Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

Juliet from 1996 20th Century Fox adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, with quote "Proud can I never be of what I hate" and text "Let's talk about that Old Testament law where a girl marries her rapist"
Background picture of Claire Danes, taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

CONTENT NOTE: This post has general discussion of murder, rape, parent-perpetrated domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage.  

‘Proud can I never be of what I hate’
– Juliet

Juliet’s words sum up the reaction of many women when they read a certain law in Deuteronomy 22.

The law I’m thinking of is this one:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 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.
– Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (NIVUK)

In a world even remotely aware of consent and women’s bodily agency, this law makes no apparent sense. How, how, how can it be good for a woman to have to marry – and have sex with – a man who raped her? How can a law be good when it means women – often children – are forced to marry? How can a marriage be good, when its origin was an act of violence?

Or, to take Juliet’s words, how can a woman expect to be proud of being married to someone she hates?

You might have heard the apologist arguments before: it was a different culture, virginity in a woman was a big deal, no one else would marry a raped woman, sex was thought to constitute marriage.

Well, guess again. Because I don’t think this law is about marriage or about sex.

To explain what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at the scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, where this quote comes from.

(Grab a cuppa, this post is 3,000 words long – or over 4,000 if you read all the footnotes.)

Juliet’s father has decided that, now Juliet is less than two-weeks away from turning fourteen (you read that right), she should marry. What’s more, he’s found the perfect suitor for her: Paris.

Juliet’s mother tells Juliet about the match but Juliet is underwhelmed.

Lady Capulet’s response? She wishes Juliet was dead.

‘I would the fool were married to her grave’
– Lady Capulet

Lady Capulet speaking to Lord Capulet
Picture taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

Lord Capulet barely believes it and thinks Juliet should be thanking her lucky stars:

How, will she none? Doth she not give us thanks?
Is she not proud? Doth she not count her blessed,
Unworthy as she is, that we have wrought
So worthy a gentleman to be her bride?

Juliet replies:

Not proud you have, but thankful that you have.
Proud can I never be of what I hate,
But thankful even for hate that is meant love.

Now, there are various ways an actor might deliver these lines. Juliet might be quite calm, being genuinely thankful for a loving gesture even if she didn’t want it. Or she might not be. In Claire Danes’ portrayal of Juliet, she shouts in anguish (and never says the last bit).

Lord Capulet gives an unequivocally violent response to Juliet. Sparks Notes paraphrases it like this:

What is this? What is this fuzzy logic? What is this? I hear you say “proud” and “I thank you,” and then “no thank you” and “not proud,” you spoiled little girl. You’re not really giving me any thanks or showing me any pride. But get yourself ready for Thursday. You’re going to Saint Peter’s Church to marry Paris. And if you don’t go on your own, I’ll drag you there. You disgust me, you little bug! You worthless girl! You pale face!

Pleasant times.

Remember, all Juliet has done is say that she doesn’t want to marry Paris. That was enough for her parents to turn on her, threaten her, and wish her dead.

Imagine then how they would have reacted if Juliet had said that she’s not only truly, madly, deeply in love with Romeo, whose family (the Montagues) has a longstanding feud with the Capulets, but she’s also married Romeo and had sex with him.

In fact, we don’t need to imagine, because this scenario gets played out often enough in modern society. The example that springs to my mind is from the UK in 2003, where Shafilea Ahmed was murdered by her parents in front of her siblings (her parents were convicted in 2012).[1]

This is a phenomenon that gets called ‘honour’-based violence (HBV) or ‘honour’-based abuse.

The word ‘honour’ in HBV often gets put in quote marks because, amongst other reasons, there is nothing honourable about this crime. But the idea behind HBV is that if one person violates a prevailing honour code then they bring dishonour to the entire family, threatening the family’s future and survival.[2] This ‘stain of dishonour’ is removed through the physical, social, or emotional coercion of the person who brought about the perceived dishonour.[3]

We shouldn’t think that HBV has to result in death before it meets this definition.

Disobedient wretch! I tell thee what: get thee to church o’ Thursday, Or never after look me in the face.
– Lord Capulet

Lord Capulet shouting at Juliet
Picture taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

Let’s take this scene from Romeo & Juliet, even in its original form: Juliet threatens to bring dishonour to the family by not being glad for the marital match her parents have made, and must therefore either be forced to marry Paris or be forced to ‘beg, starve, die’ on the streets.[4]

This is ‘honour’-based violence.

