Does the Bible force a woman to marry her rapist?

It’s sometimes claimed that the Old Testament forces a woman to marry her rapist, and that this demonstrates just how repugnant the Bible can be. The claim often forms part of an argument that seeks to disqualify the Bible from moral discourse in our modern world, or at the very least limit it.

Those wishing to defend the Bible against such a vile stance are often at a loss. There is sometimes an attempt to “soften the impact” by arguing that the laws do not deal with rape (non-consensual sex), but with seduction in which one partner brings the other around into consenting to sex.

Neither angle really grapples with the issues or the logic of the biblical data.

The relevant laws about sexual misconduct come from Deuteronomy 22:13–30. These laws deal with a range of circumstances, and rape is certainly among them (see below). The reference to “rape” is conveyed by the use of the Hebrew word תפש (tapas), which means “to hold onto” or “to hold down.” This is not a neutral word referring metaphorically to someone convincing another to their point of view, as perhaps a conniving seducer might convince a would-be partner to sleep with him. It is the language of violence, and it does not allow for consent. The word is used to describe the action of Potiphar’s wife on Joseph—not of her words to persuade him to sleep with her, but of her grabbing his clothing without his consent, and which he then had to abandon as he fled from her. She was not letting him go, forcing him to squirm out of his clothing and run off naked to escape her.

Nonetheless, the claim that the Bible forces a woman to marry her rapist is incorrect. It misunderstands the purpose and contours of the laws about sexual misconduct and, unfortunately, twists them into the rhetoric of misogyny.

It is important to understand the ancient context of these laws, as well as their casuistic nature—that is, they are not exhaustive legislation covering all eventualities, but scenarios from which one derives a range of principles to apply in various circumstances. There actually is considerable flexibility in these laws.

The bottom line: the Bible does NOT force a woman to marry her rapist. Rather, it holds the rapist accountable for everything he’s got.

Here’s an excerpt from my commentary, Deuteronomy: One Nation under God (Sydney South: Aquila Press, 2016) dealing with the laws on sexual boundaries that are relevant to this issue (pp.260–71).

WARNING: The issues are both explicit and disturbing. Reading is for mature adults.


Sexual boundaries (22:13–30)

Deuteronomy 22:13 moves the discussion on to sexual boundaries. The connecting idea is once again a garment: the previous section finishes with regulations about garments, and the first scenario of improper sexual conduct here (22:13–19) likewise centres around a garment (22:17).

It is important to take all the laws in this section together, as isolating them from each other can lead us to [p. 261] grossly misconstrue their intent. When read in isolation, some of these laws appear repugnant and immoral to our modern sensibilities. However, when we interpret them within the context of the wider section, Deuteronomy’s wider concerns, as well as the ancient historical context, we see how these laws do have proper ethical intent. We must remember that these laws are given in casuistic form, rather than comprehensive legislative clauses. The various scenarios invite comparison with each other, which is how they give us the necessary leverage for inferring the ethical principles and purposes that they represent.

The first two scenarios (22:13–19 and 20–21) deal with perceived sexual misconduct and the issue of virginity. The next four scenarios (22:22, 23–24, 25–27, and 28–29) deal with adultery and rape, while the final scenario (22:30) deals with incest. Let’s deal with each in turn.

The first scenario (22:13–19) sees a man marry a woman, but when he goes to sleep with her believes that she is not a virgin. The issue of crossing boundaries is seen in the way the Hebrew here expresses the sexual act. It uses expressions such as the man ‘coming into’ the woman (22:13), or ‘coming near to’ her (22:14). This implies both entry into a private room, as well as the intimacy of sexual penetration. The implication is that sex breaks down the boundary between two people to unite them as a single unit.

The issue of virginity is a critical one. The law focuses on the woman’s virginity rather than the man’s here because the woman is the one who carries and bears children. The lack of comment on male virginity should not be construed as men having freedom to ‘sleep around’, while women do not. In fact, the need for female virginity prior to marriage and the prohibition of adultery (5:18) imply the need for male virginity prior to marriage also. If a woman is found to have lost her virginity prior to marriage, it is possible that someone other than the man she has married has fathered her children. This compromises the identity and cohesion of a family, and blurs lines of familial responsibility and inheritance. The accusation of such [p.262] promiscuity is very serious, so evidence needs to be produced in line with the covenant’s principle of objectively establishing the facts behind any charge.

