Question: "What does the Bible say about sexual assault?"
Answer: Sexual abuses of all types, including sexual assaults, have been a part of human history since before Old Testament times. Legal definitions of sexual assault identify it as any type of unwanted sexual contact or any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to unwanted and offensive sexual touching.
The first allusion to sexual assault in the Bible is in Genesis 12:10–16. Due to a famine in his homeland, Abram and Sarai traveled to Egypt. Abram was worried that, because his wife was so beautiful, Pharaoh would kill him and take Sarai into his harem. To prevent that from happening, Abram begged Sarai to lie and say that she was his sister. While the claim was not entirely false (Sarai was his half-sister), it was still a lie. Abram’s fear highlights the fact that in those days kings could do as they wished with the women of the land. Women were considered little more than property, and sexual assault perpetrated against them by those in power was expected. In many parts of the world today, this is still the custom.
Pharaoh did abduct Sarai—without killing Abram—and he took her into his harem. But then God stepped in. To protect Sarai, God brought plagues upon Pharaoh’s household, and Abram’s lie was revealed. Pharaoh released Sarai unharmed. She had avoided sexual assault by God’s divine intervention.
Abram’s son, Isaac, learned his father’s ways and repeated the same actions. Fearing Abimelech, king of the Philistines, Isaac lied about his relationship to his wife, Rebekah (Genesis 26:1–10). Fortunately, Isaac’s lie was uncovered quickly, and Rebekah was protected from sexual assault in Philistia.
Sadly, Isaac’s granddaughter Dinah was the victim of sexual assault and was raped by a man named Shechem in Canaan. Genesis 34 details the aftermath of that rape: Dinah’s brothers, the sons of Jacob, took bloody vengeance, slaughtering Shechem along with all the men of that town.
One of the most infamous incidents of sexual assault in the Bible is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 18—19. The men of these cities were so wicked that they attempted to rape the two angels who, in human form, were visiting Lot. The men of Sodom were ready to beat Lot’s door down in order to assault his guests. Lot and his family only escaped because the angels blinded the mob and whisked Lot’s family to safety. Because of the sexual perversion of Sodom and the surrounding cities, God utterly destroyed them.
Sexual assault and all forms of sexual perversion are indicators of the wickedness of the human heart (see Jeremiah 17:9). God created sexuality to be a beautiful expression of love and unity between a husband and his wife (Matthew 19:6). But, in our depravity, we pervert everything God created as good. In our sinful world, God’s gift of sexuality is often used to dominate, victimize, and control, resulting in the crimes of rape, sodomy, molestation, and other forms of sexual assault.
God’s law He gave to the Israelites dealt with sexual assault. If a man raped a woman, that man had to take responsibility for her for the rest of his life (Deuteronomy 22:28–29). This ensured that, within God’s people, there were no throwaway daughters. None of His precious girls could be violated and then left defenseless. In a culture where virginity was a requirement for marriage, girls who had been violated had no recourse. They faced life without a husband or children or a way to provide for themselves. So, under God’s law, if a man took a woman’s purity, he would spend the rest of his life making it up to her.
One thing these graphic stories in the Old Testament tell us is that a world without God’s law is animalistic. With no fear of God in our hearts, we view other people as less worthy than we or as a means to our own satisfaction. We use people and then discard them, as Amnon did with his half-sister Tamar after he raped her (2 Samuel 13). The Bible never downplays the actions of the people it features but uses their actions to teach us important lessons. From them we learn that sin has consequences, including sexual sin. We also learn that God cares about those who have been violated by sexual assault.
Psalm 34:18 says that the Lord “is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” The “brokenhearted” and the “crushed in spirit” can be those who have been victims of sexual assault. Victims are not invisible to God, and He cares about their future. When Sarai’s maid, Hagar, became pregnant with Abraham’s child, Sarai’s jealousy drove Hagar into the desert alone. Hagar felt abandoned by everyone, pregnant and without a husband. But God found her there and cared for her. She called Him “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). He is still “the God who sees” every sexual assault, and He wants victims to know they are not alone.