And I reckon Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is far more about HBV than it is about marriage or sex.

Imagine there’s a young Juliet in ancient Israel, who isn’t betrothed to be married, who falls for and sleeps with a young Romeo — and they are discovered. Juliet’s parents are seething with rage because they hate Romeo and consider their daughter to have disobeyed them.

Problem is, because she wasn’t betrothed, they can’t charge either Romeo or Juliet with anything akin adultery.[5]

What’s more, they aren’t allowed to salvage their family honour by killing Juliet in private. This isn’t because they know that would be murder (even though it is), rather it’s because they know the law requires all allegations and executions to be public, including when they’re about family honour.[6]

The most they can do is require Romeo to pay them the bride price and marry Juliet (Exodus 22:16-17), but next to these options, the idea of secretly killing Juliet still looks pretty appealing.

This is where whoever wrote verses 28 to 29 steps in. For the sake of this illustration, let’s call him Lawrence.

Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so.
– Friar Lawrence

Lawrence might have some questions around the wisdom of Romeo’s and Juliet’s attachment to each other, but he doesn’t want to see either of them killed.

Importantly, Lawrence also understands the prevailing honour codes of his culture.

He knows that if he brings Juliet’s sexual agency into the legal equation, it’s not going to go well for her. This is because when it comes to social order (that is, the keeping of peaceable society), the cultural reference point is children obeying their parents;[7] what’s more, the reference point for a daughter obeying her parents is to only have sexual relations with her parents’ assent.[8]

In other words, Lawrence knows that if, in legal terms, Juliet is seen as in any way complicit with Romeo, she’ll be accused of undermining the fabric of society — and publicly killed.[9]

Juliet sits on the floor bewildered and upset
Picture taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

But Lawrence can’t ignore the fact the Romeo and Juliet have had sex with each other and Juliet’s parents are demanding a way to save face in the eyes of society.

So Lawrence considers what law might be compelling enough that Juliet’s parents don’t take matters into their own hands.

He starts by looking at what the law already says. Exodus 22 establishes that if a man sleeps with a young woman who is not betrothed, then he has to pay the bride price even if the young woman’s father refuses to let her marry him.

Lawrence winces a little. Juliet’s parents are not in the mood to want her to remain under their roof; they’re certainly not going to insist upon it. Lawrence therefore decides any new law should be silent on this point. It was important though that the Exodus 22 to explicitly acknowledged that marriage is not obligatory for the woman, so he takes care not to write anything to contradict this.

Consistent with the existing law, Lawrence works under the presumption that, in legal terms, Romeo must have seized Juliet and forced himself upon her[10].[11] This completely removes any suggestion that Juliet was complicit in sexual activity outside of her parents’ authority.

He wonders if Juliet’s parents will try and object to this presumption. Given its importance in protecting Juliet, he decides to add a few words beyond the Exodus 22 version of this law. Now it doesn’t just apply to a man who rapes a woman who discloses the rape in her distress afterwards, it also applies to a scenario where “they are discovered”.  Romeo and Juliet’s secret liaison is now explicitly covered too, regardless of how complicit Juliet’s parents consider her to be.

Lawrence keeps the clause requiring Romeo to pay the virgin bride price to Juliet’s parents. They want compensation for the financial loss her family will incur as a result of Romeo’s actions and it’s something Romeo would have had to pay even if they had approved of the match.

But he suspects these measures alone won’t be enough. What else can he say that will gain traction with Juliet’s parents without endangering her further?

Lawrence adds that Romeo must forfeit any right of divorce; the rationale is that he ‘humbled Juliet’. It is well established that to humble by force implies dishonour.[12] If the law links a penalty to the dishonour Romeo brought, then Juliet’s parents have an additional means of saving face.[13]

Meanwhile, Romeo is so desperately in love with Juliet, he’s not exactly going to mind.

Yes, the more Lawrence thinks about it, the more this seems to be the right way forward. Romeo and Juliet will be together; Juliet’s parents’ honour will be satisfied in their eyes and in the eyes of the rest of society.

And then he pauses.

How will this law serve a woman who indeed was raped?

