Rape Myths, the Bible, and #MeToo

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Johanna Stiebert
  • London: 
    , November
     108 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Rape Myths, the Bible, and #Metoo, a timely book of only 107 pages, is born out of the author’s realization that biblical interpretation and the field of biblical studies are part of the humanities currently under serious attack in institutions of higher education. Johanna Stiebert, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, observes that many biblical studies departments have become part of theology or religious studies departments. Since, according to Stiebert, the field’s very “survival” is at stake, biblical studies must “reinvent itself in the majority of university settings” (53). In light of this development, which is also related to “the entrenchment of consumer-driven models of education” (52), Stiebert shows the deep, pervasive, and ongoing connections between “the role and influence of religion, inclusive of the Bible,” and contemporary rape culture (85). Her book presents feminist Bible scholarship that has uncovered, deconstructed, and interpreted biblical rape texts, placing this scholarship within the emerging #MeToo movement.

Two chapters introduce readers to the goals and accomplishments of the #MeToo movement, the depictions of sexual violence in biblical texts, and the interrelationship between the many rape myths in the Bible and in contemporary rape culture. The correlation of biblical texts to the #MeToo movement shows that biblical scholarship can serve as an “acutely timely feminist advocacy” (1) because feminist biblical interpretations expose the power dynamics at work in past and present rape culture. The introduction tackles the contentious debate concerning the difficulty of identifying rape in the Hebrew Bible, as biblical Hebrew does not contain an explicit word for sexual violence. After presenting the pros and cons for using contemporary vocabulary in the interpretation of biblical texts, Stiebert suggests—in agreement with other biblical scholars—classifying sexual violence in the Bible as “what we would today call rape” (7).

Stiebert’s classification is refreshing, although it remains contested in biblical studies. The hegemonic epistemology in the field still insists on the philological-historical paradigm with its posture of scholarly disinterestedness, objectivity, and value neutrality. In contrast, Stiebert offers her analysis from within a clearly defined political engagement that takes a publicly responsible scholarly position, categorized by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza within the rhetorical-emancipatory paradigm. In other words, the strength of the #MeToo movement and the neoliberal attacks on the humanities have given Stiebert the impetus to move in this methodological direction.

Yet she also stumbles a few times over the hermeneutical implications of her commitment. For instance, her summaries on the various rape stories and poems in the Old Testament and the New Testament do not always articulate whose meaning is described. Many passive-voice verbs obfuscate the subject. When Stiebert likens “Israel’s disobedience” to “the unfaithfulness of the prophet Hosea’s wife” (30), does she report on the meaning of Hosea 2 given by the biblical authors, the implied narrator, or the androcentric commentators? Similarly, she leaves undisclosed who offers “sinister indications of sexual violence” (31) in the Song of Songs. Does Stiebert have the biblical authors in mind? Furthermore, she declares that biblical rape laws paint “a bleak picture” (31). Can contemporary interpreters, inspired by the #MeToo movement, not deconstruct the meanings of those texts? If not, why not?

Since Stiebert does not take full hermeneutical responsibility for her summaries of the biblical content, it remains unclear who is responsible for the biblical meanings she provides. Does Stiebert suggest to merely restate the meanings of the biblical texts? Or does she present intentional meanings, although she defines authorial intention as “guesswork” (47, 51)? Stiebert slips when she refers to “the narrator” as the provider of biblical meaning (46). In short, it seems that the many passive-voice verbs in the book hint at Stiebert’s uneasiness to disclose whose meanings she is reiterating. Should readers assume the meanings are Stiebert’s? After all, she is the reader of the biblical texts under consideration and thus the creator of the textual meanings.

Yet, overall, the volume introduces lay and student readers accessibly and informatively to feminist interpretations of biblical rape texts in the context of the #MeToo movement. Stiebert also mentions feminist theoretical scholarship on sexual violence since Susan Brownmiller’s seminal work, Against Our Will (Simon & Schuster), published in 1975, and other important feminist publications. The discussion of three important rape myths (victim-blaming, “real” rape, and the identity of a rapist) in the second chapter shows with unflinching dedication that biblical discourse and contemporary culture have contributed to many still-prevailing prejudicial notions about sexual violence. Stiebert observes: “Some rape myths firmly entrenched in the present do have affinity with attitudes inculcated in the Bible” (72).

Although this kind of statement assumes the Bible as an antiquarian text, Stiebert affirms the contemporary need for studying the Bible because current stereotypes about sexual violence also appear in the Bible. As she draws a direct line about “toxic attitudes, including those pertaining to gender-based violence,” from the Bible to today (85), Stiebert urges readers to join the #MeToo movement. She encourages readers to call out “not only powerful and abusive individuals, but also powerful and abusive texts and interpretations” (86). Such efforts are indeed a worthy goal. Her book should become required reading for anybody interested in making connections between biblical rape literature and the #MeToo movement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susanne Scholz is professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Johanna Stiebert is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds, UK.


Johanna Stiebert (Author of Rape Myths, the Bible, and #MeToo)


Thank you for the review.

The volume is an inaugural volume in a series and is intended to open a conversation on a complex topic with multiple facets and dimensions. Indeed, four other excellent volumes have appeared since in this series and more are in the pipeline, each focusing (like my volume, too) quite narrowly on a discrete topic.

To address one of the reviewer's points, my focus on biblical texts of terror demonstrates that I am - like other feminist biblical scholars - recognising sexual violence in them, regardless of what the 'intention' of the ancient author may have been. 

Of course, these texts can and should be deconstructed! Indeed, I hope my volume and others in the series encourage and motivate readers to do just that. 

Passive constructions will be avoided going forward. : )


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