Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Morning Scripture Study

I have been reading Neferteeti fairly regularly for updates on the Egyptian Christian Copt minority and some pretty good amateur apologetics. As the author has both Muslim and Christian readers the combox can get pretty heated. Things got rather rough in the box for her latest post and were already in decline when one commenter decided to declare another a catamite (if the term isn't familiar, look it up; I'm not going to explain it here) and debate got bogged down in whether or not Mohamed was a pedophile. The aforementioned commenter produced verses from Numbers 31 as evidence that, whatever Mohamed may have been, the ancient Hebrews were much, much worse: he asserted, in fact, that these particular verses pointed to the sexual abuse of female battle captives as young as three years old. (Boy, the stuff one misses in the Bible when one reads without a gutter mindset!)

Well, that's not the sort of thing one just lets go, so of course I had to put my oar in. I have reprinted my comment below as combox comments tend to get overlooked, I spent half the morning looking up references when I had real work to do and feel like I ought to do something with the research, and I figure I might save someone else a step or two if the matter comes up again in discussion. I am not, I point out, a theologian , Bible scholar or historian, and I am going pretty much entirely off the Bible here and no other data on the history of the period, so I caution against stretching this info to cover matters which it was never meant to cover.
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The comment:

I must say, it never occurred to me that the ancient Hebrews might be in the business of debauching 3-year-old girls. Of course, as even among many ancient cultures the sexual abuse of prepubescent girls seems to have been regarded as somewhat outre, I can't imagine why that image would have come to mind unless either the behavior were plainly described as such in the Biblical texts or I had a bit of an unhealthy fascination with the subject.

Although I am no Bible scholar, I am not entirely unfamiliar with Mosaic Law. It had always been my impression that the Law of Moses placed some of the strictest limitations on sexual excess of its time (cf. Lev. 20, 9-21.) It was also progressive for its day in that it gave a modicum of rights to women, Hebrew slaves, and even non-Hebrew slaves and battle captives. Refer, please, to:
Lev. 19: 20-22 which declares the sexual abuse of a married female slave a sin requiring atonement;
Deut. 21: 10-14, which gives non-Hebrew female battle captives a period of mourning before they can be taken advantage of by their captors and moreover grants them a degree of status as legal wives (with the rights inherent therein) of their captors;
Deut. 22: 25ff. which offers some recourse against rape to women;
Deut. 23:16-18 which offer some protection to runaway slaves and prohibit the practice of temple harlotry;
Deut. 24: 14 which prohibits the defrauding of any slave, Hebrew or non-Hebrew and 17ff which defend the rights of orphans.
Thus even a female battle captive taken as a slave could claim some basic human rights.

While no reference to age is made and the terms 'women' and 'girls' tend to get used interchangeably ('girl' probably being applied specifically to a young woman who is a virgin) there is certainly nothing to indicate that prepubescent children were considered sexually exploitable under the law. References to children are pretty consistent in the Pentatecuch: children are not to be sacrificed to Molech (Lev. 20: 3-5--common practice among the Hebrews' near neighbors,) and orphans (i.e. children who do not have a parent to protect them) are not to be abused. Period. (Deut. 24: 17 and 28: 19.)

Now, a little context for Numbers 31: 13ff. If you go back to Num. 25, you will find the roots of the conflict. The Moabites and Midianites worshipped a fertility god called Baal. Some of their rites probably included full-scale bacchanals, and some Hebrew men, allowing their brains to be ruled by their gonads, got caught up in these rites to the point at which they posed a threat to their culture. Moses raised an army to clean out that hornet's nest once and for all, and that army killed all adult males but kept "the women of the Midianites with their little ones (note the distinction) as captives." Moses was enraged by this because, of course, the Midianite women were the cause of all the trouble to begin with, and ordered the slaughter of all male children (not nice, I know; but he probably saw them as a future fighting force against him) and all females who were not virgins (i.e. any female who was old enough to have participated in those fertility rituals--I will not speculate as to what constituted Midianite sexual maturity.) He then ordered that the remaining females be distributed as chattel with the rest of the booty from the battle. There is nothing in the account that would remotely suggest that girls as young as 3--or of any age, were then summarily ravished by their captors, and much in Mosaic Law that would indicate that this would not have been tolerated. [Note that although the Lord frequently speaks to Moses and instructs him on how to proceed throughout this chapter, in this case the order is cast as coming directly from Moses. It is not presented as any sort of divine injunction. Moreover, it is clear that Moses is uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering noncombatants, as he also orders a period of ritual purification for the participants--with the idea, presumably, of staving off the wrath of God.]

I have used the New American Translation of the Bible as a resource for this. The helps section in the supplementary material notes that this translation is made from the original language sources with an effort to clarify obscure readings. The editorial staff consists of many Biblical and language scholars who are, I suspect, not in the business of bowdlerization and would be scandalized at the thought of doing so.
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That's it. And now, I have veggies to pick, dishes to wash, dogs and children to feed, laundry to fold, and a small load of wood flooring to purchase before my quarter-bucket of adhesive dries out to unusability.

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