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Women and Violence in the Hebrew Bible

Stories about men’s violence against Israelite women in the Hebrew Bible aim to signal a system gone awry, but women are not helpless victims or exempted from using violence to protect themselves or their people.

Jan van Dornicke

Although the Hebrew Bible does not typically present women as helpless victims (it has very few damsels in distress waiting for a man to rescue them), it recognizes violent treatment of women as a sign of a system gone awry, odious acts that merit bloody vengeance. Thus, Dinah’s brothers kill the entire male population of a town because the town’s leader had raped their sister (Gen 34:2). Absalom kills his half-brother Amnon, who had raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister (2Sam 13:32). With the exception of Tamar, we never “hear” the anguish of the women. In her case we learn that she unsuccessfully attempted to stop the violence.

Deut 22:25-27 requires a man’s death for having sex with another’s betrothed woman in the field. The woman is not culpable “because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor” (Deut 22:26)—that is, the woman presumably could not defend herself and because of the location there was no one to come to her aid. But when the intercourse happens in the town, both the woman and the man must die (Deut 22:23-24). As these cases show, location and the honor of men are key factors, but the laws nonetheless respond to (potential) violence against women.

Two stories in the Hebrew Bible suggest that violence against women is more tolerable than violence against men. In both Gen 19 and Judg 19, a host volunteers to throw the women of the house out to an assaulting mob in order to protect a male visitor. These two households are hardly considered exemplary by the texts’ authors, which may suggest some criticism of readiness to sacrifice women. The episode in Judg 19 leads to the rape and death of the male visitor’s concubine, triggering a civil war. The story ends with the sanctioned kidnapping of women to provide wives for the decimated tribe of Benjamin.

Foreign women do not usually receive special protection. In Num 31, Moses orders the execution of all female Midianite war captives who have “known a man.” Those still virgins, however, are divided among the soldiers and the rest of Israel. However, Deut 21:10-14 requires a man who has captured a (presumably foreign) woman in war to give her a month to mourn for her parents before having sex with her, and if he does not wish to keep her as a concubine, he must set her free (Deut 21:14).

Prophetic passages such as Hos 2 and Ezek 16 give divine sanction to violence against women when they personify Israel and Judah as adulterous women, whom God will punish; though Isaiah 40 and 54 promise redepmpion to Jerusalem as a bereaved woman, highlighting female vulnerability in times of war. And on rare but memorable occasions, women even perpetrate violence. An unnamed woman throws a grinding stone on Abimelech, who commands his armor-bearer to strike the fatal blow so as not to die at the hands of a woman (Judg 9:51-54). A “wise woman” saves the town of Abel Beth-maacah from destruction by arranging to deliver the head of the wanted man whom the city’s besiegers seek (2Sam 20:14-22). The most famous biblical woman who acts violently is Jael, a non-Israelite who, with a tent peg, kills Sisera, the general of Israel’s enemy (Judg 4:17-22).

  • Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

    Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Dr. Eskenazi is editor-in-chief of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, winner of the 2008 Jewish Book of the Year Award, and co-author (with T. Frymer-Kensky) of the JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth, winner of the Jewish Book Council Award in Women’s Studies in 2012. She is completing the Anchor Bible commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah.