[TRIGGER WARNING: This post is specifically about rape. It may also bring to mind the sensitive topic of sexism. I apologise in advance if this material is disturbing to some readers.]
Please note: due to the length of this post and the sensitivity of the topic, I wanted to exercise serious care in proceeding and decided to split the topic into two posts. Next Sunday, I’ll be dealing explicitly with the idea of sexual union as pertaining to a rapist, as well as how virginity is interpreted in those circumstances. Since my argument for such things, however, is dependent on a full reading of Scripture, it’s important first to critique and engage the Old Testament’s more troubling passage concerning rape, glean from it the tools by which certain elements of the New Testament become more salient, and proceed forward carefully in that study. I hope you understand that I don’t mean to overload your RSS reader with text and I have made cuts where I thought they could be made. Apologies, all the same, for post length and for splitting this topic over two weeks.
Last week, we began a series on creating a holistic sexual ethic by considering what exactly happens in sex, considering what sex means for marriage, and why we preach abstinence when no single verse, on its own, seems to make the case, unless the whole of Scripture is considered through a particular approach and lens.
Today, before we proceed, some guidelines to keep in mind:
- These posts are about creating a holistic sexual ethic. An ethic, like a paradigm, is not a tidy answer to every single situation and every single story. Every situation, every story, is unique. Let’s honour that by recognising that we’ve spent so much time making rules already that we have made the exceptions be the marginalised. An ethic, a paradigm, expands our vocabulary, gives us tools to work with, and hopefully helps us have the conversation well. It gives us enough of the dance steps that we know how to improvise when the music changes—we’re painting broad strokes here, not painting anyone into a box.
- This post concerns only one particular issue: the relationship between rape and virginity as concerning the language of union I addressed in the previous post in this series. This post is not addressing forms of rape outside of that specific parameter, even though I do want to acknowledge its reality. As this series is about sexual ethics, I have a hard time saying much about rape in a broad sense ethically, other than it is always wrong and is always evil and is always the fault of the abuser and there are more kinds of rape than people may know: among them power rape, spousal rape, corrective rape, prison rape, war rape, and on and on. Since my previous post focused on a Scriptural argument about waiting to have sex until pronounced marriage, this post is specifically focusing on rape that takes another person’s virginity, so to address questions of What about me? that were rightly and naturally raised by the previous post.
- Finally, to paraphrase something I heard NT Wright say last Tuesday in seminar: we cannot make the Torah good or bad. Torah is God’s particular covenant with a particular people in a particular time and while that does not make it any less inspired, we better be darn careful in how we try to make it fit in light of everything else. We need to accept that the Old Testament, though inspired, comes with the baggage of the imperfect people God is journeying toward the Messiah. For instance, outside of Genesis 19, we have no indication in the Old Testament about the rape of men, though we know it certainly happens today. (Genesis 19 presents the further problem of Lot offering his daughters to be raped instead. Consider Leviticus 20, which refers only to consensual homosexual sex, not matters of rape.) The Old Testament is overwhelmingly heavy on recognising the rape of women, but not of men. Hence, as I proceed in discussing key passages that may inform how we approach this development of an ethic, we must keep in mind that the Old Testament, in light of the New, helps us think Christianly, helps us with those dance steps, but does not, necessarily, give us the exact rules of how things should be done today. We need to be careful with this discernment, but it is crucial in our conversation.
Let’s consider one of the most difficult passages in the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 22.
Why focus on Deuteronomy 22?
Because it helps us confront some major issues concerning rape and virginity that will be prudent for our continued discussion next week. In Deuteronomy 22, we have a robust example of the consequence of patriarchy, along with a clear articulation of sexual ethics underpinning Old Testament practices. I believe by focusing here with a close reading, we have better tools as we move forward to engage the radical and revolutionarily sexual ethics of the New Testament.
In Deuteronomy 22, the major criticisms of the passage regarding rape occur near its close:
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (v. 23-29)
I suggest that in order to understand this passage, we must consider that it, too, is working out a language of paradigms and ethics, not necessarily rules that will be able to be applied in every case, which we shall see by carefully evaluating each of the three scenarios presented above.
