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Abortion & Scripture

I’m not particularly surprised, but I’ve recently discovered a number of religious organisations and individuals who offer arguments in favour of abortion explicitly on religious grounds. Take, for example, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They point out that the Bible says nothing about abortion, and surely if it considered the issue of prime importance it would have done so. Roy Bowen Ward writes, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’” He advises pro-life Christians and Jews to therefore be silent where the Bible itself is silent. Or take the words of the Reverend Mark Bigelow: “Even as a minister I am careful what I presume Jesus would do if he were alive today, but one thing I know from the Bible is that Jesus was not against women having a choice in continuing a pregnancy. He never said a word about abortion (nor did anyone else in the Bible) even though abortion was available and in use in his time.”

Now, let’s grant the claim that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention abortion. Let’s ignore also – for the sake of argument – the many passages which appear to regard the unborn as fully human. What follows from this? Does the alleged silence of scripture mean women have a God-sanctioned right to abort? I hardly see how that is the case. Why should we suppose that just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn some practice or other that it must therefore approve of it? That strikes me as a terrible piece of reasoning. The Bible is silent about a great many things. It doesn’t tell us that it’s wrong to discriminate against people of other races. It doesn’t condemn the lynching of homosexuals. It never tells us that torturing animals for kicks and giggles is not a-OK. Are we to suppose such actions are therefore morally justified? Not so long ago it was a popular line of racist argumentation to claim that because the Bible was silent on the humanity of blacks that blacks were not fully human.

Firstly, the Christian can regard many things as prohibited by scripture by inference from the sorts of principles it lays down as to how he or she should live in the world. Thus, scripture does indeed – by inference – condemn many things that it doesn’t explicitly mention. While it’s therefore true that the Bible never speaks of individual races it does tell us that all human beings are created in the image of God and are of utmost value as a result. Secondly, why should we suppose that the only moral injunctions the Christian should pay attention to are those explicitly cited in holy writ? Human have (I believe) a moral sense and an ability to engage in moral reasoning. Whilst the Bible provides the primary authority for Christians there is no reason to suppose that it should be the Christian’s sole authority. There are many things that might be right or wrong despite the (alleged) silence of scripture.

Furthermore, there might well be an explanation for the silence of the Bible on abortion. As mentioned above, the Bible is not a complete moral code. It’s a record of the life of, firstly, the Israelites, and, secondly, the early church. It concerns their life and religion, and their experiences with God and with each other. As such it primarily addresses issues of relevance to those communities. Seemingly neither the Hebrews nor the early Christians were inclined to practice abortion, and thus it shouldn’t surprise us that their writings are silent about the matter. It just wasn’t an issue. This itself is telling, particularly in light of the fact that abortion was widely practiced by the surrounding cultures. The Hebrew worldview was very different. Humans were regarded as possessing intrinsic value as a result of being made in the image of God. Children were regarded as a great blessing, a gift from God; they were not an unwanted nuisance getting in the way of life. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward,” writes the Psalmist. In fact, early on in the national psyche of the early Hebrews immortality itself was expressed through one’s descendants. In this light, barrenness was regarded as a curse. In this culture, therefore, abortion was largely unthinkable; hence the Bible’s silence. The same goes for a practice like female infanticide. Despite being widespread in the surrounding cultures it is never mentioned in the Bible, but the reason is because it wasn’t an issue for the early Hebrews, not that female infanticide is therefore morally permitted.

When we come to the New Testament and the early church a similar point can be made. The early church – and almost all the NT authors – were Jewish Christians. As such they inherited a Jewish morality. Whatever the Jews believed about abortion was almost certainly what the early Jewish Christians also believed. When we look at the Judaism of the period we find that it was staunchly opposed to abortion. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides states: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures.” Or take Josephus: “The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” It is therefore reasonable to assume – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – that this opinion was shared by the early church of the NT period. Much of the NT was written to particular churches to address particular issues. Abortion simply wasn’t an issue. The silence of the NT is thus far more likely because of how common place moral prohibitions against abortion were, and because it simply wasn’t an issue that needed to be further addressed. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest the writers of the NT deviated from the established morality here.

