In the course of defending the Bible, I have found a very popular argument in the repertoire of individuals who seek to make the Bible appear barbaric and arcane is that the Bible commands a rape victim to marry her rapist. The Bible verse used as corroborating proof of this argument is Deuteronomy 22:28-29 which we’ll go over shortly.
The argument goes a little something like this:
It’s not surprising that an atheist or someone unfamiliar with the Bible would use this particular argument because it is very obviously based on a mis-reading of scripture (which is intentional in some cases and unintentional in others), and taking scripture out of context.
What is greatly disturbing to me, however, is when someone who claims to be a Christian uses this type of verse to exhort that either A. The “God of the Old Testament” is wholly different from the “God of the New Testament”, or B. The Old Testament has been corrupted by men and is unreliable. I have heard both arguments from individuals who are professing Christians.
Without even touching on the plethora of heretical theological issues that either belief implies (because that would be the subject of an article all its own) let’s just make clear that if you believe that Jesus is somehow separate from the Old Testament, you didn’t get that idea from reading the New Testament.
Jesus proves in the New Testament that He is literally the greatest Old Testament scholar of all time. He references every book in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis- Deuteronomy) and several of the prophets. Steve Moyise, professor of New Testament at the University of Chichester and and international authority in the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, gives a breakdown in his book Jesus and Scripture: Jesus quotes Exodus 7 times, Isaiah 8 times, Deuteronomy 10 times, and Psalms 11 times.
In modern day political terms, if the Old Testament had an ad on TV, it would conclude with “I’m Jesus and I approve this message.”
Ok, in all seriousness, I have found that one of the biggest mistakes you can make when reading the Old Testament is to try to apply modern day societal norms to material that is written to reflect ancient society, and this particular verse is a prime example of that. This law doesn’t apply to our society today and was never intended to apply to our society. It is, however, God breathed and valuable for teaching, per II Timothy 3:16. Therefore, we should strive to understand it in its proper context.
First off, let’s look at how the role of women in society has evolved over the centuries. Here’s an excerpt from the article Women in Mesopotamian Societies from History on the Net, “The role of women in Mesopotamian society, as in most cultures throughout time, was primarily that of wife, mother and housekeeper…Shortly after a girl reached puberty, her father arranged a marriage for her. Marriages were legal contracts between two families and each family had obligations to meet. A bride’s father paid a dowry to the young couple. The groom’s family paid a bride price…The basis for a society is the family unit, and Mesopotamian societies structured the laws to encourage stable families.”
Reflecting on marriage today, the role of women in the workforce, and the fact that a woman’s identity and ability to provide for herself is no longer tied to a man- it is clear that we’ve come a long way.
You cannot read the Old Testament without being acutely aware that these individuals were subject to the societal norms of their times- not living subject to a societal norm centuries ahead of their time. For example: Abraham sent his servant back to his homeland to pick a wife for his son, Isaac, from his own relatives (Rebekah); Jacob fled to his uncle’s house where he worked for fourteen years to pay the bride price to marry his cousins Rachel and Leah (he worked seven years for Rachel, then he was duped into marrying Leah because of the custom of marrying the oldest daughter before the youngest, so he had to work 7 more years for Rachel); Joseph was given Asenath (the daughter of the priest of On) as a wife by the Pharaoh of Egypt.
Rachel and Leah actually had a competition to see who could have the most children, because in their society a woman’s worth was tied directly to the number of sons she could provide her husband. When their own bodies let them down, Rachel and Leah each “gave” their husband Jacob the female servants that belonged to them so that they could continue to provide sons to him that would be counted as their own.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any of these situations playing out here in the good old 21st century. When I scroll my Facebook feed I don’t see too many adolescent girls lamenting their impending arranged marriage. Also notably absent are the women trying to keep up with the Duggar family fertility rate. I also do not see any Christians advocating to bring back arranged marriage or urging their husbands to take additional wives so that he can maximize the number of sons he contributes to the population. Clearly, this is not the way things work today.
So, why for heaven’s sake, would we try to judge a law regarding the punishment for rape in an ancient culture recorded in Deuteronomy, by our modern day cultural standard?
Let’s look at the verse in question and apply the correct context for the ancient society to which it applies. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 reads in the NIV, “28 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 of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
Does Old Testament Mosaic Law not care at all about the victim of rape? If we back up to Deuteronomy 22:25, you will read that the penalty for raping a woman that was engaged to be married was stoning. Clearly, letting a rapist off easy was not the intent of the law.
If a woman that was not engaged was raped, however, the situation in ancient culture was entirely different. A woman who had lost her virginity was deemed undesirable for marriage. In those days, a woman without a father or husband to care for her, was doomed to a life of poverty. She would be destitute and shunned by society. Such a woman would be reduced in most cases to begging or prostitution to support herself. Her child would also be branded “second class” for life.