And if aught in this Miscarried by my fault, let my old life Be sacrificed some hour before his time Unto the rigor of severest law.
– Friar Lawrence

It’s only here – in the context of rape – that I’ve heard apologist arguments for this passage[14]. Many are hollow though, because they miss the honour element; even fewer consider HBV. So let’s consider them.

Women were considered property, that’s why the woman’s agency was ignored in this law

No, I think it’s more complicated than that. True, there were groups of people who were considered property to one extent or another. But the context of this law isn’t slavery or military conquest, plus there are plenty of examples of women who led and exercised agency in the Old Testament.[15] So forget the ‘women were property’ argument. Instead, if this law was written to prevent HBV, we find that removing the woman’s agency removes any suggestion of her undermining social order. This in turn means she can’t be killed on the grounds of ‘honour’. That makes much more sense to me.

No one else would have married a woman who wasn’t a virgin

Really? No one remarried after divorce or being widowed? Paltiel and Michal (whilst it lasted), David and Abigail — you’re telling me they never happened? Contrary to popular opinion, the idea that no Old Testament man would ever marry the woman isn’t about whether a penis has been inside her vagina. It’s about whether the woman has been dishonoured.

OK fine, no one else would have married a woman who carried public dishonour, so she needed the marriage in order to be provided for

There’s some weight to this argument and this is one of the reasons why the man is required to offer the woman irrevocable marital rights. That said, neither the Exodus 22 law nor the Deuteronomy 22 law requires the woman to marry the man. Admittedly, the fact that the woman (through her father[16]) could refuse the marriage is not explicit in the Deuteronomy version of this law. However, I believe this is because it was designed more for the context of parental rage, than for rape. Meanwhile, it should be noted that there are a number of Old Testament examples of men who did marry dishonoured women.[17]

They believed that having sex with someone meant you were married in a spiritual sense, so that’s why the legal marriage was required to follow[18]

Excuse me? I get that this argument is an attempt to de-stigmatise non-marital long-term sexual relationships by saying they’re ‘married in a spiritual sense’. Still, I fundamentally disagree with the premise here. When Tamar was widowed and she tricked her father-in-law Judah into having sex with her, no one suggested they should marry or indeed were married in God’s eyes.[19] This whole ‘soul-tie’ explanation, that somehow you’re spiritually married to someone as soon as you have sex — yeah, good luck finding a biblical basis for that. Because Deuteronomy 22 is not it.

The law is designed to accommodate the stubbornness of people’s attitudes at the time[20]; it is trying to make the best of a constrained situation and does not reflect God’s ideal or desires

Yes, I would like to think the illustration I gave above makes that quite plain. However, we should be clear that this law is primarily managing family ‘honour’ codes, and only secondarily managing male promiscuity. I reject the idea that marriage to one’s rapist was ever the best or a necessary solution to handle sexual violence. I don’t care when someone lived or how patriarchal their culture was, a God-fearing person would have more imagination than that. What’s more, instead of othering ancient Israelite lawmakers or (worse?) whitewashing their context, the modern church needs to reckon with this in our current time. Because marriage is still being promoted as the best and/or necessary solution to extra-marital sex – even to the point of child marriage in some cases. This needs to stop. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is not about marriage, it’s about HBV.

It was a patriarchal society…

Yes it was patriarchal, because women’s sexual activity was a proxy for social order. (And it still is, by the way.[21])

…that’s why family honour could only be satisfied by making sure a non-virgin daughter was married, even if that meant she was married to her rapist

Let me be very clear: forced marriage is ‘honour’ violence (and not the same thing as ‘arranged marriages’). I have no doubt that there were forced marriages within ancient Israelite culture, just as there must have been private ‘honour’ killings. But if this law was designed to force a woman and family member into a marriage she didn’t consent to, then no apology can be made for it and Christians should give up trying.[22] If, on the other hand, this law was about protecting daughters from their parents, whilst simultaneously compelling men to take responsibility for their actions towards women, then it makes much more sense.

Concluding thoughts

As I researched quotes from Friar Lawrence I came across a number of short essays arguing why he was to blame for Romeo’s and Juliet’s untimely deaths[23]. It’s true that he made their situation more complicated, but it’s not like he was the one who started the feud between the Capulet family and the Montague family. Instead he accepted the young couple as they were, consoling them and giving them hope when they felt they had run out of options.

