Even the dumbest-seeming parts of the bible can turn out to have a profound message of grace. Instead of dismissing them, we should pray for help in understanding them, and then apply what we know about how to understand the bible.

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Understanding the Bible #8

We recently looked at how to interpret the laws we find in the bible. To help us solidify our understanding of that, let’s put together what we have learned, and look at some Old Testament laws.

In the very first part of this series, I mentioned a verse that at first seems offensive and barbaric. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that when a virgin (who is not betrothed to anyone) is raped, her rapist should pay her family 50 shekels.

Not long ago I read a blog that used this verse as an excuse to avoid the moral laws contained in the bible. The Blogger’s basic point was this: “If we don’t want to obey the bible and deal with rapists in this way, what right do we have to insist that people should obey the bible about things like sexual purity, or honesty, or loving our neighbor?”

It’s kind of a cheap shot, an easy way to call any Christian a hypocrite, because nobody literally follows all those old laws anymore. So, if insist that the bible teaches that you should love your neighbor, you’re a hypocrite unless you try to deal with rapists by having them pay their victim’s family 50 shekels. On the surface, it is a nifty argument, but it is also ignorant and dishonest.

If you haven’t read the rest of this series, I strongly encourage you to go back and read them all. That will help you tremendously in understanding how we approach such things. For those who have read, you know that there are three kinds of laws. This law about rapists was clearly about crime and punishment in the ancient nation of Israel – what we call a civil law. So right away, we should be aware that we cannot apply it directly and literally. In fact, to do so, might violate the laws of the country in which you live. This law was meant to be directly applied to ancient Israel. In addition, we know that this law (like all of the Old Testament laws) was fulfilled spiritually in Jesus.

But there is more. The New Testament tells us that everything that was written in the bible – even the Old Testament laws – was written for our instruction. We don’t obey it as we would obey the civil laws of the country in which we live. We trust that Jesus has fulfilled the spiritual purpose for that law. But we also believe and understand that this law contains some underlying principle or teaching that will instruct, inform or encourage us as we seek to follow Jesus. In other words, we don’t simply throw it out. We still see this law as valid – in the sense that it must teach us something true and worthwhile, even now.

At first glance, everything about Deuteronomy 22:28-29 seems repulsive to 21st Century Western culture. Unless we start off with the belief that the Holy Spirit can teach us something worthwhile here, we will simply ignore it, or wish it wasn’t in the bible. But if we go forward believing that we can learn something, we will be surprised and rewarded.

Let’s apply what we have learned. First, we must read it in context. The blogger I mentioned only said that the rapist must pay the parents of the victim fifty shekels. He did not consider the whole context. Deuteronomy chapters 21 and 22 contain many civil laws for ancient Israel. Many of the laws in this section of the bible are concerned with situations where there are no witnesses to establish exactly what happened. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is about unsolved murders. 22:13-21 is about a he-said/she-said situation, where a husband claims his betrothed bride was unfaithful to him. 22:23-27 is about rape. If a woman claims it was rape, and yet it occurred with people around and she didn’t cry for help, then it may have been consensual. On other hand, when a woman claims she was raped where there were no people to hear her cry for help, she is to be believed. That leads us to the verses we are looking at:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deut 22:28-29, ESV2011)

First, we see that the situation is ambiguous. The “meeting” may refer to meeting in open country, where there are no witnesses to verify what happened. In other words, this may or not be consensual. There’s something else important here. The woman who is raped is in specific circumstance – she is a virgin, and she is not yet betrothed to anyone. This is important, as we move on. Notice this also: the punishment is not merely that the rapist pay a fine – he must also marry the young woman, and he may never divorce her.

Now, again, at first blush, this addition of marriage does not seem to help. In fact, it seems like it makes it even worse. However, as we have learned, let’s consider the historical and cultural context of this law.

Women in the ancient Middle East generally lived in situations that we consider terrible today. Since most men are physically stronger than most women, men generally did what they wanted with and to women. To save her from abuse and poverty, in those days, a woman needed a man who would protect her from other men, and provide her with food and shelter. Without such a protector-provider, her future would be very bleak indeed.

Women were expected to be virgins when they were married (which was usually between ages 13-18). No self-respecting man would marry a previously unmarried girl unless she was a virgin. Therefore, a young woman who had been raped would be considered unmarriageable – no one would ever be interested in her. A betrothed woman who was raped, was considered as if she was already married. The rape would not end the betrothal, or stop the marriage. But a young woman who was raped, and not betrothed, would probably never find a husband willing to marry her. As a result she would never have the protection and provision that a husband offered. She would become an object of abuse and scorn for any man who wanted to mistreat her. Her future would most likely be in prostitution and begging.

