In December I reviewed a book entitled: God Behaving Badly. Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? by David Lamb. By the way, the book winner was GeoJono. Hope you find the book helpful.
One person who left a comment (Laura Droege) wondered if the book addressed the laws and punishments, specifically the ones about a young woman being raped and having to marry her rapist. The book actually has an exceptional chapter on sexism and the treatment of women. I glossed over it in my review. Since egalitarian type issues are a frequent topic of my blog, I didn’t want to make it the main focus of the review post. However, it definitely deserves consideration. As a female, and as a Christian feminist (that feminist word is so misunderstood) this concerns me too. A raped woman having to marry her rapist??!!
To begin with some general thoughts, remember that this was a completely different time and place in history. The laws in Deuteronomy are from sometime about 3,000 years ago. All laws are written within a culture and reflect the culture. That is a logical consideration. If we were to take our modern laws and send them back or forward in time several thousand years – I am certain that some of our own laws would appear bizarre or unjust to those in the past or future. [See this post: Understanding weird or disturbing Old Testament laws for further general thoughts.]
Deuteronomy chapter 22 has a section of verses (vs 23-29) with laws about rape. Read them and the explanations for yourself. The punishment varies depending on circumstances – such as the location of the rape or whether the woman’s cries were heard or not. Sometimes the rapist got the death penalty, sometimes both the man and woman got the death penalty, and other times the rapist had to marry the woman he raped.
First, note that there were laws about rape, and the death penalty for the man was sometimes the punishment. While a death sentence for rape may seem severe, it also communicates that rape was considered wrong and women should be protected from it. Right? That aspect, at least, can be seen as a positive.
But what about a woman having to marry her rapist? This sounds horrifying. Taking time to understand the cultural milieu of ancient times can shed some light on the matter. While rape is always a terrible crime against a woman, the situation was worse for women back then. Lamb explains:
“An unmarried rape victim would not only have to deal with the trauma of the violent act itself, but she would also be stigmatized by the loss of her virginity. Because of her shame, she would be unable to marry. Since the primary way that women achieved security then was through marriage, a rape victim could end up impoverished. The world of the Old Testament was more sexist than ours.” (pg 62)
Therefore, a law that appears very unjust to us is actually attempting to correct a problem in the harsh and sexist times of the Old Testament. A raped woman, rather than ending up in poverty or forced into prostitution, would have the security and benefits of marriage. But still…I know…this doesn’t seem right to us today.
But how might women back then have viewed this? Well, we do have an example in 2 Samuel chapter 13. It is from David’s family. Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon, and she begged him not to rape her. But after the rape, she begged him not to send her away. She even told him that to send her away now, would be worse than the rape itself! This seems astonishing to us, but really try to place yourself in this culture and time. Being raped put you in a hopeless position as a female. Lamb summarizes:
“Our hasty conclusion that the command here is sexist reveals ignorance of the culture. As the story of Tamar shows, a woman victimized by rape in that context would view marriage as necessary. A law commanding the marriage of a rapist and his victim is inconceivable today, but in the time of Tamar, it was a good thing for the woman. By giving the command, God was not being sexist, but rather combating the sexism of the culture.“ (pg 63, bold added)
Lamb and others have also pointed out that the Israelite laws were more progressive than the nations or people groups around them. “…Laws in the Old Testament concerning women consistently move in a redemptive direction in comparison to parallel laws from its ancient Near Eastern context.” (pg 62)
Patriarchal tendencies are deeply woven into the fallen nature of our world. But the theme of Scripture is the redemption of humankind and the reversal of the effects of the Fall through the work of Jesus Christ. In small ways, in harsh Old Testament times, we can see the beginnings of better treatment of women…Culminating in the coming of our Lord Jesus who treated women with such respect and dignity.
The church should be a model of the new order of things as woman are valued – not only in the church but outside the church as well. Unfortunately, the church at large has frequently not been a model of this for women. Patriarchal tendencies are hard to overcome, but we must keep pressing forward.
[I know these thoughts are not a “slam dunk” but I hope they might bring some perspective or at least partially answer some concerns.]
Update: An excellent post here from Marg Mowczko: Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and Marrying your Rapist