Home / Views & Opinion / Editorial: Rape and slavery in the bible
Editorial: Rape and slavery in the bible

Editorial: Rape and slavery in the bible

I've been meaning to come back to the topic of rape and slavery in the bible for a while. It's been some time since I've addressed this issue, and recent conversations with both atheists and theists warrant some clarification. First thing, the bible is probably one of the most widely interpreted collection of books in history. There are many ways of interpreting Scripture that range from the absolute literal to the liberally allegorical.

Thus, the various subjects which are contentious, controversial and otherwise anti-social often come up, with most of the arguments being not between atheists and theists, but among the innumerable Christian denominations which hold to various biblical interpretation. Rape and slavery are two of those subjects, and depending upon how one views the bible, either of these two can be a commandment of their god, things their god condemns, or anything in between.

There's This One Problem, Though…

As is well-known, there have been Christians that have used the bible to support the abolition of slavery and condemn rape, while the same book has been used to support the validity of slavery and justify rape. With regard to rape, it is obvious that blatant support for rape is rare. However, there are those, such as Phyllis Shlaffley, who posits that rape cannot be committed in the confines of a marriage, as the very act of marriage gives automatic consent, regardless.

The issue I have with the universal cry of 'foul' by the mainstream and even those progressive Christians whenever these subjects are broached lies in the default. An example would be a law that says it's illegal to run a red light. That is the default. Running a red light is wrong, according to the law. There are exceptions, such as emergency vehicles, or when a traffic cop is assisting. Those exceptions are noted as such, but the general rule is that you'll get a ticket or worse for breaking this rule.

The bible's passages about rape and slavery depict them as acceptable, preferred and even commanded in some areas. This is the default, and in many of these passages, there doesn't even exist exceptions that would state when rape and slavery isn't acceptable. This is left up to the one interpreting the book, which can range from the borderline retarded up to the accomplished scholar. Here's a clue that should be obvious to anyone with an IQ over 70: If you have to spend any time explaining why the horrible stuff stated in plain and clear terms in your holy book is wrong by re-explaining it in complicated and enigmatic ways before you can get to the 'good stuff,' your holy book needs to be scrapped because, in the wrong hands, it can be lethal. It often is.

Unfortunately, the borderline retarded have the same rights to teach their kids what 'god says' as does the accomplished scholar. Unfortunately, again, a vast majority of believers fall into the category that doesn't include the scholarly. By scholarly, I refer to those who have studied dead ancient languages, primitive customs and the traditions of the cultures that existed two or more thousand years ago, and who do not interpret the bible as the literal words of a mythical and usually angry Hebrew storm god. Or at least those who have a modicum of a clue that all forms of ownership of another human being are wrong and any raping activities are, as well, wrong.

So, let's examine rape and slavery as it appears in the bible. We'll start with rape, and the 'plain and clear' of,

What The Bible Says About Rape…

As we all know, the act of rape is among the most heinous crimes that are committed against humanity. It should be noted that in several places the bible refers to an act called 'taking a wife.' These marriages were not usually voluntary. Here's a list of rape related scripture:

"So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children.  "This is what you are to do," they said. "Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin."  Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan. 

"The Israelite assembly sent a peace delegation to the little remnant of Benjamin who were living at the rock of Rimmon. Then the men of Benjamin returned to their homes, and the four hundred women of Jabesh-gilead who were spared were given to them as wives.  But there were not enough women for all of them.  The people felt sorry for Benjamin because the LORD had left this gap in the tribes of Israel.  So the Israelite leaders asked, "How can we find wives for the few who remain, since all the women of the tribe of Benjamin are dead?  There must be heirs for the survivors so that an entire tribe of Israel will not be lost forever.  But we cannot give them our own daughters in marriage because we have sworn with a solemn oath that anyone who does this will fall under God's curse."

Then they thought of the annual festival of the LORD held in Shiloh, between Lebonah and Bethel, along the east side of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem.  They told the men of Benjamin who still needed wives, "Go and hide in the vineyards.  When the women of Shiloh come out for their dances, rush out from the vineyards, and each of you can take one of them home to be your wife!  And when their fathers and brothers come to us in protest, we will tell them, 'Please be understanding.  Let them have your daughters, for we didn't find enough wives for them when we destroyed Jabesh-gilead. And you are not guilty of breaking the vow since you did not give your daughters in marriage to them.'"  So the men of Benjamin did as they were told.  They kidnapped the women who took part in the celebration and carried them off to the land of their own inheritance.  Then they rebuilt their towns and lived in them.  So the assembly of Israel departed by tribes and families, and they returned to their own homes." – Judges 21:10-24


"They attacked Midian just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men.  All five of the Midianite kings – Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba – died in the battle.  They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.  Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder.  They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived.  After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp.  But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle.  "Why have you let all the women live?" he demanded.  "These are the very ones who followed Balaam's advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor.  They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD's people.  Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man.  Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves." – Numbers 31:7-18 


"As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you." – Deuteronomy 20:10-14 


"If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father.  Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her." – Deuteronomy 22:28-29


"If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbors wife." – Deuteronomy 22:23-24


"Thus says the Lord: 'I will bring evil upon you out of your own house.  I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor.  He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight.  You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.'

"Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord."  Nathan answered David: "The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.  But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die."  – 2 Samuel 12:11-14 


"When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house.  But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive's garb.  After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife.  However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion."– Deuteronomy 21:10-14 


"They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man, Spoils of dyed cloth as Sisera's spoil, an ornate shawl or two for me in the spoil." Judges 5:30


"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.  If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.  But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.  And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter.  If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.  If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment." – Exodus 21:7-11


"Lo, a day shall come for the Lord when the spoils shall be divided in your midst.  And I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem for battle: the city shall be taken, houses plundered, women ravished; half of the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be removed from the city. – Zechariah 14:1-2

As you can see, these passages give accommodation, commandments, advice, suggestions, instructions and support to rape. Without these passages being explained in a way where they are not any of these things, it takes a fair amount of mental gymnastics for your average church-goer. When confronted with these scriptures, most believers are at a loss. They either have never read them, or can only offer the equivalent of your average eight-year-old's refutation when the schoolyard bully tells him his pants belong to his sister (which, by the way, a biblical based insult).

Some will deny the very words are actually in the bible, squawk that an atheist cannot understand god's word or accuse us of misinterpreting what amounts to plain language. Most will often resort to the common talking points of 'God loves you,' or some such other nonsense. A few will tell you they need to speak to their Pastor about it. A fair amount will reply with threats, insults, condemnations to hell, or all three.

The facts are clear that the bible is generally unfriendly toward women, even though there is the odd passage here and there which may be said to speak highly of them. Several of the church fathers were misogynist, and many Christian men today feel they are superior to women in many ways. Many Christian women agree with this, which boggles the mind. Rape was not considered a big deal in most cases, because the person being raped was less than human – she was property.

Now, lets' examine,

The Bible on Slavery…

The issue of slavery comes up when arguments arise regarding the meaning of slavery, how slavery was seen in biblical times and how it is compared to modern slavery, including the enslavement of Africans in the United States. Again, the reflection of slavery by various individuals results in their interpretation of the bible. There have been arguments made in favor of what the bible says, using the belief that god's version of slavery was either commendable, or had a different definition to what most people now consider valid.

Slavery is rampant in both the Old and New Testaments, and regardless of how any one given believer chooses to define it, there was indenturing involved. It can be argued that the involuntary ownership of one human being over another is always bad, no matter what the terms are. Several biblical translations have replaced the word 'slave' with 'bondservant,' 'manservant, or just plain 'servant.'

These are not necessarily incorrect translations, but have been used to describe duties and responsibilities only. Many slaves worked as household servants, but they were also bought and sold, like  livestock. I've also heard arguments that slavery back then was a lot like being in financial debt now, such as with a loan or credit card. However, those are agreements that are entered into by both parties.

Here's relevant Scripture on slavery:

"However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way." – Leviticus 25:44-46


"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years.  Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.  If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year.  But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him.  If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master.  But the slave may plainly declare, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children.  I would rather not go free.'  If he does this, his master must present him before God.  Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl.  After that, the slave will belong to his master forever." – Exodus 21:2-6


"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.  If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.  But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.  And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter.  If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.  If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. – Exodus 21:7-11


"When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property." – Exodus 21:20-21


"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.  Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ." – Ephesians 6:5


"Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed.  If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them." – 1 Timothy 6:1-2


"The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it.  "But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly.  Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given." – Luke 12:47-48


"Let as many slaves as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed." – 1 Timothy 6:1


"Exhort slaves to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things." – Titus 2:9-10


"Slaves, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward." – 1 Peter 2:18

The same problems exist here with slavery as does with rape. The average believer will tell you that the bible doesn't condone slavery, when it obviously does. The arguments can only lie in what the definition of slavery was, or what they believe their god's intentions were when he "wrote the book," so to speak. Many Christians need a way to validate what is in their bible, and many take solace in either redefining what the bible clearly states as indentured servitude, or that slavery isn't bad when god is the one who gives the instructions on the proper way to run a slaves life. Others who simply explain it away as something mere mortals cannot understand.

When confronted with exactly what the bible says, many will completely lose their capacity for rational thought and act in ways that are decidedly un-Christian. For example, earlier this year I designed a billboard for an activist friend of mine in Pennsylvania. My design was done to his specifications, and the end result was this:

Now, as you can see, this billboard is Scripturally accurate. It says what it says. The contention that ended up in black Christian protesters ripping down the sign the same day it went up (turn the other what?) was the image used and the suggestion that a Christian (especially a black Christian) should consider what their bible says, sans the gajillion different ways it can be explained to mean something other than what it does.

The fact is, the verse used in that billboard was one of the verses that was used to condone slavery in the United States and that the Christian god not only condoning the practice, but in some cases, stating that the ownership of slaves was a blessing. The bible clearly states that slaves are to obey their masters. While there were some preachers in the 18th and 19th centuries who thumped their bibles as hard as the preachers of today to explain that many of those who were considered slaves back in bible times were actually loved members of the family and well treated, consider that.

