When read with modern eyes, the Bible has some verses that seem completely out of place in a book that emphasizes mercy, justice, kindness and charity. Most modern readers, however, fail to take into account the culture in which the Bible was written and who would have made up its original audience. Contemporary readers have the advantage of examining the Bible in a world that is enjoying more peace and prosperity than almost any other time in human history. They also have the benefit of thousands of years of advances in ethics and understanding shaping their worldview. As such, some Bible verses from thousands of years ago seem harsh at best and deliberately cruel at worst. Placed in their cultural and historical context, however, even some of the Bible’s most terrible verses are revealed to be radically progressive for their time.

Exodus 21:23-25

“But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

For people who grew up hearing the New Testament’s focus on mercy and forgiveness, the reciprocal style of justice prescribed in the Old Testament can seem jarring and even cruel. What many people do not realize is that Exodus 21 actually limits what sort of vengeance a person can demand from those that hurt them or their family. Rather than allowing things to descend into blood feuds or avenging minor slights through murder, Exodus states clearly that the Israelites are allowed to return no more harm than they themselves faced. Given the overwhelmingly tribal society of the times, this would have been an enormous and unexpected limit on what could have otherwise been unchecked vigilantism.

Deuteronomy 22:23-29

“If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”

Rape is among the worst crimes that a human being can commit. It is also one of the oldest. As such, it should not be surprising that the Bible describes how to handle such situations. Modern readers, however, are horrified by the idea of forcing a rape victim to marry their rapist. In contemporary times, this would be beyond a gross miscarriage of justice. Several thousand years ago, however, this law was actually rather progressive in both its inclinations and intentions, as it was created to serve justice few women would have received.

Deuteronomy 22 states that the rapist must pay his victim’s dowry and then marry her. He is not allowed to divorce her. This was meant to force the man to take responsibility for his actions and to ensure that the woman was provided for in the future. Given the times, she would likely have had trouble finding a husband after such an attack. Forcing the man who stole her future from her to provide for her was meant to keep her financially stable and avoid her starving to death on the streets for something that was not her fault. Forcing her to remain in contact with her attacker was terrible, but remember that there was no real concept of mental health or post-traumatic stress 5,000 years ago.

The law concerning rape in Deuteronomy was also unusual in that it recognized rape as a crime against a human, not a form of theft. The law itself states that a woman was not just allowed to fight back, but expected to try and defend herself. Similarly, she was to be treated like a victim if she did so. In many other ancient laws, she would have been viewed as equally culpable in the crime or completely responsible regardless of her actions. In addition, Deuteronomy implies that anyone who encounters a rape in progress or attempted rape is morally bound to try and stop it. They cannot simply ignore a woman’s cries for help.