By Matt Lefebvre




In the first article I wrote on The Relevance of the Old Testament, I mentioned the difficulty that many people, both Christian and non-Christian, have with some of the laws of the Old Testament.  I also spoke briefly about the perception that the Old Testament was written so long ago that it would have little to no relevance in society today.  Well, it is not hard to see how these two lines of thought meet in the issue at hand; namely, the treatment of women in the Old Testament.  The fancy adjective that Richard Dawkins uses to describe God in his well-known name-calling paragraph in The God Delusion is “misogynistic” (p.51), which denotes a person who hates women.  Other New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, echo this condemning attitude toward the commands of God concerning women.  On the one hand, I am surprised to see the accusation of God hating a specific gender, because pronouncements of God’s love throughout the Bible are not gender-specific, including the most famous one from John 3:16 saying, “For God so loved the world…”  On the other hand, it does not surprise me that many would be troubled by Old Testament laws, because of the all-too-common method of biblical interpretation that involves reading modern society into ancient texts.  As I explained in the introductory article in this series, the law was never meant to be the perfect ideal for all time, but was meant to train the people of God who would eventually find the fulfillment of their history in Jesus Christ.  So in order to understand what relevance these laws have in our society today, we need to first understand the historical and literary context of the Israelite society back then.  Keeping in mind that God is working with a people group that is far from perfect, I intend to look at some of the difficult passages commonly associated with the picture of women in the Old Testament law by those critical of it.  In doing so, I hope to also demonstrate that God did not hate women, even drawing from unlikely sources.


After reading some of the Old Testament laws that have to do with women, our contemporary minds might automatically imagine a woman we know in that position and think how they would respond.  Though responses may vary, the fact that there are criticisms of these laws indicates that there is a body of significantly negative responses.  However, I hope an illustration can put things into perspective.  My sister recently gave birth to a 9 pound baby and gained 60 pounds during the process.  She is still trying to lose that weight and as a result, is very careful about what she eats.  Now I am certainly not the most caring person, but I have my moments, and sometimes I like to just buy something for people.  Last week I decided to buy chocolate for everyone who was then at my sister’s house, and everyone else appreciated it, but lo and behold, my sister did not.  Why?  Well, in spite of the fact that she would love some chocolate under normal circumstances, at this time, offering her chocolate was insensitive to her desire of losing her pregnancy weight.  This is not to say that the situations I am about to discuss are ideal, but I intend to put some things in perspective.  In assessing how women were treated, it is important to consider not only the situations themselves, but also what they would mean to the women involved.  In doing so, I will look at issues that have given rise to considerable criticism of the Old Testament in general and the law in particular.  It is beyond the scope of this article to go into great depth on every issue, but I will try to bring the above mentioned perspectives of what the law meant in the original context.  I will be looking at various Old Testament passages under three main headings, dealing with the issues of treating women as property, apparent inequality in regard to sexual morality, and polygamy.  In the first article in this series, I mentioned that the law was not meant to be perfect, but I also said that it was not always followed.  So in addition to considering the cultural context, we need to realize that the people in the Old Testament were not always the best representatives of what God intended.  Even if we consider that the Old Testament law was given in a time when societies were predominantly patriarchal and try to see how God was working for the advancement of Israel in this context, it still serves us to keep in mind that this proposed advance might have been totally ignored by some.  While it is the aim of this article to counter criticisms of the Old Testament law in regard to the treatment of women, I do not intend to defend how Samson (Judges 13-16) treated women, nor would I want to.  All I am trying to do is examine what God was doing in Israel’s history and how He was attempting to bring them closer, step by step, to His ideal.  The need for a law came about when humans first disobeyed (Genesis 3), and since then God has been working to bring them back to Himself.  I believe the pinnacle of this plan to be revealed in Jesus, but the incremental steps cannot be forgotten, nor treated as something they are not.  The law was in place to be a check against sin and not to be the saviour (see Galatians 3:19-26), so the law was a stepping stone to something greater.  However, in examining the following issues, I would like to point out not only that the law does not convey a general hatred toward women, but also that the law represented a significant advance when compared with the culture of the ancient Near East.


To the victor go the spoils?


Now it may be that some of the problems I intend to discuss were not thought of as problems before.  What I mean by that is, thinking back to my observations in Relevance of the Old Testament-Lest We Forget, many people (including Christians) do not read the Old Testament, and if they do, they do not read it very thoroughly.  In fact, I used to be one of those.  I read through the Old Testament, but did not think too deeply about the implications of much of it.  As much as I recommend considering these implications, some of them can be initially troubling, so I would like to both bring these to light and also offer what I feel to be helpful explanations and contextualizations.  To illustrate a bit of what I am getting at, I will begin with, of all things, the Ten Commandments.  These are very well-known, but what is not so well-known is what the full 10th commandment says:


“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)


Though the focus is undoubtedly on not coveting, the discrete problem comes when people see a neighbour’s wife listed alongside houses, donkeys, and oxen, as if a wife was property just like “anything that is your neighbor’s.”  This concept is put together with the concept of the bride-price, which I will discuss below, and seen from a critical point of view as evidence that women were property under the complete control of men.  Could it be that wives were possessions rather than partners in marriage?

Well firstly, if that were to be the case, we would not be safe to infer this only from the wife appearing in the same list of other property; we would expect them to be treated as property elsewhere.  To explore an example, upon reading a couple chapters later in chapter 22, we find that a thief would need to repay for stealing property and even more, but this is not the case with a neighbour’s wife.  If a man is caught stealing his neighbour’s wife (as in committing adultery with her), then he would be put to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-25).  So not only is the wife not treated like property, but she is also protected from this intrusion on her marriage through this harsh penalty.

