thief who steals an ox or a sheep. If that situation occurs, there ought to be restitution. Does this law thereby exempt thieves who stoop to stealing other animals (goats, doves, etc.)? Certainly not. The laws were not meant to be exhaustive but rather regulative, giving a standard. Thus, the first thing to understand is that the rape law in Deuteronomy 22:28–29 is casuistic law and not meant to be the only consideration in the case of a rapist.

The Near Context of the Laws of Deuteronomy 22:13–30

Moving on to the second major contextual consideration, we should understand that the rape law in Deuteronomy 22:28–29 is part of a larger section (Deut 22:13–30) that presents laws governing sexual behavior (including but going beyond rape). This section (22:13–30) breaks up into four major parts.

  • The first section deals with the accusation that a girl has had sex before her marriage (22:13–21).
  • The second section deals with adultery (22:22).
  • The third section deals with two scenarios of the possible rape of a betrothed virgin (22:23–27).
  • The final section deals with the rape of an unbetrothed virgin (22:28–29).

The third scenario bears a need for closer scrutiny. In this scenario, the man always is put to death for his sexual transgressions, whether rape or adultery (22:24–25). The girl is killed only if it is determined that she was a willing accomplice (v. 24). If the girl had no opportunity to cry for help, it is assumed she is innocent and was the victim of rape (v. 25).

Clearly, this third scenario demonstrates that in rape situations, biblical law holds the rapist accountable for his actions (the death penalty). At the same time, the law shows empathy for the rape victim. In fact, Deuteronomy 22:26 describes rape as akin to murder—which is why the man must be put to death.

As we shift to the fourth scenario (Deut 22:28–29) we note a major detail in this rape scenario—the girl is not betrothed (i.e., she does not have a husband to take care of her). In a society where economic security was largely dependent upon marriage, a girl who was not a virgin would have a difficult time marrying in the future, thus leaving her economically disadvantaged. So, for this particular case, an important economic factor is involved. Hence, the law stipulates that the rapist be allowed to live to marry and provide for the girl who might otherwise be deprived of a future.

Was a Woman Forced to Marry Her Rapist?

In light of the preceding discussion, I do not think there is any reason to imagine the victim of rape in question is forced to marry the rapist. That mindset would go against the entire ethos of the case laws leading up to this one. As the previous laws demonstrate, rape is a serious crime, and the man deserves death. However, with the girl’s economic future at stake, the man might be permitted to live as long as he provided for the girl through the economic benefits inherent to marriage in ancient Israel (and he would be bound to do this permanently).

Were there alternatives for the young woman? It certainly seems so. The woman could choose to live under the care of her father or brother (cf. 1 Sam 13:20), another relative, or even marry another man (although the point is that girls who were not virgins had difficulty getting married). However, each of these alternatives is only possible based on availability.

What if the rape victim had no brothers or her brothers were too young to care for her? What if her father was aged and would die soon? What happens after her father’s death? You can imagine that in a society like ancient Israel, marriage was particularly vital for a woman’s economic security. That is why this case law specifically mandates that, if the rapist and the woman get married, the rapist cannot divorce her. He must be bound to her for the rest of his life. However, this law assumes that the woman and her family have decided this is the best course of action.

Claiming that this law forces a rape victim to marry her rapist is quite inaccurate. Such a conclusion would go against the ethos of the laws on rape already present in this section and other biblical narratives! Since this is a casuistic law, we can assume that there are certain principles in play that are not spelled out (such as the consent of the girl and her family).

In a family-oriented economic society, the rape law in Deuteronomy 22:28–29 provided a future for the victim of rape (should she choose it). However, there is no reason to assume that she had no option. The intent of this law is to make a future available for this young girl should none other be found. Deuteronomy 22:28–29 should not be used as evidence that a girl was forced to marry her rapist.

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Collin Duckworth

    Thanks for bringing light to a seemingly “controversial” passage. I was just in a conversation where this law was brought up to show the “foolishness” of the OT law and the “unfairness” of it. It seems to be a trump card for the progressive movement and pillars to deconstruct the Christian faith.
    Thanks as always,

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