Sexual violence against women appears in many genres of literature sacred to ancient Christianity, from foundational myths in Genesis through apocalyptic symbolism in the Revelation, and on into the martyr stories used liturgically by the church. These passages have damaged women, men, church, and society when taken as normative or prescriptive passages about human behavior. Recontextualizing sexual violence against women as a literary trope allows us to consider its symbolic meaning in the text, while resisting that presumption that male domination and sexual violence are part of God’s plan for the church.
This project involved analyzing selected passages featuring sexual violence against women, classifying the stories by genre, and considering the purpose of sexual violence in each text. Modern scholarship was considered along with analysis of the stories and comparison within and among the genres.
Although each genre uses sexual violence against women differently, its meaning remains fairly consistent for a given genre. In the foundational myths of Genesis, rape serves an etiological or ethnological purpose, establishing relationships between tribes. Rape stories in Judges and 2 Samuel play off earlier use of sexual violence, but deploy it to advance political messages. In prophetic and apocalyptic literature, political entities are represented as women and threatened with sexual violence. In one variation (known as the marriage metaphor), Israel is depicted as the wayward wife of God whose downfall is the result of being unfaithful. In another version, a foreign city is feminized and raped. The virgin birth story uses symbols and wording taken from Greek romantic rape scenes, which use sexual violence to depict a great man as having a divine origin. In ascetic literature, sexual violence serves to de-sex the woman in order to make her holy. In accounts of martyrdom, persecutors use sexual violence to defeminize the woman prior to her death. In the ascetic bios, the woman is a living martyr who must de-sex herself through transvestitism, lifelong seclusion, or suicide—often with sexual violence as an added incentive to be more masculine than feminine.
Recognizing the symbolism in these literary tropes is valuable to everyone who reads, studies, teaches, or meditates on these passages. Sexual violence in sacred literature subjects real, living women to danger when its presence in the text is misunderstood. Liturgy and Bible study pull ancient attitudes about sexual violence into the present, legitimizing its presence and reinforcing damaging ideas about victims of sexual violence. Understanding the purpose of its presence in a particular text not only helps us interpret the text more accurately, but also helps mitigate this danger by placing literary violence back into a literary context.