Monthly Archives: April 2014

Please Forgive Me

I recently discovered my very first research publications online. For two years after my degree in theology & philosophy I worked as a research assistant for the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland. I managed a project on forgiveness, part of which was the publication of 15 research papers written by a variety of authors from different Christian backgrounds. I edited most of the papers, wrote two of them, and co-authored a third. It’s always weird to read things you wrote so long ago. These were my first published papers, published when I was a budding theologian aged 23/24.

The full series can be found here:

Stephen J Graham

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Does the Old Testament Force Rape Victims to Marry Rapists?

This article was written after a debate I had several years ago with one of my former philosophy lecturers and a friend of his.

Here are some post-debate reflections on the debate. Our debate kicked off when WC posted a link to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, “What the Bible says about rape,” and seemed to approve of its presentation.

The link cited a meagre four verses – one from Numbers and three from Deuteronomy – a fact which shows that this is only a very small fraction of what “the Bible” says about rape. Whoever put together this small list of verses has been selective in excelsis. The verses are as follows:

(1) If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you. [Deuteronomy: 22:23-24]

(2) But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her. [Deuteronomy 22:25-27]

(3) If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels[c] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29]

(4) “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. [Numbers 31:15-18]

In the course of the debate it became clear that not only did my debate opponents fail to interpret these verses in context, but in several cases they simply failed to read what these verses actually say. I will therefore examine each of these verses in turn, as I did during our debate.

(1) In this case we are not dealing with a case of rape at all. What we have here is an instance of consensual sex – and, in fact, adultery. One of my opponents rejected this, claiming I should try an “alternative reading” of the text, perhaps one which takes it as meaning that the woman didn’t cry out loud enough.

Now, we can spin out all manner of “alternative readings,” but there needs to be some reason why we should favour one over another. In this case my friend’s alternative reading actually twisted the text, forcing it to say what it is not in fact saying. Furthermore, we have good additional reason for supposing that this was not a case of rape. Most importantly the word for rape is not used, yet occurs in the very next example listed in the passage. Moreover, the rhythm of the entire passage supports this. In verse 22 we are given an instance of consensual adultery between a man and another man’s wife. Then we get to this instance – a case of consentual sex between a man and another man’s fiancé. After this we are given a case of a man having non-consensual sex with someone else’s fiancé, and then a case of a man raping a virgin who is not pledged to be married. The entire movement of the passage indicates that what we have in verse 23-24 is in fact a case of consensual sex between a man and a woman pledged to be married to someone else.

We might, of course, still find the rule bizarre, but to include it as part of “what the Bible says about rape,” which implies that the Bible sometimes commands the stoning of a rape victim, is downright misleading.

(2) This second instance is indeed a case of rape. Here the result is that the man must be stoned to death. This verse therefore seems to clearly show that rape was not to be tolerated and was in fact seen as a gross wrong. Moreover, in cases which involved a married woman, or a woman pledged to be married, it was also a breach of the commandment against committing adultery. This rule doesn’t tell us much more than that, but in saying what it does it forms part of what is – contrary to the insinuations of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible – a very strong biblical condemnation of rape. As such we should very carefully interpret other verses where we might be tempted to conclude that rape was tolerated or even commanded. Lastly, that this verse so strongly condemns rape should make it unthinkable to suggest that the previous rule commands the stoning of a rape victim.

(3) The third instance is the most interesting, but often the most abused and misread. My debate opponents construed this rule to mean the forcing of a rape victim to marry her rapist. One of them went so far as to suggest that since the woman in question was likely to be a young teenager, the rule here forces a child to marry her rapist and suffer a life of continual rape.

Such interpretations suffer from a failure to read the rule in the context of ancient Hebrew culture. Firstly, the rule simply does not force a rape victim to marry her rapist. The rule is quite deliberately worded differently. The rule states that the man must marry the victim. In other words, as a result of his crime the man now has an obligation that he must fulfil. It is at this point that an understanding of the Hebrew mindset is crucial. In Hebrew culture a woman who had already had sex could not be given in marriage. Unfortunately a rape victim would be rejected; her hopes of marriage, family and all the rights conferred on a married woman would now be denied to her. She was effectively doomed to live a desolate life. However, what this rule does is to ensure that the man who had committed the rape is held to account. The woman cannot be discarded but rather is allowed to receive the full rights of a married woman. It might sound counter-intuitive to our modern ethics, mind-set and culture, but a woman in such a position in the ancient Near East would rather be married than live in desolation. In fact, we see this very thing in the book of 2 Samuel which tells the story of Amnon and Tamar. After raping Tamar, Amnon goes to leave and Tamar cries out that if he leaves her now it would be an even greater wrong than what he has already done. Tamar, in typical Hebrew fashion, would rather be married to Amnon than be left. As we know, Amnon has no intention of fulfilling his obligations and leaves Tamar, who then lives the rest of her life as “a desolate woman.”

