A friend forwarded me a slide entitled “Marriage According to the Bible” which suggests that marriage according to the bible is mostly about men claiming sexual rights and women (especially rape victims, prisoners of war, polygamously-married women and widows) having to lie back and take it. The slide raises questions that are worth serious debate, and especially I can see that faced with someone saying ‘bring back the Old Testament law in the modern world!’ one would be somewhat alarmed. But I think my outline ‘opening argument for the defense’ would be something like the following. I say ‘defense’ because in spite of it’s neutral tone, the slide does to me meant as an attack. It’s not an objective reading certainly. But more on that below.
Rape, polygamy, prisoners of war and slavery were never fair in the ancient world any more than in the modern world. They happened and still happen. Your choices as Government of the realm are, regulate for it or pretend it’s not happening, but modern governments (for all their powers undreamed-of by predecessors 3 millenia ago) are still unable to erase them.
I think the law of Moses pragmatically addresses problems that we no longer have in the western world. For most of us (not being either iron age subsistence farmers or ancient historians) we don’t see the problem being addressed. We certainly don’t ‘get’ the offered solution.
The most serious problem for a subsistence farming community (I believe that was 99% of the world until a few hundred years ago) was, ‘how will I keep me and my family alive for the next 6 months?’ To get a feel for what that’s like, you could try imagining being unemployed for a year longer than all your money, savings, and sale of possessions would last. Then go back 100 years (before the welfare state) and consider your options. Begging? Stealing? Prostitution? Then move to a country where average annual annual income is less than 2 dollars a day (In 2011, that’s nearly half the world according to globalrichlist.com). Preferable of course you could fall back on family, if they’re alive. But if they aren’t …
So the problem to address is: how will a rape victim, prisoner of war or widow keep herself and children alive if she’s one of the 99% of the world who aren’t wealthy.
I do think that the author of the slide has just misread the obligations of the OT law. The marriage obligations were obligations on the man not the woman. The point is to protect a woman from destitution, by not leaving her without an income.
– a rape victim was not obliged to marry her rapist, that’s an error on the slide. Rape was a capital offence, she could push for the death sentence.
– the reference cited on the slide under rape is rather the case of a man who ‘seduces’ (I did check the word in Hebrew, I don’t think there’s any better or more certain translation) an unattached woman: he (not she) becomes obliged to marry her rather than abandon her, a point that a reader of Jane Austen would feel the force of.
– ‘levirate’ marriage (you husband dies, you marry his brother) is again an obligation on the man not the woman. I think it’s fairly clear in the text that the point of the law is that the woman can legally claim the right to a replacement husband (Deut 25:5ff). Husbands keep the wolves from the door. And other predators.
– I suppooooose it’s true that a wife ‘must submit sexually’ although I think that bit of the slide is a little bit made up; there’s no citation for it. Again the obligation is more enforceable the other way round: I think a woman whose husband failed to provide food, clothing or ‘marital rights’ had, if all else failed the option of appeal to legal rights to those 3 things. A new testament perspective on ‘sexual rights’ is “a husband’s body does not belong to him but to his wife, and vice versa.” You can see it’s a joint enterprise view, not an individual rights view, of marriage.
So, I’d say that to produce this slide you’d have to (1) not really know how life even as little as 500 years ago differed economically and therefore socially from our own and (2) read the text with some hostility. I don’t see you could produce this slide from a fair minded attempt to ask “what did this law mean for a woman 3000 years ago”
Am I being unfair? There is a serious debate to be had about some of it, I guess the above is the opening argument, not necessarily a final position.