I have seen three recent references to this text and the outrage of the Bible’s requirement of having a woman marry her rapist. This would be an outrage if it were the case. Thankfully it is not. This is case however, not only of poor reading, but also of irresponsible translation.
In order to understand what is being commanded in this text we must keep in mind context. If this were a text about a case of rape, then the outcome would be established in verses 25 and 26. The rapist would be taken out to the city gate and swiftly stoned to death. The text is clear, the rapist and the murderer would be treated in the same way, with a death sentence. From context we know already this is not a text about rape.
The problem in translation is that “seizing” should be better understood as “enticed”. This is not a case of rape, the intercourse in this text is consensual. More specifically, the intercourse is “enticed,” that is built on promises of love, commitment, and future marriage. He has told her, “I love you, you are the one for me, I will do all things I ought, I will talk to your parents, but right now, ‘we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow’…” Of course tradition was that once there was an understanding between a woman and a man, he would speak to her family, negotiate a suitable mohar and establish their engagement. The Torah is essentially saying that a man is not bypass the safe guards created to protect women for his own gratification.
Last we have the idea that the woman is trapped with this man, who was deceptive. Since we already established that either party in a marriage could initiate a divorce it is only the man who, in this case has forfeited his right to divorce. Not only has he been called upon to pay an exorbitant mohar, if he tries to leave his forever love, he will forfeit the 50 shekels of silver and it will go to her, and he will be considered an adulterer if he tries to remarry. Again, this is a case of putting a woman in a position of power and control when her husband has attempted to take advantage of her. I refer to this as the “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” Clause, after the song by Meatloaf. Having promised forever for a one night stand, the man is sentenced to forever with the woman he claimed to love. Only she can release him, if she so desires. On the other hand, she can also hold this over him, “as long as they both shall live.”
A slow look at this text, without quickly resorting to indignance gives us a very different view of what the LORD commands. It is not a revictimizing of the woman. Rather it empowers her to gauge and make decisions about her future, and gives her opportunity to see her husbands character and true intentions by the light of day. It does not allow the man to leap over the responsibilities to his wife before he enjoys the privileges of their union. It forces him to go back and do things right and to keep his word.
It is odd that texts like this get enforced in communities who do not keep the rest of the Torah. We insist that we can bind people to Laws about marriage and divorce while overlooking Laws about where to sacrifice meat or how to treat strangers. It seems like we have lost the ability to pull the eternal principles from God’s Word and His focused intent revealing in the Torah Made Flesh, Jesus the Messiah. In doing so, we “strain the gnat and swallow the camel.”
We may have the impulse to stone the rapist to death, but we don’t get to. The LORD’s Word does teach us that the guilty must bear the responsibility for their actions and the victim is not to be blamed. These text also teach us the basics of using critical thinking to understand and analyze situations. They teach us that God is concerned with our lives, our marriages, and with the health of our relationships. They teach us that we must be true to our word and treat each other with respect. What is more, as case law, these sections of Torah are models more than commands. Commands begin with “thou shall”. Case laws begin “when…” I would like us to look at methods of thinking about and applying these three texts along with particular applications, but before we do, I want to share a simple response to the charges that the Bible supports misogyny and slavery.