So, once we gain insight into the Hebrew mindset and understand something of Hebrew culture and society we can see that the rule in question does not force rape victims to marry their rapists. The rule was designed to protect women – to give them status, to provide them with the rights married women enjoyed, and to save them from being socially outcast and ultimately desolate.

(4) This final verse concerns prisoners of war, and a similar sentiment is found in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. I do not intend to deal with the issues of killing raised in this verse, but rather only with the issue of the Israelites “saving for themselves” all the women who have never slept with a man. Again, it is not obvious that we are dealing with cases of rape here. I mentioned above some considerations of ancient Near East mindset and culture, and some of that applies here too. Life has rarely been good for prisoners of war, and the ancient Near East was no exception. These women will have lost everything – their homes, their land, their families, their status, and their hope of a decent future. Life for a POW in the ancient Near East was a grim prospect. Whilst being far from ideal, this rule at least provides a measure of protection for many of these women, and raised their future prospects above what they would otherwise be. Compared to other ancient Near Eastern legal codes the Hebrews were much more progressive and ethically advanced.

This brings me to a point which we must bear in mind when we consider such texts, or Old Testament ethics generally. One of my opponents asked “why would God give the Israelites rules that were less than ideal?” Christians gives different answers to this question. I want to end by sketching what strikes me as the most persuasive.

All laws are situational. They apply to certain people at a certain place in a certain time. Moreover, laws tend to be a compromise between what is enforceable and what is acceptable to those people in that place at that time. With regards to the Mosaic legal code we are dealing with a society in the ancient Near East; a society which has for centuries breathed in the culture and value system of the wider ancient Near Eastern world of which it was a part. This culture is in many respects utterly alien to ours. It was to varying degrees xenophobic, sexist, patriarchal, violent, and much else besides. Much of what we regard as modern values would be utterly alien to ancient Hebrew ears. We are therefore dealing with a people who simply would not grasp many of our our ethical concepts and categories.

For God to meet with these people at anything resembling a meaningful level he had to meet them where they were. Laying down a lofty ethic for which this ancient society simply was not culturally, intellectually and ethically prepared for would have been somewhat pointless. It would almost certainly have been rejected, even if we grant that it would have been understood in the first place. What we see then is something of a divine compromise: God gives a less than ideal code but nevertheless one that would put the Israelites on the right path and point them in the right direction, and which in many respects was far more advanced than anything the ancient Near East had seen thus far.

It is this doctrine of divine accommodation that helps solve much of the mystery surrounding many of the rather odd rules we come across in the Old Testament legal codes. These considerations should also make us guard against any crass attempts – by critics or overzealous Christians – to view the Old Testament legal codes as the epitome of divine moral wisdom, applicable to all people everywhere in its entirety. Christians, for whom the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation is the person of Christ, are not bound to defend every Old Testament rule or regulation. Instead it can be viewed it as a sign-post, pointing beyond itself; or perhaps as a seed that was to grow into something much more impressive; or maybe as a stepping stone to a better way: God’s self-revelation in the person, work and teachings of Christ.

This is merely an outline of an answer. Whether or not we find it persuasive we should at least do the necessary spadework and understand not only what the rules say and why, but also the cultural background against which they appear. This, I contend, is precisely what my debate opponents neglected to do.

Stephen J Graham


Filed under Bible, Ethics, Old Testament Ethics

Leibniz, Hangnails & the Best Possible World

In a brief Twitter conversation it was suggested to me that a world with one less hangnail would be a better world than the world we live in, and thus the world we live in cannot be the best possible world (BPW). Take that, Leibniz!

