I recently came across a post on Facebook alleging that God punishes rape victims. The person posting this pointed to Deuteronomy 21 & 22, particularly 22:23-29. He also said that Christians try to explain these passages metaphorically, but the Bible says what it says.
The Bible contains a number of passages that an honest person will find challenging. In my view, an important part of spiritual growth is to work our way through these passages while keeping the rest of the Bible in view. With that in mind, what follows was my response to the post:
In my view, all of these things need to be understood not metaphorically, but rather within the context of the culture at the time they were written. Throughout the Bible, God worked within cultures to incrementally transform those cultures. He worked with what He had, and took steps to make it better.
Women were considered to be the responsibility of men. And, yes, many men did treat women as property. God worked to mitigate this. See, for example, Deuteronomy 24:5.
With this in mind, let’s look at the passages you cite, and let’s start with the most problematic one: the rapist must marry his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). I would point to several dynamics taking place here. First of all, in this culture it was in a woman’s economic best interests to be married since property, and with it, the ability to make a living, transferred to male heirs. Since marriages were arranged, most women were betrothed or pledged to be married at a young age. If a woman was not betrothed, her family, possibly due to poverty or some other issue, was probably having difficulty finding a husband for her. If she was raped, she would lose her virginity, making it much, much more difficult for her family to find a husband for her. The law, therefore, was written to discourage men from raping a woman in this situation, because he would then be required to take economic responsibility for her for life. In any case, the provisions of this passage would almost certainly be interpreted against the backdrop of Exodus 22:16-17 which gives the woman’s father veto power over a marriage. If the father felt that his daughter’s best interests would not be served by the marriage, he collected the fine from the rapist and did his best to find his daughter a different husband.
Clearly, a law like this would never work in our culture. But it wasn’t intended for our culture; it was intended for a very different culture, where a very different set of values and priorities were in play.
Since most young women would be betrothed, the provisions of Deuteronomy 22:23-27 would normally apply. Here we have a rudimentary test for consent: If the rape took place in town, did the woman scream? It’s admittedly an incomplete test, but this was the reason judges were appointed among the Israelis—to get at the intent of the law. The intent of the law was NOT to punish a rape victim.
The betrothal arrangement needs to be understood as something stronger than an engagement in our culture. The only way to break a betrothal was to get a divorce. So consensual sex between a betrothed woman and someone not her promised husband was considered a form of adultery.
Some of the punishments for offenses such as adultery were harsh, unreasonably harsh by the standards of our culture. I can’t say that I totally understand all of the reasons for that. But these thoughts have helped me: God was forming a nation, a theocracy, to represent His interests to all other nations. As such, He needed the people of that nation to abide by a certain code of behavior, and deviation from that couldn’t be tolerated.
As we come to the New Testament, several profound paradigm shifts take place. Among them: The people of God are no longer understood to be the citizens of a single nation, but rather people “called out” from every nation. In fact, the Greek word for “church” ekklesia literally means “called out.” As a result, the people of God needed to bring God’s values into every culture. Instead of laws and punishments, a personal relationship with God was meant to bring God’s values into every relationship.