Holy Shifts and Sexual Ethics

Holy Shift Tour Logo

Logo for Kevin Makins’ Holy Shift tour. For information on the tour, visit holyshift.ca.

Today’s daily lectionary reading was Deuteronomy 22:13-30. I won’t copy the whole text here, but these are the key points:

  1. The onus is on a woman to prove her virginity. This is already problematic that her life is dependent on her virginity, but it becomes even more problematic when you consider that the test isn’t reliable; women don’t always bleed the first time she has sex. If she didn’t bleed on her wedding night, she is killed.
  2. If it turns out she has been falsely accused, the man is whipped and pays a fine to the bride’s father. In other words, slandering your wife in a way that risks putting her to death carries less of a punishment than maybe having had sex before the wedding night.
  3. If a man has sex with an engaged or married woman in the town and she is not screaming for help, they are both put to death. The assumption here is that if she isn’t willing, she would scream for help. What if she simply goes into shock and doesn’t know what to do? What if he’s strong enough to keep her mouth covered? Who determines whether she screamed loud enough to prove she didn’t want it? (Probably a group of men). This is victim-blaming.
  4. If a woman is raped in the country where screaming wouldn’t notify anybody anyway, only the rapist is put to death. That’s assuming she is believed, which probably wasn’t normally the case the same as we usually don’t believe rape victims today.
  5. If a man and a single consenting woman have sex, they must get married. What happens if he says she was willing but she disagrees? I assume he’s believed and we’re back to the prior rules.

Other less-troublesome aspects include not committing adultery. Today we generally don’t think that deserves the death penalty, but we would still typically all agree it’s bad. We can sympathize with the principle at least.

We can also argue that points 4 through 5 really go back to point 1. If you assume that a woman’s worth is tied to her virginity, giving up that virginity is a death sentence. So if she has sex willingly, the man has to marry her to make sure she doesn’t get that death sentence. Now it seems terrible, but given point 1, point 5 is a huge protection for women – she’s now guaranteed food and shelter. Even the points about rape sort of make sense in that context. The raped woman in the country still has no protection afterward, but there’s an acknowledgement she wasn’t willing and she still lives. There’s problematic victim-blaming and problematic tying women’s worth to virginity, but given those two starting cultural assumptions, these rules aren’t nearly as ridiculously oppressive as they sound today.

Holy Shift

Last week we went to an event called Holy Shift here in Kitchener, led by Kevin Makins from Hamilton. Let’s see if I can make it through this post without mistyping holy shift. He worked his way through some of the shifts moving us forward throughout the Bible and human history since. Examples included slavery and the treatment of women like those laws above (and worse ones that are in there, too). Makins explained the context of some of these laws, like I did briefly above. Given the cultural context these laws were significant steps forward in creating a more equal society. We could also look at ideas like the Sabbath, which was not simply a religious ritual – it forced them to give their slaves a day off. No, the Law didn’t outlaw slavery in the same way it didn’t overturn the assumption that a woman is only as valuable as her virginity, but they were steady shifts forward.

The prophets provide more shifts forward. Jesus provides gigantic shifts forward, establishing a completely new covenant based on love instead of the Law, which included certain examples like treatment of women and slaves as well. Even Paul, oft-maligned by progressives today, made huge gains for women and slaves by telling the men in charge of the world they had to submit to their wives and treat their slaves like brothers. We still haven’t rid either patriarchy or slavery from the world two thousand years later, but we’ve made significant gains as we continue to make those holy shifts forward. When we read these texts as rules for all time instead of shifts forward in their context, we get a very harmful – and inconsistent – reading of Scripture.

The question Makins left us with is what our own holy shifts would be. He gave simple concrete examples like a woman who had moved to Hamilton in the winter with a young child and no job. Her first shift was simply to go for a walk every day. Then she realized there was no community gathering place in this less-fortunate part of the city. Her next shift then was to start a coffee shop. She had never run a business and she didn’t really have any particular interest, but she felt that calling to make one more holy shift forward into a better world.

Maybe you need to make a dramatic holy shift: new city, new job, new volunteer position, marriage, child, breakup. Maybe it’s a smaller holy shift: smiling at a neighbour, encouraging a coworker, picking up garbage as you walk to work. Those things should not be overlooked. The priority is less where we are right now with our lives – are you a “good person” or a “bad person” – as it is where we are heading. Are we looking at Jesus and creating more holy shifts in the world?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.