In this case, the evidence produced by the woman’s parents is a cloth (22:17). Presumably this is a sheet on which the newly married couple slept together, showing evidence of bleeding from the stretching or tearing of the woman’s hymen during intercourse. Of course, this raises the question of what would happen if the woman’s hymen did not tear during intercourse, or if it had torn before marriage through innocent, mundane activity. Again, the casuistic nature of this law must be borne in mind. The law demonstrates one example from which a larger principle is to be inferred. As such, the law does not limit the admissible evidence to a bloodstained bed sheet. Other evidence may certainly be brought forward in the woman’s defence. Furthermore, when we remember that no capital charge could ever be successful without the confirmed testimony of two or three witnesses (17:6), we realise how difficult it would be to prove the case against the woman here. If the woman or her family were unable to produce any forensic evidence of her virginity, her guilt is not thereby assumed. In line with 17:6, there must be positively corroborated evidence that the woman had indeed been wilfully promiscuous. This is why this scenario must also be read in conjunction with those that follow, for they present other cases of sexual misconduct that affect the interpretation of this law. These other cases demonstrate, for example, that this law could not convict a woman who has been raped, for although she is no longer a virgin, she herself is innocent of misconduct. A woman is not to be blamed for being a victim (see also below). This law also does not deal with a woman who had been previously married and, therefore, would no longer be a virgin on her second marriage. The casuistic nature of this law means that it presents a very specific example from which wider implications must be interpolated.

While this law obviously prohibits women from engaging in sexual promiscuity, it also shows that no man may simply [p.263] use a woman for sexual gratification and then abandon her. On the contrary, sex is put in the context of permanent committed relationship. Casual sex is, therefore, not an option for anyone—male or female—and neither is casual divorce. Accordingly, if the man’s accusation against the woman fails, and indeed it would be impossible to convict her of promiscuity without the verified testimony of two or three witnesses, the man is punished (22:18), and his right to divorce the woman is revoked (22:19). In addition, he is required to pay damages for defaming the woman through his accusation. This law, therefore, aims to enshrine sex within marriage, and also promote sober attitudes towards sex among both men and women.

We may be tempted to see the revoking of the man’s right to divorce here as unnecessarily harsh on the woman, who seems to be given no choice in the matter. However, this is not the case. The law does not say the woman is unable to divorce the man. The right is only denied to the man in this scenario. Furthermore, the principle being demonstrated is that divorce is never to be entertained lightly. We must also bear in mind the situation of women in the ancient world. There was no public education or widespread literacy; no housing options, employment opportunities, or social security; no police, charities, clubs, or other social infrastructures that might allow women in the ancient world to live independently. This is why women and children were particularly vulnerable in the ancient world. They depended on being attached to a family unit headed by a man who could physically protect and provide for them. For a woman, this began with the household of her father. When she was of age to bear children, she would join the household of her husband, and become firmly established within the family line by providing it with children. If she outlived her husband, she would hopefully join the household of one of her sons. Unlike today, therefore, bearing children was not merely a matter of personal choice for a woman. It was vital for her livelihood [p.264] in a relatively undeveloped society.[1] Thus, this law is not denying the woman any rights, but rather ensuring that she is adequately protected for the rest of her life. It preserves her opportunity to bear legitimate children who will inherit from their father, especially in the face of false accusations that imperil that opportunity, and gives her ongoing access to a husband’s resources.

Scenario 2 (22:20–21) sees the charge against the woman’s virginity proved true. As implied by 17:6, this means that the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt by the corroborated evidence of two or three witnesses. In that case, the death penalty is exacted on her. This raises the issue of what is done to the man who had taken her virginity, which this scenario does not deal with. However, this is not an exoneration of that man. Taken in isolation, this law might be interpreted as privileging patriarchy and male domination. On the contrary, though, the scenarios that follow demonstrate that a man involved in illicit sex is also subject to the death penalty. Again, this is why it is important to take all the scenarios in this section together, rather than in isolation. Together, these scenarios provide a fuller understanding of sexual ethics in ancient Israel.

Scenario 3 (22:22) is a plain case of adultery. If a man sleeps with a married woman, both he and the woman are put to death. This is simply an expansion of the seventh of the Ten Points (5:18). Note that there is no statement about the man’s marital status here. It is irrelevant to the charge, because the law defines adultery around a married woman. It is the biology of procreation that drives this definition. If a man sleeps with two women and both fall pregnant, there is no doubt about the paternity of the children. This is partly why the law permits an Israelite man to take more than one [p.265] wife (cf. 21:15–17) and for this not to be viewed as adultery.[2] However, if a woman sleeps with two men, there is doubt about the paternity of her children, which damages family cohesion, as well as lines of kinship and inheritance. Adultery, therefore, is the situation in which a married woman sleeps with a man who is not her own husband. Both the woman and the man involved in this illicit act are to be purged from the Israelite community.

