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