QUESTION: Why does the Bible promote rape, in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 by commanding a rape victim to marry her rapist!
RESPONSE: This is one of those Bible problems where we read back into a passage all of our current cultural sensitivities and run into deep misunderstandings as a result. Let’s just read the passage in question to begin:
Deut 22:28-29: When a man comes upon a virgin who has never been engaged and grabs and rapes her and they are found out, the man who raped her has to give her father fifty pieces of silver. He has to marry her because he took advantage of her. And he can never divorce her.
At first glance, this seems to command that a rape victim must marry her abuser! Could anything be more cruel or unfair? Looked at this way, this passage has been pointed to by many skeptics and atheists as evidence that the Bible is immoral, and misogynist. How can the law that comes from this ancient Tribe be considered the law of an all-good God?
But wait. Before we settle on the premise of your question, namely that this passage condones that which is evil, we have to objectively understand it first. To do that, we have to get out of our own perspective and travel back into a very different world, the world of the ancient near east.
In many ways we might say this world is morally inferior to our own, because it tolerated slavery and patriarchy and polygamy. People in this strange world aren’t assumed to be equal before the law, and personal liberties aren’t taken to be the most important part of public policy. Isn’t this horrible and wrong?
But these kinds of thoughts lead to an interesting side conversation with three points to make:
First, on what basis do we judge this law as immoral? The skeptic who rejects the idea of God and objective moral absolutes is in a bit of a conundrum here. They presume that morals are relative to different times and cultures, built into us by social and chemical evolution, with no objective basis.
But then they look at this sex law of the ancient Israelites and make the bold claim that it’s wrong. Not just ineffective or inconvenient to us, but actually wrong in an objective sense. But how can one make such a claim unless they know what good actually is? And if there is no objective right, then by what standard do we called this rape law backward, regressive or immoral?
Secondly, the modern, Western critic of Mosaic Law rarely realizes that their basis for critiquing the Bible is the Bible itself. In other words, the development of Western sensibilities regarding things like personal liberty, sexual boundaries, and individualism are built on premises which would not be self-evident to us, unless the Bible had first paved the way.
Moral developments we take for granted, do not pop into the world out of nothing. We can thank the work of primitive revelations through figures such as Moses, which lead most today to believe that might does not equal right – an idea which was decidedly not “self-evident” to most people at most times in human history.
Third, the modern critic of Moses usually has no handle on the moral excesses of their own era when they make sport of the excesses of another. We most recoil at Mosaic Law in the places where that law describes a people bent severely toward honor and chastity and tribal security. We might see these as “lopsided moral developments” not because they are evil, but because some part of the good objective moral code, which we all acknowledge, has gotten out of whack.
But if we see ourselves as truly objective, we ought to be able to see similar lopsided moral developments inside our own culture – developments which might also stem from some piece of the objective moral law. Yet, out of whack, they lead us into all kinds of evil as well – evil which people in Moses time would spot easily and criticize us for.
Turning now to those cultural moral excesses of Moses time, we must realize they put a high value on virginity. This is in contrast to our own age, whose commitment to sexual restraint hovers somewhere near zero. Also, their culture believed women needed to be protected under the oversight of a leading male (their husband or father), in part because the world was filled with rapacious and predatory men whose power is only checked by other powerful men.
Once you understand that context, you can begin to understand why the rule above could be considered fair and just – benevolent even! When considering Mosaic Law, the modern believer (or skeptic) never has to accept the temporal conditions as ideal or good. We don’t have to love patriarchy or polygamy or slavery. No! We are however, trying to discern whether, given the non-ideal temporal cultural conditions, the law’s transcendent principles can legitimately be considered good.
The evidence says yes.
First, note that the woman raped does not have to marry the man, the man has to marry the woman. You might think this is mere semantics – they are married in either case, the victim and the abuser! Yes, but the way the law puts its demand helps us realize that the consequence is a punishment to the abuser and a grace to the victim.
This is further spelled out by the following rule: he cannot divorce her. This means the rape exempts the man from being able to make use of the divorce permission Moses would give later (Deut 24:1). Marriage in this culture was not a romantic institution (though marriages could be very loving) so much as one of economic and social stability. And women had very few tools to sustain themselves economically on their own, unlike today.
So to be forced to marry the woman he violates, the man is forced by law to take on the responsibility of providing care for her – forever. He can’t even make use of the “out clause” which Moses gave for “impurity”. The rape means he is on the hook to provide for her, no matter the state of her future fidelity to him!
Again, given the high value of virginity, the man has not only violated her physically, but he has taken away from her a primary “dowry” she brings to any marriage union. Having stripped her of that, if he doesn’t marry her, it is likely no one else would. And thus a raped woman is left to a life of poverty and likely prostitution or slavery to survive.
Interestingly, we have an example of just how in that cultural context, it would be the rape victims who might covet such a law, as a benevolent provision for justice. In the time of King David, his daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. In 2 Samuel 13:13 she very much seems to have wanted Amnon to marry her after the rape! Why? Because she knows that in that culture it would be very difficult to find someone to marry her and she would rather be married to Amnon and have lifelong security than to be desolate and single.
In fact, this is exactly what happens to Tamar because Amnon – to add to the enormity of his crimes – disgustedly rejects the very woman he, seconds ago, could not live without (2 Sam 13:15). So she lived without marrying the rest of her life (2 Sam 13:20).
But one may still protest, even if she gains a lifetime of security in compensation for her honor being violated, surely that is a life sentence of awkwardness and bitterness, even if she is cared for. We must understand another piece of accompanying Mosaic legislation that mitigates this concern. For in Exodus 22:16-17 we read:
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride price for virgins.”
If we put the laws together, this addendum clearly states that the woman does not have to marry her rapist if her father refuses to give her to him. And even in that culture, as in ours, it is difficult to imagine a dad granting permission for her to marry a man that she utterly hated. Even under the absolute jurisdiction of their fathers, women in the Ancient Near East could have some say in their own marriage decisions (Gen 24:57). If the father then refused to grant permission, the rapist would still have to pay the bride price (since he had stolen her marriageability by his action) and not get a bride.
So in fact, the Bible does not condone rape, since it clearly commands the death penalty for a man who rapes a married or betrothed woman (Deut 22:22-27). And as for young virgins so violated, God’s law actually spared them the double cruelty of a lifetime of destitution, sold into slavery or prostitution.