In my first post on Rape in the Bible, I showed that secularism has nothing really meaningful or consistent to say about rape, and that it in fact pervades many lies that encourage this behavior. Christianity on the other hand provides us with the moral ground to denounce rape and all related sexually immoral behaviors.
Nevertheless, in our increasingly Biblically illiterate society, it is a tendency for people to make claims about the Bible that they cannot defend. Many of their statements have an appearance of soundness at the beginning but, under scrutiny, cannot hold up under their own weight. One egregious example is that the Bible condones rape.
The argument comes from passages such as Deuteronomy 22:28-29. Upon first glance and with no context, this seems to be a fool-proof argument. “There it is! The Bible allows men to rape women with little more than a fine as a punishment, and then forces that violated woman to marry her abuser! The Bible is twisted, ignorant and morally indefensible.”
That is, until you actually examine the Bible and let it speak for itself. Let us start with the beginning:
God Created a Good World and Rape is a Distortion
Starting in Genesis, God creates the world good. Man rejects God and thus from then on becomes corrupted and deformed by his sin. Man is not what he once was. He was made good but rebelled and is now abnormal.1 Thus things like rape are possible because of man’s depravity whereas before men and women lived in perfect harmony and delighted each other with their diversity.
Suddenly, man became capable of great evil. He is something menacing, to be feared. Even his equal, the woman, is not safe but is now victimized by his out of control desires.
God condemns Rape in the Lines Immediately Preceding this Passage
In Exodus through Deuteronomy, God reveals His law to His people. Unambiguously, He states that adultery, premarital sex, incest and rape are all sin. Indeed, in the lines immediately preceding the passage in question (Deut. 22:23-27) we are told that if a man rapes a married woman or a betrothed woman (think engaged) then he shall be put to death.
Thus, it should be obvious that the Bible does not in any way condone rape. For it imposes the death penalty which is stricter than any standard seen in modern-day secular societies.
The real issue is, why is it that an unmarried woman seems to get such a raw deal in the Bible? Why is she compelled to marry her abuser just because she is single? As noted earlier, the fact that the Bible demands death when a married woman is raped tips us off that there is more at work here than meets the eye.
God Shows Amazing Wisdom and Mercy to the Victim and Offender by Offering Reconciliation
Before we can appreciate the wisdom in God’s verdict, we need to understand a few things:
First, we must understand how case law works. Unlike modern law, when reading the Biblical law, you will not get a tedious list of all situations and contexts in which the law applies. Instead, God lays out some general principles (like the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20) and provides a few examples of how the principle is worked out. It’s as though God were saying “Here is my will, now this is what it looks like in this situation.” The rest of the situations are for us to figure out using our God-given minds and the wisdom God revealed to us.
If you read Deuteronomy 22 from the beginning, you will see this at work throughout the chapter. God paints multiple situations, but never claims to cover them all and always assumes you’ve read what was before.
Second, we need to know that Deuteronomy is the last book in the Law and is expected to be read last. In fact, Deuteronomy means “second law” and was so named because it is a recounting of much of what was said in Exodus-Numbers. So when you read Deuteronomy, it is assumed you read the first four books beforehand. This may seem obvious, but most people just jump straight into Bible books with no idea what preceded them.
So before we can make any progress, we need to go back to Exodus 22:16-17. There we see something different about rape. Is this an example of contradictions in the Bible? Not at all. Remember, God regularly uses case law applying one truth to many situations. So when we come to Deuteronomy 22:28-29, we must come already having read what was said in Exodus 22:16-17. There it says decisively that if a father refused to have his daughter marry the man, he had every right to do so. The same applies in Deuteronomy 22:28-29. We would know this if we read the Law from beginning to end!
We should expect that most fathers would make use of this provision. In that case, the offender would still have to pay the fine, known as the bride price, equivalent to financing a wedding (at least $10,000 in our currency). The only time I can imagine a father would decide against this is in the instance of what is known as a “date rape,” which, while still unacceptable, is markedly different from predatory rape committed by a complete stranger. In this society, everyone would know everyone so it would not be inconceivable for a man to take advantage of a neighboring woman and everyone know about it afterward.
Still, this law seems a bit soft and subject to abuse by offenders. Could not a man take advantage of a woman and then force her father into allowing marriage?
While it is not apparent in this passage, rape in a patriarchal culture would be met with animosity and violence. If a man wanted to obtain a father’s daughter, this would not be the way to go about it! Rather than pressuring the father to give over his daughter, the rape would be met with open hostility.
We see this reaction in Levi and Simeon when their sister, Dinah, was raped in Genesis 34. The two brothers single-handedly killed all the men in a city because they were housing the man who raped their sister (Gen. 34:25). Likewise, when Amnon raped Tamar, she was immediately avenged by her brother, Absalom (2 Sam. 13:32).
With this background then, we see that the provision in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 provides an alternate solution to the animosity that would be present. It is surprisingly merciful. How can two opposing families be reconciled? Rather than the death of the rapist, the offender is given the chance to repent, marry into the family, clean up his act, and become a provider to this woman. If the father refused, the man still had to pay the bride price and- get this- he was forbidden to marry anyone else for the rest of his life.
Wow. We often miss this! Not even in modern society do we impose this penalty. But the text is clear. He is obligated to marry her (with the father’s approval) and never allowed a divorce. It’s as though God said, “You wanted her, now she’s yours. You can have no one else.”
It also doesn’t occur to us that this text was merciful to the victim. In a patriarchal culture, marriage and family meant everything to the women. It was their great ambition. We should not assume women in these societies were resentful because of this, and it is an equal mistake to assume that our modern society affords men and women greater contentment because it allows greater independence. For many, this means loneliness and misery.
Nevertheless, a violated woman in this culture would be disgraced in the eyes of her peers and she would have difficulty marrying. If the woman and her father were willing, she could marry her offender. This is an enormous act of grace to the offender, but also a provision for the woman to have the family she always wanted. And while it may seem strange to us that anyone would take this offer, we underestimate our cultural differences.
Take a look a Tamar’s reaction in 2 Samuel 13:16. Despite being raped, she thought it worse that Amnon would reject her after violating her. In her mind, the least he could do was pledge himself to her as a sort of amends for his cruelty.
Thus when we peel back the years of time, take into consideration the whole of what the Bible says, and cross the cultural divide, we see that God is pristine in His wisdom and grace. He is just and equitable, yet always merciful (Ex. 34:6-7)
1 Note: with nearly all other explanations of the world, man himself is the problem. He is broken but has always been broken. He is flawed in his nature and therefore does not have a reasonable hope of becoming better.