Brother, Sister, Rape: The Hebrew Bible and Popular Culture

  • Johanna Stiebert
Part of the Religion and Radicalism book series (RERA)


In both contemporary discourses and a surprising number of popular culture texts (including film and television), sibling incest between a brother and sister is a topic of titillation. What is disturbing about the vast majority of these discourses is that the “consent” of the sister is often undermined, or rendered dubious by her vulnerability. Much like the myth of the “seductive daughter,” the “up-for-it sister” is a figment of voyeuristic fantasy, a woman objectified and exploited. Also disturbing is that brother-sister relationships in the Hebrew Bible (such as Abram and Sarai, Amnon and Tamar) underscore this discourse of exploitation. In this chapter, Johanna Stiebert sets out to demonstrate that in both the Hebrew Bible and contemporary popular culture, the brother-sister relationship is eroticized, and this eroticization has overtones of rape and of legitimating rape. While one cannot assume direct influence between biblical texts and present-day cultural manifestations (notwithstanding the Bible’s considerable and abiding influence and impact), the parallels are nevertheless disquieting. Whatever the precise provenance and reason for eroticized sibling relations in both the Hebrew Bible and contemporary film and television, drawing attention to the troubling implications of these depictions (in particular with regard to compromised consent) is, argues Stiebert, the first step in detoxifying them.


  1. Bechtel, L.M. 1994. What if Dinah Is Not Raped? (Genesis 34). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 62: 19–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. begy. 2012. Incestuous Relationships. Internet/Movies Database, June 19. Accessed 20 Mar 2017.
  3. Bledstein, Adrien Janis. 2000. Tamar and the ‘Coat of Many Colors’. In A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series): Samuel and Kings, ed. Athalya Brenner, 65–83. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.Google Scholar
  4. Blyth, Caroline. 2010. The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bucktin, Christopher. 2016. Mum and Son Incest Couple Go into Hiding as Police Say Mother Could Face 15 Years in Jail. The Mirror, April 8. Accessed 12 June 2016.
  6. Clifton, Derrick. 2014. Rape Culture Is Everywhere. Mic, October 17. Accessed 19 May 2016.
  7. Dostis, Melanie. 2015. Five Other Controversial Ads in Light of Bloomingdale’s ‘Inappropriate’ Date Rape Ad. New York Daily News, November 13. Accessed 19 May 2016.
  8. Edwards, Katie M., Jessica A. Turchik, Christina M. Dardis, Nicole Reynolds, and Christine A. Gidycz. 2011. Rape Myths: History, Individual and Institutional-Level Presence, and Implications for Change. Sex Roles 65: 761–773.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Exum, J. Cheryl. 1993. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. JSOT Supplement Series 163. Sheffield: JSOT Press.Google Scholar
  10. Fokkelman, J.P. 1981. Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. 1. Assen: Van Gorcum.Google Scholar
  11. Forbidden Love (60 Minutes). 2008. Channel 9 (Australia), TV Documentary. First Aired April 6.Google Scholar
  12. Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. 1998. Virginity in the Bible. In Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. Victor H. Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, 79–96. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 262. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.Google Scholar
  13. Fuchs, Esther. 2003. Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 310. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.Google Scholar
  14. Gafney, Wil. 2009. Mother Knows Best: Messianic Surrogacy and Sexploitation in Ruth. In Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest: Biblical Mothers and Their Children, ed. Cheryl A. Duggan and Tina Pippin, 23–36. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.Google Scholar
  15. Graetz, Naomi. 2005. Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.Google Scholar
  16. Greenberg, M., and R. Littlewood. 1995. Post-Adoption Incest and Phenotypic Matching: Experience, Personal Meanings and Biosocial Implications. British Journal of Medical Psychology 68 (1): 29–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Holland, Elise, and Nick Haslam. 2016. Cute Little Things: The Objectification of Prepubescent Girls. Psychology of Women Quarterly 40 (1): 108–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kalmanofsky, Amy. 2014. Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  19. Keshet, Shula. 2013[2003]. “Say You Are My Sister”: Danger, Seduction and the Foreign in Biblical Literature and Beyond. The Bible in the Modern World 53. Trans. A. Berris. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.Google Scholar
  20. Kunin, Seth D. 1995. The Logic of Incest: A Structuralist Analysis of Hebrew Mythology. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 185. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.Google Scholar
  21. Merskin, Debra. 2004. Reviving Lolita? A Media Literacy Examination of Sexual Portrayals of Girls in Fashion Advertising. American Behavioral Scientist 48 (1): 119–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Michel, Andreas. 2004. Sexual Violence Against Children in the Bible. In The Structural Betrayal of Trust, ed. Regina Ammicht-Quinn, Hille Haker, and Maureen Junker-Kenny, 51–60. Trans. J. Bowden. Concilium 2004/3. London: SCM Press.Google Scholar
  23. Rape Crisis England and Wales. n.d. Statistics. Accessed 19 May 2016.
  24. Rashkow, Ilona N. 1992. Intertextuality, Transference, and the Reader in/of Genesis 12 and 20. In Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible, ed. Dana Nolan Fewell, 57–73. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, KY: Westminster Press.Google Scholar
  25. ———. 2000. Taboo or Not Taboo: Sexuality and Family in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  26. Reis, Pamela Tamarkin. 1998. Cupidity and Stupidity: Women’s Agency and the ‘Rape’ of Tamar. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 25: 43–60.Google Scholar
  27. Scholz, Susanne. 2010. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  28. Schwartz, Regina M. 1997. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Spiro, Milford E. 1956. Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia. Boston: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Stiebert, Johanna. 2013. Fathers and Daughters in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. ———. 2016. First-Degree Incest and the Hebrew Bible: Sex in the Family. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 555. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.Google Scholar
  32. Stone, Ken. 2005. Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective. London and New York: T&T Clark.Google Scholar
  33. Trible, Phyllis. 1984. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  34. Twitchell, James B. 1985. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Waxman, Sharon. 2012. At Toronto Film Fest, Nick Cassavetes on Incest: ‘Who Gives a Damn? Love Who You Want.’ The Wrap: Covering Hollywood, September 9. Accessed 13 May 2016.
  36. van Wolde, Ellen. 2002. The Dinah Story: Rape or Worse? Old Testament Essays 15 (1): 225–239.Google Scholar
  37. Zlotnick, Helena. 2002. Dinah’s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to Late Antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Johanna Stiebert
    • 1
  1. 1.University of LeedsLeedsUK

Personalised recommendations