Scenario 4 (22:23–24) deals with a man sleeping with a woman who is betrothed to another man. The incident is placed within a town (22:23). This, in part, is how we see boundaries as the structuring principle of this law: the incident occurs within ‘city limits’, so to speak, in contrast to Scenario 5 that follows. The point of this is to demonstrate that if the man were sexually assaulting the betrothed woman, she could scream and be heard by others in the town. The fact that she does not scream in this scenario suggests she has consented to intercourse, so that both she and the man who sleeps with her are guilty of sexual misconduct. The critical issue here is that the woman is betrothed to another man, so that the paternity of her children is placed in doubt by her conduct. Therefore, as in the previous case (22:22), both the man and the woman are executed when proved guilty.

Once again, it is important to remember the casuistic nature of this scenario, which does not exhaust all possibilities. For example, the scenario does not deal with a man assaulting a woman and preventing her from screaming. A man might, for instance, take a knife to the woman’s throat, or have her gagged as he attacks her. In this case, one can hardly expect the woman to scream and attract attention. Therefore, it would be a gross miscarriage [p.266] of justice to condemn her to death for not doing so. But Scenario 4 here does not condemn a woman merely for not screaming. That would be to misinterpret its purpose. On the contrary, the lack of screaming in this particular scenario is indicative of the woman’s consent to intercourse with a man to whom she is not betrothed. Consent is demonstrably the critical factor. This scenario presents a typical example to establish a legal norm, rather than an extreme example to determine legal limits (that comes in Scenario 5). Consent, not a lack of screaming, is a major consideration in cases of sexual misconduct. Both the man and the woman in Scenario 4 engage in consensual intercourse, and both are guilty of sexual misconduct, because the woman is betrothed to another man.

Scenario 5 (22:25–27) presents the important counterbalance to Scenario 4. In Scenario 5, the betrothed woman is clearly assaulted, but this occurs in the countryside—outside the city boundary. This location sets up an extreme situation to contrast directly with the previous one: the woman here screams, but she is too far away for anyone to hear her and come to her aid. As in Scenario 4, screaming is the cipher for the issue of consent. While the woman in Scenario 4 consents to intercourse, the woman in Scenario 5 clearly does not. Therefore, the law does not condemn the woman in Scenario 5 in any way (22:26). She is an innocent victim.

There are a number of important factors to unpack here. First, the woman in Scenario 5 is not blamed in any way for the attack upon her. It does not, for example, blame her for dressing a particular way, flirting, or otherwise leading the man on. These do not even enter consideration. The blame for the assault is laid solely upon the man who attacked her. This shows that sexual assault is never deemed an acceptable response to anything. The perpetrator can never blame the victim for provoking him. Therefore, the victim is always innocent and assault is never condoned. Second, the law does not see rape as a subcategory of adultery. Rather, 22:26 equates rape with murder. This acknowledges the profound impact that rape has: it imposes a kind of living death on the [p.267] victim. Third, equating rape with murder shows not only the enormity of the crime, but also the magnitude of the healing required after it. For the victim, the path to restoration is akin to a resurrection. Rape is not something a victim can just ‘get over’. The victim requires significant and sustained care. There is even the possibility that the victim will never fully recover from the psychological scars inflicted on her. As such, the man in Scenario 5, to whom she is betrothed, becomes a very important figure. He is able to marry her and provide her with ongoing care, protection, and provisions within the context of a permanent committed relationship.

This final factor helps to explain the logic at work in Scenario 6 (22:28–29). This scenario is identical to Scenario 5 with one key difference: the woman is not betrothed. When such a woman who has not been spoken for is raped, the penalty on the perpetrator changes. He is not put to death, but rather is forced to marry the woman without the option of ever divorcing her, and he must pay a fine of fifty silver shekels to the woman’s father.

To our modern sensibilities, the outcome of Scenario 6 sounds preposterous, as it appears to commit a victim permanently into the hands of her assailant. However, this is most certainly not the intent, and also why we must read this scenario in tandem with the others that precede it. As we have seen, ancient societies were relatively undeveloped, and so lacked the necessary infrastructures that could allow women to live independently. It simply was not an option at that time. As such, the perpetrator in Scenario 6 is given a stay of execution, not because he is less guilty than the perpetrator in Scenario 5, or because the unattached woman is somehow less valuable than the woman who is spoken for. Far from it! The perpetrator is allowed to live so that he provides economically for the victim for the rest of his life. This is why he is refused the right to ever divorce her. It ensures that his victim has complete access to all his resources for her own wellbeing for the rest of her life. It is the closest thing the ancient world had to suing someone ‘for all they’ve got’.

