Gluppit the prawling strangles, there (elettaria) wrote in bible_as_lit,
Gluppit the prawling strangles, there

Women and pollution in the Bible

I'm currently attempting to read through the Bible, something I've been meaning to do for years. I do a half-hour stint every morning while perched in front of my lightbox, using my lovely New Oxford Annotated Bible which people here recommended. (For certain values of "every".) At the moment I'm half-way through Deuteronomy, and something has just struck me.

There's a passage in Deuteronomy 22 when penalties for rape and illicit sex are imposed. If a man marries a woman and goes off her when he sleeps with her, all is dependent on whether or not there's a stain on the sheet to prove her virginity (a myth for which there is no medical evidence, as the NOAB tartly points out). If there is, he gets a fine and a bad reputation, but has to stay married to her; if there isn't, she gets stoned. If a couple are caught in adultery, both get stoned. If a man rapes an engaged woman in the town, they both get stoned (she because she didn't scream for help, "and the man because he violated another man's wife. You must purge the evil from among you"); if it's in the country (i.e. no one could hear her scream) then only he dies. If a man rapes an unengaged woman, he must marry her and pay her father a fine. Many of these end with "you must purge the evil from among you", or however it's translated (NIV was the best I could find online at my usual site). From Deuteronomy 20, if a man fancies a captive woman, he must give her a month to mourn her parents then marry her, he can't enslave her.

I read this without thinking about it much because I'm up to my eyes in early modern lit at the moment and quite used to women being seen in this way, forced marriages, insane paranoia about cuckoldry, and rape being viewed as a property crime. On thinking about it further, what has really struck me is the sense of extreme pollution concerning that delicate and peculiar construct, female chastity. It's something which continues to echo through literature - look at Fletcher's The Tragedy of Valentinian, for instance, when a woman who's clearly protesting strongly is raped by the Emperor, and as soon as her husband realises he immediately assumes she'll kill herself, which she promptly does - but I've never seen it so strongly expressed in this way. There was a footnote somewhere earlier in Deuteronomy commenting that adultery is seen as not only a crime against the husband but a crime against God, which is why it incurs the death penalty and causes ritual pollution, so maybe it's just that. But it does seem extreme. If there's the slightest hint that a woman may have indulged in pre-marital sex, the entire community is polluted by "evil" and she has to be stoned to death? It's all the stranger because Deuteronomy 19:15 declares that, "One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offence he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses", and ancient Jewish law is generally very careful about such matters. Thoughts, anyone?

ETA: I know I mentioned Jewish law at the end, but I'm actually talking about ancient biblical practices and how they've influenced Western society, not about what ended up in Jewish law, which is an entirely different matter.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic