Thursday, May 03, 2007

O thou oppressed virgin (Exod. 22:16ff; fornication, rape, virginity, marriage)

You know, I have to admit; I've been stalling on this one. There are different reasons that certain topics are less than savory to talk about. As I expressed previously, abortion is a topic that I hate to discuss because it seems to be impossible to discuss without starting a fight. This time however, there are multiple reasons for me to dread this post.

While the subject of the verse (Ex 22:16) that leads to me making this post is really premarital sex, it interrelates with a number of other topics, including rape. I don't know why it is, but on a purely personal level, rape disgusts me. I'm not just talking about moral indignation, the thought of somebody being forced into sex against their will makes me feel like vomiting.

On a less personal level, and more a matter of the nature of this blog, I admittedly am not happy with the way the Old Testament deals with a number of these issues. While I do intend to address them as best I can, I'm willing to say that I've never been completely happy with the Biblical treatment of most of the subjects I intend to cover here. Nonetheless, there are indeed things to be said in defense of them, and you can judge for yourself.

You of course have to understand that in most of the Middle East even unto the present, it is understood that women are akin to property of their fathers until they get married, at which time they become akin to property of their husbands. This is not to say that they are like livestock, with the owner having completely free reign in all things, such that he might sell her, beat her, or kill her at his own whim. No, wives are still human beings, and are treated better than slaves, concerning whose rights I have already written.

A big part of the cultural norms of the area and the time, as most of you probably know, is that a woman ought to be a virgin on the day she is first married. If a woman was not a virgin, then her husband had a right to reject her, which is covered in great detail in Deuteronomy 22. This was serious business, and apparently the possibility existed that a woman caught out in this way might end up being stoned to death. It's interesting to contrast certain verses from Exodus 22 with similar verses in Deuteronomy 22, and see that being engaged was considered as serious as being married. A woman who was still a virgin, but was "betrothed" would be considered to be adulterous if she had sex with a man that was not her husband. (No word is given that I can find stating what happens if she has sex with her fiance.)

Now one of the few things that I am going to go to the New Testament for in this matter is the story of Mary and Joseph, which I think illustrates an important point. In the beginning of Matthew, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, but he knows it's not his child. At this point, he has the right to ask that she be put to death, but he decides rather to divorce her (even though they have not yet married, as I said, that's the way engagement was treated) and let her live. While it may not be much of a plus, the fact is that stoning an adulterous woman to death was not quite required so much as an option.

In matters of both seduction and rape of a virgin, the offending man was required to face consequences of his actions. While a married or betrothed virgin would be considered to be off-limits, and therefore the man would be subject to the death penalty, in either case, a woman who was not married or betrothed would have to be married to the man she had slept with. (Interestingly, as noted in the Deuteronomy passage, he would not have the right to divorce her. It seems to me that this may be a hint as to the nature of divorce as described by Jesus much later. Divorce was intended to be a way to get out of a marriage with a person who had been sexually unfaithful to you. You can hardly complain about your wife being sexually impure if you were the one who originally made her that way anyway.) Some people tend to think of it as cruel that a woman would have to marry her rapist, and while I am strongly inclined to agree, I also understand the societal impetus behind it. Since women were largely dependent on the men around them in that culture--once again, either their fathers or husbands--then since a woman who was no longer a virgin would have a hard time getting married, it made some sense that the man who had "ruined" her would be required to provide for her the rest of her life. It's for her protection and his punishment; after all, a rapist is obviously not looking for a long-term relationship, is he?

Okay, I think one more thing can finish this out, and the plethora of other women's issues can wait for another post. The distinction made between a virgin raped in the city and in the country is an interesting one, but I think it is somewhat misinterpreted here. (I'm guessing.) I think most people assume that this distinction is unfair, and that there is an assumption that a woman who was raped within the walls of a city must have been a willing participant, "because she cried not". I don't think that this is the intent of the verse. The idea is not that there is an automatic presumption of guilt, but that if a woman is raped, she ought to do what she can to protect herself, which obviously includes calling for help if she is able. My guess would be that the purpose of this rule is so that a woman caught in the act of adultery can't claim rape as a defense.

Women's rights in general, along with moral laws about sexuality are definitely a controversial subject in the Bible, and are quite different from modern mores, I won't deny that. I'd definitely welcome a lot of discussion on this topic, but I don't come close to knowing all the answers.

3 comments:

Linda Flores said...

Hey,

I found this site through the SAB, and I appreciated your honesty and willing to use some critical thought in looking at why the Old Testament has the morality it does, and where it came from. I think your analysis is basically right when you say, "You of course have to understand that in most of the Middle East even unto the present, it is understood that women are akin to property of their fathers until they get married, at which time they become akin to property of their husbands." Things like laws and social mores came off of that basis.

And I think what you say here is interesting: "Women's rights in general, along with moral laws about sexuality are definitely a controversial subject in the Bible, and are quite different from modern mores, I won't deny that."

The problem is that the Bible, and all of its words, are held by many major religions to be an eternal, timeless moral source -- and argument, that we should interpret things like Deuteronomy in light of what society it reflected, is seen as blasphemy, relativism, etc. How do you reconcile those things?

Linda Flores said...

oops ... when I say, "many major religions," I mean many major Christian denominations.r

Brucker said...

Sorry, my comment notifications were set wrong I just noticed this and need to go look for others.

How do you reconcile it? It honestly is very difficult, and has a lot to do with why denominations exist. You have to decide what portion of the law is an eternal principle, and what is part of the culture of the time. In the end, even the stuff that is cultural is important, but one needs to figure out how it works in one's own culture.

I could give a personal example from my own life, if you're interested.