There are a fair few strange laws concerning sex and marriage in the Old Testament books of law.
Problem is, whilst some Christians see much of the Old Testament as not relevant at all, there are others who tend to look for modern application. And if you’re in this second camp, there are all manner of questions to be answered about which laws describe the past and which prescribe principles for ethical living — and how exactly these translate to the modern day.
My personal belief is that none of the Old Testament laws are either wholly prescriptive or wholly descriptive; I think they all reflect their time (descriptive) and they all have something to teach us (prescriptive). Well, to varying degrees, obviously, but I’m not prepared to write off any of them as wholly irrelevant relics. And maybe you agree or maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s fair to say that some Christians are inclined to interpret prescriptively and when they do, they’re influenced by what each law is actually talking about.
Maybe that seems so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said — of course laws about the priesthood, warfare or slavery are going to be taken less literally than laws about putting up safety rails on a roof or not cursing the deaf. Why? For the simple reason that modern Western societies are structured very differently to ancient Israel.
But here’s the issue: what if there are laws designed for ancient societal structures, but which mainly use timeless language? Laws like that risk being interpreted and applied more literally by modern Christians, when they shouldn’t be.
This is what I think happens with Deuteronomy 22:13-30.
CONTENT NOTE: this post includes discussion of sexual abuse, ‘honour’ violence and rape myths.
Deuteronomy 22:13-30 is a cluster of laws about sex. Actually, I don’t think they’re really about sex, but they look like it when you first read them, especially when Bible translators insert headings like “Marriage Violations” (in the NIV) or “Laws concerning sexual immorality” (ESV).
- verses 13-19 are about a husband slandering his wife for allegedly not being a virgin (you see — this law is about slander, not sex);
- verses 20-21 are about parents carrying out honour violence, caused (apparently) by their daughter’s lack of virginity;
- verse 22 is about adultery between a man and a married woman;
- verses 23-24 are about adultery between a man and a betrothed virgin woman;
- verses 25-27 are about a man raping a betrothed virgin woman;
- verses 28-29 are about a man raping an unbetrothed virgin woman; and then
- verse 30 is this weird bolt-on saying that a man should not sleep with his father’s wife (well, duh — but why wasn’t this obvious from verse 22?)
I’ll say here that these descriptions fall wildly short of the mark to the point of being inaccurate, but at first glance, this is what they appear to be about.
And it’s hard to describe them all under a single heading.
They aren’t all about virginity – see verses 22 and 30. They aren’t all about marriage or betrothal violations — see verses 28-29. They aren’t all about sexual immorality – verses 13-18 are about slander (and not all the verses are about capital crimes).
To be sure, these laws were deliberately arranged together and you can see how they work through different permutations of allegations of illicit sex. There are three scenarios concerning a married woman, another two concerning a betrothed virgin, one concerning an unbetrothed virgin, and then the weird case where the relations are intra-family rather than inter-family. (Admittedly, most commentators consider verses 13-29 separately from verse 30, but I prefer to consider them together.)
But even with this logical progression, there are lots of apparent gaps. Verses 23-27 have a load of discussion about the betrothed woman’s culpability or innocence, but verse 22 just jumps to how adultery is a capital offence. Did the scribe think that rape never happens to married women? Surely not? And if the scribe was concerned about incest, it seems strange that they’d only talk about a man having sex with his father’s wife, and not mention other close relatives (like the prohibitions in Leviticus 18).
In other words, a quick study reveals that these verses were carefully arranged and yet, if we think they’re about sex, then there are also logical gaps and potential inconsistencies. How does that square?
Well probably you can guess where I’m going with this and maybe you’ve heard me say it before: I don’t think these laws are about sex. I think they’re about honour. What’s more, they were compiled over a period of time; if we want to understand their intended meaning and driving principles, we need to know which ones were written first. Because they most definitely weren’t written in the same order as they appear in the Bible.
Problem is, many modern, Western Christian readers won’t appreciate either of these things. Instead, they’ll read these laws as an early teaching about virginity, the hymen, marriage, cheating and rape — all of which are timeless realities of living. For sure, today’s readers will filter out the elements that are most obviously specific to the culture at the time, such as the public display of bloodied bedsheets or the paying of bridewealth. But if Christians approach these verses assuming they’re about sex and marriage, they’ll still be left with a cluster of messages that appear to be relevant today.
And some of these messages are wildly, wildly problematic.
In particular, the implications are (brace yourself!):
- Hymeneal blood is a reliable proof of female virginity;
- Pre-marital sex for women was a capital crime, thus it is a sin commensurate with murder and kidnapping;
- Even though extra-marital sex committed by men was illegal or illicit, it was not always as serious/sinful as extra-marital sex committed by women;
- Consent is only secondarily relevant (if relevant at all) in determining a woman’s culpability for illegal sex;
- Female rape victims bear guilt equal to that of their rapist if they don’t scream during the rape;
- The act of sexual intercourse is so important that it necessitates marriage, even in circumstances of rape.
Has a chill run down your spine yet?
Make no mistake, I don’t believe ANY of the above statements are true. More than that, I believe they are all indefensibly false. But those are the messages people seem to take home when they think these laws are about sex and marriage.
Which is why I want to get the word out there that these laws are not about sex or marriage. They’re about honour.
Now I am not saying this automatically makes them all peachy. Far from it. But if we frame these laws as primarily about family honour, that significantly impacts how/if we translate them to a modern context. What’s more, it influences which other biblical passages we should use to illumine the underlying meaning of these verses.
Wherever you stand on the descriptive/prescriptive debate, maybe this will help the next time you’re talking about these verses with prescriptive-leaning Christians. And if you’re still scratching your head at this whole “honour, not sex” idea, give me time. I’ll be blogging about these verses again. And from many different angles.
If you liked this post and want to read more around the subject, you might enjoy:
- How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)
- To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)
- Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?