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In Deut. 22:20, 21 Moses tells us that adultery calls for the death penalty:
20 But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, 21 then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
In an immoral society, of course, such a penalty sounds harsh. If our view differs from the mind of God, then we ought to repent (change our minds to conform to His mind). The world treats morality as a man-made innovation of religion designed to control people. They do not believe in such a God, for they think of mankind as just another breed of animals that evolved with bigger and better brains. Hence, anything that distinguishes us from animals, such as moral principles, are considered to be “unnatural.”
But we advocate the Kingdom of God and have embarked on a path to renew our minds by putting on the mind of Christ. We are not afraid to be different, for we fear God more than man.
Having said that, just because the law prescribes the death penalty for adultery does not mean that all adulterers must be put to death. Keep in mind that a godly judge must sentence adulterers to death, if their crime is proven in accordance with the law of witnesses. But the victim always retains the right to forgive any sin that was done to him or her. In fact, if a husband or wife commits adultery, it may be that they are able to settle the case between themselves and never bring it before a judge. This would be the ideal way to handle any case, as we see in Matthew 18:15,
15 And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
Repentance and forgiveness is always the will of God. The law always has a redemptive purpose. When the law prescribes any penalty, it only determines to uphold the rights of the victim. Victims, however, are given the discretion to take advantage of their rights or to forgive those who have trespassed against them. The lawbreaker and the victim should communicate, so that the victim can discern and determine how to apply the rights that the judge’s verdict has given him/her.
I should also mention that when the Pharisees wanted Jesus to judge the adulterous woman in John 8:1-11, they wanted Him to pass judgment according to Deut. 22:21. Jesus, however, knew that he was unable to judge any capital case—even if He wanted to do so—because the Roman government had forbidden the Jews to judge such cases. All capital cases had to go to be tried in a Roman court of law. The Pharisees knew this as well, and that is why they tried to trap Jesus into judging the adulterous woman.
Jesus did not refuse the case, but acted in His priestly capacity, presenting her case to the Supreme Court of Heaven. This was done in accordance with the law in Numbers 5:11-31. Whenever justice is hindered, or when injustice is not done in earthly courts, men and women have the right to appeal the case to God Himself.
This is what Jesus did. He began to write the accusations on the ground, because He did not have a book with Him, which normally the priest would have used (Num. 5:23).
When the Pharisees figured out that He was appealing the case to the Supreme Court of Heaven according to the law in Numbers 5, they walked away, knowing that their purpose had been defeated. With no witnesses to testify against her, the law demanded that she should be set free, for no one could be convicted for any sin except by the mouth of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). So Jesus complied with the law as a just judge, even giving her some professional advice: “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on, sin no more” (John 8:11).
The Pharisees’ insincerity and lawless attitude is shown by the fact that the woman, they said, had been “caught in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:4). So where was the adulterous man? Was he not recognized? How did he escape? If the Pharisees were so interested in following the law, why did they not comply with Deut. 22:22? They wanted Jesus to apply verse 21, but they themselves were unwilling to apply verse 22,
22 If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.
Again, while it is the duty of a judge to sentence both of them to death, the sentence only establishes the rights of the victims. The victims may forgive any sin that they wish, for this is the law of victim’s rights. Kingdom citizens would normally repent of any sin and would thereby receive mercy and forgiveness in most cases. Lawless people (both Christians and non-Christians alike) fear the law, because their carnal nature desires to sin with immunity and does not want to repent. Hence, they reject the law out of fear, preferring not to put on the mind of Christ.
Moses then speaks of a related issue in Deut. 22:23, 24,
23 If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
Engagement is nearly as binding as marriage itself, because it was a promise of marriage. Once engaged, the woman’s legal status changed, so that if she were to have sexual relations with another man during her engagement, it was the same as adultery in the eyes of God. In such a case, the victim would be the woman’s future husband, and so he was given the right to prosecute her or to forgive her.
This is evident from the case of Mary who was engaged to Joseph, when it appeared that she had been unfaithful to him when pregnant with Jesus (Matt. 1:19). Here we see that Mary’s father is not even mentioned as a victim, but only Joseph himself. Joseph chose to forgive, and then later was given revelation that she had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit.
Moses continues in verses 25-27,
25 But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the girl; for there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. 27 When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.
This is a continuation of the law dealing with engaged women. It was important, because in some cultures the woman is punished along with the man when she is not at fault. This law reflects the culture of the day, in that there is a difference between the city and the field. Location was important because in the city a girl could scream, and nearly always there were people in the area to hear her and come to her rescue. On the other hand, “the field” implies that they were alone.
Some have interpreted this by the letter of the law, thereby missing the point that God was making. There may be times when a city or neighborhood was deserted, or times when others were in the field (countryside). The spirit of the law shows that it is not the location as such that is paramount, but whether or not the act was done in a secluded place.
Moses then moves on to a case where an unmarried woman is raped.
28 If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes [taphas] her and lies with her and they are discovered, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.
It may surprise many to learn that rape of an unmarried or unengaged woman does not call for the death penalty. Seduction, of course, most likely would result in marriage. But in a case of rape, this is less likely. The father of the woman is given the right to demand that the man marry her for the standard price of a dowry (fifty shekels of silver). But in no way is this mandatory, for this legal penalty only establishes the rights of the victim and should be construed to mean that the victim is duty-bound to marry her rapist.
The penalty for rape and seduction appears to be the same, for we read in Exodus 22:16, 17,
16 And if a man seduces [patha] a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife. 17 If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry for virgins.
The penalty for seduction is marriage and the price of a dowry (fifty shekels). The fine is the equivalent of 100 days of common labor from dawn to dusk. Calculating this in today’s monetary terms, 100 days x 12 hours/day comes to 1,200 hours of labor. At an average of $20/hour in America, this would be the equivalent of $24,000.
The dowry was the trust fund for a wife in case her husband died or divorced her. The fund was to be managed by the woman’s father or guardian, and the fund would increase through business over the years. If the couple lived a long and happy life, they could use it later as a retirement fund or give it to their children as an inheritance.
In the cases above, however, the woman was given the right to marry the man. Once again, the law defines the rights of the victims but does not demand that the victims carry out the sentence. Hence, in the case of seduction, the father of the woman has the right to demand that he marry his daughter, but verse 17 makes it clear that he may also refuse to allow the marriage. This is another example showing that the law merely establishes the rights of the victim, while not demanding that the penalty be carried out.
In the case of rape (in Deut. 22:28), nothing is said about the victim’s rights to refuse the marriage, but this right would certainly carry over from Exodus 22:17. The law of victim’s rights is not unique to this particular situation but is a general principle of law that applies to all judgments for sin. Sin results in the sinner’s loss of rights and a limitation on his freedom of choice. In the cases above, the man loses his right to choose his wife, and that right is given to the woman’s father or guardian. He, of course, ought to consult with his daughter, rather than make such an important decision without her input.
Comparing these two laws, by the way, confirms that “a dowry for virgins” (Exodus 22:17) is defined as “fifty shekels” (Deut. 22:29).