When it comes to relationships between woman and men, the contents of the Bible confront modern Jews and Christians with a difficult choice.
Conservative Christians often proclaim that the Quran encourages marriage and molestation of girls who are too young for consent. But it’s rare that they take to the airwaves proclaiming that the Bible does the same. By citing the Bible and Christian tradition in defense of Roy Moore, that is exactly what they have done. And their arguments have merit.
Moore is a former Alabama judge, now senate candidate, who believes emphatically that the Bible should take precedence over the U.S. constitution and American tradition of jurisprudence. He fought long and hard to keep his preferred version of the Ten Commandments—carved in stone—on display in the state supreme court. Moore boldly proclaims his allegiance to the Bible, citing verses at will. So, when he was accused recently of making unwanted sexual advances toward several young teens while a lawyer in his 30s, people accused him of hypocrisy. But if Moore’s only transgression was exploiting his greater age and status to seek sex or intimacy from teenagers, the accusation is unfair. Such behavior is perfectly biblical.
1. In the Bible, females are created for the benefit of males. A man’s right to expect that females will serve his needs and desires is established on literally Page 2 of the Bible, in the second creation story in the book of Genesis. In this version of creation, Eve is made from Adam’s rib to be his “helpmeet” because none of the other animals is a suitable companion and helper for him. The next chapter, the well-known serpent-and-“apple” story, reveals even more about how the writers and their culture view women. After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, God punishes Eve with a curse, saying: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)
This brief passage distills three core components of Judeo-Christian attitudes toward women that persisted down through the rest of the Bible and through the words of Church fathers, and into many modern day pulpits: 1. Discomfort or pain women feel around sexuality and childbearing are inevitable, even morally proper. 2. Regardless, women really want it. 3. Men are in charge.
2. In the Bible, female consent is not a thing. The Bible talks about a lot of sexual couplings and marriages, and it gives a lot of options for the form that these relations can take—a man and a slave, a man and his brother’s wife, one man and two sisters, a man and hundreds of female concubines. Most of these can be found only in the Old Testament—the Bible shows clear evidence of cultural evolution over the centuries in which its texts were written—but nowhere in either the Old Testament or the New does a Bible writer communicate that a woman’s consent is needed before sex. (The Virgin Birth story itself reflects this moral-cultural nexus.)
On the contrary. Like livestock, children, and slaves, reproductive-age women are legal chattel—property of their male owners, who also own their reproductive capacity and the “fruits of their womb.” The sexual consent required is that of the male owner: Young women are given by their fathers in marriage; sold, when necessary, into slavery; and taken as war booty. The New Testament accommodates evolving social mores, but it never condemns or reverses this arrangement, and wives, like slaves, are encouraged to submit to those God has rightfully placed in positions of power over them.
3. Unwanted sexual contact in the Bible is a violation not against a woman but against her male owner. Under Levitical law virginity is prized because when men know who has had sex with which females, they also know who fathered any offspring. Kin groups and family obligations are clear. By contrast, female fertility that isn’t regulated muddies things. A virgin who voluntarily has sex with a man, thus reducing her value as an economic asset, can be stoned. If she is raped against her will, her rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods as happens today under some forms of Sharia. In this worldview, Roy Moore may have come precariously close to violating the rights of the fathers of the young women he pursued, but that is not the accusation made against him, nor a question that his defenders have taken up.
4. In the Bible, young women are commonly given to older men. Modern Westerners decry child marriage, for very good reasons. We recognize children as autonomous beings with human rights of their own, but we also recognize that cognitive and emotional capacities develop gradually over years and with them, the capacity to provide full and free consent. Caregivers (and our legal system) try to give young people choices in keeping with their capabilities but we also protect them, knowing they are easily pressured or manipulated by people who are older and more powerful.
None of these concepts—human rights of children, cognitive development, full and free sexual consent—existed in the conceptual world of the Bible writers, rooted as they were in the Iron Age cultures of the Ancient Near East. Ignorance of child development, the legal status of women and children as chattel, and the view of female fertility as a family economic asset each incline families to swap female children for other goods as soon as they are sexually mature (or sometimes before).
The Bible story of the Midianite virgins, suggests that even pre-pubescent children could become sexual property. In a battle with the Midianites, Israelite warriors are commanded to kill all the male adults and children among their defeated enemies, and all the women “who have been with a man.” But God’s anointed messenger tells them to keep the virgin females for themselves and gives them instructions on how to ritually purify the girls before having sex with them. Presumably most of these girls would have been pre-pubescent (or they wouldn’t have been unmarried virgins.)
Even apart from this awful story, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler pointed out that many biblical pairings are between older men and younger females:
He’s clean as a hound’s tooth. Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. . . . Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.
