Picture of woman sitting outside with her eyes closed and a slight frown, holding a closed copy of the Bible, with the words: Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws? workthegreymatter.com

Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What I blog about and what I want to blog about, do not always align.

The Old Testament laws on sex, adultery and rape, particularly those in Deuteronomy 22:13-29, are a sensitive topic to say the least. Whenever I find an angle to write about, my inner caution tends to apply the brakes before my enthusiasm gets to the point of posting.

It’s not that this is a topic to be enthusiastic about, per se. It’s just that, in the last few years, the biblical scholarship I’ve read on these passages has absolutely blown my mind. And the more feminist literature I read (currently working through Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth), the more I believe the church needs to re-evaluate its relationship with these verses. Because although these verses are steeped in patriarchy, I’ve come to believe that there’s a lot of good stuff that they can teach us today.

If you’re now raising your eyebrow at me, I’m gonna guess it’s for one of several reasons. I’ll take them in turn.

“Nothing good can come of the Old Testament law.”

Bear in mind, that whole “love your neighbour as yourself” stuff? That’s Leviticus. If you genuinely think there’s nothing good in the Old Testament books of law (also known as the Torah), you either haven’t read them, or you just… hate these books on principle. If you’re in the latter category, I’m sorry you feel that way. If however, you have a slightly less stark view…

“But these books are still rendered pretty worthless by their violent and patriarchal content”

I’m gonna guess that you have history with these books and maybe people have thrown ‘clobber’ verses at you. I’m not here to minimise that. However, there are plenty of Christians (and Jews!) who don’t believe in patriarchy or violence, but who still draw great comfort and wisdom from these same texts. And I get that you haven’t experienced that. But I have. So judge me by how I interpret these books. If you think my actions are worthless, fine, judge the text that way too. But if you find value in what I do, maybe you can give the text the benefit of the doubt?

“But their cultural context is patriarchy — and that eclipses any good use”

Yeah, so… yes, their cultural context is patriarchal. In fact, you’ll find me quoting an Old Testament scholar (Carolyn Pressler) whose doctorate thesis argues that Deuteronomy is all about asserting the patriarch’s authority over women. But, well, I think it’s more complicated than that. Even by Pressler’s own admission, many of the laws are about limiting and curbing the actions of those in positions of power. That being the case, we have to evaluate these laws by considering what situations they were responding to. We have to look at the lawmakers’ direction of travel. And I think we can learn a lot from that.

“But the Torah still regulates women’s sexuality to patriarchal ideals”

I know what you’re getting at: women had to be virgins until they marry, then they had to marry a man their father chose, then they had to bear their husband’s children — whilst not ever having sex with another man. It’s not much of a leap to say that women were seen to exist for men’s sexual pleasure and the preservation of patrilineal purity. I want to say that it’s more complicated than that (and it is) but there’s a more fundamental point to be made here. If these ideals permeate modern culture (and they do), and if these ideals are problematic (which they are), then maybe we should be talking about them more? This is a reason to write about Torah, not a reason to ignore it.

“But, like, the law is legalism – don’t you realise that?”

Um, well, I don’t believe that’s the case. What’s more, there are lots of Christians who don’t believe that’s the case. In fact, most of the anti-law and anti-Judaism interpretations of the New Testament came from Martin Luther. Who was an anti-Semite. So I don’t think we should put much weight in those aspects of his teachings. I wrote more about that in another post, by the way: To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog).

“But still, Jesus made the law obsolete?”

Let’s think about what we mean by ‘the law’. Sure, in the book of Hebrews it says that the Mosaic covenant was made obsolete by Christ, but that book was focussing on the priestly regulations. There’s no suggestion that the entire Torah is now useless. Indeed, Jesus said he came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it. At a basic level, we have to acknowledge that some laws concerned the ministry of priests, others were about the holiness (and purity) of the people, and still others were concerned about social order and civil justice. And I get that this categorisation isn’t perfect, but we are fools if, for example, we treat “do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” the same way as the sacrifices for purification after childbirth.

“But if we all love each other, why would we need the law?”

Well, for one thing, a lot of people don’t love their neighbour; having laws that explain on some basic level that what they’re doing is not OK — that’s helpful. Meanwhile, for those of us who really do want to love… are we seriously going to kid ourselves into thinking that love is intuitive? It’s not. We’d love it to be, but it’s not. Love is a skill, an art, a discipline, a choice, a way of life. We don’t just slip into it, we have to cultivate it. And that means study and practice and learning. The law is not a substitute for love, but it does teach us about what is, and what is not, loving.

“So the command ‘you must purge the evil from among you’ is… love? Are you kidding me?”

No, I don’t believe you love someone by stoning them to death. And that’s the point: if we’re to make a case that ‘purging the evil’ is loving or unloving, then we need to have a handle on when laws like that were written, and for what purpose. That means talking about these laws more, not less. And it means talking about the applications of these laws more not less.

Because as much as I want to say that death is bad (and it is), and retributive punishment is backward looking (which it is)… I also think there are complexities around capital punishment that we need to grapple with before we dismiss these laws out of hand.

To put it another way: when 1 Kings 12:18 says all Israel stoned Adoram (the man who’d been in charge of Solomon’s forced labour) I have a hard time feeling any pity for him. That said, I am not in any way comfortable with the idea of stoning a young woman to death simply because she wasn’t a virgin when she married. So, I’m not for a moment saying that violence is love, but when we find codified, legalised violence in the Old Testament, there are questions to be raised about communities. These issues are not straightforward and our modern church doesn’t have good answers to them. For all its talk of peacemaking and following Jesus, I actually think the church still practices violence in ways it doesn’t even recognise half the time. So I reckon we should be talking about laws like these more, not less.

“OK, but, just to check, you don’t actually believe that sex outside marriage is OK, do you?”

Well… here’s the thing I find weird. According to Deuteronomy 22, if a man has sex outside marriage (with an unbetrothed woman) then he has to marry her. However, if a woman has sex outside marriage (and her husband discovers this on their wedding night) then she dies. If that doesn’t smack of a massive double-standard, then I don’t know what does. The man could be raping a woman and the young woman could be having consensual sex, but he lives and she dies?

My point here is that the church’s often-quoted ethic of ‘no sex outside marriage’ isn’t upheld by scripture — or if it is, it’s upheld in the most back-to-front, gendered and violent way imaginable. I want to talk about that. Sure, there are many forms of extra-marital sex that I have issue with, just as there are many forms of marital sex I also have issue with. But if we read these laws and believe they are part of how God historically enforced his ‘design’ of sex inside marriage — wow, we paint a picture of a very violent God.

And no amount of teaching on the Garden of Eden or the Woman Caught In Adultery or 1 Corinthians 7 is going to assuage me on this point.

Don’t get me wrong: when most people say God’s desire is for fidelity inside marriage and chastity outside, I don’t believe they are trying to propagate sexual violence. But. The church has been promoting marriage as the solution to sex in ways that demean marriage and, at their worst, endorse the rape of children. I want to talk about that. Because the Deuteronomy rape laws — on their surface — seem entirely consistent with that way of thinking.

And Christians will read them that way unless we dig into these laws and investigate what they’re about, deep down.

“So, you think there’s a more liberal or even sex-positive way of reading the Deuteronomy 22 laws on sex, adultery and rape?”

Yes. For the simple reason that they weren’t written to regulate sex.

They were written to regulate ‘honour’ violence.

To me, that changes everything.


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One thought on “Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

  1. I really like reading your posts about the Old Testament laws. It’s one thing for me to know, intellectually, that context matters. Another to have someone point out just what the context is and how it’s relevant. So thank you.

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