Before I must get ready for church this afternoon, I would like to briefly examine the application of a particular law concerning the honor and virtue of young women, which places an explicit price on that honor to be paid by dishonorable seducers. Rather than being seen as barbaric ways of considering women property, laws like this ought to be seen as putting a value on the honor of a young woman by making it expensive to violate.
Exodus 22:16-17 reads: “If a man lies with a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins.” The price of seduction in ancient Israel, and any biblical law-abiding society, is very high (possibly prohibitively so). A parallel scripture, Deuteronomy 22:29, gives an idea of just how high this price was: “If a man finds a young woman who is not a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.” Fifty shekels is not an insignificant price, the price of the threshing floor where David offered sacrifices to God on the Temple Mount (2 Samuel 24:24).
Let us examine precisely what this law does and why its contemporary enforcement would be a great discouragement to fornication. First of all, the high cost of taking someone’s virginity, some 200 days of labor (roughly a year’s worth of free labor) is a discouragement even to hot blooded young men. Can you imagine having to work for free for an entire year because you wanted to seduce some attractive young woman, and the money going to a father who could then decide if you were good enough or not for his little princess, and that whether or not he approved of you, you were free labor anyway? One only makes that mistake once in your life.
When one adds to this the provision that a wife gained in such a dishonorable fashion cannot be divorced for the rest of her life, but must be cared and provided for because of the way in which she was humbled, that puts a very high price indeed on his folly (and, presumably, hers as well). After all, both the man and the woman are prevented from exploring other options–they both got into this mess and they are both stuck, for life, with the consequences they have made. That sort of “life sentence” provides a very heavy lesson about the repercussions for our behavior, and would greatly minimize the sort of profligate fornication we see around us in our world today, if the law were equitably enforced.
I first took an interest in this law, admittedly somewhat arcane, as a result of seeing numerous female friends of mine that I knew from church humbled in various ways from seducers. It has bothered me (and my Scottish sense of fairness) that while I am single, there are young men who have gained wives as a result of seduction and pregnancy and a resulting shotgun marriage, with young women I personally know. There are other young women who, as a result of intimacy at a very young age, remain deeply tied to unworthy young men as a result of the strength of that first time. All of this is deeply offensive to me, especially as it appeared that these young men got all the benefits of beautiful and loving wives and girlfriends without seeming to suffer any consequence of their sin.
But the Bible does have a price, a very heavy one, and gives the father of the young woman the authority of whether to accept the seducer as a husband for his daughter or not. I imagine this was to account for a few factors. For one, the young woman in question might seek to persuade her father to accept the man because she “really loves him.” For another, the father has to consider whether another man would propose marriage to his daughter knowing that she is not a virtuous young woman, and who as a consequence who would not have to pay a bride price to the father because of that lack of honor. If the father accepted the seducer as a son-in-law, he would have to find that despite the actions, the fellow was honorable enough to make good for his heavy debt (in the range of tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency) and be a worthy member of his family. If not, the father might have to accept the fact that no one else may ask for his daughter’s hand, and his family’s reputation would suffer as a result of the failure of the daughter to preserve her honor.
We must remember, as an aside to the above comment, that we are not talking about rape here, but seduction. A rape would result in the death of the rapist, and any sex between a man and a virgin that took place in the deserted countryside would be considered a rape. It is only sex “in the town” that was not found to be a rape that would be covered by this law at all. A young man was taking his life into his hands when getting involved in a premarital relationship with a young woman–his life could be forfeit if he was lacking in wisdom and discretion (Proverbs 7:6-27). However, a young woman who seduced a young man would be publicly dishonored as well and would be stuck with him as a wife, if her father accepted. The stakes were pretty heavy on all sides for this act.
And that is precisely how it should be. Sin has a price–and that price isn’t always immediate death, even under the law, but is sometimes a lifetime of consequences. By having everyone pay a lifelong price, such sin was strongly discouraged. Young men would not be quick to seduce young women for a year’s worth of free labor and not having the freedom to divorce her if things turn out poorly. A young woman would not want to be publicly humiliated as a whore and be unable to divorce her husband because of a foolish attachment she made in her youth. A father would not want the reputation of his family to suffer as a result of the dishonor of his daughter, but would still receive the price of honor anyway, meaning that people could not use seduction to lower the price of marrying brides. The end result is a more continent society, understanding the high price of behaving dishonorably, and acting accordingly.