Wednesday, May 22, 2024

That Wacky Old Testament (16)

Fewer Western women today are interested in marriage than ever before.

Becoming sexually active between the ages of 15 and 19 is considered “normative”. One UK study fixed the “ideal” number of sexual partners for a woman to have before “settling down” at twelve, usually through high school, university and the early career years. By age 30 or so, many women have lived through enough bad relationships to sour on the idea of long-term commitment. Even among those who still want to be married, few have cultivated the habits of faithfulness necessary for marital success. Many prize autonomy above almost all else.

Among millennial women, interest in marriage is the lowest ever measured.

Say What?

So then, when the average modern Western woman reads the Law of Moses, she has absolutely no way to put something like this in its cultural context:

“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.”

Marry her rapist? You’ve got to be kidding!

How can a modern woman imagine a scenario in which a woman living elsewhere and elsewhen might actually entertain the notion of marrying her rapist? We have to concede that’s understandable given her own situation. The modern woman already has full access to sexual relationships and financial security on her own terms. For her, children and marriage are separate questions; she could easily have one without the other.

Life for women in the 16th century BC was not like that. Not one bit. Marriage was exceedingly desirable even under questionable circumstances, and the expectation of personal choice in the matter was rare.

Women in Ancient Cultures

Like it or not, when the Law of Moses was written, the concept of women’s rights as we understand it today did not exist. A woman’s role and status in every ancient culture were a product of her social class, family and cultural norms. While some aspects of a woman’s life might vary from culture to culture (property ownership, divorce rights, etc.), one factor was consistent across the ancient world: a woman obeyed her husband or father. It was very much in her own interest to do so. Sarah called Abraham “lord”. Among godly women of old, she wasn’t exceptional.

There was a certain logic to this. Ancient societies did not have social safety nets, and many were dangerous places to live, subject to the raids of enemies and even closely related tribes. If for no other reason, a woman needed proximity to men in order to stay safe from other men. No matter how bad things were for her in any given situation, they could always get worse. Other than widows, women living independently were all but unheard of. In her father’s house, a woman would make herself useful and her father would provide for her and protect her. In her husband’s house, she could expect to receive similar provision, protection and, most importantly, social status in proportion to the number of children she could produce, especially males. Depending on her husband’s wealth, she might enjoy a life of comparative leisure, attended by handmaids and slaves of her own. If she were unable to marry, however, her options were severely limited. She might live as a spinster in her father’s house, be sold as a slave or concubine, or work as a prostitute. If her husband predeceased her, a woman’s support in later life depended on her male children, who would have primacy in inheritance.

What she would definitely not do would be to receive a university education, go off to enjoy the career of her choice, or become a welfare queen. These were not options in any ancient culture.

The Ancient Institution of Marriage

Understandably, young women found marriage and the prospect of producing children much more desirable in those days, in Israel and everywhere else. Their well-being and long-term security depended on it. Consider that the rights, children and lifestyle that came with marriage meant so much to Tamar that she played prostitute in order to conceive the child of her father-in-law. Even a marriage in shameful circumstances was better than no marriage. Consider that, for Rebekah, marriage to a man she didn’t know and had never seen living in tents in a country far away was preferable to life in her father’s house. It probably beat watering camels. Men who could provide well were rare enough that women were accustomed to sharing the ones they could find.

To facilitate a marriage, the would-be groom or his father would negotiate a bride-price or “engagement present” with the father of the young woman he desired, as Jacob did with Laban for Rachel and Leah, and as Shechem did with Jacob and Dinah’s brothers. Despite major cultural and religious differences, Canaanites and Israelites had similar customs concerning marriage. Later, a standard bride-price for virgins became a societal norm, giving young women a predictable economic value to their families. This custom persisted long after Israel settled Canaan. Even kings expected to receive a bride-price for the hand of their daughters.

Built into the law was the expectation that even a wife purchased as a slave was entitled to food, clothing and marital rights. These were part of the package. Even a wife with whom her husband found fault had to receive these, failing which she was released to remarry, and her father was under no obligation to return the bride-price paid for her. A wife or daughter in her father’s house also had legal protection from personal liability for any pledge or vow she might make, since her husband or father could overrule any contract to which she committed herself. Divorced women and widows had no such protection.

