Biblical Slavery Part 3: Female Slaves

human_trafficking_by_me19leela1-650x346Today’s installment of my series on Biblical Slavery will focus exclusively on the plight of female slaves. My goal here is to get readers to resist the temptation to fall back on Christian counterarguments  and allow themselves to stop and think about the horrors female slaves were subjected to. A more detailed analysis of the apologetic arguments regarding Biblical Slavery will be forthcoming in Part 4 of this series.

In my view,  the ghastly nature of Biblical Slavery truly reveals itself when we consider how women were treated. Let’s look again at Deuteronomy 20:15:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”

This scripture reaffirms the patriarchal structure of Old Testament society: women were subhuman plunder, sexual prizes to be won in victory. Even Hebrew women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. And if there’s any doubt, Numbers 31 tells us exactly how female slaves were to be used:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

I know that there’s a huge temptation here to delve into the murderous side of this passage, but let’s set that part aside and focus instead on the last part. Why was it important for Israelites to select girls who hadn’t slept with man, and how exactly does one go about screening them?

I’m quoting this verse in its full context to address one of the most common apologetic defenses of it: namely that the Midianite women were at fault for the mess that started the battle that Numbers describes. In case you’re wondering, the enticement the passage refers to was tempting Israelite men into worshipping Baal by intermarrying across cultures.

Now to be fair, marrying across cultures during Biblical times wasn’t the same as doing so nowadays. Scholars estimate that the population of Palestine (which includes Judea and neighboring nations) never exceeded 1 million during the 7th Century BCE, when Deuteronomy was likely written. So any culture that lost large numbers of its men to rival religions risked extinction. And make no mistake: intercultural marriages weren’t any more romantic or respectful towards women than Israelite marriages were.

Of course, that doesn’t justify the severity of Moses’ command. We know from Numbers 31 that 32,000 girls were captured that day. It goes without saying that that these captives were not willing participants in their fate. We know that the primary value of female slaves in Biblical times was their reproductive ability (and, let’s face it, sexual gratification for the victors).

Biblical Law forbade men from committing adultery even if it was cross-cultural, and it also condemned unmarried women who were not virgins to death by stoning. I recommend Joe Pranevich blog if you’re curious about Old Testament marital customs. He has an excellent overview of virginity tests and the consequences newly married wives faced for failing them. (Long story short: a bloody sheet from a broken hymen was the key piece of evidence.)

Given that Israelite soldiers wanted to avoid the sin of having sex with nonvirginal slaves in the first place, pubescent female slaves were most valued since they could bear children, but they were not old enough to be married or savvy enough to rebel. Young girls also eliminated adultery concerns, and the nature of their enslavement meant that they were forced to marry and have sex with the men who slaughtered their families. If you have any doubts about the idea that female slaves were coveted for sexual gratification, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 emphasizes that girls were in face selected  for that reason:

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Stop and think about what this must have been like for these young women. How many of them were willing participants in their marriage? How many chose not to leave simply because life cast out of society was worse than being marriage to your conqueror?

Many Christians will insist that allowing female captives a month of mourning was exceedingly compassionate. But we’re talking about institutionalized rape, molestation, subjugation, and physical abuse. A month of mourning hardly qualifies as compassion, and I doubt anyone could cope with a traumatic experience in such a brief window of time, especially since there was no escape from it. If you were a female prisoner of war, you wouldn’t get freed after seven years like male Hebrew slaves, since you were your rapist’s wife and the mother of his children. The verse that permits sexually unfulfilling slaves to be freed doesn’t indicate compassion either, since these women were now sexually tainted and therefore unwanted pariahs in a strange land that would have treated them worse than slaves.

I want to emphasize this point again: by any moral understanding of a woman’s dignity and her rights as a human being, the Old Testament instituted a system of socially condoned rape. Under the Law slaves did not own their bodies; their masters did. Their best case scenario would have been a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, where the woman would have fallen in love with her captor and rationalized her fate as a blessing so she could cope with it.

Like I said in my last post, when we think of Biblical slavery, we should pay respect to those who suffered under it and keep in mind that these were real people, not characters who exist only to teach moral lessons to future Christians. By acknowledging the full scope of what female slaves endured, we reflect the kind of compassion and empathy Jesus called us to embrace. Anything short of that condones the dehumanization and subjugation of women.

(The artwork at top was made by Daniella at Deviantart.)

Rape On Campus

Stop-RapeI wasn’t going to wade into the debate over Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate post about rape. Written from the perspective of a mother advising her daughter on her way to college (with plenty of data to back up her arguments), Yoffe outlines some common sense tips women can take to avoid placing themselves in dangerous situations.

The internet predictably blew up because her article focused on getting drunk (especially binge drinking), and it was interpreted as a blame-the-victim piece. Lots of good counterpoints to Yoffe’s article were made.