If we wish to apply biblical principles to the abortion debate then it seems we must return to the most fundamental question of all: is the unborn a human being? If such is the case – and the science of embryology appears to tells us that it is – then the onus is on pro-choice Christians to show why the general biblical prohibitions against the unjust taking of a human life do not also apply to the unborn.

Stephen J Graham


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Short Article 9: Does Matthew 20 contradict Mark 10?

Justin Schieber of Real Atheology recently suggested that there was a discrepancy between these two passages:

(1) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left…” (Matthew 20:20–21)

(2) Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left….” (Mark 10:35–37)

Schieber shrewdly observes that whilst Matthew says the mother of John and James makes the request of Jesus, Mark says that James and John made it themselves. Take that inerrantists!!

Now, what follows from this claim? First of all it doesn’t follow that the event never happened. After all, many modern media outlets provide conflicting accounts of real events all the time. Schieber, however, means to say that these passages present a problem to the one who believes in inerrancy. Such “discrepancies” are nothing new, but this one in particular is hardly troubling to the inerrantist, unless we insist on ridiculously wooden readings of the text.

There are, of course, certain explanations which clearly won’t do. For instance, one suggestion is that Matthew and Mark report different events: one in which James and John ask Jesus this question, and the other when their mother does on their behalf. The accounts strike me as far too similar for that suggestion to be plausible. I think we can safely say they are intended to report the same event. Even here there are several possibilities discussed by inerrantists, but I want to mention just one which seems to me (a non-inerrantist) eminently plausible.

In order to understand this rather simple explanation let’s take a detour through the world of criminal law. In criminal law we find a principle called “joint enterprise.” Let’s say Bill and Ben plan to murder Mary. They organise their venture, set off and break into Mary’s house. While Bill goes to find her valuable possessions, Ben holds her at gun point. After a few minutes of taunting her, Ben pulls the trigger, killing Mary, and then he and Bill make their escape. Suppose a newspaper ran a feature on Bill 5 years later in which he was called a murderer. Is the newspaper feature wrong, since it was Ben who fired the shot? Not at all. Under the doctrine of joint enterprise both Bill and Ben are guilty of Mary’s murder.

Let’s return then to James, John, and their mother. It seems to me a rather simple reading to see the matter as a “joint enterprise” in the same way. In Matthew’s version the mother speaks, but she does so on behalf of her sons. She is speaking what they want to say. It is their words that come out of her mouth. She makes the verbal petition, but it is actually James and John behind it. So, in Mark’s version the mother is simply ignored. Even though she spoke the words Mark reports them as the words of James and John. Why? Because the words were those of James and John even if spoken by another. Even though literally “Their mother said,” it remains true that “John and James said.”

There is, therefore, no significant problem here for the inerrantist. There is only a problem if we, (as I suspect Schieber has done), confuse the doctrine of inerrancy with biblical literalism.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

During the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553AD the Emperor Justinian issued 9 anathemas against Origen, the last of which reads: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end. . . let him be anathema.”

In defiance of his excellency Emperor Justinian, fellow blogger, tweeter, & Christian thinker, Elijiah Thompson has written the first installment of a series of articles explaining his rejection of the traditional notion of Hell as eternal conscious torment. Instead, Elijiah defends a version of conditional immortality – the doctrine that those who die outside of Christ will at some point simply go out of existence, leaving eternal life to those who have been saved. You can read his article here:


I adhere to neither the traditional concept, nor to conditional immortality; nor do I reject either. My own view is that I can’t really be sure about the fate of unbelievers: maybe they will go out of existence (Stott), maybe they will experience eternal punishment (Craig), or maybe God will somehow win them all (Hick). In a nutshell I adhere simply to this: will not the perfectly good and flawlessly just Judge of the earth do right? I agree with the American theologian Charles Hodge who comments that we mortals are incompetent judges concerning the penalty that sin deserves; or of just how supreme is the being against whom we commit it. Nor do I think we have much grasp as to the depths of God’s love and mercy.