We need to remember also that virtually all marriages were arranged. Many people found that love could grow and blossom in an arranged marriage, but almost no one expected to start out by loving the person they would marry. First came marriage, then came love.

So what it all amounts to is this: A young woman who was raped before betrothal had an incredibly bleak future. She would be an outcast, abused and forgotten for the rest of her days. Instead of allowing this to happen, God, through Moses commanded that such a young woman must be protected and provided for – for the rest of her life. That is what marriage did for women in those days. By marrying her, without the possibility of divorcing her, her rapist became committed to providing for her and protecting for her entire life. He was on the hook for her bills and her reputation until he died. His payment was not just fifty-shekels – it was a lifetime of providing for his victim’s needs.

Now, I know, it sounds horrible that she would have to live with her rapist. But remember there is ambiguity here – the rape may not have actually been a rape. In other words, she might have been a willing lover, in which case she would probably be happy to be with the man in question. The law prevented the man from using her, and then casting her aside. And even if it was rape, the young woman would not have expected to love her husband anyway – certainly not at first. Rape is a tragedy, and this certainly was not a perfect solution. But it was a solution that provided extensive ongoing care and protection for the rape victim. It kept her from the almost certain fate of being abused by other men. It made the rapist responsible for the life he would have ruined, and there was no way he could get out of it by divorcing her.

Before we dismiss this as barbaric, compare it to our own laws about rape.

Today, when a man rapes a woman and is convicted, he goes to prison. The average sentence served by a convicted rapist is about five years. While he is in prison all of his physical needs are provided for – food, shelter, clothing and medical care. And yet there is no law in our current system that requires the rapist to provide any of these things to the victim. We focus exclusively on locking up the perpetrator. The victim is on her own. Now of course, there are programs and groups for rape victims, but they are not part of the legal system, and they are optional, and they are not paid for by the people who commit the crime.

Who are the barbarians now?

This crazy Old Testament law about rape, the one we think is so terrible, actually contains a powerful message: look after those who have been hurt; provide for the one who has been deprived of a future. Care for the victim, and make the criminal undertake all of the costs.

Shouldn’t we be more concerned about helping victims than we are? Shouldn’t we make sure that we take care of the most vulnerable people in our society and protect them from abuse?

You see, when we understand this law, we see that it reveals God’s concern for the vulnerable, his desire to provide for those who need provision, and protect those who have no protection. Those are not messages that we should scorn, or ignore, or throw out.

So, to answer the blogger, we still see this law as valid. Don’t you think it is still appropriate for Christians to protect and provide for those who, through no fault of their own, are needy and vulnerable? We aren’t hypocrites. We still value this, and every law. We value and seek to apply the principle, the reason behind the law. When we find that reason, we still seek to apply it appropriately to our present times.

I hope you care coming to see the incredible value of the bible as we go through this series. Even a “stupid law,” such as the one from Deuteronomy 22:28-29, turns out to be an expression of God’s grace and care.

8 thoughts on “GRACE FROM A STUPID LAW

  1. henrik axelsson

    I dont think most marriages were arranged and that first came marriage, then love. God is the same yesterday as he is today. No way he wad that cruel back then

    1. Most marriages *were* arranged. That’s historical fact. But in those days it was also a well known fact that real could grow, even in an arranged marriage. We’ve mostly forgotten that now, because we think love is 90% feeling, 10% work. The truth is, real love is 90% a decision and commitment to honor and value another person; along with that we sometimes get to enjoy wonderful feelings. Feelings always come and go. Commitments do not have to.