[p.268] There are a few further points to state about this situation. First, this scenario employs what we might term a retrieval ethic. It recognises that the crime against the woman deserves the severest penalty under the Law: death. However, in this case, carrying out the severest penalty might leave the woman destitute. She is not betrothed to any man, and there is a strong likelihood that another man would not take her in marriage, or that she herself might not wish to marry anyone. Since women were so vulnerable in the ancient world without male protection and provision, this potentially imperilled the woman. Rather than make her suffer further, in addition to the consequences of rape, this law seeks to mitigate her plight by ensuring economic compensation for her in perpetuity, as well as the opportunity to bear children who might care for her in her old age. Bearing children provided women with security in the midst the rigours of ancient life. The perceived lenience towards the assailant here is actually designed to retrieve the situation in some measure for the victim.

Second, although this law states the perpetrator must marry the victim without recourse to divorce, it does not force the victim to marry him. In fact, a woman in this situation may legitimately refuse to marry her attacker. To us this might seem a more suitable outcome, as it would remove a woman from the vicinity of her attacker. But it seems so to us largely because of the many options for independence available to women today. Such options simply did not exist in the ancient world. So even though this law does contain such flexibility, the extreme vulnerability of women in the ancient world meant that it could inadvertently compromise a victim’s long-term wellbeing and standing.

We see this demonstrated in 2 Samuel 13, where King David’s son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar. After the assault, Tamar begs Amnon not to send her away (2 Samuel 13:16), using the basic language associated with divorce. By sending her away, Amnon was potentially consigning her to a life without the possibility of marriage and, therefore, a life outside the protection of a family or clan structure. This [p.269] was more than just a life lacking opportunity. It could result in life-threatening poverty and exploitation. Tamar’s fear of destitution is, therefore, palpable. Amnon, however, callously throws her out after assaulting her, leaving her vulnerable. Fortunately for Tamar, her brother, Absalom, becomes her protector and provider. However, because Tamar is not betrothed, and Amnon does not marry her, she is denied the opportunity to entrench herself within a family by contributing children who might also care for her in old age. As such, the text describes Tamar’s fate as ‘desolate’ (2 Samuel 13:20).

Tamar’s situation also highlights some of the other outcomes that might arise from an assault like that in Scenario 6. For example, a rape victim’s male relatives—her father, a brother, or a nephew—might plausibly provide her with ongoing care. The logic in the cluster of scenarios here in Deuteronomy 22 means that in such situations, the attacker would most likely be executed, in line with the severity of the crime.[3] While this may seem a preferable outcome to our modern sensibilities, it also confines the victim to the margins of family life. It deprives her of a woman’s most fundamental contribution to ancient society, which also ensured her wellbeing: childbearing within a family.

This cluster of scenarios demonstrates how vulnerable women in the ancient world were. Ultimately, there was no ‘good’ outcome for a rape victim, for she was inevitably at some disadvantage that could not be undone. This highlights the importance of the final of the Ten Points (5:21), which enjoins people to live responsibly, rather than in the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, power, or gain. People were to treat others with dignity and respect in accordance with nature and circumstance, recognising the impact of their actions on others. This promotes both self-awareness and [p.270] social awareness more broadly. Men in particular, as the powerful of society, were to use their power in the responsible service of others to build a cooperative and safe society. They were not to treat women as objects for self-gratification or personal gain, and relationships were not to be trifled with. Sex, with its procreative power, was not to be treated casually or abusively, but within the context of ongoing committed familial relationship. The normative place for sex was within marriage, which provided a natural institution for the nurture of family. Rape is never condoned, but is equated with murder. These scenarios show that a rapist must always be held responsible for the crime, the victim is never to be blamed, and the ongoing wellbeing of the victim is of the utmost importance. These laws aim to prevent the abuse of power, protect and provide for the vulnerable, and protect family life as the basic dynamic at the heart of society.

