Criticizing the Bible, Interpreting the Law

This article is part of the series Adventures in Biblical Interpretation.

When it comes to criticizing the Bible, one of the most common cheap-shot objections is to point to the obscure laws laid out in the Torah. Various approaches are taken, from showing how out-of-date they are, to how Christians don’t bother to follow them even though Jesus said they should, to how they contradict each other, and to how immoral they are (just to name a few). One of the most classic examples of this distortion is the claim that the Bible advocates rape as laid out in an article in the section “Death to the Rape Victim” on Deuteronomy 22:23-24:

It is clear that God doesn’t give a d**n about the rape victim.  He is only concerned about the violation of another mans “property”.

For anyone discussing the Bible with non-believers, this type of objection is quite common. Tyler Graham, of the Tyler Journeaux blog, recounts his own experience (see the uncut original):

Recently I was treated to a somewhat nostalgic experience: being called upon to act as an apologist for scripture … I was presented with a passage from Deuteronomy by two young women who had interpreted it as a justification for rape and a very peculiar kind of victim blaming … The passage had scandalized them and they turned to me to see what I might say in its defense … I have always found that upon closer inspection one finds that understanding more of the historical, legal and literary context mitigates the scandal we originally feel … I tried to balance reading the passage (along with the surrounding context, etc.) with keeping up in conversation with them over the phone as they jumped from one related issue to another

The two young women acted in much the way you would expect for those who were not seekers. They had questions, yes, but were not eager to understand the defense. Tyler points out that closer inspection usually mitigates the surface problems in the text, but I want to suggest something even stronger: That accurate biblical interpretation is normally not very difficult, it just takes a (rare?) honest look. Yes, there are some very difficult passages and almost any can be twisted, but most are pretty straightforward.

It is important to use the principle of charity. A great many apparent contradictions and difficulties in the Bible will simply disappear. For example, the notion that the Bible would advocate the acceptance of rape, when it has laws condemning rape, would violate this principle.

So let’s walk through the original passage and see exactly what can be made of it:

22“If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they must both of them die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you must put away the evil from Israel. 23If there is a young lady who is a virgin pledged to be married to a husband, and a man find her in the city and lie with her, 24then you must bring them both out to the gate of that city and you must stone them to death with stones; the lady, because she didn’t cry out, being in the city, and the man, because he has humbled his neighbor’s wife, so you must put away the evil from the midst of you. 25But if the man find the lady who is pledged to be married in the field, and the man force her and lie with her, then the man only who lay with her must die; 26but to the lady you are to do nothing; there is in the lady no sin worthy of death, for as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter; 27for he found her in the field, the pledged to be married lady cried out, and there was none to save her. (Deuteronomy 22:22-27; Revised English Version)

To the critic, the meaning of this passage is clear: The bible punishes rape victims with death. Is this the meaning you got out of reading this passage? Let’s examine the passage in more detail by looking at the what is being said.

No one has sexual rights to a married woman other than her husband, on pain of death.

When a man and a married woman are caught in the act by a third party, this means two things: (1) the woman, if she was raped, was in hearing range of a third party; and (2) that third party was a witness to either adultery or rape. The primary question is then: would the woman be punished if this were rape? This is not stated in this verse, so we need to continue reading. Later verses make it clear that if the woman was raped (evidenced by her crying out), then only the man was punished.

The punishments given were for the crime of adultery, not rape. Note that if a woman was betrothed (rather than married) it was still considered adultery. Even if the woman is raped (verse 27), the man is still committing adultery.

There is an underlying assumption that if the woman were being raped (not committing adultery), she would be resisting her rapist and attempting to seek help by crying out. She is not permitted to decide later whether or not it was consensual.

The man is presumed guilty while the woman is presumed innocent. The man would be put to death whether or not rape or adultery took place. This is a progressive feminist stance that borders on unfair by putting the duty on the man to behave responsibly.

Now back to the question of what happens to a woman being raped and the man being caught in the act? Clearly he is going to be put to death. But do we really think that the magistrate would discount the witness’ statement that it was a rape and execute the woman, especially given the innocent-until-proven-guilty approach towards the woman? I think not.

So let’s summarize what this passage teaches about women:

  • A man has no sexual rights of any kind to another man’s betrothed or wife. The punishment for violating this is death, unconditionally.
  • A woman is presumed innocent of adultery (that is, a victim of rape) until positively proven guilty. Not seeking help (crying out, fighting back) is, however, considered evidence of consensual sex.
  • A woman has no right to commit adultery, even if consensual. The punishment for this, if proven, is death.

Does the Bible advocate rape here? Is it blaming the victim? Absolutely not. It treats women as innocent until proven guilty, but does not give a woman the right to commit adultery. It is certainly different from modern laws, no doubt about that. Rape is treated as a very serious crime.

Had the two young women simply applied the principle of charity to the text and attempted to give it an honest read, everything would have been fine. The feminist-like pro-woman stance might have even had some appeal (although admittedly not for the sex-anytime-you-want-for-whatever-reason feminist).

The lesson here is that when interpreting the Law critically, you really do have to leave your preconceived notions behind. It isn’t hard to understand this particular set of laws. The irony of the critic’s bias is that conclusion is completely wrong: the Law actually treats women preferentially.

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