Sometimes atheists claim that God endorses rape because Deuteronomy says it's okay to force women you've captured in wartime to marry you.
Is that true?
Let's look at the issue . . .
(NOTE: This post is part of a series on the "dark passages" of the Bible. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.)
Several years ago I was in an art museum with the children of a family I'm friends with.
We were in the classical art section when, suddenly, the four-year old at my knee asked, "Where are those men taking those women?"
I bent down to look at the painting that was oddly hung at her eye-level (!) and realized it was a depiction of an event from early Roman history, the Abduction of the Sabine Women.
Not knowing how to break this down in a chaste way for a four-year old, I said: "Uhh . . . to have fun."
"Okay," she said.
Of course, there was more to it than that.
Specifically, the early Romans who participated in the abduction were engaging in a practice that was somewhat common in the ancient world, and even in some parts of the world today: obtaining a bride by capturing one.
What are we to make of this in a Judeo-Christian context?
The Church on Captive Brides
As you would expect, the Church is opposed to the practice of capturing brides. In fact, the Code of Canon Law establishes it as an impediment to marriage (meaning that the marriage will be invalid if it is attempted):
No marriage can exist between a man and a woman who has been abducted or at least detained with a view of contracting marriage with her unless the woman chooses marriage of her own accord after she has been separated from the captor and established in a safe and free place.
So if you and your mates find a bevy of beautiful maidens on a beach somewhere, and happen to know of a nearby clergyman, and your mates think, "Here's a first-rate opportunity to get married with impunity and indulge in the felicity of unbounded domesticity," it will not work.
You cannot abduct them and "quickly be parsonified--conjugally matrimonified--by a doctor of divinity who is located in this vicinity."
Not. Going. To. Happen.
But what about back in the Old Testament period?
Deuteronomy on Captive Brides
Here's what Deuteronomy has to say:
 "When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hands, and you take them captive,
 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have desire for her and would take her for yourself as wife,
 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails.
 And she shall put off her captive's garb, and shall remain in your house and bewail her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.
 Then, if you have no delight in her, you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her for money, you shall not treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her."
As we can see, the passage is dealing with the practice of taking captive brides. But does it approve of the practice or does it have a different attitude?
Today we regarding this as a barbaric practice, and if you read the passage carefully, you find that the ancient text regards it in the same way.
How Can the Damage Be Limited?
We find the law attempting to mitigate--limit its harm--of taking a captive bride in multiple ways:
- The woman is to shave her head and cut her nails. The meaning of this is not entirely clear, but the motive may be to make her unattractive to the man and get him to reconsider (so Rabbi Akiva understands the requirement). Alternately, it may be a sign of her mourning, which again may move him to pity.
- She is not to wear captive garb. Instead, she presumably wears mourning clothes or normal clothes. In either case, the man must give her new clothes. This was a much bigger thing in the ancient world than it is today. Clothes had to be woven by hand, and they were much more expensive. People did not have nearly as many clothes as they do now, due to the expense, and the man must begin to feel the burden of supporting the woman as a wife.
- The man must give the woman the chance to mourn for what she has lost. She must be allowed to mourn for a full month, which is--incidentally--the same amount of time that the children of Israel mourned Moses himself upon his death (Deut. 34:8), indicating that she is to be given a full, standard period of mourning. And, again, mourning (“bewailing her parents”) may move the man to pity.
- The man must take care of her during this period (she is in his house) but he is not allowed to have sex with her ("go in to her") and marry her until the end of the mourning period--again giving him a chance to reconsider.
- Then, if he concludes that he doesn't want her, she must be set free. He cannot sell her as a slave or treat her as his own slave. She is to be a full wife or she is to be let go.
- The reason is also spelled out: It is because "you have humiliated her."
The law thus sees this situation as one of humiliation--as a wrong being done to the woman--and it seeks to limit the harm done in multiple ways.
This brings us to an important principle . . .
The Principle of Mitigation
In a previous post, we saw that the Church understands God to have taken the Hebrew people at one stage of their development and then progressively led them through the centuries to a more perfect understanding of his will.
At the early stage, he tolerated practices that the people would not have been willing to give up.
But he progressively purified them--at first by regulating the harm done by these practices and later by abolishing them, giving us the new Law of Christ, which is based on love of everyone, including one's enemies.
Jesus himself gave an example of this kind of toleration, noting that God only allowed the Israelites to have divorce followed by remarriage because their hearts were hard.
They were not ready to accept the permanence of marriage that he proclaimed for his followers.
Even then, God had limited the harm of divorce by requiring husbands to give their wives a writ of divorce so that they could prove their ability to marry someone else.
No Approval of Rape
We thus find, once again, that there is no approval of rape in the biblical text.
Instead, even at the beginning of Israel's history, we find the text recognizing the evil of taking a captive bride ("you have humiliated her") and finding ways to limit the evil done by the practice.
When Israel was further trained and more ready for the full revelation of God's will, the tolerance-with-clear-disapproval of the practice was wiped out, as Jesus proclaimed the law of love.
If you are to love even your enemies as yourself then that utterly rules out compelling a captive woman--or any woman--to marry you against her will.
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