This section closes with an apodictic law prohibiting a man from marrying his father’s wife (22:30). The woman in question is not described as the man’s ‘mother’. This means the law has a broad application to any woman who was married to the man’s father, such as a second wife or a concubine, as well as the man’s own mother. By using the language of marriage (literally, ‘taking’), the law extends the prohibition on such sexual relations even beyond the time of the father’s death, for a woman could not be married to both a father and his son at the same time. This law distinguishes Israel from some of its neighbouring cultures, such as Assyria and pre-Islamic Arabia, which permitted a man to marry his stepmother after his father’s death. The rationale for the law is that such a relationship represents a crime against the father, even though he may be dead. The implication is that any woman married to a man’s father became kin—a status that endured beyond the father’s death, thus making any relationship with her incestuous. This also represents a clear boundary between the generations within a family. If a man married his stepmother, the children of their union could be considered both the [p.271] children and step-grandchildren of the woman, resulting in relational confusion. Thus, while the six scenarios before this law deal with respecting the relationships of peers, this law extends relational integrity across the generations by drawing a clear boundary between them.


[1] Sterility also had a profoundly tragic influence over a woman’s long-term livelihood. This dynamic that saw a woman’s survival attached so closely to her childbearing ability may also stand behind the statement in 1 Timothy 2:15.

[2] Another reason that the Law allows Israelite men to take more than one wife is that men were usually physically strong enough to provide physical protection and sustenance to women and children in what was an undeveloped society. Men, though, had to provide amicably and equitably for their compound families (see Deuteronomy 21:15–17).

[3] To that end, we note that Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, who took her into his care, eventually kills Amnon for the rape (2 Samuel 13:28–29).

You can purchase Deuteronomy: One Nation under God HERE, or the Kindle version HERE.

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Deuteronomy: One Nation under God

I’ve recently written a commentary on the book of Deuteronomy. It’s titled Deuteronomy: One Nation under God. It’s published by Aquila Press as part of the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ Series.

The commentary is for the layperson. It divides Deuteronomy up into 13 sections and explains the text in its Old Testament context. Each section also traces how the respective portion of Deuteronomy informs the rest of the Old Testament, particularly as the grounds for understanding the life of Israel as Yahweh’s covenant nation. In addition, it lays out how to read Deuteronomy in light of the New Testament. It thereby aims to show how Christians may read Deuteronomy as Scripture.

The commentary is available at the CEP store online and Koorong bookstores for AUD $24.99.

rtbts-deuteronomy

321 pages. ISBN 9781925041903.

Genesis 19: Has Lot Lost The Plot?

Have you ever been shocked by Lot’s suggestion to the mob at Sodom in Genesis 19? Have you ever been puzzled by why he would ever do such a thing? Well, it’s because the narrative has such a magnificent twist that even our modern translators have been fooled by it. All is not as it seems, folks!

I’ve written an article for Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, titled ‘Has Lot Lost the Plot? Detail Omission and a Reconsideration of Genesis 19.’ The article examines this plot twist. Here’s the abstract:

In Genesis 19, Lot tries to stave off the predatory mob of Sodom by offering his daughters for pack rape. Scholars treat this ‘shocking offer’ in various ways, but a common thread is an appeal to ancient Near Eastern codes of hospitality. This article examines some of these treatments of Lot’s proposal, both positive and negative. It then puts forward the case for a new understanding of the narrative on the basis of ‘unknown detail omission’, in which the narrator deliberately withholds information from the reader, only to reveal it at a later point in the narrative. The narrator of Genesis 19 exploits ambiguities in the narrative and a reaction of disgust at rape to fool the reader into viewing Lot’s words and actions a particular way. However, when the narrator reveals a key detail later in the narrative, the reader is surprised and forced to re-evaluate the entire episode. This then frames Lot’s shocking offer in a new light, and the reader comes to a new conclusion about Lot’s character.

Click HERE to read the article.

sodom

Christians and the Law

This is an article I wrote originally for Southern Cross magazine, appearing in their November 2015 issue, and also at Moore College’s Think Tank blog.


As Christians we hold the Bible to be the Word of God. We acknowledge the Scriptures are ultimately God’s idea, and that he inspired the human authors to write them for the good of those who read them (2 Pet 1:20–21). We rightly acknowledge the Bible to be the ultimate authority for the Christian life. But this poses something of a challenge: How do we rightly interpret the Bible within a modern-day setting when it was not written by or to people in the modern day? How do we take these ancient words of authoritative revelation and apply them well to contemporary situations? As our society changes and seems increasingly keen to let go of Christian mores, this becomes an ever more pressing issue.

