Deuteronomy Week 3 Reading Guide

Deuteronomy, Premodern and Feminist Interpretation

Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Bible and Feminism: Biblical Theology.” In Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, edited by Catherine Mowry LaCugna, 31–57. San Francisco: Harper, 1993. (PDF)

Sandra Schneiders, IHM (Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) had just turned twenty-nine years old when Dei Verbum, the final document of Vatican 2, was promulgated on November 18, 1965. At that time, the suggestion that Catholics should read the Bible was a new idea. There were other new ideas making the rounds in the mid-1960s. Among them was second wave feminism (the first wave was the suffrage movement), a popular definition of which is:

Both a coordinated set of ideas and a practical plan of action, rooted in women’s critical awareness of how a culture controlled in meaning and action by men, for their own advantage, oppresses women and dehumanizes men. (Joann Wolski Conn)

As Schneiders describes, for many Christians a crisis resulted from the combination of renewed attention to reading the Bible and critical awareness of systems of oppression and dehumanization rooted in culture. Schnieders saw many women, lay and religious, come to see scripture and the Christian tradition as hopelessly at odds with the principle of the full humanity of women. Schneiders defends scripture, the tradition, and her own commitments as a nun without compromising her dignity as a woman or critique of oppression as it is found in human culture. The tradition, particularly the principles described in Dei Verbum, provides the tools for transforming a crisis of faith into a surmountable challenge.

This chapter is very dense and serves the purpose of three articles. I think you could benefit from reading it three times, so will limit the other readings for this week. Think of it as (1) an article on the Catholic view of scripture, particularly Dei Verbum, (2) an article on postmodern interpretation and its special role in theology over secular biblical studies, and (3) an article on feminist hermeneutics.

Dei Verbum and the Catholic View of Scripture

Postmodern Interpretation and Its Special Role in Theology

Without using the term “postmodern” Schneiders describes as “contemporary hermeneutics” on pages 47–48 what I have been calling “postmodern interpretation.” In the words of Schneiders three important principles of contemporary hermeneutics are:

On the one hand I have been trying to convey an appreciation of modern as well as postmodern, without denigrating one or the other. On the other hand, I agree with Schneiders that for purposes of biblical theology (beyond secular biblical studies) postmodern is indispensable. At a state university we could study ancient Israelite literature purely with historical interests in the thoughts and expressions of ancient Israelites. In a theology department we can still be informed by modern methods but cannot ignore the reader, particularly when the readers are communities of faith. In some ways postmodern re-approaches premodern interpretation in that both take scripture as relevant for readers today. They are both not-modern, but the fundamental difference is that once one knows modern one can reject its sufficiency but cannot unknow it. Indeed, Catholicism embraces historical-critical interpretation without rejecting other forms of interpretation. For example, modern interpretation can argue that “a virgin/young-woman shall conceive and bear a son” refers to Hezekiah as far as the intended meaning of the 8th century BCE author could have been. However, we would not want to take the intent of the author as the “one right meaning” to the exclusion of the interpretation advanced by the Gospel of Matthew. In that sense we understand Isaiah 7:14 more fully than the historical prophet Isaiah did. Systematic theologians rarely have to defend the principle that God transcends human understanding, but biblical theologians still have to defend the idea that the Word of God transcends the understanding of any one human (even an inspired human) and overflows with a plurality of meaning.

Feminist Hermeneutics

For Schneiders the task of “faith seeking understanding” in scripture put forward by the tradition can address the development of the critique of systems of oppression and dehumanization embedded in culture much as theology has adapted and grown through other developments throughout history. A few basic principles follow:

Finally, I would like to flesh out some specific examples which Schneiders only briefly mentions on page 50.

Laws Addressing the Rape of an Unbetrothed Girl

Middle Assyrian Laws

If a man forcibly seizes and rapes a maiden who is residing in her father’s house, [...] who is not betrothed(?), whose [womb(?)] is not opened, who is not married, and against whose father’s house there is no outstanding claim—whether within the city or in the countryside, or at night whether in the main thoroughfare, or in a granary, or during the city festival—the father of the maiden shall take the wife of the fornicator of the maiden and hand her over to be raped; he shall not return her to her husband, but he shall take (and keep?) her; the father shall give his daughter who is the victim of fornication into the protection of the household of her fornicator.
(xii 33) If he (the fornicator) has no wife, the fornicator shall give “triple” the silver as the value of the maiden to her father; her fornicator shall marry her; he shall not reject(?) her. If the father does not desire it so, he shall receive “triple” silver for the maiden, and he shall give his daughter in marriage to whomever he chooses. (MAL A 55 Roth)
If a maiden should willingly give herself to a man, the man shall so swear; they shall have no claim to his wife; the fornicator shall pay “triple” the silver as the value of the maiden; the father shall treat his daughter in whatever manner he chooses. (MAL A 56 Roth)

The Middle Assyrian Laws have a lengthy way of saying that location does not matter (cf. Deuteronomy, which in the case of a betrothed girl used location and her ability to protest as a measure of her complicity). In other ways three distinct sets of circumstances are addressed:

RapistGirlEconomic punishmentFate of the girl
Has a wife (measure of age?)Not willingWife of rapist raped and becomes property of father of girl (mirror punishment)Joins household of rapist
Does not have a wife Not willing3x market value of a virginFather chooses between keep girl or sends her to be inalienable wife of rapist
Either wayWilling (according to oath of rapist)3x market value of a virgin“The father shall treat his daughter in whatever manner he chooses”

“The father shall treat his daughter in whatever manner he chooses” could be a short way of saying the father has the same choice mentioned in the previous law between giving the girl to be the inalienable wife of the rapist or keeping her to give or sell to someone else. However, if her willingness is an offense against the family honor and a shameful reflection on his ability to control his household then “whatever manner he chooses” would seem to legitimize further violence.