Secondly, as Paul Copan points out, in other cultures in the ancient Near East, “the mother was often under the control of the son.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.107).  By contrast, under the Law of Moses, children were to honour their father and also their mother, as found just a bit earlier in Exodus 20:12.  So the wife was a participating partner in the leadership of the household and not merely an object in the household.

Thirdly, contrary to false perceptions of the bride-price, women were not saleable items in Israel like houses, donkeys, and oxen (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.107).  It is to this issue, then, that we turn next.



The wording “bride-price” immediately brings back the image of the wife being property, as the critic would be quick to point out.  However, this is likely more due to how the word sounds than what it denotes.  An example of this would be Exodus 22:17, but I have decided to deal with this text in more detail below and will discuss the bride-price in a more general fashion.

First, according to Paul Copan, the word in question, “mohar”, is better translated “marriage gift” than “bride-price” and was more like a deposit to the bride’s father (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.117).  This was not an economic purchase of merchandise, but rather, the groom-to-be would show his devotion and commitment with this quite expensive gift.  To give some context, the ordinary bride-price was equal to 5 years of normal wages (John Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.195).  Far from reducing the woman to a mere possession to be bought and sold on a whim as if she meant nothing, the man expresses that she is quite different altogether from anything that could merely be purchased.  Though somewhat lost in western society, the man honours the woman’s family.  In doing this, he shows that he is not simply treating their daughter like a sexual object to be used to his liking and then discarded.  Marriage was for life and it was a commitment that was not easily abandoned, which would thus make it not lightly entered into.  The bride-price is the man’s show of good faith toward the family who is giving up their daughter to his care.  So the assumption of critics that “bride-price” equals “purchasing the bride” is not only incorrect, but the truth is that the woman is valued higher than in some modern states where divorce is all too common.  What I mean is that if marriage is taken lightly, divorce will likely be taken lightly as well.  By most accounts, divorce rates today are above 50% in North America.  There are also many who just do not get married any more, but the principle is the same: that they can just leave their partner when they feel like moving on.  However, handing over 5 years of wages to the bride’s family makes marriage not a light agreement and it was a way of bringing the two families together.

Second, a further point could be made about the bride-price not being what critics make it out to be.  It is not the act of buying a wife, because as large as the marriage gift was, the bride’s father would often give an even larger gift of property when they got married (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.117).  An example of this can be seen in 1 Kings 9:16, because when King Solomon and Pharaoh’s daughter were married, Pharaoh defeated an entire city and gave it to his daughter as a wedding present.  This was obviously not what every father-in-law would do, but it is a great example of how it was not a predominantly financial arrangement, but a covenantal agreement of honour and lifelong commitment.  A more modern example would be the dowry system in India in which the family of the bride-to-be gives money to the family of the groom-to-be.  As Paul Copan rightly exclaims, “Such a transaction hardly means that the groom-to-be is mere property!” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.117).  The point I am making is not to compare the modern Indian social status with ancient Israel, but merely to show an example of the tables being turned, revealing that if a man is not property in this dowry arrangement, we need to fully appreciate the meaning of the marriage gift.  Returning to ancient Israel, the bride price did not lower the status of a woman to be married, but rather, it elevated her as a person worthy of devotion, honour, and sacrifice.  This attitude, though not immediately evident in the next example, still comes through for women in a less-than-ideal situation.



Personally, I come from a nation that has not seen war in the way that other nations have, as in having war on their own soil, though Canada has been involved in some major conflicts in our short history.  However, in the ancient Near East, war was a way of life.  There was quite often struggles over territory or personal feud or different alliances, but whatever the reasons, the results were quite often the same.  There would be survivors among the non-combatants or prisoners of war, so what was to be done?  At first glance, the Israelite policy does not make it stand out like a shining light, but that’s why I do not like stopping after the first glance.


Deuteronomy 20:13-14 “And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.”

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails.  And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament 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.  But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. ”


I have written it before and I will write it again: the law was not meant to be perfect, but represents God working with sinful humans.  It would certainly be nice if everyone loved each other, had no disputes, and could beat their swords into plowshares in the ancient Near East (or anywhere for that matter), but this was very often just not the case.  War was a reality and war involves casualties, usually of husbands.  So it would happen that there would be a lot of women that would either be widows or unmarried with little to no prospects for marriage in the event of their nation losing a war.  Okay, so war was just the situation that they had to deal with, but in what manner was this situation handled in Israel?  We looked at 2 examples above in which what initially seemed to treat women as property actually turned out to give protection to women, but in listing women among the spoils of war, it almost looks like we are back at square one.

Well first of all, it should be pointed out that Deuteronomy 20:10-12 describes how the Israelites were to offer terms of peace and to attack only if the city makes war with them.  Thus, there was an effort on the side of Israel to avoid the sorrow of war.

Second, even in this less than perfect situation of killing men in battle, the soldiers are not to leave the women to fend for themselves.  They are given the opportunity to integrate into Israelite society, which is a luxury that men would not as readily get.  So in such an instance, women are actually in a greater position than men.

Third, though the making of a wife from a prisoner of war looks like the woman is a slave or still a captive, this is manifestly not the case.  The woman is the one who shaves her own head and cuts her own nails.  She is the one who removes the clothes of her captivity.  She is the one who mourns for her parents a full month.  This period of separation was meant to give her time to make a transition into a new life.  Then, most importantly, if the man is not pleased with his wife, he cannot sell her, like someone would do with a slave or some other spoil, like a possession, but he lets her go wherever she wishes.  So she can remain in Israel, being protected from mistreatment.