It’s just his plan was thwarted by circumstances that he hadn’t foreseen and couldn’t control.

In a similar way, it’s possible that whoever compiled this law was trying to make the best out of extremely charged situations where people’s lives were on the line. As for whether this law was the right decision, we’re each going to have to make up our own minds on that.

For myself, I think the Torah is a profound source of wisdom, Deuteronomy included. I’m willing to give the real ‘Lawrence’ — whether that was Moses or someone else — the benefit of the doubt.

And I know some people have used this law as a tool to perpetrate forced marriages and even child marriages. I am not saying that is OK. I also recognise that this law works within the confines of women’s sexual activity being a proxy for social order, instead of uprooting this patriarchal core. But I don’t believe the law was ever intended to erase women’s agency and consent.

Meanwhile, our modern, Western, Christian culture is far too close to the uglier aspects of ancient Israelite culture for us to claim the moral high ground. We still publicly shun, we still have have codes of honour and shame, and we still use proxies to judge whether someone is undermining social order — often in very flawed ways.

Sure, we like to think that ‘honour’ based violence is something that other people do. It’s easy to paint the Old Testament law-makers as works-based misogynists who couldn’t tell right from wrong, even easier to paint HBV as a phenomenon found solely in non-white, non-Christian cultures.

Guess again.

For now, let’s leave aside the orientalism in these assumptions[24]. Most translations of the Bible have a translator-inserted heading above Deuteronomy 22:13-30 — and nearly all of those headings say or imply that these laws are about marriage violations. This means people read these verses and associate their apparent lack of consent with marriage (which is presumed to be good). The result? Christians justify the coercive behaviours this law was written to prevent, with the church holding a view of marriage that steamrollers over other important considerations, be that maturity, consent, or emotional well-being.

These laws are not about marriage.

These laws are not about marriage.

Do not use these laws to build a theology of marriage.

There’s a lot more I want to say about this, but it’ll have to wait for another post.

For now, there are two things that remain to be said.

First, if you are a woman, and a man raped you (or had any kind of non-consensual sex with you), you don’t bear guilt for not marrying him. Truly, you don’t.

Second, if your family have cut you off because you dated (or are dating) someone they don’t approve of, that doesn’t mean you are shameful. Instead, I believe there was a lawmaker a few thousand years ago who believed that it was right and good for you to live.

So live.

Juliet smiling at Romeo through a fish tank
Picture taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

 


If you are in the UK and you are at risk or know someone at risk of forced marriage or HBV, Karma Nirvana offers specialised support: 0800 5999 247 https://karmanirvana.org.uk/

You can also ring the National Domestic Violence Helpline on: 0808 2000 247 or visit the Refuge website: https://www.refuge.org.uk/

If you’re in the US, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit their website: https://www.thehotline.org/

Meanwhile if you want to support organisations working to end child marriage, you might want to take a look at:


[1] This is the example that springs to my mind of parents killing their children. Admittedly, in Shafilea’s case, her parents considered her shameful not so much because she had an ‘unsuitable boyfriend’, but because she wouldn’t go through with an arranged marriage (and other matters). Samia Shahid, however, was murdered in 2016 for divorcing her husband of a forced marriage and then marrying outside her family.

[2] In social groups where “honour”-based abuse is prevalent, individuals who violate prevailing honour codes bring dishonour to the entire family, threatening the family’s future and survival. The main consequence of such “dishonourable” actions can cause exclusion of the individual or family from the group. (Extract from: Jasminder Sekhon “Honour”-Based Abuse: The Experiences of Police Officers and a Shift Towards a Gendered Violence Approach, 2018; she cites: Stewart, F. 1994, Honour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

[3] “Honour” crimes, or “honour”-based abuse, supposedly remove the stain of dishonour from a collective through the physical, social, or emotional coercion of a person who brought about the perceived dishonour (Sekhon 2018; citing: Sen, P. 2005, Crimes of honour: Value and meaning. In: L. Welchman and S. Hossain, ed., Honour: Crimes, Paradigms and Violence against Women. London: Zed Books)

[4] Ok, I get that HBV is most often framed as responsive to incurred family shame, rather than preventative of threatened family shame, but these two scenarios are still characteristically the same.

[5] This is the subject of Deuteronomy 22:23-27.

[6] A corollary of Deuteronomy 22:21-22.