First, the taking of a betrothed woman in the city.
Note that I did not call this scenario rape, because the Text does not use the language of rape when considering it. Deuteronomy 22:23 uses the word וְשָׁכַ֥ב or shakab, which throughout the Old Testament is used primarily as either a reference to literally lying down or, euphemistically, to engage in or as an invitation to consensual sex, unless a separate word of force is used as a modifier to clearly indicate rape. (See Genesis 39:7, Leviticus 15:33, 1 Samuel 2:22, 2 Samuel 12:11, Ezekiel 23:8, and, for use of force as a modifier, Genesis 32:2)
Here, the evidence of the case leads us to conclude that the circumstance in question is of the consensual nature. Her lack of a cry for help indicates that she did not try to fight the advance, which presumably would have roused the hearing of her neighbors. (Remember, we are dealing with a very different society than our own, and a cry for help of a woman being violated would have resulted in a response from her neighbors, the lack of this sensitivity being, in-part, one of the many grievances God lists against Israel throughout the minor prophets.)
Therefore, as with any case of adultery, the man and the woman alike are killed. I want to point out that I recognise that this is imperfect and troubling, and we shall return to it below, but for now, for the purposes of exploring what the provisions around rape were, we need to shift our focus to consider the rest of the passage.
Second, the rape of a betrothed woman in the country.
Here, we encounter a use of shakab in which a modifier of force is added. In verse 25, the phrasing is וְהֶחֱזִֽיק־ בָּ֥הּ הָאִ֖ישׁ וְשָׁכַ֣ב, chazaq ish shakab. The action of lying with is modified by force and particularly the force of a man—that is, the Scripture makes a clear claim on culpability resting entirely with the attacker. Hence, the punishment is only placed upon the attacker and he is put to death and God compares the assault to the same violation of His Law as murder, and supposes that the woman actively tried to flee but was unsuccessful.
Let us consider, then, that in light of the scenario of the city, perhaps these two passages are not exactly dealing with city vs. country (which, in the Hebrew, is better translated field), but an ethic of practice. I do not want to overstep into making the Text easier than it is or to fix the passages, like this, which are problematic, but we in the least do have a sense that a betrothed woman who makes an effort, any effort, to stop the assault is not culpable, whereas a woman who chooses to consensually give herself to man other than her betrothed is as guilty as the man she gives herself to. Though this may not mitigate the discomfort we have over the polarities of these passages, it perhaps provides us insight into a sense of consent, a topic that largely is not well discussed in most purity culture environments, which you can read more about here.
Further, as I mentioned above, the Old Testament is not tidy and is responsive to the culture it exists in, which is patriarchal.
Denying this gets us nowhere. Women in leadership positions, in positions where they are recognised as more than property, are the exceptions of the Old Testament, not the norm. Rachel Held Evans and her work in A Year of Biblical Womanhood does an excellent job of laying out this specific tension for a lay audience and gives an excellent primer in reading the curse of the Fall forward into the Old Testament.
While I firmly believe that this system is completely overturned with, by, and through Jesus, I want to stress that we, as New Testament Christians, need to be careful in not trying to make the Old Testament simply work because it’s in our Bibles.
It works in its context, in its purpose, and we have to keep that in mind as we move forward.
We need to consider why the language of betrothal is repeatedly stressed in these scenarios, but not in the one that follows. In the Old Testament, betrothal simply means that a vow has been made between a man and a woman’s father that he would take her to be his wife at the appointed time—when he had enough money, when the woman’s father approved, when her bride price was met. Does this make you uncomfortable? Good! It means you’re listening. Please read me carefully here:
patriarchy is not reducible to being problematic because men and women don’t have equal voice, while not seeing men and women as equal is problematic, patriarchy, fundamentally, is most problematic because it views women as not people but things and treats them as property of their fathers or husbands. This is how deep the curse of Adam runs. You cannot even begin to discuss a thought of equality if a woman is still considered a commodity.