5. Christian tradition has long assumed that Mary was a young teen. The Catholic Encyclopedia, citing customs at the time, says that the Mary of the Virgin Birth story would have been as young as 13. Jewish tradition allows betrothal at the age of 12 and consummation at sexual maturity. Outside of sacramental mythology, a story about an uneducated human girl getting impregnated by a powerful alien being would disturb many people. That Zeigler saw this rapey story as a defense of Moore’s behavior, says something about the extraordinary moral and ethical exceptions our society makes for religion.
6. The Abrahamic sacred texts–the Quran and the Bible–largely agree on a God-given male-dominated gender hierarchy in which men can negotiate bodily rights to pubescent and prepubescent girls. Those Christians who find themselves appalled by Islam’s stories about the Prophet marrying multiple wives, one of whom is six years old at the time he acquires her—and those who are appalled more broadly by Islam’s subordination of women or the penchant of fundamentalist believers toward forcing young girls into marriage and killing females who transgress—would do well to remember this: The Quran contains little that is original. It derives from the same tribal shepherding culture that produced Judaism and Christianity, and much of it is explicitly derivative of the Bible itself.
You might be surprised by how hard it can be to tell the two books apart. (Try it here.) The differences may be real and consequential, but so are the similarities. All Abrahamic texts, taken literally, anchor believers to the Iron Age—a time when men alone were created in the image of a god, and women were vessels and helpmeets, and God favored patriarchs who he blessed with lots of male offspring born to not only their wives but also concubines and handmaids.
The Bible contains fragments that are uplifting and beautiful—verses that record timeless wisdom and elevate humanity’s shared moral core. But that’s not all it contains. When it comes to relationships between woman and men, the contents of the Bible confront modern Jews and Christians with a difficult choice. Believers can treat the “Good Book” as the literal and perfect word of God or they can embrace an egalitarian view of men and women, one in which sexual intimacy is rooted in shared desire and consent. These two options are mutually exclusive, and people who say otherwise are engaged in a desperate attempt to protect the Bible from itself. Roy Moore has made his choice. You can call him disgusting, even vile, but don’t use the word hypocrite. Moore is living the script.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Wow, you’re back! It’s been a long while. Yippie!
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Valerie, Great post as always! I’m reading Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven by Uta Ranke-Heinemann. A Catholic theologian who nails it. Also read Putting Away Childish Things by her as well. Karen
Eunuchs for the Kingdom is an excellent book!
thanks Valerie, it does seem that passionate religious fundamentalism of any kind goes hand in glove with sexual abuse of women and children.
Hi Val, So happy to see you posting again! I’ve been thinking the same thing you write in this piece-Cheers! Bob
Sent from my iPad
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Great post, Valerie! A way for us to understand the strange statements of Moore, the Alabama state auditor, and some of the Alabama state senators. There is such a terrible amount of “blame the victim” swirling around the four women who have come forward to finally share their experiences and abuse at the hands of Moore. But after all, they’re supposed to be just chattel, right?
PBS news noted tonight that the Edmund Pettus bridge at the edge of Selma, Alabama, was named after a notorious (Democratic) segregationist in the 1900’s, and despite our more recent history with the bridge, and the marches over it, the name has not been changed.
So good to see you posting again. Your thoughts are right on.
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Excellent content, excellent writing.
What I’d like to know now is, what is the thinking of those who support Moore (and Trump) despite all the things they have done and said, many of which his supporters have previously said they oppose?
Let me join the chorus for welcoming you back. You’ve been missed.
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Great article Valerie,
and so good to hear from you again. Regards Jim Lee. Australia
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Concise _ Pointed _ irrefutable _ Excellent
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Just like the man who sent his daughters to be enjoyed by the soldiers? 😁
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“Bible writers, rooted as they were in the Iron Age cultures of the Ancient Far East”
I think you mean Near East or Middle East, instead of Far East.
Yes, I can call Judge Moore a hypocrite. He is true to his faith, but not true to his job which is upholding the Constitution and the laws of his country. If he wants to practice law, including serving in the Senate, he has to abide by secular laws, not religious laws.
The Bible does not recognise that men and women are equal human beings because the authors of the various texts did not see them as equals. Blind adherence to these texts has, and continues to, hamper the full expression of our sexuality as human beings.
Thank you for your comment. We see this hampering of women happening right in front of us as Roy Moore continues to deny that he ever knew, molested, dated, or gave alcohol to teenage women.
May i ask one question here? Well, I guess I already did, didn’t I? Are we innocent until proven guilty, or is it the reverse? It seems to be the reverse in some cases How do we know Mr. Moore is guilty? Or George Takei?
Good question. I think people need to be assumed innocent until proven guilty–including in cases of sexual misconduct. That’s why I went after the Bible instead of Mr. Moore himself–I’m not really interested in piling on the character assassination that follows allegations. But I see your point that my article does assume that he pursued teens even though that is just a stepping off point. He looks increasingly guilty, but I should have qualified that.