The Value of Virginity

Virginity in those days was highly prized. No men of standing in ancient cultures wanted “used goods”, especially when they were paying for them. A woman known to have lost her virginity prior to marriage took a significant hit to her marketability, to put it frankly. She was considered “defiled”, her options in life severely limited, her prospects of children with a high status man greatly reduced, and her family effectively robbed of what may have been a significant bride-price. A woman’s looks and her family’s status were beyond her control. In marketing herself for marriage, her virginity was the only currency she had to work with.

Such was the cultural context in which the Law of Moses was given. God didn’t create the culture, and to the extent his law modified the role and rights of women within it, it significantly improved them.

Crime and Punishment

We know very well what choice a modern woman untroubled with a Christian conscience would make today when forced into sex she didn’t initiate: she’d take a morning-after pill and get on with her life. In the rare event she reported the rape, there might be a 1.5% chance her rapist would serve jail time, with much risk to her reputation and zero chance of compensation or restitution. But what shall we make of the rape victim three millennia in the past?

Ancient Israel had no prisons. Crimes were either punishable by death or required appropriate compensation. Rape was only punishable by death when the victim was betrothed or married to someone else, betrothal being marriage in every respect except the consummation. In addition to being a grievous assault, rape of a married or betrothed woman was also a violation of a covenant, and carried a stronger penalty.

Even though the rapist of a virgin was not put to death, the penalty for his crime was far from trivial. Fifty shekels of silver for raping an unbetrothed virgin was no small amount. William Luck, former professor at Moody Bible Institute, estimates it as the equivalent of the average Israelite’s earnings for over four years’ work, in the neighborhood of three to four hundred thousand of today’s dollars. Add to that the elimination of the divorce option and the obligation to provide for his victim for life, and a man who could afford the cost of ravishing a woman he desired would be far better off negotiating a marriage than acting on his urges. A man who could not afford to compensate his victim would be obligated to sell himself as a slave to pay his debt. The potential cost would have served as a huge disincentive to rape, which was surely the intent behind the law. (The only rapes of virgins in the biblical record were perpetrated by entitled rich men, both of whom were murdered by their victim’s family members.) The provision that the rapist could not divorce his victim all his days served as a protection to her, an iron clad legal guarantee of food, clothing and marital rights that could not be taken from her under any circumstances. If she outlived her husband, as was likely, her relationship with her children would give her significant influence over his estate.

Applying the Law

How this particular law was applied must also be understood in the context of the entire Law of Moses. In Exodus, the question of two fornicating youngsters is considered:

“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 the father of a virgin seduced by a young man retained the right of refusal, then surely the father of the virgin victim of rape did too, and any good and godly father would surely take the desires of the victim into consideration. Moreover, if a seducer still had to pay the bride-price even if he didn’t get the bride, then how much more would the rapist be obligated to pay his debt even if he too didn’t get a wife out of the deal?

The point of the law was not to further injure the victim, but to make the cost of raping a virgin so prohibitive that it would not occur often. It lays an obligation on the criminal, not his victim. What this law gave a young victim is options. The option to take her rapist to the financial cleaners. The option to be married if she wanted to be married, and the option to decline if she didn’t, and the further option to marry him now and divorce him later if it didn’t work out to her satisfaction, without the loss of the bride-price paid. The option to insist on her right to be provided for during the entire rest of her life. Given that women are exceedingly pragmatic, and given the conditions in which nearly everyone lived in those days, one or more of these options may have had a great deal more appeal to her than those considered in similar circumstances today.

The Historical Record

In any case, we have no historical record of this law being enforced in all of the Old Testament. Israelite men thought twice before acting on their urges.

That’s not just my opinion. When Amnon began to force Tamar into bed, she appealed to him with these words: “No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this outrageous thing.” Rape, common throughout the ancient world, just as it is today, was an outrage in Israel. Men did not do it, probably because the social and financial cost was way too high. Even the post-victory rape of their enemies practiced by other cultures was forbidden Israelite men. If they found among the captives a woman they wanted, they had to give her a full month to mourn her family, and then marry her in order to have her. To the extent the Law of Moses was obeyed, ancient Israel was not rape culture.

Effective laws reduce the necessity to enforce them.

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