How we all make exceptions

This is the fourth installment in a five-part series on sexual ethics. Part 1 looked at the ramifications of the evangelical purity culture. Part 2 considers “sex as marriage” as a starting point for a biblical sexual ethic. Part 3 explored some of the limitations of this starting point, and part 4 below picks up that thread. Part 5 will offer an alternative approach.

[Trigger warning: this post addresses the topic of rape in the Bible.]

So what do we do with the Torah’s requirement that a rapist marry his victim?

What implications does this have for a sexual ethic that starts with the assumption that sex equals marriage? (This is the approach some offer as an alternative to the failed evangelical purity culture.)

The Old Testament directive concerning rape was, in fact, perfectly consistent with the notion that sex equals marriage. If a man had sex with an an unbetrothed virgin, whether it was consensual or not, they were married in the eyes of Torah. Thus they were required to wed officially.

Today, we wouldn’t dare impose such a remedy (if you can call it that) on rape victims. It would be like subjecting them to rape all over again — every day for the rest of their lives.

Preston Yancey explains why the Torah might have required such a remedy for the ancient Israelites:

A woman who was raped in Israel [had] her physical virginity stolen, [and] would not likely wed and therefore would not be . . . financially cared for.

In other words, she would have been “damaged goods” with no other hope of marriage. And single women didn’t fare too well in a patriarchal world, unfortunately. She would have been seen as a burden to her family. When her parents died, she would have been left with little or no means of provision.

None of which makes this a particularly satisfying explanation of Deuteronomy 22:28-29. I imagine there are many rape survivors who’d say death would be preferable to having to marry their attackers. Then again, no explanation can do justice to the scale of violation that rape entails.

But what I want to address here is the inevitable follow-up question. Not just how do we explain the Torah’s requirement that rape victims marry their attackers but how does this text inform our sexual ethic today?

Preston argues that it would be wrong to impose such a remedy on rape victims today because “we live in a world where a woman is not dependent on a man for income.” He’s right, though I would argue that’s hardly the only reason not to impose this remedy.

But let’s be clear about what we’re doing here. We’re making an exception to the “sex as marriage” ethic found in the Bible. We’re saying it can’t be applied the same way, in every way, today as it was four thousand years ago. There are cultural and historical realities that make direct application dangerous and ill-advised.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Exodus 22:16-17 demands a similar remedy for any case in which “a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married.” And it does so for basically the same reason: the man has stolen her virginity and thus deprived her of any other prospect of marriage.

In a patriarchal society, this was viewed mainly as a crime against the woman’s father. There was certainly some interest in the woman’s well being, but the main concern was for her father’s welfare. Notice the requirement that her seducer “pay the bride-price,” even if the father absolutely refuses to “give her to him.”

Exodus 22

In my Bible, the laws preceding this one (verses 1-15) are put under the heading “Protection of Property.” Yet the command about a seduced virgin (verses 16-17) appears under a different heading. I think the section break is in the wrong place. (Remember, whatever your view of Scripture, it’s not as though section headings are inspired.)

This command isn’t about sexual morality or “social responsibility,” as the heading before verse 16 suggests. It’s about property.

The man who slept with an unmarried girl stole her virginity — which according the ancient world belonged not to her but to her father. Thus he deprived her father of his right to the “bride-price.” In effect, the seducer took the father’s property without paying for it.

That’s why the consequences for raping or seducing an unwed virgin* were the same. Marriage was the mandated remedy in both cases. The perpetrator had to pay a penalty to the father in both cases. All of which was perfectly consistent with the patriarchal — and misguided — notion that women were the property of men.

So… do we really want to make this the basis of our sexual ethic today?

Bottom line: the Old Testament assumed that sex between a man and a virgin woman initiated marriage, whether or not it was consensual. This was in keeping with the notion that sex equals marriage. Yet those who suggest that “sex equals marriage” should form the basis of a modern sexual ethic understandably want to make an exception for rape. But the Old Testament treated rape and run-of-the-mill seduction the same. So if you’re going to make an exception for one, you have to make an exception for the other.

In which case, it’s not quite as straightforward as telling someone, “You shouldn’t have sex before marriage because sex is itself the act of marriage.” Sex may well be the act by which a true marriage is consecrated, but that doesn’t mean sex should always be interpreted as an act of marriage. There are exceptions. We all make them. The only question is, which do we allow for?

None of this is to propose doing away with a “sex as marriage” ethic entirely. But we need to understand its limitations.

The fact remains that marriage, according to Scripture, is a relationship where two people “become one flesh,” a phrase with pretty strong sexual connotations. If nothing else, this language should alert us to the significance of sex, to the fact that it’s not something to be treated casually.

Sex is the act by which a marriage is consecrated precisely because of the profound connection it forges between two people. Sex involves intimacy and vulnerability, which makes it something you don’t just share with anyone.

For Christians, sex and marriage are also deeply sacramental, serving as a picture of the anticipated union between Christ and his church. This should be another clue to the significance, to the distinct un-triviality, of sex.

In which case, casual, uncommitted sex doesn’t fit with a Christian sexual ethic. It’s not “anything goes.” But neither is everything as black-and-white as it might seem at first glance.

So that still leaves a great big unanswered question: where do we turn for a suitable starting point to a Christian sexual ethic? More on that in the next post.


*Postscript: It’s worth noting that Old Testament law treated betrothed and unbetrothed virgins differently. The penalty for sex with a betrothed (i.e. pledged to be married) virgin was far more severe than the penalty for sex with an unbetrothed virgin. That’s because Old Testament law made no legal distinction between betrothal and marriage. (See Deuteronomy 22:23-24, which refers to a betrothed virgin as “another man’s wife.” This also explains why Joseph initially planned to “divorce” Mary after she became pregnant with Jesus.)

All of which creates something of a problem for the “sex as marriage” ethic. If a legally enforceable marriage covenant existed even before a sexual union had taken place, then can you really argue that sex is itself the “act of marriage”?

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