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Do you seriously believe that these 5 women would come forward and say that these terrible things happened in their young teen lives unless they HAD happened? Rarely can you get convincing evidence of sexual assault or sex harassment – simply because the aggressor knows what they are doing is wrong, so they do it behind closed doors, or (like Roy Moore) in the dark in a car parked between two dumpsters. Like Mitch McConnell, I need no further proof. I BELIEVE THE WOMEN. What woman wants to go on national TV and say that the man touched her on her breasts and on her panties, or that he locked the car door and then tried to force her head down to his crotch? Geez, get a life. There are FIVE of them, not just one. And there may be more, because now there are rumors that Moore was discouraged from coming to the town mall, where he cruised the women.
Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but this isn’t a court of law; it’s the court of public opinion and those rules don’t necessarily apply.
What this article misses is the relationship of Jesus with women and the instructions Jesus left for the institution of marriage. Essentially this article deals with the superficial sinful nature of man. Jesus’s message is quite different. Remember it was the women who found that Jesus’s tomb was empty. Not a man was to be found until later.
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Yes, the New Testament shows shifting cultural mores. Mercifully. But imagine how different history would have been for women if the Bible–anywhere–said “Don’t have sex with someone who doesn’t want to.” Imagine if it said “don’t keep slaves” or “don’t hit children.” Imagine if these had replaced a few begats or maybe the Leviticus rule about not eating shrimp or the one about what to do to a woman who grabs a man’s testicles during a fight. Or maybe if they had gotten slipped into one of the gospel stories, especially the Jesus quotes . . .
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Jesus did associate with women but so do lots of chauvinists. Jesus did not ask the women to find his tomb. I am tired of superficial arguments that Christ was not sexist. And he banned young women from divorcing their husbands though the fact was that they were underage when they “wed” and their consent was not asked for. That is gross abuse especially when brides were typically underage.
MY THOUGHTS ARE I BELIEVE IN TRUTH AND I BELIEVE IN FAIRNESS.
I have been an Agnostic Atheist for 73 of my 82 years, an Atheist activist for over 55 years, I am one “Atheists United” 1982 founders, a member of American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Military Association Of Atheists and Freethinkers as well as 3 other atheist organizations, and I probably average six hours a day being an Atheist activist on line, I do not like sticking up for Christians
ONLY RIGHT IS RIGHT AND I ALWAYS TRY TO DO RIGHT AND IN THIS CASE, DOING RIGHT THING IS AN ENEMY OF HIS STATES THE CHARGES AGAINST HIM ARE NOT BACKED BY THE FACTS!!! SO MY POSTING THIS:
Excellent post, but you give Ziegler too much credit. He says “Take the Bible” but the Bible (as opposed to later traditions) nowhere says that Mary was much younger than Joseph, and it positively says that Zachariah and Elisabeth were both aged. Luke 1:7
“And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.”
Good point, VT. I always wondered what happened to those missing commandments.
It is refreshing to read an article on the Bible by someone who has actually studied it. Thank you for your perspective.
For anyone who argues that the New Testament treats women better, just remember that Moore wants the Ten Commandments posted publicly so apparently he puts more weight on them than the teachings of Jesus
I have found the following online in response to the allegations against Roy Moore. “The fact remains that many people who read their Bibles and know their history is that “God’s word” does indeed fail to condemn child sex abuse in marriage. There are condemnations of bestiality and adultery and gay sex and no mention of the respect due to the sexual innocence of a child. Silence is consent anyway. But silence is more consent in a holy book which claims the right to be obeyed as the word of God and which encourages people to see that they must obey the book just because it says they must do it. Those biblical cultures did accept men having sex with girls whose bodies were not ready for sex or having babies. Men married female children. There are several clues in the Bible that a man is allowed to molest the child he “marries.” The child at least should have the right to get away from the husband who raped her and abused her and who could divorce her to get his hands on a new child bride. Jesus reinforced these doctrines by saying that a girl cannot divorce her husband or she becomes an adulteress if she weds another. What is worse is he was being hypothetical for women did not have a right to divorce in his society. Calling her an adulteress was abusive in itself and was virtually calling for her murder for the Jewish God had decreed death by stoning for adulteresses. (And Jesus made no attempt to do away with stoning in his ministry. The adulteress who was brought to him for stoning was brought to him as a test but even then he said she should be stoned but only by worthy accusers. He did not stone her for it was not his place and it was never done by one person. And it was a test anyway.) I repeat: the fact remains that these women were forced into marriage, were too young as well and had every right and perhaps the duty to leave their husbands. A male could easily divorce his child bride and marry another so that you have serial child molesting of serial child-brides. The story of Jesus starts with Mary conceiving him without sexual intercourse. I think that the expression that Jesus is being conceived by the Holy Spirit is a euphemism for Mary conceiving by a human sperm without full sex. She was probably molested by Joseph which resulted in a “miraculous” pregnancy. It would have seemed marvellous in an age that did not understand about eggs and sperms. Whatever the conception means the word is there and it was thought to have something to do with human seed and that is the bottom line. “