Let’s call our world up to 2014 W1. Now let’s go back in time to Billy Bob in 1956 when he suffered a hangnail and intervene ever so slightly so he avoids suffering a hangnail. Let’s call this new world W2. Now, fast-forward again to 2014. Are W1 and W2 identical except that in W1 in 1956 Billy Bob suffered a hangnail? I don’t see how we can make such a claim, and in fact we can easily imagine how by 2014 W1 and W2 could very well be radically different worlds. How so? Well, in W1 after suffering a hangnail, Billy Bob went to get medical treatment. He met a nurse at the hospital; they hit it off, eventually got married, and had 4 children. When we consider the enormous number of different events that take place in W1 as a result of Billy Bob’s hangnail it should be fairly obvious that by 2014 W1 is very different from W2.

But is it different for the better? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe for a time it gets better, after which it gets horrendously worse. Or maybe it’s horrendously worse for a time but ultimately gets far better. Maybe Billy Bob’s kids turn out to be wonderful philanthropists, and humanity reaps all manner of boons. Or perhaps they end up a family of serial killers and bring misery to hundreds. But regardless of how they turn out we still can’t tell if W1 is ultimately better or worse than W2, since there are further multiple consequences of both scenarios which we, as creatures of limited intelligence and insight, simply cannot trace.

But isn’t a world with one less hangnail – W2 – better than a world – W1 – which is identical in all respects except there is one additional hangnail? Again, this isn’t obvious. It relies on a certain understanding of “better” which we needn’t agree with. If we understand the chief purposes of God for the world to lie in the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain then perhaps W2 is “better.” But of course in Christian theism this is not God’s sole or ultimate purpose. In any event, for the sake of argument let’s grant that W2 would indeed be better than W1. But, now we must ask: is W2 a feasible world? It’s not clear that it is. Take Billy Bob again. Perhaps every world in which he suffers the hangnail turns out differently from all the worlds in which he doesn’t, such that there simply are no two worlds which are identical in all respects except that Billy Bob suffers a hangnail in one of them. And this should not surprise us as such cases – even relatively minor ones like a stubbed toe – are always part of the matrix of events. Such pains have a number of uses in the grand scheme of things. Firstly, that such pains are of biological value is well documented. Secondly, as Swinburne argues, the experience of pain is an intrinsic part of any world where creatures are to have significant moral responsibility and freedom to do good or evil. Thirdly, such experiences form part of our “epistemic environment,” contributing to the background against which we reflect on the world and form opinions about good, evil, value, and about God and the nature of ultimate reality. Fourthly, they play a role in our development as moral creatures, as we respond daily to the aches and hurts that accompany daily living.

Thus, even relatively minor hurts like stubbed toes and hangnails play a role in life, even a significant one such that a world with one less hangnail – W2 – might have over-ridding deficiencies that make W1 preferable.

The principle behind this has been named “the butterfly effect.” The basic idea is that something seemingly unimportant – a butterfly fluttering around some flower – can potentially set in motion a chain of events (or play a small but crucial role in the “events matrix”) that leads to something massive – a hurricane off the coast of Florida; and we have no way to predict or trace it.

The same idea appears in the movie Sliding Doors. In this movie the lead character is hurrying to catch a train. The film then branches off into 2 strands or “mini-movies.” In one of these worlds she catches the train, while in the other events conspire to cause her to miss it. The movie then plots how her life goes in two completely different directions as the result of this one seemingly benign and insignificant event (which of course was itself dependent on millions of prior contingent events either occurring or not).

The upshot of all this is that we really can’t tell which is better – W1 or W2 – by engaging in observation and imaginative thought experiments. In fact, whilst Leibniz believed that this world is the BPW, he didn’t believe it on the basis of observation. He understood that drawing such a conclusion was impossible. His belief that this world is the BPW was a deduction from his prior belief that the world is the creation of an omnipotent and perfectly good God. If the universe is the creation of such a being then, reckoned Leibniz, there is some reason to think it is the BPW. But Leibniz would have had no time for modern atheistic arguments that run like so:

(1) If God exists our world would be the best possible world.
(2) Our world is not the best possible world.
(3) Therefore God does not exist.

Whilst Leibniz would agree with (1), he would regard (2) – quite rightly in my view – as utterly speculative. William King put it like so: “You’ll say that some particular things might have been better. But, since you do not thoroughly understand the whole, you have no right to affirm this much.”

Thus, though Leibnizian arguments might rationally conclude that this is the BPW because it has been created by an omnipotent and perfectly good God, atheist arguments to the opposite conclusion will always rely on a premise that is fundamentally unknowable.

Stephen J Graham.

See also:

My main essay on Leibniz here:

and another shorter article here:

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