Today I would like to do something that is a bit unusual, and that is to provide a detailed examination of obscure biblical law that deals with marriage under less than ideal circumstances, and how it was that biblical law dealt with the matter of fornication. It should be noted at the outset that as far as I am aware, this law is nowhere enforced, and looking at our present society, even though this law is not enforced at present and has not been for a considerable time, the law concerning the bride-price of virgins is one that has a lot to say about matters of justice that are extremely relevant to our contemporary society. Given that this is an unusual message about an unusual subject, I will explain the approach of legal scholarship that we will take in examining this law today. First I will discuss the law as it appears in both Exodus and Deuteronomy and translate its terms and conditions into modern cost equivalents. Then I will look at the law in its context and draw out conclusions from other biblical laws that are in the same family of laws to this one. After that I will discuss the implications of this law for all of the parties involved, namely fathers, daughters, and potential sons-in-law, as well as the protection that the law offers to all of these parties. Finally, I will discuss the relevance of the law to our contemporary age, even if the law remains a dead letter at present. With that said, let us begin.
We find the law concerning the bride-price of virgins in two locations in the law. The first reference of it comes in Exodus 22:16-17. Exodus 22:16-17 is part of the Law of the Covenant, so this was among the first laws given to Israel after the ten commandments and is an expansion of the biblical prohibition on adultery and/or theft. It 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.” Let us note that upon this first telling of the law that the price is not specified, but simply set as the normal bride-price. The law is repeated with additional details in Deuteronomy 22:29. This law was given to Israel just before they entered the promised land. And Deuteronomy 22:29 reads: “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.”
When we put both of these laws together, we get the following picture. A man seduces a woman, perhaps a young woman, and the two of them are found out, perhaps because the girl is pregnant. The boy or man responsible for seducing her is forced to pay the bride-price for her, and it is the father of the young woman who gets to decide whether or not to accept him as a son-in-law or not. If the father decides to accept the man, despite his obvious folly and lack of character, as a son-in-law, the husband and wife are forbidden from divorce for all of their days, but are bound to each other for life. If the father chooses not to give his daughter as a bride, the rejected suitor must still pay the bride-price for having seduced the daughter, and it is very possible that she will never marry given the reluctance of people to marry someone of such easy virtue and lack of firm character herself, to say nothing of the loss of reputation that the whole family will suffer as a result of the poor character of one of their daughters–a problem that was felt at least as late as the 19th century if Jane Austen novels can be believed, even if it is a problem that seems remote to us in our own times.
This particular law does not exist in isolation, but rather it exists as part of a family of laws that deal with presumably young women in vulnerable circumstances and the protection given to them regarding marriages in less than ideal situations. Since we are already in Deuteronomy, let us turn forward one chapter to Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and read about the law concerning female prisoners of war. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 reads: “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.” Here again we see a woman who has been sought as a wife in less than ideal circumstances as a prisoner of war. Rather than sanctioning the rape and exploitation of such women, the Bible offers strong protection to such women, in that they cannot be sold after they have been taken as a wife, and cannot be abused, but rather must be treated with respect and consideration because of the dishonorable conditions in which such wives were obtained.
Let us now return to the Law of the Covenant to look at another case of marriage under less than ideal circumstances in Exodus 21:7-11. Here we are dealing with a case where a young woman has been purchased as a concubine for a man or his son, and the law has special protections for young women in such circumstances. Exodus 21:7-11 reads: ““And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.” We can see from these things that young women purchased as concubines because of the poverty of their families were still required to be fed properly, be fully clothed, and to have marriage rights of continued sex with husbands, even if the husband took another wife as well, which would prove to be expensive for someone. If these were not given, regardless of the price that had been paid for her, she was free to leave and return to her father’s home or to marry someone else without owing a thing.
All of these laws suggest that the Bible was aware of the problem that many men would seek to avoid their responsibilities unless the law forced them to obey. If the Bible is far from a feminist document, it has no illusions about the conduct of men and goes out of its way to protect women who are in vulnerable positions from being exploited by men. A woman who had been seduced by a man and lost her virtue, as was said in the gold old days, was not to be cast aside but her seducer was forced to pay a bride-price for her, assuming, of course, that he was viewed as a seducer and not a rapist (more on that shortly). The same protections for seduced women are present, as we have seen, in the similar protections given to women who were married as prisoners of war or who were purchased as concubines for oneself or for one’s son, as these women were all assumed to be in a vulnerable position and in need of protection. Our current efforts at forcing baby daddies to pay child support to support children from previous relationships is at least a shadow of the laws spoken of here, though only a pale shadow that represents that fornication and sexual intimacy have a price that must be paid for by someone, and should be paid for by the people responsible for the existence of such children whenever possible.
We might think that being forced to marry a girl or woman that one had seduced was making it easy on the man involved, but we should remember that the law forcing the young man to pay the bride price was the best case scenario for him when it came to cases of seduction. If the young man decided to take advantage of a young woman in a deserted wilderness place where no help could be found, it was assumed that he had raped her and was therefore worthy of the death penalty. Deuteronomy 22:25-27 makes this plain. Deuteronomy 22:25-27 reads: ““But if a man finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter. For he found her in the countryside, and the betrothed young woman cried out, but there was no one to save her.” Where it was not possible for a young woman to find someone willing to stand up in her defense, the male involved was assumed to be a rapist and was put to death, and the young woman was not punished at all since it was assumed that she was blameless and innocent. This would obviously mean that no man would be willing to be involved with a woman in a place where he could not call upon others to be witnesses to his good conduct, since in a place where he said she said was the case it was assumed that he was guilty of rape and therefore worthy of being put to death. It would not take too many cases of this being enforced before wilderness and remote places would be entirely safe for young women from Israelite men who wanted nothing to do with being put to death for such an offense.