One of the problems with writing about Hell is that the word “hell” comes to us laden with all kinds of literary and artistic associations. In fact, I suspect that there is a significant portion of people – from evangelicals to their staunch atheist critics – whose idea of Hell is influenced more by medieval art than the biblical text. Sometimes it’s thought of as the realm of Satan, as if he rules there like the Greek god Hades rules the underworld in Greek mythology. Typically, though, Hell is conceived as some kind of cosmic torture chamber for the damned, and such understandings are well worth challenging.

In this article I want to address the biblical case for the traditional understanding of Hell as a place (or state) of eternal conscious torment, hopefully showing why I think the traditional doctrine is not as strongly supported as is often claimed.

First of all we turn to the Old Testament. Within the pages of the OT we find a plethora of metaphors used to describe the end of the “wicked” – and they always suggest destruction (for a small sample see Elijiah’s article). One passage – Isaiah 66 – is sometimes thought to teach more than this in its language of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire; imagery which Christ himself uses. However, the passage doesn’t speak of souls surviving in pain. It’s a passage speaking of rotting corpses which suffer the shame of having no burial and the horror of being eaten by maggots and destroyed by fire. As Fudge says: “The final picture is one of shame, not pain.” The OT seems to give very strong testimony to a fearful end for “the wicked,” but doesn’t lend any weight to the doctrine of endless misery.

Advocates of the traditional view typically draw their proof-texts from the NT. However, once again we find that the language used is almost always of destruction, not unending torment or misery. John Wenham provides a great breakdown of the verses in his book “The Enigma of Evil,” and I owe the next section largely to him (% are approximate).

41% speak of judgement without specifying any further penalty.

22% use the word “apollumi,” which suggests eternal ruin, destruction and loss.

10% speak of a “burning up” – 3 verses of which refer to a lake of fire; an image suggesting destruction.

10% refer to “death,” and in regular parlance death is a cessation of life, not an unending miserable life.

8% speak of a separation from God. This is significant if God is omnipresent, sustaining in existence all that is. Such verses therefore naturally suggest the cutting off of a person from the source and sustainer of life, which plausibly means destruction.

6% speak of anguish without any mention of duration.

4% speak of Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – which gives the image of corpses consumed by maggots and fire that we noted in Isaiah.

0.5% – 1 verse – speaks of no rest day or night, and the smoke of torment going up forever (Rev 14:11).

Let’s look closer at the specific passages traditionally used to support the doctrine of endless conscious punishment or torment. There are 14:

7 of these 14 passages contain the word “aionios:”

Everlasting punishment – Mt 25:46
Everlasting fire: Mt 18:8 & 25:41
Eternal sin: Mk 3:29
Everlasting destruction: 2 Thes 1:9
Everlasting judgment: Heb 6:2
The punishment of everlasting fire: Jude 7

There are a number of points worth considering before we jump to the traditional conclusion. Firstly, aionios can take a qualitative sense, not just a quantitative one. Secondly, what are we to make of the Matthean contrast between everlasting life and everlasting punishment? Is he really making the point that since the life is everlasting that the punishment is everlasting? That’s far from certain. We also have the contrast between everlasting life and everlasting death. John Wenham comments that “It would be proper to translate ‘they will go away into punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into life of the age to come.’” And if Wenham is correct here then the question of duration is not settled. Thirdly, we have several examples of other once-for-all events which have unending consequences: for example, “eternal redemption,” or Sodom’s punishment of “eternal fire.”

Other passages refer to “unquenchable fire:” Mt 3:12, Lk 3:17 & Mk 9:43. But the idea presented here is pretty clearly a figure of speech – chaff is burnt up by irresistible fire, suggesting destruction. Mark 9:48 speaks of the “undying worm” with echoes of Is 66:24, but we have already noted that the picture here is of death and shame, not of living beings in torment. There is, therefore, really very little here in these texts that suggests (let alone demands) the traditional interpretation, especially given the overwhelming picture presented of destruction in a great mass of other texts.