Then came Amanda Hess’s response to Yoffe (also found on Slate). Hess chose to return the focus to how campuses can help prevent rape. Given that I’ve lived in the shadow of Penn State (which consistently ranks among the biggest party schools in the nation due to its size and large fraternity population) for 27 years, I figured I’d offer my perspective.

First of all, in the big picture I think Yoffe and Hess’s arguments can be boiled down to two valid perspectives: the academic view (Hess) and the maternal view (Yoffe). Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between the longterm social challenge of dismantling rape culture and the short-term advice for how women should exercise caution during their next semester.

I get Hess’s perspective. I think she makes a lot of good points and presents some good strategic ideas. But even if the university Yoffe’s daughter attends chooses to wholeheartedly embraces a public strategy that puts the onus on punishing rapists and emphasizes that the rapist alone is to blame for their crimes, it won’t impact the cultural environment Yoffe’s daughter encounters next week or next month.

I’ll try illustrate my point with an analogy. I’m not going to pretend that it’s as grave in scale as rape or that it’s a fair comparison. But I hope it helps illustrate the psychological tension I see between their views.

I’m an epileptic. Epilepsy is a disease that can afflict anyone at any stage of life. There are a myriad number of reasons once can get epilepsy: you can be born with it; it can occur in the wake of an accident or a blow to the head; it can be a consequence of a tumor, illness or drug use; it can also be a biochemical problem. In most cases there is no clear “answer” as to why a person has epilepsy. You can’t blame the epileptic for their seizures, although many people do.

I get two types of seizures: simple focal (which looks like I’m spacing out or clumsy) and tonic-clonic (aka falling down, convulsing, biting your tongue or worse). My epilepsy is what doctors call “uncontrolled,” meaning that in spite of trying dozens of medications over the years, they’ve never found a combination that completely controls my seizures. Meaning that I can have a seizure at any given moment even if I take my medication.

On the other hand, there are practical steps I can take to greatly reduce the risk of a seizure: avoid prolonged vigorous exercise, high altitudes, and too much alcohol. But more than anything, I can take my medicine on time. Yeah, it’s boring, it reminds me of my limitations, and it provides no guarantee that I won’t get seizures during the next 12 hours anyway. But it drastically reduces the risk I face. My mother knows this, and she never passes up the chance to remind me to take my medicine. Her reminders are as annoying as they are eminently practical.

Over the years I’ve gone through just about every stage of dealing with my problem that one can imagine: keeping a rigid pill schedule for fear of my next seizure; refusing to take them when I’m told because damn it, I wanted some independence; skipping doses outright to see if I even needed them; being late on doses due to forgetfulness, laziness, or just plain not having them handy when I need them; and, now that I’m older, taking them on time because it’s the smart thing to do.

Now there’s two ways of viewing my situation. One is the Yoffe version: minimize risk, make sensible decisions, and have a friend around in case I get a bad seizure. It adds up to a safe and unadventurous life, so sometimes I feel the need to just get away from it and live a little.

The other approach is the Hess version: focusing on curing the disease rather than my day-to-day risk level; striving not to put too much onus on my behavior because, after all, no seizure is ever “my fault;” bemoaning the fact that society looks down on epileptics, and advocating drastic changes that would make society more conducive for epileptics to live normal lives.

I’m all for the Hess approach.  There are definitive steps society can take that can make life easier for me, like restructuring communities so they are more pedestrian-friendly; increasing bus and mass transit service; engaging in public campaigns that reduce the stigma of having epilepsy, and curing the disease.

But these are long term projects. They’re costly, and while society has grown more sympathetic to people with disabilities over time, the deck is still stacked against them. And, of course, there are still plenty of people who resent the positive steps that have been made and pass down hateful and ignorant attitudes towards epileptics via their children and community. Most people still need to be sold on the idea that these changes are even necessary.

Over time victories on these fronts will yield bigger improvements in the lives of epileptics than just making sure I don’t drink too much or that I take my pills. But odds are I won’t live long enough to see these kinds of changes to their completion, and the problems epileptics face pales compared to the breadth and scale of the bigotry towards women. Especially female victims of rape.

So like epileptics, college-aged women are faced with short-term decisions: odds are going to a frat party will be a fun time, even if they get drunk. Odds are that if they want sex, it’ll be a consensual experience. But a frat party is a riskier environment for a woman’s safety than a sober party is, and it’s riskier still if a woman is drunk. The feminist goals of dismantling patriarchy and rape culture is a decades-long (and probably centuries-long) challenge. No one alive today will see it to its completion.

Yoffe isn’t advocating that women stop going to frat parties or stop having a good time. And she isn’t saying that we should blame drunk women who get raped for being victims. But there are a percentage of rapes that take place within the college-aged party environment. Women can never completely eliminate the risk of being raped at parties -even if they stay sober. But they can reduce the risk.