There are a number of websites dedicated to destroying the Christian Faith by showing that a) Christians have been responsible for a lot of terrible things throughout the past two thousand years, and b) the Bible of the Christians is an immoral and terrible book. In these websites, I have noticed that anti-Christian vitriol often substitutes for rational argument. (One such website, decrying the Bible as “evil”, declared “Hitler Was a Christian” and “The Holocaust was caused by Christian fundamentalism”. Reading such things makes me think of the response in Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail” when King Arthur and his knights were standing outside a French castle, being abused by nonsense: “Is there someone else up there that we can talk to?”) One bit from the Bible that often is used to discredit the Faith is the provision in Deut. 22:23-29, described by some as the command that a woman marry her rapist. It certainly sounds pretty grim. What’s going on?
Assuming that one actually wants to learn what is going on (usually not the case for the websites mentioned above), it is important to understand what the Mosaic Law is about, especially from the Christian perspective. The Law and the provisions of the Old Testament were not God’s final and definitive word. The Law does not present itself to be timeless (as the Muslims present their Qur’an as timeless). Rather, it is clearly God’s response to the situation in which His people found themselves in about the fifteenth century B.C. That is, it is intensely contextual, and must be read within the cultural context in which it was given.
Take for example the provisions regarding divorce. The Law allows for divorce, since divorce was a common part of the cultural world in which the Israelites found themselves in the time of Moses. It makes provisions to limit harm done to the woman, insisting that she not be treated like chattel, an object to be traded back and forth (see Deut. 24:1-4), and as such it represented an advance on the cultural mores of its day. But God’s final and definitive word, given later through Christ, did not allow for divorce as a norm. Divorce was indeed allowed Israel back then, but only by concession, given their “hardness of heart” (Mt. 19:8-9), and this concession was later to be rescinded and replaced with something better. In other words, the Law represents but one stage in God’s ongoing paideia and education of His people. The provisions for divorce have to be read contextually, as speaking to the cultural situation in which the people then found themselves.
It is the same with the provisions in Deuteronomy 22. In reading them, we have to remember that we are not in an industrialized and liberated twenty-first century West, but rather in a very ancient and primitive Middle East—don’t think “New Yorker”; think “Bedouin”, and you will be closer to the cultural mark. And don’t think “marriage is about romantic love”, a concept utterly foreign to everyone back then. Think “marriage is about economic security”—in other words, survival. (We may or may not deplore such an understanding of marriage, but it is essential to keep it in mind while we read the Law, or we will never begin to understand it. Besides, it remains to be proven that our “marriage is about romantic love” has served us very well, given that our divorce rates run at about 50%, but that is another matter.)
The Law in Deuteronomy 22:23f was not elaborating a norm. It was providing guidance for extreme and difficult sexual cases. It considers three different possible situations, and legislates differently for each of them.
In the first instance, we have the case of a woman betrothed to a man (i.e. legally bound to him), who sleeps with another man while they are both “in the city”. She is judged guilty of adultery, along with him, and they are to be executed. It is judged that since they were in the city, had it been a case of rape, she could have cried out for help and been heard and rescued, and so the absence of her cries for help is taken as proof of her consent to adultery. We may think execution too severe a penalty, but as said above, we must remember this was the ancient Middle East, not modern New York.
In the second instance, we have the case of a betrothed woman found with another man not in the city but “in the open country”. In this case, the man is executed and the woman left unpunished. It is assumed that she cried out for help, but being in the open country “there was no one to rescue her”. In other words, the crime is considered to be rape, not adultery, and she is judged to be guiltless, since she is given the benefit of the doubt.
The third instance is the one mentioned at the beginning of this post, and the difference between this case and the others is that in this case, the woman is not betrothed. The rapist is punished by being heavily fined (the fine goes to the girl’s father to restore his honour), and the man must marry the girl, with no possibility of future divorce. To understand the underlying rationale for the judgment given, we must first understand the woman’s actual plight in that culture, and how it differed from a woman in the industrialized West today. Today, a woman suffering rape, despite the tremendous trauma suffered, can still subsequently contract a marriage, and can try to get on with her life. If she chooses to remain single (for whatever reason), she will still possess the means to support herself. It was otherwise in the culture presupposed by the Law we are considering. In that culture, people considered that a woman who had been thus violated was tainted, and no one would marry her. In those days, a woman’s safety and economic security depended upon her being married. The rape victim would therefore be destitute, and eventually left to starve. Her only hope was to contract marriage—in this case, with the only person willing to do so, namely the offender whom the Law forced into marriage. This provision does not suggest that the situation is ideal, or that all of the woman’s trauma would be healed by the marriage. Obviously the case remains tragic, whatever is done. But the only alternative to the one prescribed, given that culture, was further punishment of the victim by leaving her single and destitute. Remember, in those days, marriage was fundamentally about economic security, and it was this security that was being mandated.
For us today, we naturally think primarily and only of the heinousness of the crime, since no further social plight for the woman exists. Our concern is only with the woman’s healing—a part of which involves the punishment of the offender. Our laws do not have to take into the account the victim’s future support and safety. It was otherwise in the culture in which the Mosaic Law was given. The purpose of the Law was not to force the victim into a horrific marriage, but to provide for her future support in the only way then possible.
This bit of Mosaic case law offers us a cautionary tale. If we are to read the Law (or any ancient document) with understanding, we must first anchor it in the culture in which it was given. If we fail in this task of historical sensitivity by importing our own views, feelings and presuppositions into the ancient text, we shall end up speaking as foolishly as our vitriolic critics on their anti-Christian websites.