Deuteronomy 22: A Tale of Two Cities
Ashleigh Elser

I want to tell you a story about a certain city—it is the city that is imagined in the creation of two laws that Moses gives to the Israelite people in the book of Deuteronomy. In the latter half of this text, in Deuteronomy 22:23-27, Moses says to the people:

 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her,  you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

            But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.

 The logic of these paired laws is fairly straightforward. In both cases, a man comes upon a woman who is engaged to be married and he sleeps with her. In the first case, the man comes upon this woman in the city, and it is assumed that she consented to his sexual advances, because otherwise she would have cried for help. In this case, the man and the woman both suffer the penalty of their sins because it is assumed that both were willing participants. In the second case, the man comes upon the woman outside the city walls, and in this case, only the man must suffer the penalty of this sin, because the woman may well have cried for help, not consenting to his advances, but there was no one there in the open country to hear her cry.

Clearly, there are horrifying implications to this set of paired laws—about the way they adjudicate innocence, about the way they punish adultery with the death penalty. But there is also a salient difference between these two laws, and this difference tells us something about the kind of city Moses imagined for the people of God.

Why is the law in the city different from the law in the open country? Because if the woman is in the city, there are people there to hear her cry out—but if no one was there to hear her in the open country, how would they know if she screamed and fought? Moses insisted that we must, in this latter case, believe what she says, take her at her word.

The difference between these laws, in other words, is about the kind of community Moses hopes for in this imagined city—the cloud of witnesses who is there to hear a woman cry out, to rescue her or to bear testimony on her behalf in a court of law. This law leverages the life of woman—a woman who cannot bear testimony for herself—on the willingness of the men of this city to hear and to respond.

But what if there is no one in the city who will hear her cry? What if that city is like our city, where women who cry out are shamed, disbelieved, threatened, and destroyed? What if that city, like our city, refuses to indict those who perpetrate violence against the vulnerable, refuses even to disqualify these men from positions of power and authority, and instead brings women alone out into the city square to be shamed and stoned? We see one such woman in the gospel of John. The men of the city bring her out to Jesus and explain that she has been caught in the act of adultery, and that she must suffer her due punishment. There is no man next to her in this story—her partner in this crime is not by her side. Perhaps he was a young man with a bright future ahead of him, and the men of the city decided to give him a second chance. Perhaps he was a city official with a good name and a good reputation behind him. Perhaps his fellow men took pity on him, empathized with the way this might destroy his life and his reputation. After all, boys will be boys, and no man should have their whole life ruined for a such a small indiscretion. No man who has made a name for himself in this city should be taken down by a nameless woman.

In September, during the tumultuous weeks leading up to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, the president of the United States tweeted something I heard repeatedly as the nation considered the allegations of sexual assault brought forward by Christine Blasey Ford: if Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Ford in the way she says he did, she would have cried out, she would have reported it, she would have gone immediately for help. The implication here is quite like the law in Deuteronomy: she did not cry out, and therefore she is condemned.

What do we do when the men of our city cannot or will not hear the cries of women? One thing women do—one thing women have done—is learn to keep our cries to ourselves.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women in the United States will be raped in her lifetime—and still, many women who summon the courage to report their experience are assumed to be liars, trying to ruin the reputation of someone who doesn’t deserve to have his name dragged through the mud. One in five women, and we still refuse to believe them; we still refuse to acknowledge what this tells us about men, or we are still surprised when men rush in to defend one another against the dangers that these charges present. If one in five women in this country is raped over the course of their lifetime, one in how many men has raped a woman? Is it any wonder that we are not ready to see clearly just how pervasive this all must be for those statistics to be true?

We live in a city plagued by violence—violence against black, brown, trans, queer, and cis bodies whose testimony is not believed unless the men of this city have ears to hear it—and what do so many of these men hear in these cries? An attack against men. A threat to their lives and to their reputations and to their well-being. A threat to the codes of silence that keep some people safe and others in danger. A threat to the way things have always been in this city.

This semester I am teaching a class called Women, Violence, and Power. Sixteen brave and brilliant young women sit around a table with me three times a week and read story after story in the biblical canon about rape, domestic abuse, and gendered violence. Women in the Bible are raped by strangers and by family members, women are raped by gangs and cut into pieces, women are taken by Israelite men as spoils of war, or taken as the right of Kings. God is largely silent in these stories, as are the victims of these crimes. These stories are often less about the pain and suffering of their victims than they are about how this violence impacts men: those accused of these crimes or those disgraced by them. In our class conversations, we wrestle with these texts and ask what it means that communities of readers who call these words the words of God think of these stories as sacred. How can such narratives of violence teach us anything about God?

In one such story, in chapter nineteen of the book of Judges, a Levite man comes into the city with his concubine, and when, in the middle of the night, he is threatened by violence, he throws her out the door into the street as a trade-off for his own safety. She is raped throughout the night by a gang of Israelite men. Those men did not hear her cry, nor did the Levite man and his host, who were sleeping soundly inside. When the man tries to leave the house in the morning, he is surprised to find her dead on the threshold. My students read stories like this with fear and trembling and anger, and I hear in their voices the words the disciples say to Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel of John: this is a hard word—who can hear it?

Alongside these stories, there are declarations about the character of God. “God is in the midst of the city,” the psalmist writes, and from him no truth is hidden (Ps. 46:5). God has heard every cry, has borne witness for those who could not bear witness for themselves. The first human being to give a name to God is a slave woman, oppressed and sexually abused by her master. She calls out to God and says: “You are the one who sees” (Gen. 16:13). Later, the psalmist will call God the one who hears. That these violent stories have been recorded and set down in this canon is a sign, perhaps, that God hears these cries and remembers with those who cannot forget.

In the difference between these two laws, in these violent stories, and in the cries of so many victims whose voices go unheard, there is an invitation to those who dwell in this city: he who has ears to hear, let him hear. 


Ashleigh Elser is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from a reflection delivered at Valparaiso's Chapel of the Resurrection on October 22, 2018.


Work Cited

“Get Statistics,” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (website), accessed December 7, 2018, https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics.

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