[7] This would explain why the command to honour your parents comes before the command not to murder in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).

[8] I will back up these claims in later posts. My primary source is a paper by Aaron Koller (Yeshiva University, NY) Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22, published in Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte (16: 2010) Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden.

[9] Ok, I am making a slight extrapolation here when I say that this is the reason why Juliet’s agency is excluded from this law. But it fits. And it is undeniably the case that if she was seen as subverting her parents’ authority then she would be killed. That is the substance of the law in vv13-20. I will back this up in a later post.

[10] The word translated as “rape” in the NIVUK is actually several Hebrew words, one of which, “to seize”, apparently doesn’t have connotations of force. CBMW.org have used this to argue that this law isn’t about rape. Whereas I agree that this law isn’t really about rape, I think CBMW’s reasoning is tenuous because their argument is that the law’s language points to a non-rape scenario. However, in verse 29, the word “violated” in the NIVUK (translated elsewhere as “humbled”- see further down) is about dishonouring through force. It’s the same word used of what happened to the concubine in Judges 19, as well as Tamar in 2 Samuel 13, and Dinah in Genesis 34. Point is, it is always a forceful and horrible word, even if it doesn’t always mean “rape”. I therefore don’t think it can be argued that the language of the law is deliberately and always excluding rape even if the intention and application of the law was designed for non-rape scenarios. (See next footnote.)

[11] Just because this law is presenting itself as being about a rape scenario, that doesn’t mean the lawmaker presumed it would only be applied in rape cases. We need to be able to step back from the text and consider what the lawmaker knows but doesn’t write into the text. Indeed, this is the only way the law in verses 13-21 makes any sense (because hymeneal blood is an utterly unreliable method of proving a woman’s sexual history). This is the topic of Aaron Koller’s paper on those verses (see footnote 8), which I will cover in more detail in a later post.

[12] See definition of ‘ana’ (ayin-nun-he) provided in the Hebrew dictionary (no. 6700) in the Zondervan NIV Exhaustive concordance (1999: Zondervan Publishing House, Michigan).

[13] Another extrapolation, but again, it fits with the differences seen between this law and the one in Exodus 22.

[14] With the possible exception of CBMW who argue that it isn’t about rape (see note 10). I will discuss this further in my next post which will focus on Mr Wickham and Lydia Bennett.

[15] A point also made by Margaret Mowczko in her analysis of this passage.

[16] Margaret Mowczko’s analysis of this passage makes the link that this clause about the father refusing in the Exodus 22 law is about the bride expressing her desires.

[17] Rahab, Ruth and Hosea’s wife being cases in point.

[18] This is how Rob Bell interprets the text in Sex God, p132, (2012: Harper One, New York)

[19] Even though she was lauded for her actions and the entire tribe of Judah was the result (Genesis 38).

[20] Like how Jesus described the law on divorce (Matthew 19:7-9).

[21] Take, for example, the teachings of Lori Alexander and Doug Wilson. Further analysis to follow in a later post.

[22] Remember: this law is not being offered in the context of slavery or military conquest. (Not that I’m going to pretend those things are exactly OK.) I just don’t see narratives of forced marriage being justified in the Old Testament. To honour one’s parents does not mean blind obedience. Moreover, there is nothing about how to punish a daughter if she refuses to marry someone her parents wanted her to marry – surely this means that it was recognised that the daughter should agree to the marriage, even if it was an arranged marriage? Meanwhile, we have examples like Rebekah, whose consent was hugely important in her marriage to Isaac (Genesis 24).

[23] Um, yes, Romeo and Juliet both die in the end. I’m hoping this isn’t a spoiler for my readers. Funny story: someone I used to know told me of her experience watching the 20th Century Fox, Baz Luhrmann, version in the cinema. As the film drew to a close, she heard a girl behind her whispering, “Wake up! Come on, wake up! Oh! Oh no! No! … It’s well sad, innit?”

[24] I appreciate that the two murder examples I’ve cited both concern people of colour and that my choice might help reinforce orientalist assumptions around HBV. The problem is, this is how HBV gets reported and these are the examples that left an impression on me. I am not trying to assert that non-white, non-Christian cultures are all bastions of egalitarianism, I’m saying that HBV is something that happens in white, Christian, Western culture too – even if they don’t get reported in the same way.

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