  • A pet is also a loved member of a family.
  • It's still perfectly legal to shoot your pet.
  • These people were still owned.
  • They were also allowed to be put to death.
  • There were many slaves who were treated horribly, too

What does matter is that the Scriptures were used to validate slavery in the United States prior to abolition, and it is still being used today to justify all sorts of horrible behavior. Aside from convincing millions of people to believe some of the biggest whoppers ever told in the history of everything, the field of Apologetics is an entire discipline within Christian indoctrination that is built around the concept of explaining what the bible does not say.

I am familiar enough with seminary curriculum within several denominations, and I can tell you with great certainty that four of the most common positions of defense coming out of many apologetics classes revolve around the myth of creation, women and their vaginas, and slavery/rape in the bible. As I implied earlier, if you have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why the book you believe to be the ultimate moral guide for everything is full of gross immoralities, bigotry, hatred and discrimination – it might be time for another book.


Editorial originally published in Al Stefanelli's blog on 02 November 2013


About Al Stefanelli

Al is a retired author, writer and journalist. His books include "Free Thoughts - A Collection Of Essays By An American Atheist" and "A Voice Of Reason In An Unreasonable World - The Rise Of Atheism On Planet Earth." Al began writing in 1985, starting with the New York Times. In 1993 he joined a McClatchy newspaper, writing a weekly column for ten years. His writing continues to be widely distributed on the Internet and in print. He also produced and hosted a weekly syndicated radio broadcast from 1995 to 1998, and his work won a North Carolina Journalism award in 1998. Al is the former Georgia State Director for American Atheists, Inc., and served on the Board of Directors for "The Clergy Project." He is also a former Southern Baptist Pastor, having served two churches and as pulpit supply for three counties. Currently, he writes part time for The God Discussion, co-hosts the Internet radio programs, "The God Discussion Show" and "Reap Sow Radio." Al lives in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, GA.
  • Peter

    Come on! Most
    modern Christians and Jews I’ve talked to reject those passages as abhorrent
    and regard them as the misogynist diatribes by primitive Israeli priests
    thousands of years ago. And, modern Christians and Jews know they’re wrong and
    have no place in any society. Laws passed by Christians prove that. The only
    ones buying that s**t are Christian fundamentalists who are stuck in the 15th
    century. There it is a problem in the Deep South where too many long for the
    Confederacy. But even there progressive are being heard. But atheists want to
    belabour the point ad nauseam. Al, get over it, your editorial is
    primarily due to your fundamentalist upbringing and your geographical location.
    Nothing else. It ads nothing to the discussion. The rest of us have moved on
    long ago. Incidentally, I am a child of the 60s and remember well the civil
    rights movement and marching to protest Viet Nam. I was at the love-ins where
    we listen to Sgt. Pepper. Laugh, but that era is when everything changed.

    • If most modern Christians and Jews reject the disgusting content of their "holy" books then why remain Christians and Jews?
      Progress! Bob Johnson

      • Peter

        Because we're in the 21 century. The only ones who take it as inerrant are Christian Fundamentalists and Orthodox Jew. Others, because their faith still gives them something. The bible isn't all blood and gore it does have some good insights on the human condition. There is still a place for religion in this world. Me, I'm agnostic

  • Guest

    You lost me when you started the name-calling…

  • Alex

    Al, you bring up some valid concerns and make some valid points. I'd love to discuss all those issues with you. It would make a great "God Discussion". I get frustrated with those passages as well and I get even more frustrated when Christian friends do the Jesus Juke around them. There are contradictions, paradoxes, abhorrent things in the bible. Heck, the Noah story is sobering…imagine all those bloated dead bodies floating around (if true) and only Noah and his family survive. The bible is clearly not all "Jesus loves me this I know"…Gahndi Jesus I call it. There are some very ugly things in the scripture. Very ugly things in the church. To run from it is to be intellectually dishonest, IMO.

    • Alex

      Now having said that, there are also some very beautiful and good things in scripture and some very good things in the church. It's not all bad and not all good, IMO, much like any Group, Philosophical Belief System or Organization (unless it's the Oakland Raiders, they are all bad, OK and maybe Westboro Baptist. And, and, and 🙂

    • Deborah_B

      Good point. That could be a good show!

  • Alex

    I see you were an SBC Pastor, wow. Well you know the bad side of the church and bible then and don't need me to tell you. I've considered Atheism many times, gotta admit. I just can't make the leap, despite the valid points many of my Atheist/Agnostic friends make. I still can't resolve Existence, Origins, the Universe, the Mulitverse and the complexity and Order to things and the innate sense of a higher Being and an Uncaused Cause. Personally, I find a lot of Truth in Science, Reason and even Religion…and somehow, despite my highly negative personal experiences and witness of the bad in "church" and religion, I still have more doubt in "No God" than doubt in "God"…but I respect the opinion of others and at the end of the day, I try to be intellectually honest and say "dunno" on many issues.

    • Deborah_B

      Deism might have some appeal to you, Alex.

  • smithie62

    for all its worth if religion can ditch slavery and rape, it can ditch discrimination towards gays….

Scroll To Top