One of the particular challenges we face in this regard is the way we bring the laws of the Old Testament to bear on the church and society today. As we read the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), we encounter laws about various aspects of life, and we often appeal to these in discussions about Christian behaviour and the ethics of society at large. We recount the Ten Commandments in our liturgy as a statement of God’s righteous standards. We hold some laws as binding today (e.g. not murdering), but relinquish others (e.g. prohibitions against eating certain foods). This can create a serious dilemma, because on the surface, it looks like an arbitrary approach—a purely selective retention of those laws that suit us, and the rejection of those that don’t. Indeed, this is how many caricature our handling of Scripture. Unfortunately, in many cases, they are right. We have not thought carefully enough about interpreting Old Testament laws to ensure that we do not do so arbitrarily. We must do justice to these laws as integral parts of God’s authoritative word to us, and that means having a rationale for how we interpret them.

ten-commandments-hebrewOne method popularly espoused is to divide the Law into three categories: (1) civil laws pertaining to the life of Israel as a national entity in ancient times; (2) ceremonial laws pertaining to how Israel worshipped God at the tabernacle or temple; and (3) moral laws that indicate the ethical standards God desires of people. Under this scheme, the civil and ceremonial laws are seen as no longer applicable to Christians, because they are fulfilled in Christ. The moral laws, though, do continue to have force, since God’s standards have not changed. It therefore takes Jesus’ fulfilment of the Old Testament and the high ethical standards of believers quite seriously.

There are a few problems with this approach, however. First, the Law itself does not make this kind of threefold distinction. The laws together constitute a singular whole. While we are still permitted to divide it up for the purposes of analysis, it becomes easy to take these divisions as absolute features of the Law, rather than useful tools. It’s a bit like treating a three-room house like three distinct houses. Second, the New Testament sees Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law in its entirety, not just two portions of it. And third, the Law is an all-or-nothing proposition. Paul’s interaction with the Gentile believers in Galatia demonstrates this. When the Judaizers came to Galatia and urged the Gentile believers to undergo circumcision in order to be part of the people of God, Paul reacted strongly. He told the Galatians that if they wanted to be characterised by observing the Law, they had to keep all the laws, not just portions of them (Gal 5:3). But this would be to no avail anyway, since no one can ultimately be justified through the Law (Gal 3:11). Nevertheless, Paul also affirms that when Christians walk in step with the Spirit who has been given to them (Gal 5:16, 25) and love their neighbours as themselves, they fulfil the entire Law—not just part of it (Gal 5:24). Carving the Law up into applicable and non-applicable slices simply does not do it justice.

So how should we approach the Law as Christians? The answer to that question would take many more pages than this article allows. Nevertheless, here are some principles and ideas that are vital ‘stakes in the ground’ when considering the place of the Law today.

Types of Laws

It’s useful to understand the nature of the laws we read in the Bible. There are two broad types of laws. The first are ‘apodictic’ laws, which plainly state what people must or must not do. The Ten Commandments (Deut 5:6–21) are the best examples of these. The second type are ‘casuistic’ laws. These don’t hand down a ‘do’ or a ‘do not’. Rather, they describe hypothetical cases and dispense advice on how these cases could be handled. From these cases, readers can derive principles that can be applied in other scenarios. This is important to realise, because casuistic laws are not exhaustive. They do not explore all the possible alternative situations that people might encounter. They are simply worked examples. It is easy to think that casuistic laws are simplistic, unjust, or have numerous loopholes. But this is to treat them as apodictic laws, or misunderstand them as exhaustive. Their hypothetical nature also means that understanding the ancient culture that provided the context for these laws is also invaluable. Without that context, it can be easy to misconstrue the intent of these laws.

The Old Covenant

God gave his laws to his ancient people, Israel. These laws were part of his old covenant, by which he established a particular kind of relationship: God was Israel’s ‘head of state’, and they were his national society within the land he gave them. The old covenant was about establishing and maintaining a nation, which is why laws were appropriate for ordering the covenant relationship. This is very different to our situation as Christians today. Jesus has established a new covenant in which we relate to God not as citizens towards a head of state, but as children towards a heavenly Father. We have become a family, which is why Christians relate to each other not merely as ‘neighbours’, but as ‘brothers and sisters’. While our relationships to God and each other still require order to function well, laws are actually an inappropriate means for this. A family that needs laws imposed on its relationships is not functioning in a healthy way. A family functions well when its members share an inherent identity that inextricably binds them to each other in love. Affection, more than duty, is what makes a family function well. A nation, however, requires a dutiful level of order. Understanding the different dynamics required in running a family and a nation gives us some leverage for understanding the rationale of some of the Old Testament laws, and how they may relate to us today.