Fourth, another key contrast between the Law of Moses and other ancient Near Eastern cultures comes out through this protocol for female prisoners of war.  In ancient Near Eastern warfare, rape was a common feature, but the Israelite soldier could not quickly marry, let alone have sex with, a beautiful woman that might catch his eye (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.120-121).  So even in a dark situation like war, and where other cultures around them made a lust-driven exception, Israel did actually stand out as a shining light in how they valued women, striving to take care of them and not just use them, even in circumstances that were not ideal to begin with.



So even though the 10th commandment contains an awkward wording, the value of the wife is wholly differentiated from mere property.  Even though the “bride-price” has an equally awkward wording, the value it represents is honourable and not monetary.  Even though Israelites took female prisoners of war, they were still shown respect in making the best of a not-so-great situation.  As I said in the beginning, we need to consider more than just the action, but the meaning to the women.  It was a different time, which might make the culture foreign in some ways, but I believe the critic still has the burden of proof in establishing that these laws are what the criticisms purport them to be.  Thus, the wife is no more the property of the husband than the designation “her husband” means that the man is the property of the woman (ex. Deuteronomy 21:13); they belong to each other.  “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine…” (Song of Songs 6:3).


No means no?


Following along with the attempt of the critics to point out supposedly barbaric and inferior treatment of women in the Old Testament, issues surrounding some of the laws of sexual morality look initially promising.  In fact, there is a string of laws in Deuteronomy 22 that not only seem unfair to women, but the administration of the laws also appears to be almost arbitrary and insensitive.  Though these laws are grouped all together, I will examine them individually.


Deuteronomy 22:13-21 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate.  And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city.  Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.  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.”


At first, it might seem unnecessary to put the woman through this kind of humiliation, even considering that she is innocent in a particular case.  After all, even if a person is acquitted of something, it is still an embarrassing thing to be accused of something shameful.  However, let us take a look at what this law would prevent and what it would promote, and then evaluate the merits of it.

First, though it might be too obvious to mention, the law would prevent husbands actually making up false charges.  Of course, the aim of a law can be twofold: giving instructions on how to handle a certain situation, but also, making any would-be offender think twice before committing a crime with a harsh penalty; and this law has just that.  I mentioned above that the bride-price would be around 5 years of normal wages, but in addition to being whipped by the elders of the city for a false accusation, the amount the husband would have to pay to the bride’s father would be around 10 years of normal wages.  It would be given to the bride’s father and not to the bride, because the husband and wife would have joint assets and just as the bride-price was an honour to the bride and her family, shame would be not just against the woman, but also those who raised her to be the woman she is.  The payment would be a way of vindicating the honour of the family of the wife that had been slandered.  So this law is not only protection for the woman herself, but also for those closest to her.  If anything, it is a harsh commandment against the man and preservation for the innocent woman.

Second, in addition to preventing negative actions, it promotes positive actions.  It was very much in the best interest of both the woman and the man to keep themselves only for their spouse.  Evidence was taken to be a check against false charges, but also so that there may be honesty and purity in marriage.  Some might ask at this point why there is not a similar law for the husband, but the commands concerning the men, as will be seen in a moment, cover the same ground, albeit implicitly.  So it is not that there is a double standard, but just a different focus for the males.

Third, an easily overlooked fact is that the man was not permitted to divorce his wife in this situation.  This is a condition shared with only one other law, which will be discussed below, and it is actually not a privilege that every woman would get.  It is a privilege, because in that culture, the husband provided for the wife, so it was security and stability for a woman to have a husband.  In the present case, the woman would be taken care of as long as her husband lived.

Fourth, though some might say that in such a case, divorce might actually be better, but in addition to what I said about protection and provision, there is something else to be said about why this guy makes up charges in the first place.  As I explained above, the punishment is severe, and also that a huge deterrent to making up these charges is also the fact that there could be evidence to prove or disprove his claim.  It seems that his only hope is either that his accusation is somehow true, or that the evidence is somehow inconclusive or lacking.  By the way, the evidence was either bloodied bed sheets from the breaking of the hymen or rags from menstruation or some way to tell that she was not already pregnant before marriage (John Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.195).  In any case, it seems like he is taking a round-about way of separating from his wife, rather than just divorcing her.  Why would he do that?  Well, it is entirely possible that he did not have a good enough reason to merit an official divorce, which was demanded by the law in Deuteronomy 24:1.  So, whatever problem he had with her, it could conceivably be his issue, and thus, their marriage would by no means be irreconcilable.  Again, even though it is not a perfect situation, there is protection for the woman, punishment for the man, and opportunity for growth in their marriage, if indeed any man would try this in the first place with such a law in place.  Even though the law largely affects the woman if she is guilty, if she has not done anything wrong, it is really a law enforced against the man.  Indeed, as can be seen next, men certainly needed to be restricted.



In the following series of verses I only want to pick out one instance in which the woman seems to be treated unfairly, but it is best understood in the context of the other verses.  Though there are many things that have changed from the culture during the time of the Old Testament law until today, one thing that has not changed is that men are usually physically stronger than women, and can unfortunately be forceful at times.  As I said above, it is not that men get off more easily than women in regard to sexual morality, but it is simply that there is a different focus for this different group.  We saw above a law concerning punishment for female sexual immorality, but now we turn to regulations that deal largely with punishing sexually immoral men, though women are clearly involved.


Deuteronomy 22:22-27 “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.  If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.  But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.  But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.”