  2. Mayah

    I’ve read Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and it sickens me. Having the rapist pay the 50 shekels to the girl’s father is tiny slap on the wrist for a rapist compared to what awaits the rape victim when she’s told she has to marry him. What O.T. man wouldn’t rather have a large sum of $$$ in his pocket – than be burdened down with a female who is considered worth less than a male in a patriarchal society? Really think about it. I highly doubt the Israelites were all rich, down through the ages men have never changed. I’ve seen, read and known men who will quickly sell out their daughters and wife in a heartbeat – remember the story of Lot and the angels, or the prophet and his concubine? Men are only concerned with the almighty $$$. The poor victim is banished to a life of hell – of rape, torture and sodomy in the hands of her husband-rapist starting on the wedding night. Lovely…..THE RAPIST IS REWARDED A LIFETIME VICTIM TO ABUSE HIS VICTIM – AND SANCTIONED BY GOD?!! The higher the penalty the rapist must pay the girl’s father the more incensed the rapist will become, he will undoubtedly take it out on her as vengeance on the girl’s father. And forbid it if children come along, he’ll do the same sexual abuse on his kids! Wow! and this is a “grace” you call it, for the woman you say – what rapist is honestly going to provide for his victim as in a loving relationship?? Please…. Would you say to the rape victims of Ariel Castro you have to marry him, he sure would LOVE that penalty! Are you going to comfort and excuse this horrible crime and tell Castro’s victims it’s okay to marry him it’s all part of God’s grace? That is sheer abhorrence! In God’s eyes a female is worth less than a male, see Leviticus 27:1-7. As it was in the O.T. patriarchal society as in Islam today a girl is only valued at below the waist, and is hinged upon weather or not her hymen is intact. Which has been known to tear and bleed simply by falling off a pack animal while riding it. History only knows how many countless innocent rape victims died horrible deaths because of this law.

  3. Mayah

    Actually I did read and understand your post, did you mine? Or did you just read a line or too and get miffed? Well it should get you mad, and I’ll explain away your logic. I have read many commentaries on this scripture and all of them do exactly what you did in your post, come up with some plausible logical reasoning to this …you call it a “dumb law” I call it what it is, an abhorrence of a law.

    If this scripture was merely between two people having consenting sex then I would agree, this law is good. But that is NOT what this scripture says, it clearly states, “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her…” a.k.a. rape. Seize means: take hold of suddenly and forcibly.” There is no ambiguity here like you claim. That is exactly what a rapist does; he takes hold of his victim and forcibly lies with her.

    No one wants to say what the scriptures are really saying because that means a Christian has to come to grips trying to reconcile a holy God who has concern for the vulnerable and desires to provide for those who are in need of provision and protect those who have no protection with an O.T. law that clearly says the opposite.

    Earlier I gave you the example of Ariel Castro and his three victims as a prime example that even in a secular judicial system they would never tell the rapist what this O.T. law says.

    Your posts strongly suggests the rapist is somehow going to have a 180 degree change of heart and start protecting his victim from other men, provide for and take care of her as in a mutual trusting leading to a loving relationship. And your argument that this girl (a terrified one) is somehow going to make it difficult for him to live with…please….here’s another fine example of how victims of rape make it hard on their rapists….

    Go do some research on the sex trafficking industry if you haven’t already. It’s the world’s largest multi-billion dollar industry. Statistics state (I don’t have the numbers right now, I researched it once) but not many of the women and girls kidnapped and forced in the sex trafficking industry ever come out ALIVE.
    Think about that. The perp’s only interest is making money in sex, he (like Ariel Castro or an O.T. rapist) will defiantly keep his victims from other men but that is protecting his victims from other men trying to rescue his girls.

    Those who do come out, say the perp constantly keeps his victims under drugs, beating them for the slightest infraction (i.e., they are never allowed to look a pimp in the eye), he repeatedly abuses them feeding them only enough to keep them from starvation. Yep, a drugged, starving beaten women has about as much power to make her pimp’s life unbearable as a ……wet sock.

    The kindness of the wicked is CRUELTY. What part of kindness did you read about regarding O.T. rapists? Even Tamar’s brother wouldn’t take care of her after he violated her, and it wasn’t because he didn’t have any money or means to. You think a pimp of today, or Ariel Castro was any different than an O.T. rapist?

    The ones who should be caring for, providing for and protecting the poor victim should be her family – NOT THE WICKED!

    But instead you say this is how God provides for, protects the vulnerable, and makes sure they have a future. How repugnant.

    Tell me again, Pastor, because I missed you explaining it in your reply to me: just how did O.T. rapists who are nothing less than another Ariel Castro or a pimp of today show any responsibility for their actions and take extensive on-going care to protect the girl from abuse from other men and make sure his victims had a future? Really, because your “logic” of trying to make this O.T. law have a hidden “powerful statement of God’s provision and grace” to rape victims is an epic fail.

    1. Let me clarify one thing. I have never, and will never, endorse any kind of rape or abuse, nor do I “give it a pass.” I’m sorry you were not able to understand the points I was making in the post; I probably did a bad job of communicating.
      Grace to you, in Jesus Christ!

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