Does God Expect Women to Marry Their Rapists?

Did God really expect women to marry their rapists?
Did God really expect women to marry their rapists? (photo: Register Files)

In a recent post we looked at several places in the Old Testament that have been claimed to show that "God approves of rape" and thus he is a moral monster.

Now let's look at a potentially more inflammatory charge: that God actually expects women to marry their rapists.

Is this true?


An Unmarried Virgin

(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.)

In the previous post we looked at what Deuteronomy had to say about the cases of women who were legally married and were then raped. Deuteronomy then turned to the situation of legally unmarried women:

Deuteronomy 22

[28] "If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, [29] 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 put her away all his days."

Here there is no question of whether the situation is adultery, because the young woman is not betrothed and thus not legally married.

As a result, the question of the death penalty does not come up. The death penalty which was applied in the case of adultery does not apply here.

But there is a problem: Now that she has been violated and is no longer a virgin . . .


Who is this girl going to marry?

Virginity was very highly prized in ancient Israel and, whether she consented or not, a young woman in this situation would find her matrimonial prospects vastly diminished.

Was that fair?

Absolutely not!

But it was a fact of life 3,000 years ago in the Middle East (and, in all likelihood, today as well, though not in modern Israel).

That presented the girl and her family with a very real problem: How can her future be best protected, given what has happened?


An Unrealistic Scenario

Of course, the ideal option would be if the girl met some boy who fell in love with her and was willing to marry her despite the fact that she was not a virgin.

While romantic marriages did occur in ancient Israel (Jacob and Rachel, Samson and Delilah, and David and Michal come to mind), they were not the norm.

It could happen that a boy would so love a girl that he would marry her though she was not a virgin, and if it did then the girl and her family would almost certainly leap at the chance (provided the young man were at least minimally acceptable), but they knew that--given the realities of their culture--counting on such a scenario would be unrealistic.

The ancients were far more practical about marriage than we are today, and while love was something that was expected to grow between the partners in a marriage, it was by no means a prerequisite.

They also understood--better than we--what the purposes of marriage were (and are). It was about raising a family and providing mutual support in a difficult and dangerous life.

So what would happen to a woman who did not get married?

Unless her family was rich, she would not have good options.

Basically, she would be doomed to a life of either poverty or immorality.


No Husband

Without a husband, she would be forced to earn her own living, and that would not be easy given the very restricted access women had to the job market in 1000 B.C. There were not many jobs open to women, and they didn't pay well.

She would also have to deal with the shame and social stigma of being unmarried, which was far more intensely felt in the ancient world than it is today.

You get a sense of that from passages like Isaiah 4:1, where the prophet speaks of a time in which Jerusalem would be conquered and devastated, and many men killed:

And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, "We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach."

Besides shame and a lack of financial resources, there was also another consequence of not having a husband . . .


No Children

Without a husband, the woman could not (morally) have children to care for her in her old age--or even help the family earn a living before that.

Children were viewed as an enormous blessing (as well as being an economic asset rather than an economic burden), and the shame of being childless in ancient Israel is repeatedly noted throughout the Bible.

One only has to think of the moving stories of women who struggled with infertility, like Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth.

And, once again, without a husband, children, or rich relatives, an unmarried woman in the ancient world could be doomed to be among the poorest of the poor.

Malnutrition and starvation were real possibilities.

And then there was an even worse option . . .


The Oldest Profession

Of course, there was a way for a woman in the ancient world to make enough money to live on.

She could always sell her body.

At least for as long as her looks lasted.

If she was fortunate enough to have looks.

Exercising this option would also doom her to a life of shame as a social pariah.

And it would involve a life of enormous and constant sin.

It is not a life any family would wish for their daughter to have.

So what should be done?


The Source of the Problem

Of course, the source of the problem was the young man who had his way with the girl.

He's the one who is responsible for her plight.

And it's a basic intuition that the one who is responsible for causing a problem ought to fix it.

It is easy to see how, to the ancient mind, the young man himself should be held accountable to solve the problem: If he has gone and made this girl unmarrigeable then he had darn well better marry her himself!