The first part has to do with adultery, in which both the man and the wife of another man are guilty.  The second part, the part that seems unfair and even a bit arbitrary, is about an engaged woman (which was as binding as actual marriage and could only be broken with a divorce) being lain with in the city, and both of them again being guilty, and the woman is somehow guilty of not crying for help.  The third part is directly connected to the second part, but this time, the engaged woman is violated in the open country, so now she is not guilty, but only the man.  Why does it make such a life-and-death difference where a woman is violated, or in other words, raped?  Well, I avoided the word rape in describing the cases earlier, because such a classification could actually depend on the location, strangely enough.

First of all, though, it is worth pointing out that in every case, the man is guilty and is punished, and there is no way for his actions to be vindicated.  This is also the case in the situation to be looked at below, but I am treating it separately, because it is a special case that needs to be understood for what it is and what it is not.

Second, a city in ancient times is not comparable to a city in modern times.  Today, it is conceivable that a woman may be raped in a city, cry her lungs out, and yet, still not be heard for various reasons, be the atmosphere too noisy, the walls too sound-proof, or some other hindrance to her voice meeting a friendly ear.  However, in the time when this law was written, a city could be as small as what might be considered a town, or even a village, by today’s reckoning, depending on where you come from.  A city would also commonly be walled in and not spread out over a large area.  This is important, because if the woman does cry for help in the city, she would be heard and those coming to her aid would be able witnesses to say that she was being forced to engage in sexual immorality.  If this is indeed the case, the law does not apply to her and only the male would be punished for his actions.  This law illustrates well how the law was not meant to be perfect for all time, because it was only relevant to those who lived in agreeable conditions.

Third, the engaged woman in the open country is given the benefit of the doubt that she did call for help, but there was sadly no one to help her out there.  As opposed to the law just above, it says explicitly that she was forced in this case, and that she did cry out, even though no one would have heard her to verify.  She is a victim and is not punished along with the criminal who violated her.  So these laws are against rape, and though they might appear arbitrary and unfair at first glance, further investigation reveals that the place did matter.  The guilty are punished, the innocent victims are not, and there is no impartiality based on gender.  If anything, it is the expectation of crime among men that is anticipated, and the issue among women involved is simply who was forced and who was not.

Maybe this is not news for you or maybe you do not have a problem with these laws, but whatever the case, I think a final point could be made to give further perspective on the ancient Near Eastern culture, before I move on to the most difficult issue in Deuteronomy 22.  Many people today believe that a person should be faithful to their partner, and even many who say they do not believe this would at least not want their partner to be unfaithful to them, which is revealing in and of itself.  The laws described promote this faithfulness through restrictions and punishments for indiscretions, but what do we find when we consider the other cultures of the ancient Near East?  According to Paul Copan, there were various activities permitted that undermined family integrity, such as having male and female cult prostitutes, allowing men to commit adultery with slaves and prostitutes, and allowing father and son to sleep with the same female slave or prostitute (In God is Great, God is Good, edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, p.142).  Again, it is not just that these things were common, but they were directly permitted in the law code!  As I turn to the last and most difficult of these laws, though it is by no means easy to explain, I still think it brings a responsibility for the care of women that was not present in these other cultures which I have just described.



The verses above show disdain for marital unfaithfulness and rape, but the verses to be discussed now do not immediately seem to do so.  It is almost as if the rest of the passage condemning sexual immorality finds a quiet exception, but I would still advise keeping that apparently contradictory context in mind in exploring this next difficulty.


Deuteronomy 22:28-29  “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.”


So the critic’s case is that this man can rape a virgin, and then instead of being punished, as in the other cases, the woman is to become his wife for the rest of his life.  What!?  A woman reading this could easily lose whatever respect she had for the Old Testament law as she imagines having to marry a man who had just recently raped her.  At this particular point, the critic appears justified in his rejection of the Old Testament as barbaric and dominated by men, but as usual, the original historical and literary context needs to be understood, no matter how irredeemable a text may seem.

First of all, in the immediate literary context, there is a difference between the two verbs describing what these men actually do, though it is not obvious in some English translations.  In Deuteronomy 22:25, described by me above as rape, the Hebrew verb used is “chazaq” which is rendered “seizes” in the ESV, which I have been using, but “forces” in the NASB and several other translations (It is also notable that this verb is not found in verses 23-24, where the girl is punished for being complicit in sleeping with the man).  In the ESV rendering of Deuteronomy 22:28, the word is also “seizes”, but the Hebrew is different.  The Hebrew word for “seizes” is “tapas”, a weaker verb than “chazaq”, which means “takes” or “catches” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.118).  This suggests that the former case is not like the latter, for if they were the same action, it would likely call for the same word.  In fact, this Hebrew word for “catches” is the same word used when Potiphar’s wife was trying to seduce Joseph: Genesis 39:12 “she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house.”  This hardly meant that Potiphar’s wife was raping Joseph, but that she was trying to be very persuasive.  Obviously, Joseph was able to exercise his volition and he rightly chose to say “No.”

Second, this scenario is even more plausible when we consider a parallel passage that had already been laid down in the law.


Exodus 22:16-17 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.  If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.”


So in addition to looking at the immediate literary context, in the passage itself, looking in the wider literary context, including other books, is also rather illuminating.  The passage in Exodus seems to be describing the same event, but simply divulges different details.  Here, the verb used is actually “seduces”, which is consistent with what was shown through the passage in Genesis 39.

Third, returning to the text of Deuteronomy 22, there is further support for the thought that the man is seducing the virgin and not raping her.  In verse 28, the discovery of what has happened is not indicated by saying “he is found”, but the text says “they are found.”, so both are culpable (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.119).

