Yesterday, I posted the following tweet:
Numbers 31 describes Israelite soldiers slaughtering Midianite civilians and seizing Midianite virgin girls, many of whom would be 12-13 years old, for their soldiers. This is no different than Boko Haram. Don't let evangelical apologists gaslight you.
— The Tentative Apologist (@RandalRauser) March 23, 2023
Among the replies the tweet received was one which referenced apologist Jonathan McLatchie’s article “Does the Bible Support Sexual Slavery? An Analysis of Numbers 31:15-18.” McLatchie is a good thinker, sober-minded and thoughtful. Alas, for all its virtues, this article highlights the glaring problems with a standard evangelical defense of biblical passages of violence, sexual ethics, and consent.
Like most evangelicals, McLatchie struggles to remove the moral affront of texts that plainly describe behaviour we would consider morally abhorrent today. But he fails in that endeavour. While I have neither the time nor inclination for an in-depth critique, I do want to highlight two points that I think bring us squarely to the heart of the issue.
Women or Girls?
First, let’s consider the way that McLatchie refers to the kidnappees. In verse 17, Moses states that every “woman” who has been with a man should be killed. The word translated “woman” is neqebah and can be translated as “female,” “woman” or “female child” depending on context. However, in verse 18, when Moses turns to the fate of the kidnappees, the language changes. Here is verse 18 as McLatchie quotes it: “save for yourselves every girl [issa taf] who has never slept with a man.” Issa is woman and taf is female child.
There are two basic ways issa taf is translated. The first is to see these two nouns as a catch-all for every virgin female, some adult and some children:
- KJV: But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves
- DRA: But the girls, and all the women that are virgins save for yourselves
- CSB: but keep alive for yourselves all the young females who have not gone to bed with a man
- CEB: But all the young girls who have not known a man intimately by sleeping with him, spare for yourselves
- CJB: But the young girls who have never slept with a man, keep alive for yourselves
- AMP: But all the young girls who have not known a man intimately, keep alive for yourselves [to marry]
- HCSB: but keep alive for yourselves all the young females who have not had sexual relations
- ICB: But save the girls for yourselves who are virgins
- JUB: But all the female children that have not known a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves
- NASB: However, all the girls who have not known a man intimately, keep alive for yourselves
- NLT: Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves
- NIV: but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man
To sum up, the majority opinion appears to be that the text is specifying the primary targeting of virgin girls for kidnapping, not women. (It is still possible that virgin women would have been spared but it is not the focus of the text.)
As an aside, McLatchie never considers how these terrified Midianites would go about establishing their virginity to the satisfaction of the Israelite soldiers. Could the process involve a gynaecological exam, for example? The mind shudders at the thought.
While the vast majority of persons who would have been kidnapped would’ve been pubsecent and post-pubscent teenage girls, when McLatchie refers to the kidnappees, he never once refers to them as girls even though that is the language of the very translation he cites! Instead, he consistently refers to them as “woman” or “women,” a total of ten times by my count.
I don’t know why McLatchie misrepresents the age of the kidnappees. But it is hard not to conclude that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) McLatchie misrepresents the age of the kidnappees as a way to ameliorate the moral problems presented by the text. As horrifying as it would be to imagine a 24-year-old woman being kidnapped after her family is massacred, it is arguably even more horrifying to imagine that same terror being inflicted on a 14-year-old child.
Psychological Safety, Rape, and Consent
The second issue I want to address is the concept of rape itself. I find that Christian apologists often fail to grapple with the actual substance of the charge here and so their defenses of the text against sexual assault are predicated on outdated notions of sexual consent and rape. The central issue can be put like this: can a fourteen-year-old child who just witnessed her mother, father, and brothers butchered in front of her meaningfully give consent to matrimony and sexual relations with one of the men who butchered her family?
We can frame matters in terms of the concept of psychological safety, a concept that refers to the state of believing that you will not face punishment, humiliation, or repercussions for expressing your views. Do you think that a child who just witnessed her family slaughtered would have the psychological safety to refuse the request for marriage and sex from one of the killers of her family?
McLatchie cites the fact that the child would be given a month to mourn her family before being presented with a suitor. But does anybody really think a month to “mourn” is going to bring the healing required for genuine psychological safety and the ability to consent or withhold consent of one’s own free will?
Let’s put this in context. Thirty days ago, this child witnessed her father being disemboweled; she saw her mother beheaded; she wailed in terror as her two brothers were impaled on spears. As her father lay on the ground, fumbling in confusion with his own intestines, her mother’s severed head was still blinking in muscular spasms, and her brothers were gasping for breath as blood bubbled up in their throats, she was yanked away by a soldier. Now that same soldier is asking for her hand in marriage: but hey, it’s been thirty days, so she’s ready, right?
In the article, McLatchie also cites Israelite legislation against rape as a way to underscore the fact that the Israelites took rape seriously.
“According to this text [Deuteronomy 22:23-27], the crime of rape is so serious that it is punishable by death. If the woman failed to scream for help when she was in the city and could be heard, the Jewish law viewed the situation as consensual sex rather than rape, since the woman could have cried out for someone to rescue her but didn’t. Thus, both parties were guilty.”
Ironically, this passage has the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than calm our concern that the children might have been raped, it merely places a spotlight on the grossly limited understanding of consent in ancient Israelite society. According to this legislation, if a woman doesn’t cry out while being raped in a populated area, she is considered a willing participant who should likewise face a punitive judgment. No consideration is made for the likely possibility that she was too terrified to cry out and thus that she may have been utterly immobilized by fear.
Far from addressing our concern, Deuteronomy 22 merely highlights the utter inadequacy of ancient Israelite understandings of psychological safety, sexual consent, and rape. But McLatchie is not an ancient Israelite. He should know better.