You Broke It, You Buy It: A Divine Mandate

So the news has just broken that a Moroccan girl has committed suicide after being ordered by a judge to marry her rapist. Now before some self-righteous Christians begin mouthing off about how unenlightened Islamic culture is, let’s go to the source:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and forcibly seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (Deut 22:28-29).

Now this law is often decried by religion’s detractors as barbaric and misogynistic. In fact, however, this law is designed specifically with the woman’s well-being in view. In many ancient cultures, women enjoyed second-class status. Societies were dominated by males, and women were objects to be traded from one male to another. This is not a religious problem, so much as a vestige of homo-sapiens’ evolutionary development. But in such cultures, especially in Hebrew culture, women who were victims of rape were considered “spoiled.” The law, in effect, says, “You broke it, you buy it.” In these cultures women depended upon men (fathers, husbands, and sons) for their well-being. In Israelite society, women could not own property; neither could they make contracts without the approval of their male master. This means that a woman was totally dependent upon a man for her survival. But once a virgin had been subjected to sexual violation, she was considered undesirable. Thus, the law dictates (as punishment) that the rapist must marry his victim and, more pointedly, that he is not permitted to divorce her. This law, though obviously very psychologically destructive to the woman (yes, even in an agonistic society), sought to secure the woman’s well being.

So it isn’t the law here specifically that’s evil, barbaric, or what have you. What’s evil and barbaric, rather, is the culture itself—the male-dominated society, the culture that sees unmarried non-virgins as less than a woman, the culture that does not permit a woman to own property, to conduct her own business arrangements by making contracts and vows, or to decide for herself whom she wishes to marry. What’s more, note that there is no mention in this law of whether or not the woman might wish to secure a divorce from her rapist/husband. Women did not have the right to pursue a divorce; that right, too, was solely within the domain of the male.

So what should be attacked by modern detractors of Near Eastern religious morality is not this law itself (which, within its context, had a relatively compassionate intent). What should be attacked is something more basic: the culture. This law only really becomes problematic once modern-day Christians (or Jews or Muslims) wish to argue that the culture of God’s people was shaped by God—that God intervened to create in Israel a civilization that reflected God’s own nature, as a just and loving God. There is nothing distinctive at all about the view of women reflected in the Mosaic law. On some points, there are small improvements over other societies in their period; on other points, there are remarkable regressions. There is nothing revolutionary about Israelite culture, when it is compared evenhandedly to its neighbors.

If I were Yahweh, and I were communicating directly with Moses, who was writing down what I said and relaying it to the people, in order to fashion a society that pleased me, here’s what I would have said:

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and forcibly seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall be cast out from the people, left to fend for himself in the wilderness. The victim, however, shall not be stigmatized by the crime committed against her. She is more to be honored than other women, for she has undergone much suffering, against her own will, and has emerged from her torment a woman of great strength. Woman is to be honored among you, but a woman who has overcome adversity is to be honored tenfold.

See, now, that would have been revolutionary. The biblical apologists wish to argue that God made concessions to a sinful culture, while leading them, by baby-steps, toward a more enlightened way of life. That’s of course offensive bullshit. Any God who would concede to male-domination, concede to the deprivation of basic rights to women, concede to a society in which the only hope for a rape victim is to be bound as long as she lives to her rapist, is a God I don’t have much use for. Especially when all it would have taken was a few simple sentences, such as the ones I offered above, designed to change fundamentally the way men thought about women. Of course, maybe God did speak to Moses, and maybe God said something very much like what I have imagined a loving and just God would say, and maybe Moses just wrote down what he thought God must have meant.

Regardless of how it really went down, let’s mourn for yet another victim of male-domination; and if we’re Jews or Christians, let’s take responsibility for the indisputable fact that Islam’s policy here was inherited from us. We broke it, we have to buy it. And then let’s work together to change the way men think about women.

5 thoughts on “You Broke It, You Buy It: A Divine Mandate

  1. …except that the natural consequence of your suggested rewrite would be to glorify rape, leading to ritual rape as a rite of passage. After all, parents want their daughters to be worthy of tenfold honor, right? So apparently the way to make this deity happy is to designate some poor sap, and assign him the task of raping all the 13-year-old virgin girls at the village womanhood festival, and then send him out into the wilderness to die as a human sacrifice. The women, thus initiated, all become tenfold-honorable and eligible for marriage.

    The lesson: reforming a culture can’t be done in a paragraph.

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