Do not get me wrong, it was definitely his idea.  However, it is not as if she is trying to fight this guy off and is just unable.  Though clearly pressured, she does not act against her will.  She was complicit in having sex with him, but had it been totally up to her, she probably would have remained a virgin until marriage.

Fourth, another addition found in Exodus is that there is a choice about whether the woman marries the man or not.  An argument from only the information in Deuteronomy might say that if a man wanted a wife, he could just lie with an unengaged virgin and she would be forced to become his wife.  However, from Exodus we learn that she did not have to marry the man, but that he would still have to pay the bride-price for virgins (another confirmation that it was not merely a purchase of merchandise, since he would not receive anything in return).  Some take issue with the fact that the text reveals that this is the choice of the father of the woman, but it is not all that it seems to be.  The father was the legal point person for his child (and Israelites would marry early, so she would likely have still been in her father’s house) and there is reason to think that the daughter would have a say in the process (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.119).  The father was economically responsible for his daughter until she was married, but she also contributed to the provision of the household by working (it was a predominantly agricultural society).  So, in getting married, a woman was leaving that behind and releasing her father from having to provide for and protect her, which was now taken on by the husband.  I have already discussed above that the wife is not the property of her husband and this would also go for her father in the previous era of her life.  The father is obviously involved, because he is the one who bears the responsibility if she is not taken as a wife by anyone, something which I will return to shortly.  However, the fact that the father is the one who gives her to the man does not mean that she is uninvolved in the decision.

Fifth, I have already mentioned the fact that women were taken care of by their husbands in this agrarian culture and I also brought attention to the controversy that might ensue over a woman who was not a virgin before her marriage.  As it happened, marriage to another man after a woman had been sexually compromised would be difficult, if not impossible (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.119).  Though she did not have to marry this particular man, she might want to.  Depending on how much she actually liked him and the thought of being taken care of (as long as he lived, mind you, which I will talk about below) might mean that she would actually want to marry this guy.  Keep in mind the example I gave at the beginning about my sister, that it is not just the action, but how it is received.

Sixth, like the case of the man who accuses his wife and she is innocent, the present case is one of two in which no divorce was permitted during the life of the man.  Not only would this bring responsibility on the man for his actions after they are done, but it would also serve as deterrent for these kinds of actions before they are ever committed.  In a round-about way, it actually promotes the view of women, because they are not allowed to be treated with disrespect and then just left alone for the rest of their lives.  If a guy thinks he can just take his fill of sexual pleasure and then hit the road like nothing happened, he is sorely mistaken.  Even if she does not marry him, he is still not off the hook, because he still has to pay (5 years of wages remember) as if she was going to marry him.  Modern pictures found on TV and in the movies depict a man spending the night with a woman and then she never hears from him again.  In real life, I have heard many heart-breaking stories of a woman getting pregnant and the man taking off, never to be heard from again.  This would not be the case in ancient Israel.  Granted, this is certainly not an ideal situation, for they would ideally be married and already committed to one another before engaging in sexual intercourse, but also presented is the opportunity for the man to redeem his mistakes.  So the woman is not simply a sexual object, but a life-long partner to be cared for and stood by.

Seventh, as hinted at above in the modern example, a child could result from their union, which would multiply the need for the woman to be married.  Again, though not ideal, being left alone would be even less ideal.  What was said above about responsibility applies doubly here.



In spite of how demeaning the law concerning the accusation may seem, the innocent woman ends up vindicated, while the man is punished.  In spite of how arbitrary and unfair the laws concerning where a woman was violated may seem, they show who is guilty; the man in both cases.  In spite of how awful the law concerning the marriage to the violator initially sounds, properly understood, it was both a culturally and ethically appropriate solution to a less than appropriate action.  As foreign as these concepts might be to modern ears, looking at them in context, they represent the protection of women and not their degradation.  In contrast to their ancient Near Eastern neighbours, proper sexual conduct was a high value in Israelite society.  They could even teach society today a thing or two about the responsibility to take care of and look out for women, as well as promoting that same responsibility in showing respect toward women and making every effort to keep the marriage bed as the only place of sexual relationship.  “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” (Song of Songs 2:7).


How many are too many?


Though I have not placed the appropriate noun in the title of this section, the question is referring to wives, and with it, the objection to the Old Testament law because it does not appear to condemn, and even seems to endorse, polygamy (having more than one wife).  This is an objection, because in addition to the fact that polygamy is now illegal in many places, it can also be seen to diminish the value of women.  Now, whereas above I have mostly attempted to bring in historical and cultural background to aid appreciation of how some of these negative sounding laws actually reveal value of and care for women, in the discussion of polygamy, I will attempt to show that polygamy is not actually the endorsement of the Old Testament law.  Using two texts that seem to allow polygamy and two texts that could be taken to prohibit it, I hope to present the case for the Old Testament not being favourable to a man having more than one wife.


Exodus 21:7-11 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.  If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her.  If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter.  If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.  And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”


This passage is hard to follow, because it uses a lot of the pronoun “he” without always specifying to whom the “he” refers.  However, the issue is that this master seems to be practicing polygamy without hindrance from this law, and maybe even with implicit permission from it.  The first thing to point out, though, is that this law is casuistic, or a case-by-case law, indicated by all the “if” clauses.  It is by no means saying that the state of affairs described is how God wanted it.  After all, compare clauses like “If a man steals an ox or a sheep…” or even from this article “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man…”  This hardly means that the situation is desirable.

