Even the dumbest-seeming parts of the bible can turn out to have a profound message of grace. Instead of dismissing them, we should pray for help in understanding them, and then apply what we know about how to understand the bible.
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Understanding the Bible #8
We recently looked at how to interpret the laws we find in the bible. To help us solidify our understanding of that, let’s put together what we have learned, and look at some Old Testament laws.
In the very first part of this series, I mentioned a verse that at first seems offensive and barbaric. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that when a virgin (who is not betrothed to anyone) is raped, her rapist should pay her family 50 shekels.
Not long ago I read a blog that used this verse as an excuse to avoid the moral laws contained in the bible. The Blogger’s basic point was this: “If we don’t want to obey the bible and deal with rapists in this way, what right do we have to insist that people should obey the bible about things like sexual purity, or honesty, or loving our neighbor?”
It’s kind of a cheap shot, an easy way to call any Christian a hypocrite, because nobody literally follows all those old laws anymore. So, if insist that the bible teaches that you should love your neighbor, you’re a hypocrite unless you try to deal with rapists by having them pay their victim’s family 50 shekels. On the surface, it is a nifty argument, but it is also ignorant and dishonest.
If you haven’t read the rest of this series, I strongly encourage you to go back and read them all. That will help you tremendously in understanding how we approach such things. For those who have read, you know that there are three kinds of laws. This law about rapists was clearly about crime and punishment in the ancient nation of Israel – what we call a civil law. So right away, we should be aware that we cannot apply it directly and literally. In fact, to do so, might violate the laws of the country in which you live. This law was meant to be directly applied to ancient Israel. In addition, we know that this law (like all of the Old Testament laws) was fulfilled spiritually in Jesus.
But there is more. The New Testament tells us that everything that was written in the bible – even the Old Testament laws – was written for our instruction. We don’t obey it as we would obey the civil laws of the country in which we live. We trust that Jesus has fulfilled the spiritual purpose for that law. But we also believe and understand that this law contains some underlying principle or teaching that will instruct, inform or encourage us as we seek to follow Jesus. In other words, we don’t simply throw it out. We still see this law as valid – in the sense that it must teach us something true and worthwhile, even now.
At first glance, everything about Deuteronomy 22:28-29 seems repulsive to 21st Century Western culture. Unless we start off with the belief that the Holy Spirit can teach us something worthwhile here, we will simply ignore it, or wish it wasn’t in the bible. But if we go forward believing that we can learn something, we will be surprised and rewarded.
Let’s apply what we have learned. First, we must read it in context. The blogger I mentioned only said that the rapist must pay the parents of the victim fifty shekels. He did not consider the whole context. Deuteronomy chapters 21 and 22 contain many civil laws for ancient Israel. Many of the laws in this section of the bible are concerned with situations where there are no witnesses to establish exactly what happened. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is about unsolved murders. 22:13-21 is about a he-said/she-said situation, where a husband claims his betrothed bride was unfaithful to him. 22:23-27 is about rape. If a woman claims it was rape, and yet it occurred with people around and she didn’t cry for help, then it may have been consensual. On other hand, when a woman claims she was raped where there were no people to hear her cry for help, she is to be believed. That leads us to the verses we are looking at:
“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. (Deut 22:28-29, ESV2011)
First, we see that the situation is ambiguous. The “meeting” may refer to meeting in open country, where there are no witnesses to verify what happened. In other words, this may or not be consensual. There’s something else important here. The woman who is raped is in specific circumstance – she is a virgin, and she is not yet betrothed to anyone. This is important, as we move on. Notice this also: the punishment is not merely that the rapist pay a fine – he must also marry the young woman, and he may never divorce her.
Now, again, at first blush, this addition of marriage does not seem to help. In fact, it seems like it makes it even worse. However, as we have learned, let’s consider the historical and cultural context of this law.
Women in the ancient Middle East generally lived in situations that we consider terrible today. Since most men are physically stronger than most women, men generally did what they wanted with and to women. To save her from abuse and poverty, in those days, a woman needed a man who would protect her from other men, and provide her with food and shelter. Without such a protector-provider, her future would be very bleak indeed.
Women were expected to be virgins when they were married (which was usually between ages 13-18). No self-respecting man would marry a previously unmarried girl unless she was a virgin. Therefore, a young woman who had been raped would be considered unmarriageable – no one would ever be interested in her. A betrothed woman who was raped, was considered as if she was already married. The rape would not end the betrothal, or stop the marriage. But a young woman who was raped, and not betrothed, would probably never find a husband willing to marry her. As a result she would never have the protection and provision that a husband offered. She would become an object of abuse and scorn for any man who wanted to mistreat her. Her future would most likely be in prostitution and begging.
We need to remember also that virtually all marriages were arranged. Many people found that love could grow and blossom in an arranged marriage, but almost no one expected to start out by loving the person they would marry. First came marriage, then came love.
So what it all amounts to is this: A young woman who was raped before betrothal had an incredibly bleak future. She would be an outcast, abused and forgotten for the rest of her days. Instead of allowing this to happen, God, through Moses commanded that such a young woman must be protected and provided for – for the rest of her life. That is what marriage did for women in those days. By marrying her, without the possibility of divorcing her, her rapist became committed to providing for her and protecting for her entire life. He was on the hook for her bills and her reputation until he died. His payment was not just fifty-shekels – it was a lifetime of providing for his victim’s needs.
Now, I know, it sounds horrible that she would have to live with her rapist. But remember there is ambiguity here – the rape may not have actually been a rape. In other words, she might have been a willing lover, in which case she would probably be happy to be with the man in question. The law prevented the man from using her, and then casting her aside. And even if it was rape, the young woman would not have expected to love her husband anyway – certainly not at first. Rape is a tragedy, and this certainly was not a perfect solution. But it was a solution that provided extensive ongoing care and protection for the rape victim. It kept her from the almost certain fate of being abused by other men. It made the rapist responsible for the life he would have ruined, and there was no way he could get out of it by divorcing her.
Before we dismiss this as barbaric, compare it to our own laws about rape.
Today, when a man rapes a woman and is convicted, he goes to prison. The average sentence served by a convicted rapist is about five years. While he is in prison all of his physical needs are provided for – food, shelter, clothing and medical care. And yet there is no law in our current system that requires the rapist to provide any of these things to the victim. We focus exclusively on locking up the perpetrator. The victim is on her own. Now of course, there are programs and groups for rape victims, but they are not part of the legal system, and they are optional, and they are not paid for by the people who commit the crime.
Who are the barbarians now?
This crazy Old Testament law about rape, the one we think is so terrible, actually contains a powerful message: look after those who have been hurt; provide for the one who has been deprived of a future. Care for the victim, and make the criminal undertake all of the costs.
Shouldn’t we be more concerned about helping victims than we are? Shouldn’t we make sure that we take care of the most vulnerable people in our society and protect them from abuse?
You see, when we understand this law, we see that it reveals God’s concern for the vulnerable, his desire to provide for those who need provision, and protect those who have no protection. Those are not messages that we should scorn, or ignore, or throw out.
So, to answer the blogger, we still see this law as valid. Don’t you think it is still appropriate for Christians to protect and provide for those who, through no fault of their own, are needy and vulnerable? We aren’t hypocrites. We still value this, and every law. We value and seek to apply the principle, the reason behind the law. When we find that reason, we still seek to apply it appropriately to our present times.
I hope you care coming to see the incredible value of the bible as we go through this series. Even a “stupid law,” such as the one from Deuteronomy 22:28-29, turns out to be an expression of God’s grace and care.