This leaves 4 passages. Jude chiefly concerns the issue of godless men infiltrating and corrupting the church and perverting the gospel message. Jude is concerned to point out that for such there is a judgement coming, and then he gives three examples of judgement: (1) How God destroyed those Israelites who did not believe after their release from Egypt; (2) That God has kept certain fallen angels in darkness, bound with everlasting chains, for the judgement on the “great day;” and (3) the archetypal example of OT judgement: God destroyed Sodom with burning sulphur, here referred to as “eternal fire.” Just as God’s judgement was revealed in these cases, so it will be revealed in the case of these godless men, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” What’s of particular note here is that we have a range of different pictures and metaphors used with respect to God’s judgement. The point here, however, is not to teach eternal conscious punishment, but rather the theme is the certainty and finality of judgement. Jude, following biblical tradition, presents a range of pictures and symbols which point to the reality of God’s final judgement and victory over evil. I would caution against accepting any one picture as the whole literal truth of the matter, as it seems to be the case that they are intended to point beyond themselves.

Then we have three passages in Revelation, which are probably the most explicit. There’s just one problem: it’s the Book of Revelation. Revelation is ancient apocalyptic writing, and as such is something of an interpretative nightmare. It is full of figures of speech, pictures, and symbolism. With this in mind, let’s look at the three verses:

14:11: “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Rev 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the “great prostitute”] goes up for ever and ever.”

Rev 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

With respect to the last two we note that they refer to non-human or symbolic figures. Moreover, the writer of Revelation is clearly a mind that is steeped in the OT, which perhaps gives some clue about the interpretation of these passages. One of the quintessential examples of divine judgement in the OT is Sodom & Gomorrah (which is cited over and over again in the OT), upon which was cast burning sulphur, leaving irreversible desolation and smoke rising from the land. It’s far from an exegetical stretch to interpret the images in these two verses in light of the archetypal example of Sodom – which concerns destruction, God’s final and irreversible judgement, with smoke left as a reminder of God’s triumph over evil.

I think the same arguably applies to Rev 14:11, which is perhaps a more difficult passage. But again, in light of the difficulties of basing doctrines on clearly symbolic and figurative passages and in light of the overwhelming scriptural testimony to God’s final triumph over sin and evil and the destruction of the wicked, it’s ill-advised, I think, to hang a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment on texts like this.

None of what I’ve said refutes the traditional doctrine, but that wasn’t my intention. For all I know the pictures of Revelation are indeed literal. My point is simply that the traditional doctrine does not have the sort of obvious biblical warrant that is typically claimed for it.

One thing we do know: the fate of the lost is entirely in God’s hands. And will not the Judge of the earth do right?

Stephen J Graham



The creed of my own denomination, the Westminister Confession of Faith, cites one further proof-text: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Firstly, however, there are well-known exegetical difficulties with this passage. Secondly, the passage probably doesn’t mean to represent the final state of the lost, since Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. Thirdly, there is no reference to the duration of this punishment. Finally, the story is primarily a chilling satire on Pharisaic piety, not a guide to the world to come.



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Is Mark 16:8 an Apologetic Challenge? A Reply to SkepticismFirst

Fellow blogger/tweeter SkepticismFirst has written a short draft of an argument concerning Mark 16:8, which he invites us to poke holes in. The full text can be read here:


Mark 16:8 says: “And they [the women who visited Jesus tomb only to find it empty and receive instructions from a young man in a white robe to go and tell Jesus’ disciples about it] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Now, SkepticismFirst (SF) sees a problem here and argues:

Either –

(1) Mark is mistaken about whether the women said anything.


(2) v1-8 are not recording an event that actually happened.

This strikes me as being a false dilemma, since (1) and (2) are not exhaustive of the possibilities. But before I consider alternatives it’s worth noting that even if it is the case that Mark made a mistake here little would follow from that fact, and yet SF seems to suggest that the entire story must then be rejected as unhistorical. But why? Ancient historians routinely have to deal with sources of mixed quality and varying reliability when they attempt to reconstruct past events, but they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting an entire account because there’s a possible minor discrepancy. Moreover this is a principle that we find all the time in the legal world: testimony does not need to be infallible before it can be accepted as reliable.

In any event, what SF presents us with here is a false dichotomy. Now, perhaps Joe Christian might claim that the events being narrated were revealed to Mark by God. That would certainly give us a third possibility, but I don’t think we need to call on divine help to solve this puzzle!