In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Telford Work notes the language of this passage mirrors those concerning the theft of property, as well as mirroring similar legal articulation of theft in neighboring countries. (Compare with Leviticus 20:10-21, 25:5-10) He further argues that we cannot look at this passage as somehow situated along a spectrum that is moving toward social progress. He cites Genesis 12:10-20; 19:4-9; 20:1-18; 26:6-11; 29:1-31:55; 34:1-31; 35:22; 38:1-26; 39:1-23; 49:3-4; Judges 5:28-30; 11:37-40; 12:8-9; 14:1-16:22; 19:1-21:24; Ruth; 1 Samuel 18:27-29; 2 Samuel 3:12-16; 11:1-12:25; 16:20-23; 20:3; 1 Kings 2:13-25; 20:1-12; 2 Kings 24:13-16; and, Proverbs 6:32-7:27, all as examples of how systemic patriarchy, engrained in the spirit of the people themselves, recurs throughout the Old Testament—through the patriarchs, the judges, and the monarchy.
It is not until the New that there is a radical shift, enabled through the Holy Ghost, because “the powers and principalities themselves must be overcome.” (c.f. Ephesians 6:10-13) Again, I want to stress that this is why we must take care in our appropriation of the Old Testament. If what we glean thus far is that consent matters to God, I think we do well, but if we try and apply the Text further, we perhaps do it, its people, and ourselves a disservice.
Finally, we come to the rape of a an unbetrothed woman, which is the most difficult passage.
This brings us to the hard, challenging passage of Deuteronomy 22:28-29. Here, there is no mistaking meaning. The word is וְשָׁכַ֣ וּתְפָשָׂ֖הּ, taphas shakab, a phrasing explicitly referring to rape, because the language is steeped in a connotation of force and even, at times, the act of profaning. (c.f. Ezekiel 14:5, 21:16, 30:21) There is no mistaking that this passage explicitly concerns the rape of a woman who was a virgin but was not betrothed.
Remember, virginity here is a commodity, the property of a father, and a woman who was found not to be a virgin brought shame on her household, could be put to death for lying about it, or could be abandoned, never to be married because of it, putting her into financial ruin. (c.f. Deuteronomy 22:13-21) It is that last point that motivates the command that the rapist is to then marry his victim and to not divorce her.
We cannot gloss over how horrifying this is.
Work, however, provides a framework for us to navigate the tension. Citing Matthew 19:8, [Jesus] said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so, Work points out that this section is an indictment of the culture it is being spoken into. We should not be comfortable with this, we should not excuse it, but we should recognise that one of the tensions of the Old Testament is that it is the story of God journeying an imperfect people toward a perfect salvation. The circumstances of the Old Testament are worked in spite of to bring about God’s redemption.
We must be careful. We cannot say that this doesn’t matter to God, but we should consider what, perhaps, mattered immediately: the financial stability of the woman who had been violated in the first place.
This does not fix the passage or make it easier to stomach, but it contextualises it for us and gives us, perhaps, the ethic that we are to take from it moving forward, which is an ethic we see repeated throughout Old Testament passages that deal with women being marginalised—they are to be taken care of and provided for because, within the patriarchal system, they have no other recourse of financial defense or claim to personhood. (c.f. Genesis 38, 2 Samuel 11-13, Ruth) It is the same insistence God has when considering the personhood of the foreigner. (c.f. Deuteronomy 10:19, Isaiah 14)
In short: within contexts of oppression, God cares most about the oppressed.
Perhaps then it is appropriate that the Old Testament ends on this note:
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.
And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.
Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Next Sunday, we’ll consider how these ethics, like consent and security of person, are appropriated into the New Testament and how these problems, like patriarchy, are radically overcome through Jesus and what this means for understanding sex as union and virginity in light of rape.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, my friend Dianna was gracious in compiling the following links for me:
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) [Dianna notes: can be transphobic depending on who you get, which is really unfortunate]
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Planned Parenthood [Dianna notes: each of the regional PPs has rape/sexual assault counseling hotlines and services - which vary depending on region. Check your local one]
Others are listed here [Dianna notes: many of these listed (state by state) are trans* and LGB friendly.]
(Image source: Pinterest.)