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.
“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.
“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.
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”
Given that most parents today have been conditioned to expect some form of teenage rebellion, the idea of stoning a disobedient child to death is overwhelmingly extreme. During the time of the Old Testament, however, children did not move out when they became adults. Sons would remain in their father’s house until their father died and they inherited a portion of his land. As such, a grown man with his own family would still be under the authority of his father. If he disobeyed, the potential repercussions for everyone else were far more severe. Instead of a bratty teen breaking curfew, families with disobedient adult children could face either starvation in winter because the crops were not handled correctly or internal feuds between brothers or fathers and sons that could end in bloodshed.
Ephesians 5:22–33, 1 Peter 3:1–7
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything….Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear… Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”
The sad reality is that women were not considered to be equals to men by the wider culture until rather recently. As such, women were often seen as the property of their husbands. The Bible, however, was radically progressive when it came to how spouses were supposed to treat one another. Greek and Roman women were little more than slaves and were rarely allowed to leave the home. By contrast, Christian men were told to respect their wives and to protect them.
Though the Bible does expect women to obey their husbands as was the custom at the time, it is also filled with examples of women who were incredibly powerful. Mary Magdalene helped finance the disciples. Priscilla authored the Letter to the Hebrews. Lydia ran her own business. Bathsheba was the deciding factor in which son inherited David’s throne. Esther saved her entire nation. Judith actively fought for Israel. When compared to the actions of so many women in Scripture, the statement that wives should submit to their husbands feels almost like a throwaway concession to the culture of the times.
Exodus 21: 2–3, 20, 26–27, Deuteronomy 21:10–14
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything….If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money…Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result…An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.”
“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”
Slavery is a stain on the history of the world. Modern peoples know this. That said, slavery has been around almost as long as warfare. It began with early tribes going to war with each other and the victorious tribe realizing that if they took a few people captive instead of slaughtering them all, there would be more hands to grow crops and more women to bear children. This was a fabulous idea in the victor’s mind, and so slavery was born.
For millennia, slavery was simply an accepted part of life. Until only 300 or so years ago, no one seriously believed that the practice of slavery could or would ever come to an end. As such, the Bible never explicitly condemns slavery. Such a statement would have made no sense to the people who were meant to read it. Scripture does, however, lay out what are acceptable actions towards slaves.
Exodus 21 makes it clear that slave owners were expected to treat their slaves decently. They could not beat them to death or severely injure them. Parents were also not allowed to sell their children into slavery for the rest of their lives. Instead, Hebrew slaves were to act as indentured servants, and women were to be treated more like wives than slaves.
Similarly, Deuteronomy 21 lays out the proper treatment for women who are carried away after war as captives and slaves. Modern people would recognize this as potentially a fate worse than death, but compared to what women could expect if they were captured by other ancient peoples, the Israelites were positively soft-hearted. A captive woman was not to be treated as a sex slave but as a wife, and she could not be sold as a slave if the man slept with her. Compared to what happened to captive women both at the time and in the later Roman and Islamic empires, the Israelites were bafflingly kind to their captives.
The Bible is sometimes viewed as being outdated, but the verses that give so many people trouble were actually revolutionary for their time. When placed in context, even the harshest of verses come to resemble the statements of mercy, justice and kindness that so many people expect when they open the Good Book. One simply has to let go of the habit of judging ancient peoples by standards that would not be developed until long after they were dead and gone.