We should also note that 50 shekels for a bride price was not an insignificant price. For one, it was the price that David paid for the threshing floor on the temple mount where Solomon’s temple and later Herod’s temple and the Dome of the Rock would be built. In addition to that, 50 shekels was the value of 200 days of unskilled agricultural labor. Depending on what we account as the wages for farm workers, the modern equivalent would be in the range of $10-20,000, or the price of a decent vehicle. This was not an insignificant price. If the young man or his family was unable to pay this debt, the man could be sold into indentured servitude for up to six years to pay off the debt to the family, per Exodus 22:3. Given the fact that the woman was protected and the interests of the family were protected in that the bride price had to be paid regardless of whether the father accepted the potential son-in-law or not, it is relatively easy to see that the honor of the woman and the family was being protected through this law. But how was the interest of the man being protected?
It might seem strange that we would consider the interest of a seducer and possible predator to be important, but God’s concerns about well-being extend far beyond the limits of our own sympathies. So far what we have seen has been a heavy price for the men involved in this seduction. If they managed to avoid being put to death for rape, they were forced to pay a heavy bride-price and might not even manage to obtain a wife through the means of seduction, which would make seduction a poor courtship strategy for the single man, and a very expensive one. Why does the law protect his interests, which we might consider to be unimportant? One of the biggest differences in the legal system of the Bible and in our own is that our present society believes that offenders have a fictitious debt to society that must be paid through imprisonment, while the Bible viewed offenders as owing a real debt to victims that must be paid through restitution or retributive justice. But once that debt was paid, it was paid in full, and reconciliation could take place. One of the reasons why it is hard for reconciliation to happen so often between us is that there is no sense of accounts being set to right, but in the biblical law, sin carried with it very specific penalties, and the paying of the price of those penalties made it clear that one was committed to owning up to one’s actions and making the best of bad situations, and could be responded to with some degree of trust by others. It was not only the honor of the seduced girl or woman that the man was paying for, but his own honor as well.
There are still other ways that a man was protected through this law. The law that forbade him from divorcing a wife obtained through seduction all the days of her life also of necessity prevented him from being divorced all the days of his life. And this is not an insignificant protection to him, after he had been assessed the bride price. After all, if it is not hard to recognize that a young woman might find it hard to find decent marriage prospects given that she had shown herself to be vulnerable to seduction, and, with her bride price paid, would attract a downmarket group of suitors who were normally unable to pay for the bride price but would be presumably more willing to marry a woman for free, the man involved in such situations could have serious issues as well. Again, a man who had a reputation for being a seducer and a predator of vulnerable women would likely find dating and courting opportunities rather thin on the ground, and news that someone had been forced to pay for a seduction and had not even obtained a wife out of it would considerably harm someone’s reputation as a decent and honorable gentleman in a gossipy village or small town. Even the knowledge that someone had obtained their wife through paying the price of seduction might hinder someone’s reputation for years, as this sort of thing tends to hang around someone for a long time. We might not care about these things, but God did.
The result is that the laws of God make it so that everyone’s interests coincide in the same conduct. Restraint of sexuality to that between a husband and a wife worked out the best for everyone involved, leading to the least costs to one’s income and reputation and the best possible start to a relationship. Even so, God’s laws did provide a way that people in less than ideal circumstances would have their interests protected, so long as they acted in ways that worked out for others. So long as people were willing to behave in a decent and honorable fashion, the law would end up working out alright. Even those who behaved less than perfectly at least had the chance to have a working relationship that would help teach them restraint and virtue and provide them an opportunity for an honorable married relationship in which character could be built, even from less than stellar beginnings. And it was ultimately in the best interests of all that the interests of all should be respected and considered in the just enforcement of biblical law. All of us suffer when men and women and when parents and children are pitted against each other, and we all benefit when we can all see the justice in the laws and in how they are enforced and in how they protect everyone.
How is this all relevant to us? Obviously, this law is not enforced in our present age, and we see the rampant lack of restraint that comes when the law no longer serves to restrain the longings and desires of people who clearly are willing to satisfy their hungers through doing things the wrong way rather than to be unsatisfied. And given the widespread hostility to anything that sanctions people for sexual offenses in our present society it seems unlikely in the extreme that such a law will be enforced anytime soon. Even so, this law has a lot to provide us if we will look at the law and ponder how it is that the law is structured to ensure the interests of all parties are met. To the extent that we deal with other people, we can ensure more just outcomes by reflecting on and acting on the interests of all parties involved. The more parties whose interests are heard and respected in our efforts at mediation and resolving and overcoming conflicts and disagreements and dealing with unpleasant scenes, the better we will be able to demonstrate ourselves as just and fair-minded people who can actually seek to lower the level of conflict and disagreement that can be found around us in our families or in our congregations or in our workplaces, or even within our communities at large.