Bad Translations and The Punishment for Rape

If you’ve ever spoken to a rabid atheist for more than a few minutes, you undoubtedly came across the argument that the Bible is evil because it forces raped women to marry their rapists. Unfortunately, largely due to a mistranslation of Deuteronomy 22:25-29, even many Christians think this law is repugnant. It is crucial for our proper understanding of the equity of God’s Law, God’s holiness and justice, as well in apologetic encounters, to properly understand what this passage is teaching us. It is very handy to let atheists, secularists, and their kin know that they’re soft on rapists compared to the capital punishment which Scripture demands.

Many translations use the same word in Deuteronomy 22:25 and verse 28 when in fact there are two different words with different meanings for what the man does to her in the original Hebrew. The ESV repeats the error of the RSV in translating the verbs in Deuteronomy 22:25 and 22:28 identically: “seizes her and lies with her.” The NIV is the most egregious here, translating taphas in verse 28 as “rape.” This gives the impression that an identical sense of forced rape is in view in both instances and only sanctioned with a fine in the second. This is a huge misconception today and demonstrates the importance of formal equivalence.

The verb in verse 25 is chazaq which means “to prevail upon.” The term is used elsewhere to mean “‘to seize’ a bear and kill it (I Sam. 17:35; cf. 2 Sam. 2:16; Zech. 14:13), ‘to prevail’ (2 Sam. 24:4; Dan. 11:7), ‘to be strong’ (Deut. 31:6; 2 Sam. 2:7), etc.  Deuteronomy 22:25 thus speaks of a man finding a woman and ‘forcing her.’  Just three verses later (Deut. 22:28), the verb is changed to simply ‘take hold of’ her – indicating an action less intense and violent than the action dealt with in verse 25 (viz., rape)” (Bahnsen, Pre-Marital Sexual Relations). The verb in verse 28 is taphas which means “to take or handle” and is “used for ‘handling’ the harp and flute (Gen. 4:21)…for ‘taking’ God’s name (Prov. 30:9)…Joseph’s garment was ‘grasped’ (Gen. 39:12; cf. I Kings 11:30)…In all of these instances it is clear that, while force may come into the picture from further description, the Hebrew verb ‘to handle, grasp, capture’ does not in itself indicate anything about the use of force” (Bahnsen, ibid.). John Gill’s Exposition likewise states that verse 28 “is not expressive of a rape, as Deuteronomy 22:25 where a different word from this is there used.” See how the KJV correctly translates the verbs differently:

25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die.

26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:

27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.

28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;

29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

These two scenarios are clearly different. Verses 25-27 describe rape, whereas verses 28-29 describe seduction. This is further evident by the context, verse 26 tells us why rape is to be punished so severely, it is equivalent to murder: “as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter” and that even though she cried out there was no one to save her. Then verse 28 shifts from focusing on her as the victim and the man as guilty, to the both of them together being caught “and they be found.” This scenario is probably more deviant than typical fornication, this would be more like a pushy boyfriend manipulating his girlfriend to have sex with him. The parallel passage in Exodus 22:16-17 makes this clear and demonstrates that it’s not about rape:

And if a man entice (pathah, to be enticed/deceived) a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.

Therefore, given the Hebrew wording, the obvious context and punishments, and the parallel passage in Exodus, there is no legitimate reason to interpret verses 28-29 as rape.

Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown’s commentary sums up the three scenarios (verses 23-29) quite well:

If a young woman was seduced after betrothal, and before the consummation of her marriage [note: as this is a form of adultery], both she and her seducer were to be put to death [v. 23-24]. But if she was forced, the man only who committed the rape was to suffer for the violence, which was regarded as a capital crime [v. 25-27]. In the case of a maiden not betrothed being seduced [note: as this is not a form of adultery], the man was obliged to marry her, and he forfeited the right possessed by other husbands of giving her a divorce. But her father might refuse to allow the marriage, and in that case the seducer had to pay her a dowry (cf. Exod. 22:16-17). These stringent laws were calculated to exert a powerful influence, not only over young women themselves, but over their parents, in increasing their vigilance in preserving the chastity of their daughters.

vol. 1, pg. 674.

Atheist meme. Mistranslation and confusion about Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is a favorite target for rabid atheists. Christians need to be able to properly explain this passage.



11 thoughts on “Bad Translations and The Punishment for Rape

  1. Paul, could you please comment on the fact that both Matthew Henry and John Gill, in their commentaries, express that the violated woman has the same right of refusal as her father, despite that not being expressly stated? They both indicate that only the violating man is without excuse.


    1. Good question. I’m not sure. Perhaps because they thought that even in this case marriage has to be consensual, parents can’t force their children to marry someone against their will.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. There are some OT passages which appear to indicate that dads could force their daughters into marriage, though it is hard to tell whether that was normative, or if the dad generally gave consent to the eligible suitor who had already won the affection of the daughter.


    2. One possible explanation for Gill and Henry’s understanding on this point would be that the assertion of the father’s consent is not exclusive of the daughter’s consent. Also, other passages of Scripture indicate that women do, in fact, have a right of refusal for marriages, since they have the power to consent, which implies and requires a power of refusal.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The NET Bible is always confusing haha! I think many translations use the same word for two different Hebrew words because they use a more dynamic equivalent translation philosophy rather than a formal equivalent one. In this case it is particularly awful because it completely changes the meaning of the original text and has very bad ethical consequences. The NASB and KJV/NKJV (and surprisingly, even the NLT) make the distinction, perhaps a few others.


  2. The entire context of the verse, as well as verse 27, as well as the fact that verse 28 says “he has VIOLATED her” make it clear that both verses refer to rape, not seduciton. If seduction were meant, the verb form exodus would’ve been used. Furthermore, Taphas is used elsewhere intThe bile for things like talking prisoners of war and conquering cities or for when Moses seizes the tablets and then smashes them.


    1. “Violated” is a translation that some versions use, others say “humbled,” the meaning is that he took her virginity, not that he raped her. “If seduction were meant, the verb form exodus would’ve been used.” That’s not necessarily true, as we’ve shown in the article the term used simply means “to take or handle” and doesn’t necessarily imply violence.

      “And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and brake them before your eyes.” Deut. 9:17. The term in question is where Moses took the tablets, not the verb for throwing them or breaking them.


  3. Helpful article. The only thing that puzzles me is the lack of an explicit law about the rape of a non-betrothed virgin. The penalty for the betrothed virgin reflects the fact that the act is adulterous, but that’s not the case when the virgin is not betrothed. That seems to be the reason why v. 28-29 are understood as rape. Would the rape of a non-betrothed virgin also be punished by death? It’s far from clear. On the other hand, the text doesn’t mention the rape of a married woman either, but obviously that would also merit death. And yet the married and betrothed woman are more alike than the betrothed and non-betrothed.

    Another interesting fact is the rape of Tamar, who begs to be married to Amnon. Would that support the rape reading of v. 28-29?


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