Monday, September 30, 2013

Deuteronomy: Keep Your Eye on the Real Victim

Welcome once more to my Bible blog! We find ourselves today deep in the midst of Deuteronomy, where Moses is spilling out an interminable speech on the laws the Hebrews are supposed to hold when they come to the promised land. In the last post there were some real doozies, and I don’t think today’s installment is going to disappoint on that front either. So let’s jump in, shall we?

So, how does one follow up a legal requirement to stone disobedient children to death? Well, Moses does it with an instruction that, if you put a man to death for a crime and hang him from a tree, you shouldn’t leave him hanging there into the next day. He should be taken down and buried in the same day, because “a hanged man is cursed by God,” and they shouldn’t defile their land by leaving hanged corpses dangling around.

Then we get a random collection of seemingly unrelated laws that include: requirement to return your neighbors lost possessions and livestock if you happen to find them, declaration that cross-dressing (by man or woman) is an abomination to God, a requirement that if you come across a bird tending its young or eggs in a nest you can take the eggs/young but must leave the mother, a requirement to put parapets around the roof of your house so people can’t fall off, prohibitions on sowing your fields with more than one type of seed, using an ox and a donkey together to pull the same plow, or wearing cloth of linen and wool mixed together, and a requirement to hang tassels on the corners of your garments.

From there, Moses moves on to some laws about sex, so you just know there’s some controversy to be mined here. And it starts off immediately with laws about the virginity of brides.

If a man marries a woman, and on their wedding night decides that he doesn’t think she’s really a virgin and accuses her of such, her parents are supposed to provide proof that she was. Apparently (although the Bible dances around the subject and doesn’t really explain clearly) this proof is supposed to consist of showing that the bedsheets have blood on them from her losing her virginity to her husband. If they can provide the proof, then the husband must be whipped and pay a fine of 100 shekels of silver. You know who he pays the fine to? The father of the girl he falsely accused. Oh, and he has to keep the girl as his wife and never divorce her.

If the parents can’t provide proof of their daughter’s virginity (and new flash: not every woman bleeds the first time she has sex), you know what happens to the girl? She gets stoned to death.

Yeah, remember that law earlier about how the accusation of a single witness can’t be enough to convict someone, and that other law that false witnesses are supposed to receive the punishment that the falsely accused person would have received? Apparently those laws don’t apply when it’s a man accusing a woman. But leaving aside the bullshit hypocrisy just within the structure of their own laws, let’s think a moment about what this really means.

If the man is in the wrong, he just committed a crime (bearing false witness) that could get a woman killed. He gets whipped, the victim’s father gets rewarded with silver, and the victim herself is punished by being forced to remain married to the man who tried to kill her. On the other hand, if the woman was in the wrong, she has committed a “crime” that harms no one in any demonstrable way, and she gets killed for it. There is no justice here.

But that’s not the end of it. Let’s move on and see what other gems of compassion and wisdom God’s prophet had to lay down regarding sex and immorality.

If a man has sex with a married woman, both are to be put to death.

If a man rapes a betrothed woman in the city, and she doesn’t scream loudly enough to bring help, they will both be stoned to death. Because I just guess they assume that if nobody heard her scream she must have been willing, and therefore committing adultery, and of course no rapist has ever used force and/or threats to keep his victim silent.

But if a man rapes a betrothed woman in the countryside, then it’s assumed that she cried for help and nobody was there to hear, so only the man will be put to death. Although this raises the question: if no one was there to hear her cry for help, who was able to witness the crime? After all, by law the woman’s word alone (as only a single witness) can’t be good enough to convict the rapist.

And finally, if a man rapes a woman who isn’t married or betrothed, then he has to pay her father fifty shekels of silver, marry her, and never divorce her. Because nothing makes up for victimizing a woman in the most intimate way possible like legally victimizing her for the rest of her life.

But then, it’s pretty clear that in the eyes of Moses and his God, if you rape an unmarried girl, the real victim was her father because of the economic loss in reducing her value to be sold as a bride.

And aside from the highly questionable assertion that it’s even remotely just to put people to death for having sex, think about the implications. Got fifty shekels to spare and a hankerin’ for a girl who won’t give you the time of day? Just rape her, and she’s yours for life! These laws are fucking sick.

Oh, and to end this bit on sexual horrors, we get a low-key prohibition on sleeping with your father’s wife without specifying a penalty.

The next bit is about those “excluded from the assembly of Yahweh.” It’s not really explained precisely what that means, and I haven’t turned up a lot online that seems to really agree about it either (not that I searched all that hard – if the Bible can’t be clear enough to stand on its own, I see little reason to care what anyone else has to say about what it means either). But I’m sure it meant some kind of second-class status for these people. And the excluded people are: eunuchs, anyone born from a forbidden union and any of their descendants (like… all the Israelites, who I remind you are all descended from the son Abraham fathered on his own sister), Ammonites and Moabites (these last two, the Israelites are actually forbidden to make peace with or give aid to forever). Edomites and Egyptians are allowed to enter into the assembly after three generations (three generations of what, I don’t know… intermarriage with Israelites, and/or worshipping Yahweh perhaps?).

The bits about descendants of forbidden unions, as well as Ammonites and Moabites, both include “unto the tenth generation” as a qualifier, but then one tacks on a “forever,” as well, so I’m not certain whether that means the condition follows for literally ten generations, or whether the phrase “unto the tenth generation” is supposed to be a euphemism for a status that follows all descendant generations for all time. Regardless, it’s still just an example of penalizing people for stuff that other people did, which is kinda bullshit.

Next on the legal agenda are some rules of warfare, in which the Israelites are instructed to “keep themselves from any evil thing” when encamped for war. Note that “any evil thing” does not include genocidal wars of aggression, but rather nocturnal emissions and failure to bury your feces outside the camp. Apparently this is done because the war camp is supposed to be a holy place where God walks among them, so they don’t want him to see anything indecent and turn away from them in the face of their enemies. I imagine God’s “turning away” bears a striking resemblance to dysentery, which is the usual result of leaving piles of open sewage inside your camp.

Following the Bible’s usual organizing principle of “whatever floated through the author’s mind at the time,” we then move onto another random collection of seemingly unrelated pronouncements. So there’s a prohibition against returning escaped slaves to their masters (it’s kind of unclear whether they just mean slaves who have escaped foreign masters and fled to Jewish lands, or if this is just a general prohibition against returning any escaped slave to any master even among Jews), followed by a prohibition against Jewish men or women becoming cult prostitutes or using any prostitute’s wages to make payments to God’s temple, then a restriction against charging interest on loans to other Jews (while explicitly allowing interest to be charged to foreigners). Then we get an instruction to fulfill any vows to God quickly because failing to fulfill them is a sin, whereas simply never making any vows is not. And then there’s permission to eat as much food as you like from your neighbor’s fields, so long as you don’t try to carry any extra away (yeah, because there’s no way that law could bite anyone in the ass).

Anyway, I could go on with more of the random brilliance that characterizes God's law, but this post is getting long and random pronouncements get to be boring as all get-out. So we’ll call this a stopping point, and I’ll leave you to get on about your day while I figure out how to approach the next post.

Hope all is, and continues to be, well with you!

No comments:

Post a Comment