The phrase in Mark 16:8 seems to me to be most plausibly a figure of speech or a Markan literary device (Mark consistently uses the themes of fear and silence throughout his gospel to make theological points). Language is, after all, full of figures of speech, hyperbole, under-statement, irony, sarcasm, and all manner of other non-literal locutions. Take the following modern day example of a reporter in Belfast reporting on the ending of a court case in which a man was acquitted:

It took the jury just under an hour to acquit Brown who left the court room to cheers from his supporters. We tried to speak to Brown as he left the court complex, but he got into a passing car and refused to speak to anyone.” Now, are we to suppose Brown decided to remain mute for the rest of his natural life? Or that after his acquittal he really spoke to absolute no-one? Hardly! The report concerns events at a given time and in a particular context, using a certain form of words to make a point or paint a picture.

Or, last night my wife asked me: “did you phone your mum earlier?” “Yes” “What did she say?” “Oh, nothing really.” Is my wife to suppose that I phoned my mum, who picked up the receiver only to remain silent before setting it down a short time later?

To think so is to ignore the context and adopt a mono-dimensional approach to language.

SF asks: “if the women did talk about what happened, then why did [Mark] say they didn’t? This seems especially odd considering that he’s relating the very story he claims was never mentioned to anyone.” [emphasis mine].

Notice that this last comment is in fact not what Mark says! Mark never claims that the women never mentioned it to anyone. Do the following two statements contain identical propositions?

(1) They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(2) They never mentioned this to anyone, for they were afraid.

Clearly not. One is absolute (SFs reading) and the other is not (what Mark actually said).

This brings me to one of the classical questions concerning Mark’s gospel, one which SF himself alludes to at the beginning of his article: Does Mark end at 16:8 or was there more? SF quite rightly points out that v9-20 almost certainly were not part of Mark’s original gospel but were added some time later. Scholars are divided on the question. Some claim that Mark simply ended his account with v8. Others claim that the ending was lost, probably very early on.

This isn’t a dispute I can go into here, but I’ll consider the “what ifs” of each. It seems to me, for a whole host of reasons, that the most plausible theory is that Mark’s original ending has been lost. Now if so this is highly significant because it means that part of the context of v8 is missing. And it seems to me not remotely implausible to suggest that the silence of the women was indeed only temporary (just as Brown’s silence was temporary after his acquittal), and of course there are other sources which agree with this. After all, it would be folly to suggest that these women simply remained mute for the rest of their natural lives, and I hardly think that Mark intended to have us believe that. It is quite consistent with 16:8 to posit subsequent verses where the women – perhaps after their initial fear has subsided – go on to do as they were instructed and tell his disciples. After all, part of the context of their silence is their fear, which could very easily have subsided some time later. Alternatively, it’s plausible that Mark was saying that the women told no-one else until they got to the disciples. In fact he uses a similar phrase in chapter 1 when he gives the account of the leper who was not to speak to anyone else except the priest. In any event if – as I think likely – there was more after v8, it is fairly easy to think of contexts for these words which allow for the later testimony of the women to the disciples without any inconsistency.

But what if Mark did indeed end at v8? I don’t see how this is anymore of a problem, except if we approach the text in an unduly wooden way. I’ve already alluded to the possibility of figure of speech, but that isn’t the only possible explanation. Remember that ancient writers wrote differently from modern historians. Not only do ancient writers wish to convey history, they also have a point to make while they do it. Mark – writing for a certain audience who, remember, already believed in the resurrection – may have had a didactic purpose for ending his gospel in this way. For instance, some theologians think his point was to challenge his readers about spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection: “will you stay silent or will you speak out?” Others allude to the Markan literary devices of fear and silence to explain his ending on this note.

In any event whatever the merits of these or other theories about the ending of Mark, I don’t think we need to know exactly why Mark ended his gospel this way (if he did, of course) in order to see that an argument of the sort made by SF is unconvincing. There are, of course, troubling passages and verses amongst the resurrection narratives; this verse, however, simply isn’t one of them.

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