Tough Passages #11: Capital Overreaction? (Deuteronomy 22 and Leviticus 20)

In “Tough Passages,” we’re looking at the difficult verses in the Bible that are often brought up by secular people as reasons the Bible doesn’t make sense, and discovering how they actually reveal the character, love, and glory of God in a beautiful way.  For October, we looked at a very difficult passage about new moms and their baby daughters.  This month, we’re moving on to two much more deadly passages.

First passage:

The Verse

But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 22:20-21, ESV

The Secular Response

In order to enforce a rule like this, we’d need to have regular “Hymen Checks” at churches, but we don’t, because we’re human beings and we’re trying to live in a little thing called “society.”

Ivana Wynn, ranker.com

Our Reply

First, let’s correct a couple of misunderstandings.

  1. This passage is not devoid of context. This comes as a part of a series of laws about a man who wants to divorce his wife; in the first section, it lays out penalties for a man who lies about his wife in order to “lawfully” divorce her and leave her destitute and unsupported—something that would have been possible, with no questions asked, in other cultures. As with other tough passages, this one actually provides unheard-of protection for women, not weighty penalties for them.
  2. This law doesn’t unilaterally apply to all women at all times, so Ivana’s idea for a hymen-gestapo wouldn’t work. It only applies to married women or betrothed women who are entering an oath of marriage amid lies about their sexual past.

Both of these points are very important to recognize: the context in which a woman would be stoned for not being a virgin according to this verse is very specific: First, the woman must be married or betrothed to a man. Second, he must believe that she is concealing her sexual misdeeds from him, implying that she will cheat on him again in the future. Third, he must be right.

As with the Mosaic law about divorce, though, it’s possible that this law was put in place to protect a woman from being stoned just because her husband wanted to save face but didn’t want to be married to her anymore.

And while women who actually did commit adultery would still be stoned under this statute, it’s important to note that it would only happen if she were lying to her future sexual partner about the sex she had been having in the past, putting him on the hook for another man’s child, or even for sexually-transmitted diseases.

There’s another important component here, and it concerns the parents. But first let’s look at the other half of today’s double-header:

The Verse

For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.

Leviticus 20:9, ESV

The Secular Response

The context of this forgotten rule is all part of Christianity’s established hierarchy, which gives parents absolute power over their children, and all men power over women. So if you’re a father, you really have more power than pretty much everyone on earth except God.

Ivana Wynn, ranker.com

Once again, Ivana skips over some very important context on her way to talking about this verse. This passage isn’t just about children, it’s about the entire family interaction; and particularly about parental responsibility. In the verses preceding this passage, God prohibits parents from sacrificing their children to false gods. In addition, in the clarification of this law in Deuteronomy, it notes that this is not a unilateral, instantaneous murder of the child by the father in the house. Instead, the child must be brought to trial.

This is crucial to understanding. The child that must be put to death is not just a five-year-old who says “no!” when his parents ask him to take out the trash. It’s an older child who is rebellious and seeks to disrupt society itself with his rebellion. The child that must be put to death is a criminal before society.

This double-feature of verses seems to apply a massive overreaction: demanding death in the event that someone violates seemingly-minor laws. But they are actually charges to parents to be accountable for their children, even after they’re grown. The fact that the cheating woman in the earlier passage is to be stoned at the door of her parents’ house.

Ivana, parents aren’t given power over their children. They’re charged with responsibility for their children. It’s a sobering and challenging task that they undertake, and there’s always the possibility that they might have to oppose their kids someday, officially, in order to save them or to keep them from endangering others. We don’t have the responsibility to stone them today, but we do have the responsibility to watch them.

And it informs God’s interactions with His people, too. Like a father, He is sometimes responsible for dealing with a rebellious child; sometimes, that means putting them to death for the safety of others. That’s not something He does with glee; it’s something He does with a heavy, grieving heart.

• • •

Next month, we’re looking at a tough passage that might uncover a secret war between men and women.

Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture; we hope you stick with us. If this isn’t a satisfying answer to you, please comment below. I’d love to talk it out.

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