Covenant Code

If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price. If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out silver in accordance with the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:15–16 JPS 1985)

In the Covenant Code the marital status of the rapist and the “consent” of the girl are not factors. There is no mirror punishment against the wife of the rapist. The financial penalty to the father of the girl is fair market value for a virgin, not the punitive tripling. The father has the same choice as in MAL. It is not explicitly stated that the girl cannot be divorced.


If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22:28–29 JPS 1985)

Deuteronomy eliminates any choice or reckoning. The girl’s consent and wishes do not matter, the father has no option to keep the girl or send her to the house of the rapist, and the monetary value of a virgin is fixed. I’m not sure I would make much of other variations, such as whether “and they are discovered” means the law can only be enforced if the rapist is caught in the act. I don’t think in any of the cases the word of a young girl would have been sufficient evidence, but there may have been more flexibility in the evidence required.

Narrative Addressing the Rape of a Young Girl: Genesis 34

By reading a chapter of Genesis we are anticipating the last unit of the course, narrative as law. Among modern scholars, Calum Carmichael argues that the narratives came first and the laws were inspired by the narratives. I think such antiquity and authority of the narratives is unlikely, and would not want to assert any general claims of causality. The original authors of Genesis 34 certainly had access to standards by which the words of Simeon and Levi are “guile” and their actions disproportionate. I think it is more likely the authors built on Genesis 49:5–7 such as to develop moral ambiguity. The fun or including narrative as law in the course is to see how premodern interpreters develop narrative as an integral part of the Torah, as legal material in its own right, as consistent with the other legal material, and as morally exemplary.

Premodern Interpretation of the Dinah Story: Kugel 233–244 and Jubilees 30 (PDF)

Premodern interpreters read Genesis 34 and Deuteronomy 22 as a consistent whole (an implication of the assumption of perfection). Simeon might have been negotiable, but Levi, the ancestor of Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, Zadok and all the priests and temple workers had to be a hero. The problem is that the response of Simeon and Levi is not consistent with the resolution prescribed by Deuteronomy. Furthermore, Jacob’s response is a little too tepid or compromising for some. The text itself leaves unresolved the final exchange between Jacob and Simeon/Levi.

Kugel gives several excerpts from Jubilees, but too much excerpting loses the feel of a continuous narrative, in this case a retelling of the Genesis narrative. The book of Jubilees was written in the 150s BCE in Jerusalem, in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt. It basically follows the narrative of Genesis from creation to Moses on Mount Sinai, but retells the story with some rather significant additions, summaries, and modifications. The premise of the book is that after God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai an archangel dictated to Moses from the heavenly tablets, which among other things can be thought of as a “testimony” or companion volume about the Torah. Much of my advanced research is on the book of Jubilees so you run the risk of hearing far more about Jubilees than you ever imagined possible.

Jubilees makes its basic points clear: Simeon and Levi were justified in punishing the crime of attempted intermarriage (not rape of a 12-year-old girl). Ezra was also very strongly anti-intermarriage, but not as radically as Jubilees. Other early Jewish sources hold much more moderate positions. The Torah never categorically prohibits intermarriage with all nations (as it does for certain specific nations). Jubilees derives the categorical prohibition by interpreting “giving seed to Molech” not as child sacrifice but as impregnating a Gentile or giving a daughter to a Gentile. The context of Leviticus 18 as restrictions on sexual unions supports this interpretation of Leviticus 18:21, and 20:1–5 supports the punishment. Jubilees resolves any moral ambiguity for Simeon and Levi and excuses Jacob’s disapproval as pragmatism that was understandable since he did not know about the divine protection. Although Genesis never connects Levi or the Levites to the priesthood, subsequent books of the Bible do, so Jubilees “backdates” the elevation of the Levites to Levi himself and a particular instance of merit on his part. The story is retold so as to echo with the story of Phinehas, who is also violently zealous against intermarriage and explicitly receives a divine reward of priesthood (Numbers 25).

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Virginity in the Bible.” In Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East , edited by Victor H. Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson and Tikva Frymer-Kensky. 79–96. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. (PDF)

Focus on pages 86–93 but skim or read the rest as your interest dictates. Page 84 picks up on the theme of honor and shame that came up last week.

Whatever the ultimate causes of the virginity ideal, the anthropologists are right in pointing out the strong connection between such chastity codes and the guarding of girls. The male members of the family have the prerogative and the duty to maintain the chastity of the young women of the family. The chastity of the girl thereby becomes an indicator of the social worth of the family and the men in it. The honor of the family is at stake, for real men have the strength and cunning to protect and control their women. The defilement of the females unmans the men: they lose their honor by the demonstration that they lack the qualities of real men.

With that in mind Frymer-Kensky explains details in Genesis 34 such as the danger of Dinah “going out.” The issue of consent of the girl is interesting on a couple of levels. Genesis 34 does not make a point of saying she was forcibly raped, as seduction or consent would have been no better or even worse. Frymer-Kensky raises the comparison with American law and culture on the point of consent of minors.

Frymer-Kensky discusses again the tendency in Deuteronomy to reduce the authority of heads of household, and the irrelevance of the girl’s consent in what is really a case of honor. I don’t quite agree with her on the points about “the situation becomes routine” or that it opens an elopement option. Fifty shekels was a lot of money.