Critics of the Bible often point to Deuteronomy 22:28–29 as evidence that the Bible is hopelessly out of touch with ethical norms and the common decency which marks contemporary society. This passage reads as follows:
“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days” (NASB).
Does this passage teach that a girl who is raped must marry her rapist?
In order to answer this question, we must first examine the context of this law. The context of this passage gives us two important details: (1) this law is casuistic, and (2) this is only one part of a cohesive section that should to be considered as a whole.
The first point, that this law is casuistic, needs explaining. Biblical laws are typically defined as either casuistic or apodictic. Apodictic laws state general principles. The most famous example of apodictic laws is the Ten Commandments (e.g., Exod 20; Deut 5). Laws such as “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” give general principles, but lack concrete examples by which they are illustrated. Casuistic laws, on the other hand, give concrete cases in which principles must be extracted from the details of the specific scenario given. Casuistic laws are usually given away by the if/then structure.
It is important to understand that casuistic law was never intended to be ultimate. Rather, it was intended as a template by which the elders of Israel could evaluate situations on a case by case basis. An easy example of this would be the casuistic law in Exodus 22:1, where a situation is described of a thief who steals an ox or a sheep. If that situation occurs, there ought to be restitution. Does this law thereby exempt thieves who stoop to stealing other animals? Certainly not. The laws were not meant to be exhaustive, but rather regulative, giving a standard. Thus, the first thing to understand is that this casuistic law in Deuteronomy 22:28–29 is not the only consideration to be made in a case of rape.
Moving on to the second major contextual takeaway, we should understand that Deuteronomy 22:13–30 is all one section on laws governing sexual behavior. This section (22:13–30) breaks up into four major parts.
- The first section deals with what to do with an accusation that a girl has had sex before her marriage (22:13–21).
- The second section deals with adultery (22:22).
- The third section deals with two scenarios of the possible rape of a betrothed virgin (22:23 – 27).
- The final section deals with the rape of an unbetrothed virgin (22:28–29).
The third scenario bears a need for closer scrutiny. In this scenario, the man always is put to death for his sexual transgressions (22:24–25). The girl is killed only if it is determined that she was a willing accomplice (v. 24). If the girl had no opportunity to cry for help, it is assumed she is innocent (v. 25).
Clearly this third scenario demonstrates that biblical law holds the rapist accountable for his actions (the death penalty), while at the same time showing empathy for the rape victim. In fact, Deut 22:26 describes rape as akin to murder—which is why the man must be put to death.
As we shift to the fourth scenario (Deut 22:28–29) we note a major detail—that the girl is not betrothed (i.e., she does not have a husband to take care of her). In a society where economic security was largely dependent upon marriage, a girl who was not a virgin would have a difficult time marrying in the future, thus leaving her economically disadvantaged. So, for this particular case, there is an important economic factor involved. Hence, the law mandates that the man be allowed to live, for the purpose that he marry (and thus economically provide for) the girl who would otherwise might be deprived of a future.
That said, there is also no reason to imagine the girl in question is forced to marry the man. That mindset would go against the entire ethos of the case laws leading up to this one. As the previous laws demonstrate, rape is a serious crime, and the man deserves death. However, with the girl’s economic future at stake, the man could be allowed to live as long as he provided for the girl through the economic benefits inherent to marriage in ancient Israel.
Were there alternatives to the young woman? It certainly seems so. The woman could choose to live under the care of her father or her brother (cf. 1 Sam 13:20), another relative, or even get married to another man (e.g., Ruth). However, each of these alternatives is only possible based on availability. For example, what if she had no brothers, or her brothers too young? Or, what if her father was aged and would die well before she did? What happens after her father’s death? You can imagine that in a society such as ancient Israel, marriage was particularly vital for the economic security of the woman. That is why this case law specifically says that the man cannot divorce her, and must be bound to her for the rest of his life (presumably if the woman and her family agree this is best).
I think it is quite inaccurate to claim that this law forces a girl to marry her rapist. Such a conclusion would go against the ethos of the laws on rape already present in this section. Since this is a casuistic law, it can be assumed that there are certain principles in play that are not spelled out (such as the girl’s consent). In a family-oriented economic society, this law provided for the future of a victim of rape should she choose it. However, there is no reason to assume that she did not have an option in the matter. But this law attempts to provide a kindness in making a future available for this young girl should none other be found.