Deuteronomy 22 rape

In the second half of Deuteronomy chapter 22, regulations are given concerning six scenarios involving adultery and rape, all of which sound harsh to modern westerners. In this post, I discuss the sixth scenario given in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 which reads:

If a man encounters a young woman, a virgin who is not engaged, takes hold of her and rapes her, and they are discovered, the man who raped her must give the young woman’s father 50 silver shekels, and she must become his wife because he violated her. He cannot divorce her as long as he lives. HCSB

Please note that the following may be distressing for some readers. Please also note that the Bible does not condone sexual assault.

Being a Virgin

In ancient Israelite culture, virginity was essential in first-time brides.[1] Considering the importance of virginity—as well as the importance placed on marriage and procreation, which were considered to be a woman’s primary role—a rape victim might prefer to marry her rapist rather than remain unmarried in her family’s home her entire life, the only other real alternative for most “discovered”[2] rape victims in that culture.

Israelite women, who we know were raped and who did not marry their rapist, effectively lived as spinsters and “widows” and never married (e.g., Dinah, Tamar, David’s ten concubines). However, staying single may not have been an option for a woman from a poor family, as they may have found it difficult to support her. Even though women could be involved in agriculture, trade, and other occupations, their main function, according to societal expectations, was to produce children. So, an unmarried woman might be considered an unproductive burden on her family.

If the woman did stay with her own family and didn’t marry her offender, the man was still required to pay the family the “bride price” of fifty shekels (Deut. 22:29), the price of a virgin (Exod. 22:16-17). So, in one sense, a rape victim was not cheapened by the violation against her. Perhaps this price also helped to alleviate some of the sense of being a burden on her family. Nevertheless, it can have done little to alleviate the personal devastation done to the woman.

Being Property

Paying a price for a wife sounds as though women were property, and the idea that women were the property of men in Israelite society is often bandied about, but this may not have been the lived experience for many women at that time. In the Hebrew Bible, we see that women had a voice and agency within their homes, and some women had positions of influence in their communities (Deborah, Miriam, Huldah, etc). Moreover, several women are mentioned as owning their own property (Job’s daughters, Achsah, Sheerah, etc).[3]

Nevertheless, Israelite society was patriarchal, and the regulations given in Deuteronomy 22:13ff are given with the understanding that violating a woman is an offence and an insult to the men who are most closely related to the victim.

Preserving male honour played a part in these rules. Yet, unlike in many other patriarchal societies, where a raped woman could even be killed because of the dishonour of the crime, innocent Israelite women were not blamed and they were not punished (cf. Deut. 22:25ff). Moreover, in Deuteronomy 22:26, rape is equated with murder, not adultery. George Athas suggests this “acknowledges the profound affect that rape has: it imposes a kind of living death on the victim.”[4]

The Victim is Provided For

The regulations in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 were written at a different time to ours, and for a culture with different values than ours. Though it sounds harsh to modern westerners who hold to romantic notions about marriage, the Deuteronomy 22:28-29 law was for the benefit of the wronged woman because she couldn’t be abused and then discarded. Tamar, for example, begged her half-brother Ammon, who had just raped her, to marry her. But he cruelly, and illegally, refused (2 Sam. 13:16). Her pain at being abused and then discarded is heart-wrenching. (You can read her story here.)

Rather than being left bereft, the law provided for a raped woman; she was to be supported by her rapist-husband who, unlike the guilty men and women in previous verses, was not executed for his crime.[5] The woman became his wife and part of his family, and he could never divorce her.[6] This was her legal right, if she chose it. The Bible indicates that raped women who did not marry their rapist were also supported and kept safe, however. Tamar, for example, was sheltered by her brother Absalom.

The Victim is not Commanded

It is stretching the meaning of Deuteronomy 22:28-29 to say that an abused woman is commanded to marry her rapist. She isn’t. The statement “she must become his wife” is placed between two commands given to the perpetrator:  he must pay fifty shekels, and he cannot ever divorce the woman. The phrase about the woman marrying his victim is also directed to the man, not to the woman. The woman, through her father, might choose not to marry her rapist (Exod. 22:16-17).

Conclusion

To marry your rapist is a desperate act in response to a desperate situation. So, I’m grateful that countries where similar practices were part of their legal code are changing the law, and are giving women real options other than the terrible ordeal of marrying their rapist. I’m also grateful that abuse victims are increasingly being treated with the compassion, respect, and support they deserve. But we still have a way to go.


Notes and References

[1] Deuteronomy 22:13-17 “assumes that the husband is ‘entitled’ to a virgin wife, that the wife is obligated to be virgin, and the parents of the wife must guarantee it.” Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 22.

[2] I do wonder about the clause, “and they are discovered”. What does this mean exactly? If the victim remains quiet and never tells anyone, and doesn’t become pregnant, and if the perpetrator doesn’t tell anyone, then there may be no need for the victim to marry her rapist. She can risk getting married later, to someone else, under the pretence she is a virgin (cf. Deut. 22:13-17). Is this something that victims did more often than marrying their rapist? My guess is that rape victims mostly kept quiet. Goodness knows, this is what has usually happened throughout the centuries, regardless of the culture.

[3] A list of Old Testament women who owned land includes: Zelophehad’s five daughters (Num. 27:5-8); Aksah (Josh. 15:19//Judg. 1:15; Pharaoh’s daughter (one of Solomon’s wives) (1 Kings 9:16); the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 8:6); Sheerah (1 Chron. 7:24); Job’s daughters (Job 42:14-15); the idealized woman in Proverbs 31 (Prov. 31:16); the Shulamite woman (Song 1:6; 8:12; cf. 2:15; 4:12-16).

[4] George Athas, Deuteronomy: One Nation Under God (Reading the Bible Today Series) (Sydney: Aquila Press, 2016) online source.

[5] I appreciate George Athas’ perspective on the statements in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (the sixth scenario given in Deuteronomy 22:13-29).

To our modern sensibilities, the outcome of Scenario 6 sounds preposterous, as it appears to commit a victim permanently into the hands of her assailant. However, this is most certainly not the intent, and also why we must read this scenario in tandem with the others that precede it. . . . Ancient societies were relatively undeveloped, and so lacked the necessary infrastructures that could allow women to live independently. It simply was not an option at that time. As such, the perpetrator in Scenario 6 is given a stay of execution, not because he is less guilty than the perpetrator in Scenario 5, or because the unattached woman is somehow less valuable than the woman who is spoken for. Far from it! The perpetrator is allowed to live so that he provides economically for the victim for the rest of his life. This is why he is refused the right to ever divorce her. It ensures that his victim has complete access to all his resources for her own wellbeing for the rest of her life. It is the closest thing the ancient world had to suing someone ‘for all they’ve got’. Deuteronomy, online source.

[6] Husbands could divorce their wives under other circumstances (e.g., Deut. 22:13ff). More on divorce here.

Image via Pexels.


Further Reading

Does the Bible force a woman to marry her rapist? by George Athas
What Does the Bible Say About Sexual Assault?

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