Second, I have already written on what slavery meant in ancient Israel in The Relevance of the Old Testament-Is Slavery Biblical?, but concerning the father selling the daughter into slavery, a short summary could be helpful here.  To be a slave in Israel was not what modern images might bring to mind.  One of the reasons a person would become a slave was poverty and debt slavery was a way to work off a debt to someone.  It was also for a limited time, so the father is not selling his daughter into confinement forever, but into hired labour for a time.  It initially looks like normal rules do not apply to her, implying partiality, since it says she would not go out as males would, but this is not appreciating what is going on.  On the one hand, she could have been released to return to her father earlier than the customary 6 years, which in other circumstances applied to male and female servants.  It also says that she would be redeemed and would not be allowed to be sold to a foreign people, because the master did not treat the agreement adequately.  On the other hand, if she was to marry either the master or the master’s son, she would not be interested in freeing herself from the arrangement, because the arrangement would be marriage.  However, this is not the point that requires attention in this section and though there are others in regard to slavery, I would like to move on.  If you want to know more, you could read my other article.

Third, the first charge of polygamy is implicit in the fact that the master has a son, so he must have a wife in addition to the one he is now possibly marrying.  However, this is reading too much into the text, as Copan rightly points out.  He gives two other possibilities: either the man’s first wife could have died (which is not hard to believe, since the son is of marriageable age) or the man and his first wife were divorced (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.114).  The text simply does not say that the master is already married.

Fourth, the critic, though claiming implicit warrant for polygamy above, feels it is explicit when another wife is mentioned.  However explicit it might seem though, it does not follow from a careful reading of the text and an understanding of the translation issues.  This other wife is mentioned right after the condition about him not choosing the first woman as a wife and the condition about him designating her for his son.  So “another wife” is best taken, not as a wife “in addition to” the first woman mentioned, but “instead of” her (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.114).

Fifth, though the phrase “marital rights” seems to refer back to the master and his relationship with the first woman regarding conjugal rights, this need not be the best translation, because the problem with the word used for this (‘onah) is that it is only used once in the Old Testament.  Though it could mean marital rights, this is a guess, and Paul Copan suggests a more plausible rendering.  The root of the word is associated with the idea of habitation or dwelling (ma’on, me’onah), so the word in addition to food and clothing would be shelter, which makes perfect sense in the context (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.115).



Another passage that seems to allow for polygamy involves another casuistic or case law, so again, it is not as if this was God’s plan, but merely what to do if such a thing happened.  It also remains to be shown that, even though polygamy happened in the Old Testament, it was many times directly against the purposes of God.


Deuteronomy 21:15-17  “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his.”


First of all, this is not necessarily even an example of polygamy, much less permission for it.  Some scholars have suggested that the text does not state whether both wives are living, for the verb “has”, though indicative of the present in English, could still mean in Hebrew that the man remarried after the death of his first wife (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.116), which would be the unloved one.

Second, far from endorsing polygamy, this law recognizes the problems that arise when a man has more than one wife, whether they are living with him at the same time or not (considering the last point).  Immediately there is the problem that you might love one wife more than the other, and all the contention that would come with that in the household.  As Hank Hanegraaff rightly observes, “God’s disdain for polygamy is seen in its consequences.  The Old Testament clearly reveals the familial strife and temptations that accompany the practice.” (The Complete Bible Answer Book, p.147).  It also foresees how the husband would want to favour the son of his favoured wife, but he would not be free to do so.

Third, this was played out in other parts of the law and such instances only confirm the unfavourable nature of having more than one wife.  Genesis 16-17 (The beginning of the Old Testament law) describes how Abraham took a second wife, and not only was it contrary to the purposes of God, it created much tension in the household (see also Genesis 21:9-14).  Genesis 29-30 describes Jacob being tricked by Laban into having two wives.  We also see that Leah was unloved and Rachel loved, and the jealousy and competition that was thence created.  Two further wives were brought in, but only to further the sibling rivalry in seeing who could bring the most children to their husband.  This is in no way a picture of a happy, ideal household, and a great example of how the Law of Moses, though mentioning that polygamy happened, does not put it in a good light at all.  In fact, with regard to such sibling rivalry among wives, the Old Testament law does have a prohibition, if not more.



I have to be quite honest that I never thought of this next text as one that speaks against polygamy until it was brought to my attention in Is God a Moral Monster?, but after considering Copan’s argument, it made a lot of sense.  So, even though it might not seem like it from the English translation, I will endeavor to describe the Hebrew formulation in which it will hopefully make a lot more sense.


Leviticus 18:18 “And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”


Firstly, the literal translation designating the wife’s sister is “a woman to her sister”, and this phrase, along with “a man to his brother”, is used 20 times in the Old Testament and never referring to a literal brother or sister.  Instead, it is like saying “one in addition to another” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.113).  So this prohibition of adding a wife is not restricted to siblings, as the translation makes it seem at first glance.

Secondly, this text is regularly overlooked as a polygamy text, because it is located at the end of a string of anti-incest commands.  However, Copan points out that verses 7-17 of Leviticus 18 begin with the identical noun “the nakedness” (‘erwat) which leads into the command to not uncover it.  Then verses 18-23, of which the featured verse in the present discussion is first, begin with “And” (waw) and then a different word than nakedness (these formulations can be seen by looking at the Hebrew Old Testament).  The difference is that verses 7-17 deal with sexual relationships within kinship bonds and verses 18-23 deal with them outside of kinship bonds (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.113).  So 18:18 is not an anti-incest law, but is in fact speaking against getting a second wife.