Believe it or not, there is a modern day example of this ancient cultural mentality that still exists in the Middle East. We have a hard time understanding this thought process, but under the same arcane social conditions, women today make similar decisions. This article for the Daily Mail that was published in 2015 chronicles the story of a rape victim in Afghanistan who chose to marry her rapist for the very same reasons we just discussed: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3030152/Rape-victim-forced-MARRY-attacker-baby-Afghanistan-reveals-heartbreaking-interview-gave-wishes-life-buy-daughter-s-future.html
In light of the ancient culture, this law provided a woman who had been raped a means of protection and provision for herself and the child if she became pregnant as a result of the rape. This law made the rapist legally responsible for providing for the rape victim for his entire life without the option of divorcing her. (According to ancient culture, men could divorce a woman for any reason, whereas women could not initiate divorce- so this law required a rapist to care for his victim for his entire life regardless of how she performed in her marital capacity.) In addition to making sure that a rape victim was cared for, holding the rapist responsible for the victim for life also served the purpose of deterring would-be rapists by levying life long consequences.
Furthermore, Exodus 22:16-17 lays out that the rape victim’s father could determine not to allow her to marry her rapist. This means that Mosaic law actually left the decision regarding what will be best for his daughter up the victim’s father. This was the best case scenario, according to ancient culture, since the victim’s father should have her best interest at heart. If he was capable of caring for her and her child he could do so, or if he knew of another man who still wished to marry his daughter despite what had happened to her, he could act accordingly.
Some people may highlight Deuteronomy 22:23-26 as “victim blaming” since it seems to blame a woman who is raped inside a town that doesn’t yell for help, while giving a woman raped outside of town the benefit of the doubt since no one could have heard her yell regardless. The verses read: “23 If a man happens to meet in 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. 25 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…”
To the contrary, I agree with a commentator who points out the incredible insight in this law. He writes, “This law exists to protect everyone involved, and it actually demonstrates a rather impressive knowledge of human behavior and human nature. The key words are ‘because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city,’ under the assumption that if she went along with it willingly, it wasn’t actually rape. First, it protects the man from false accusations– if a malicious woman makes an accusation like that, she’s on the hook too. And second, it protects the woman. If she knows that if she plays along, she’s guilty under the law, then he can’t use the best-known of intimidation tactics employed by rapists, ‘play along or I’ll kill you!’ It gives her strong incentive to struggle, fight him off, and scream for help, which makes it less likely that she will actually end up being raped. All in all, this demonstrates the brilliance of God’s law, not the cruelty or immorality of it.”
With these ancient cultural facts in mind, how does the Mosaic rape law stack up to rape laws in other ancient law codes, such as the Middle Assyrian Law and the Code of Hammurabi, both intended for similar societies? Dr. Eve Feinstein (Ph.D in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University) writes a comparative analysis in her article The Rape of the Unbetrothed Virgin in Torah and Assyrian Law. Regarding rape, the laws are similar across the board. Dr. Feinstein notes, “The most significant difference between the laws, however, is MAL A’s [ Middle Assyrian Law’s] punishment of rape with the rape of the rapist’s wife. Similar vicarious measure-for-measure punishments appear in the Laws of Hammurabi, but none appear in the biblical collections, which restrict punishment to the perpetrator. Deuteronomy 24:16 expresses the principle behind this distinction: ‘Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.’”
Comparing Mosaic Law to Middle Assyrian Law and the Code of Hammurabi in their entirety, there are many similar aspects. However the differences are what really set them apart. When specifically comparing Mosaic Law to the Code of Hammurabi, one apologist notes, “The Code of Hammurabi tends to deal out much more severe punishments than the Mosaic Law. For the most part, the code of Hammurabi is punitive whereas the Mosaic Law emphasizes restitution for the victim. This goes along with the goal of the Mosaic Law to reestablish relationships between the lawbreaker and victim and between the lawbreaker and God.” This apologists has prepared a chart with a side by side comparison of the punishments for particular crimes according to the code of Hammurabi versus Mosaic Law to illustrate this point. The chart can be viewed at this link: http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/code_of_hammurabi.html
So, what’s the best way to answer our original question, does the Bible command a rape victim to marry her rapist? The short answer is “not exactly”. The Bible records God’s law that protected rape victims living in the ancient culture to which the law applied by forcing the rapist to marry and care for the woman that he victimized and her children for his entire life- if her father believed that was the most suitable way to secure the future of his daughter and her children. This law prevented a rape victim from being left destitute, forced into prostitution in order to survive, and ostracized by her community. It also served as an effective rape deterrent. When compared to the law codes of similar ancient cultures, Mosaic Law restricts punishment to the perpetrator rather than creating another innocent rape victim by calling for “eye for an eye” measures- which is most definitely a superior concept.