The Purpose of the Law

The Law was not about saving a person unto eternal life. Rather, it was about enabling a person to be a good citizen of old covenant Israel within the land. The Apostle Paul, for example, could boast about being blameless with regards to the righteousness that comes from the Law (Phil 3:6). But this type of righteousness only allowed him to be a good ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’—a citizen of Israel, but not necessarily a citizen of heaven. This is why he counted such credentials loss for the sake of knowing Christ and having the righteousness that comes through faith in him (Phil 3:9). This is a new type of righteousness, which is apart from the Law, though the Law (and the prophets) testified to it (Rom 3:21). Only Christ is able to save unto eternal life. Christians are not under the old covenant, so we are not required to live as a national entity within a particular land. We are, instead, under the new covenant, which allows us to relate to God as our Father, regardless of our ethnicity. This means we must not impose the Old Testament Law on Christians today. It is not necessary for salvation or Christian identity. Only Christ is necessary for salvation.

Countercultural Love

hammurabi

A black basalt stele with the Code of Hammurabi.

Other cultures of the ancient Near East had law codes. The Code of Hammurabi from Babylon (c. 1750 BC) is one of the best known of these. Some laws in these codes bear a striking resemblance to those found in the Old Testament. The ‘law of retaliation’ is an example, whereby proportionate punishment is given for a crime: eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (cf. Exod 21:23–25). However, there are also some glaring differences. For example, Hammurabi’s code stipulates that no one must harbour an escaped slave, but must immediately return the slave to his master. On this front, however, God’s Law is profoundly countercultural. It stipulates that if an animal escapes from its owner, the person who finds it must do all in their power to return the animal (Deut 22:1–3). But if a slave escapes from his master, Israelites must not return the slave to his master, but allow him to live among them (Deut 23:15–16). In other words, the Law does not see slaves as property, but as human beings with an inherent right to personal freedom. This is why Israel was only ever to see slavery as a temporary measure for settling debts (Deut 15:12–15). When we consider the ancient world’s view of slaves as dispensable chattels, God’s Law is countercultural. It sows the seeds of compassion and dignity that would eventually inspire the likes of William Wilberforce to bring the institution of slavery to an end. The Law outlines Israel’s duties, but at its heart is love of neighbour. This should be a guiding principle in how we analyse it.

This countercultural aspect of the Law is not just about Israel being different to other nations for the sake of being different. As we’ve seen, Israel shared some laws in common with its neighbours. Rather, it is about establishing practices and policies that reflect the justice, righteousness, and love of God. The Law aims to treat people as persons in relationship with others. This is not the same as treating people individualistically—as singular units without reference to others. It is about promoting personhood and relational wellbeing. This is why it bids the powerful of society to use their power in loving service of the weak, usually characterised as the fatherless, the widow, and the migrant (e.g. Deut 10:18). In an ancient society that lacked many of the social and political infrastructures that we enjoy in the West today, this was a crucial message.

Same God, Different Context

The God who gave Israel the Law is the same God who has spoken and acted in Jesus Christ. We worship the same deity whom old covenant Israel worshipped (or, rather, should have worshipped). But while God himself has not changed, our understanding of God is, in fact, different to the understanding Israel had. In Old Testament times, God was still in the process of revealing himself. This is why he kept sending prophets to Israel, and why Israel had to keep adapting to this unfolding revelation. We, however, live after the completion of God’s revelation in Christ. The Law was not God’s final word—Christ was. Failing to take Christ into account is like interrupting God mid-sentence, and not letting him speak. It can be presumptuous and lead to misunderstanding.

So as we interpret the Old Testament Law, we must appreciate the difference in historical and theological context between Israel and ourselves. We must feel the difference between ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. Yet we must also recognise that God has not changed. This means we should be able to see a consistency between the Law given to Israel and what God requires of us today, but this consistency is situated in the character of God, not in the laws themselves. Although we (technically) no longer have the institution of slavery, the laws on slavery should still speak to us of a God who values human dignity and freedom, and which places people above economics. And while we are in a different salvation-historical context to old covenant Israel, there are some things that have not changed. For example, human nature is still the same. Our capacity for sin, our biological composition, and our personal limitations are unchanged. While our context may be different to old covenant Israel’s, our need for God and his revelation has not changed.

The change in historical and theological context demonstrates that the Law is not a timeless revelation. It was, rather, a revelation in history. Paul describes the Law as Israel’s tutor, put in place until Israel’s time of maturity and fulfilment arrived—the time of Christ (Gal 4:1–7). The Law is, therefore, not binding on Christians today as Law. But this does not mean the authority of God’s Law has expired. The Law remains the word of God as it ever was, for it still speaks to us of the God we worship, and of our forebears in the people of God. But it speaks to us today as prophecy and wisdom, rather than as Law. It testifies to the God whom we know today as our Father. It testifies to his righteousness, justice, and love. It provides us with the framework for understanding God’s dealings with his people in ages past, and in so doing, still provides us with wisdom on what is pleasing to God. The Law is like a tall tree whose shadow has moved through the day. It now casts a different shadow on a different landscape, but it is the same tree as it was in the morning. As such, we can affirm the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy when it comes to the Law: ‘All Scripture is breathed by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16–17).