Thirdly, the case is made stronger by the use of the adjective “rival” (sarar) in Leviticus, because the same root in noun form is used elsewhere (sarah).  In 1 Samuel 1:1-6, Elkanah is described as a man with two wives: Hannah, whom the text says he loved, and her “rival”, Peninnah.  Again we have the same words used and again the negative consequences are shown.  So it would seem that Leviticus 18:18 actually explicitly prohibits the taking of a second wife in addition to the first; an interpretation taken by the Qumran community, established in the 2nd century BC (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.113).



The title of this section asks how many wives are too many wives, and I would say that most who look at this next passage ask the same thing.  However, I do think it presents an implicit case against polygamy, especially in conjunction with other passages.


Deuteronomy 17:17 “And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. “


Well, first of all, it is hard to say what “many” entails, but it would seem as though it refers to at least several wives.  Kings would routinely have very many wives for various reasons; sometimes personal and sometimes political.  Whatever the case, the reason given for not doing this is that his heart might turn away.  It is not said “from what”, but the next three verses speak about the king having his own copy of the law and how he was supposed to learn to fear the LORD, that his heart might not be lifted up above his brothers.  So, based on this text alone, it seems that “many” would be enough to turn the husband’s heart, presumably away from the law.  Solomon is the textbook bad example in this case, having 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) who certainly turned his heart away from the commandments in the law.  However, it need not be that extreme to still be a problem, for his father David did not have so many wives, but he still had what could be described as many.  He had at least 10 concubines (2 Samuel 15:16) and at least 8 wives (2 Samuel 3:2-5, 14/11:27), and though tension could be seen between the wives before his last recorded wife was added, he would possibly have had trouble even if he only had one prior to the episode with Bathsheba, his last recorded wife.  Nathan pointed it out in chapter 12 of 2 Samuel, that David had much and yet still felt the need to steal from someone with just one wife.  So even though he was nowhere near what Solomon had, David’s reign started to go downhill because of his desire for “just one more”.  The word “many” does not convey a specific numerical value, but we can see through examples that it revealed the heart of the man, especially in regard to the law, which is also telling in itself elsewhere.

Second, though numerical value is not explicitly stated, it is implicit in the very beginning of the law.  Genesis 2:18-25 records how God wanted to give man a helper fit for him.  Genesis 2:22 is very telling in the fact that God makes only one woman for the man and not many.  Then, in the climax (Genesis 2:24), “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  Then they were both together, naked, in intimacy with one another, and were not ashamed.  This represents the ideal of God’s creation: one man and one woman joined together in a monogamous (single spouse) relationship for life (having left father and mother, not planning on going back).  In fact, this is what Jesus quotes when He is challenged by the Pharisees, asking if a man could divorce his wife for any reason.  Jesus says that God made mankind male and female from the beginning (Genesis 1:27), and then He quotes Genesis 2:24.  The point He makes is that they are one flesh and no longer two, so they should not be separated.  Divorce was permitted, not desired, because of the hardness of the Israelite hearts, but it was not the ideal from the beginning (Matthew 19:3-8).  So, realistically, from God’s point of view, two could actually be too many, and even the references that speak of these bigamous relationships convey the distortion; it is not what God intended.



Even if a text seems to allow polygamy, it does not mean that this was a command from God or that God condoned it.  Even if condemnation of polygamy is not explicit, it is clear that it went against God’s purposes and only proved troublesome in the examples given.  If anything, polygamy was discouraged, indirectly through the big picture of the heart of God, but also directly through revelation of ensuing consequences.  The picture of women given is that they are to be treasured, the completion of man’s other half; only together do they make up that beautiful description of “one flesh”.  The wife is a vital helper to the man (Genesis 2:18), and that word “helper” is not something trivial like a servant, but is actually used of God in other places in the Old Testament (Psalm 10:14/30:10/54:4).  The wife was intended to be special for the husband, and not one among many in some sort of a collection.  She was meant to be his most intimate friend; her and her alone.  “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her…” (Song of Songs 6:9).




In the beginning, God created men and women equal.  He created them to be joined in marriage, not to be separated as long as they lived.  However, sin entered the world, and with it, the possibility that not every story unfolds as God intended it.  The law represents God working with sinful humans and is thus not, nor was it ever intended to be, divine perfection.  That being said, it is understandable that we cannot always wrap our heads around some of the things written in the law.  Some things appear to limit women or view them as inferior, even putting them in a vulnerable position.  Though there are still gaps in our understanding such a culture so far removed from us, I do believe I have offered responses that turn the tables on the critics and ask them what basis they have for the respect of women in modern society; a society in which injustices continue.  I also think there is a framework that can be gleaned from this article, to not jump to conclusions concerning contemporary understanding, but to think about the women themselves and how they would feel through what we know of the cultural and literary context of the law.  More than that, though, I would like to suggest that the women in the Old Testament were not as oppressed as the critics would like to make us think, even with regard to some of the gray areas.  There were people like the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who stood up for what God would want; to preserve life, rather than submit to the ruling power (Exodus 1).  There was Miriam who sang and prophesied right alongside her brother Moses (Exodus 15).  There were the daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who claimed that they could inherit in their father’s name, and continue his line, and God agreed (Numbers 27/36).  There was Rahab, who joined the people of God, confident of their victory (Joshua 2).  There was Deborah, who was not afraid to go to the battle, whereas the commander of the army, a man, was (Judges 4).  There was Ruth, who followed her mother-in-law to where their only hope was in the refuge of the God of Israel (Ruth 1-2).  There was Hannah, who knew the Lord could open her womb and pledged to give the child right back (1 Samuel 1-2).  There was Abigail, who saved the lives of an entire household and pledged herself as a servant of servants (1 Samuel 25).