And thus assure her future.

This is the ancient equivalent of a "shotgun marriage."


Making Sure He Doesn't Weasel Out

Furthermore, he should not be allowed to weasel out of his responsibilities.

Thus the law provides that he is still forced to pay the girl's father the marriage present (as was customary at the time).

He even has less privileges than a normal husband, because he is not permitted to divorce her ("put her away") as long as he lives. And observe the reason: "because he has violated her."

Note this well: The law recognizes the wrongness of his action.


Stopping This From Happening

There is also a deterrent intention here: Don't violate a woman if you're not willing to marry her and provide for her for the rest of your life.

When you think about it, that's a key reason for this law. Maybe even the main reason.

Because you have to wonder how often it was actually invoked.

This becomes clear if you look at a parallel law . . .


"If her father utterly refuses to give her to him"

Exodus contains a law that deals with a similar situation, in which a girl has been seduced rather than raped:

Exodus 22

[16] "If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall give the marriage present for her, and make her his wife.

[17] If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equivalent to the marriage present for virgins."

We have a similar situation in that the man is still expected to pay the marriage present, but the fact that the father can refuse to give him the girl is explicitly pointed out.

If the father can judge a man unsuitable who merely seduced his daughter, he can also judge a man unsuitable if he raped his daughter.

Thus, though the text in Deuteronomy doesn't explicitly point it out, that is an option as well.

Why doesn't the text point it out in the latter case?

Here's one possibility: Because if the Deuteronomy text added the qualifier "unless the girl's father refuses to give her to him" then it would hold out the prospect of another way of escape for the man.

That would weaken the deterrent effect of the passage.

The Deuteronomy text thus seems to be written in a way that gives the young man more reason for pause: Don't let your passion get the best of you. Don't force yourself on a girl. Or you'll be saddled with supporting her for the rest of your life (no mention made of the idea her father won't give her to you).


What Actually Happened?

It can't be ruled out that, in at least some cases in ancient Israel, the family (including the girl herself) would take a hard, practical look at the situation and conclude that marrying the man really was the best way to secure the girl's future--in which case the man would be held to the responsibilities he had incurred.

Presumably, this would be judged to be the case in situations where the young man was overcome with passion and, in an individual case, failed to respect the fact that "No!" means "No!"

What he did was bad enough, but the practical ancients might judge marrying him to be less bad than what would otherwise happen to the girl, as noted above.

On the other hand, they might decide otherwise--for any of many reasons--and the girl's father (who was presumably totally enraged) would refuse to give him the girl.

Given the way that the law in Deuteronomy seems written for deterrence by not mentioning this possibility, it's hard to know how often such marriages actually took place.

But there's still the larger issue . . .


What Does This Tell Us About God's Will?

We've seen that the law in Deuteronomy should not be read in isolation from other texts, like the one from Exodus, that can shed light on it.

In particular, we've seen that girls were not automatically forced to marry their rapists and that the purpose of the law is to secure the girl's future and hold the man who violated her accountable.

It's also meant to deter men from doing this, and it recognizes the wrong of their actions: the fact that they have violated the virgin and robbed her of something precious.

Would we put the principles behind the law together in this way in our culture?

No. Absolutely not.

Were the attitudes in ancient Israel that forced a girl who had been violated into the options mentioned above fair?

No. Absolutely not.

But they were there nonetheless.

And we can see within the law the underlying principles that are being applied.


Because Your Hearts Were Hard

That makes it possible to see this as one of the kind of laws we started out discussing in this series. They reflect a situation where God took the Israelites at one stage of their moral development and worked, over time, to educate them in his will--a process that would be completed when Jesus revealed the fullness of God's will.

It is like Moses originally allowing the possibility of divorce and remarriage because men's hearts were hard, but eventually Jesus abolished this.

In the same way, God worked with the Israelites at this early stage of their national development to begin to inject better elements in their culture to help address such situations.

It's already better than some of the other options, like murdering the young man in vengeance or honor killing the young woman. (GAH!)

But the perfect revelation of God's will had not yet come.


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