tree

The #weekwithoutcoffee and the #warongeorge

GAwwcThis last week I’ve been in Atlanta at the annual conference for the Society of Biblical Literature. And since Australia has some of the best coffee on the planet (for example, just 50 metres from my office is my ‘coffice’—Handcraft Specialty Coffees), it’s always hard going to America, where they don’t seem to have discovered coffee yet. It’s like most people in America are caught in a kind of Matrix, and very few people know that it’s all an illusion.

And so I had a #weekwithoutcoffee.

For some perverse reason, this provoked people around the world into a #warongeorge (I’m blaming Sam Freney). Suddenly, my Facebook timeline was flooded with pictures of beautiful, lovely, delicate, smooth coffees (real coffees!), while I battled through with Christmas-laced Starbucks.

I’m now back home in Sydney, and the ordeal has come to an end.

Now of course it was all in good fun, and I must say that I had plenty of laughs. And so, it seems, did many others.

So here’s the situation: I was away from my home and family, suffering without coffee, and forced to have something when I really would have preferred something else that I really liked. And I did it because I was seeking to engage further in biblical studies.

In the scheme of things, though, my suffering over the last week was meagre when you compare it to:

  • Syrians and Iraqis who are being forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives, often being separated from loved ones, or having them violently torn from their embrace, and with little hope of ever returning home;
  • people who suffer from Prader Willi Syndrome (PWS) who, despite being able to eat and drink certain things, are neurologically unable to feel ‘full’, and instead feel constant hunger, meaning they would desperately love to eat or drink what they really crave (some of my best friends have children with PWS);
  • students who, for financial reasons, have to leave family behind while they go to another city or country in order to further their studies in Bible and theology, before eventually returning home to make a difference to their communities (many of the students I have the privilege of teaching at George Whitefield College in Cape Town are in this very situation).

So here’s the deal:

If you either participated or enjoyed (!) the #weekwithoutcoffee and the #warongeorge, I would dearly love you to support one of the following causes by making a donation:

  1. The Archbishop’s Syrian Refugee Appeal (Anglicare)
  2. The Prader Willi Syndrome Association of NSW
  3. George Whitefield College in Cape Town, South Africa*

You can pick one of the three, or all of the three. The amount you donate is totally up to you. You might, for example, like to donate a week’s worth of your coffee budget (or more!). But any amount would be fantastic.

GAwwcoverThen, if you do support one of these causes (or even if you don’t, actually), I want you to post a picture of a cup of coffee on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #makethecoffeecount and a link to this webpage (wp.me/p13v4V-m4), so that others can participate too. It would be great to drum up some good support for these causes.
So please join me and let’s make my #weekwithoutcoffee and the #warongeorge actually count for something.

 


* Donation is made in South African Rand (ZAR).
AUD $1 = approx. ZAR 10.
US    $1 = approx. ZAR 14

anglicare7e234b_715fcd5fd1a44baa9aeef6ab63717f59  GWClogo

 

Review: Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics

My brief review of Brill’s monumental Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics has been published in the latest issue of Themelios (39.3). Click HERE to read it.

1 Samuel Bible Studies

Some time ago, my wife, Koula, and I wrote a series of Bible studies on 1 Samuel. We had in mind small groups within a church, or individuals.

These studies are now available for FREE download from Mountain Street Media.

The download gives you ten studies that work through all of 1 Samuel:

  • Study 1 The blind leading the blind (1 Samuel 1-4)
  • Study 2 Putting God in a box (1 Samuel 5:1-7:14)
  • Study 3 The people’s choice (1 Samuel 7:15-10:27)
  • Study 4 An eye-catching king (1 Samuel 11-12)
  • Study 5 Mishmash at Michmash and dismissal at Gilgal (1 Samuel 13-15)
  • Study 6 The LORD’s choice (1 Samuel 16-17)
  • Study 7 Loyalty and disloyalty amongst the royalty (1 Samuel 18-20)
  • Study 8 Seek and destroy (1 Samuel 21-24)
  • Study 9 Friend or fiend? (1 Samuel 25-27)
  • Study 10 The LORD keeps his word (1 Samuel 28-31)

The studies put 1 Samuel within their canonical context, and also have an eye on how it finds its fulfilment in Christ.

Mountain Street Media also have a few other studies you might like to check out.