The list could go on, but the point has been made.  More than anything the law might have prohibited, it was the law that empowered these women.  By seeing the heart of God through it and trusting in His promises, they received the blessing they sought.   So in looking back at the law, I would hope that it would not just be about explaining what seems to be a little out of place or trying to understand how a certain text might be reconcilable.  Rather, I suggest taking a step back, appreciating how we have grown, but also having the humility to take off our cultural lenses and see what treasures we may have lost in the sands of modernization.  How do we value women?  What are we doing to protect them and to make them feel safe?  What are the responsibilities of men toward women?  So to sum up, the Old Testament is relevant; not just because I say it is or because I can explain what many people find difficult.  The Old Testament is relevant because it was intended to bring God’s people to a greater understanding of His heart, and to release them into great fruitfulness, not just restrict them.  This article has been hard to write, not because of all the difficulties (to which Paul Copan’s insights were a great help), but because I really wanted to capture the heart of what was being said to communicate that God, far from hating women, loves them completely.  He wants them to be shown all the care, love, honour, and devotion that they deserve, so I hope I have been successful in showing that, in spite of what the critics assert, that God does not hate women!

  1. Ester says:

    Thank you Matt for taking the time to write this! I really enjoyed reading it and it sure gave me some new insights about these specific laws in the old testament. The way you carefully observed the text, concidered the historical background and literal context inspires me and reminds me once again of the importance of inductive biblestudy! Looking forward to read more of your high quality articles!

  2. Ralph says:

    Quite a comprehensive reply to what begins as a specious argument (at best) by Richard Dawkins. I confess to not reading most of what is here although it is likely well thought out becuse of my own time constraints. (Where did you get the time to write this?!) A friend refers to these as bunny hole arguments because they send you off on trails and holes that for all the effort leave the one making the original accusation and waiting to throw the next stick for you to go fetch. (Yes. I am using mixed metaphors – but it is late). Seems to me the questions is, “Does God Exist?”. If the answer is no then we have a contra-religion for which tenets of personal belief and faith need to be made. Criticizing particulars of something outrightly rejected (dawkins outrightly rejects christianity) is simply malicious gainsaying sophistry. There is no interest in truth. Now for the believer the dirt thrown does need to be addressed. Generally the first quagmire stepped into is understanding the Good to be separate from God; that is using anecdotal examples of God ostensibly breaking His own law, or pejoratively speaking, “acting like God”. Anyone still fighting with authority will foolishly judge God. It’s better to just admit that concept of God is not workable. In fact, most concepts of God are not workable in all situations. This is because our concepts are limited and, of necessity, very anthropormophic. Doesn’t mean God is not there. Just whatever we see are maybe glimpses – how I understand the scripture “No one has seen God at anytime” to mean. We do not have the capacity to entertain comprehensive knowledge of God. Eh, we get by on our best understanding and faith. Something rings really true for me.

    Well, I am carrying on here not knowing whether this will ever be seen. There are plenty of good hard questions to answer (like how to approach biblical symbolism and reconciling the world of empirical physics with biblical interpretation). Wasting time with the so-called new atheists may be an effort in futility. But if that is where you find that witness of life in your actions…who am I to comment?

    • Hey Ralph,
      Thanks for your comment, expressing your thoughts. I totally agree with you that it is silly for an atheist to say that God does not exist and then complain about how bad He is. I recall the phrase “God does not exist, and I hate Him!” which could be put into the mouth of many an atheist. I suppose you could say that an atheist thinks that even if God did exist, they would not serve Him because they don’t like so much about Him. To this kind of attitude, I would say that if God does exist, there are serious consequences to what we believe about Him. It is not enough to say, as many people do, that they believe that God exists, but they don’t care to do anything about that. They leave their belief at merely belief of existence and refuse to think that there may be some cosmic ramifications for not knowing who this God is (though I agree with you that we do not have the capacity to know God entirely).

      I also agree that the question is, “Does God exist?”, which is why Dima and I have devoted a series to “Arguments for the Existence of God”. This includes the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, and the argument from Jesus’ resurrection, and I have also devoted 3 other articles to this last piece of evidence. In terms of Dawkins specifically, I have done 3 articles: one is an overview of the ideas in his book for those who haven’t read it and the other two are responses and refutations.

      However, the aim of this article is not so much in the direction of showing atheists that God is really not as bad as they make Him out to be, but more about showing Christians that they don’t need to be so worried about what they might find in the Old Testament or about what the new atheists say they find in the Old Testament. These are certainly bunny hole arguments if the question is the existence of God, but if a Christian is struggling with the picture of God in the Old Testament, from person reading or from hearing an atheist bash it, then “The Relevance of the Old Testament” series can be helpful. Even in the case of an honest seeker, who is curious about Christianity, but is hesitant to accept Christ because they have heard terrible things about this God, this kind of information could remove unnecessary stumbling blocks. Maybe even in the case of an atheist who has never questioned the polemics he has been fed, these thoughts might cause him to reevaluate his presuppositions regarding the God of the Old Testament. However, I would say in general that this is mostly for Christians. If someone already believes in God, they will be more interested in knowing Him more, and if someone doesn’t believe in God, they might be more accepting of popular misconceptions and never care to look into it more.

      I am not sure how you came directly to this article, but if you are interested, I would suggest looking at our articles page, where we have a listing of the different subjects that we have covered so far. From your comment, I can guess that you might be interested in the Moral Argument (especially part 7, discussing how the Good relates to God). You might also want to check out the cosmological and teleological arguments. They are not overly technical, so they don’t address many specifics of physics, but approach the way the universe is in relation to God in a more general way.

      In any case, thank you for your thoughts, and I encourage you to continue to pursue the hard questions.


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