Ancient Texts/Modern Practices: Girls as Targets of Adult Sexual Desire

Leda and Zeus as swan (Arch. Mus. of Dion)
As many readers now know, Alabama Republican candidate for the US Senate Roy Moore has been accused by multiple teenagers (one as young as 14 at the time) of initiating sexual encounters or relationships with them. Numerous conservative commentators (like Hannity) and politicians have defended his behavior. One of the--I'll just say it--creepiest and infuriating defenses came from an Alabama colleague, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who said:
“Take the Bible—Zachariah and Elizabeth, for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist... Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
He went on to point out that it "wasn't immoral or illegal" just a bit "unusual." Setting aside the fact that Elizabeth was actually old--this is why her child is a miracle!--there are other issues with Zeigler's statement. Illegal? Well, yes. Age of consent in Alabama in 1979 (when the event occurred) was 16. Moore's actions would have constituted sexual abuse in the 2nd degree. Immoral? The reason why modern societies set the age of consent higher now than has been the case in the past is, for starters, because we now understand that young adults and teens have not fully developed mentally.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, teen brains have not fully matured and, as a result, they are prone to "act on impulse misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, get into accidents of all kinds, get involved in fights, and engage in dangerous or risky behavior." They are also less likely to "think before they act, pause to consider the consequences of their actions, and change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors."

With this knowledge, it helps us to understand that when older people (frequently men, but not always) convince or coerce young adults and teens into sexual acts, it is often because they are taking advantage of teens' underdeveloped decision making and tendency towards risk. Further, teens tend to respond more emotionally than logically--and fear can be a big emotional motivator when confronted by someone you've been taught to respect or listen to. Taking advantage of teens is, indeed, predatory and immoral.

But this is NOT the point of my blog post. The point of my blog post is to look at what happens when people tie their view of when a girl is sexually available to examples in 2000+ year old texts. This is something that a number of religious leaders have pointed out is not good:
"Even those who followed ancient marriage customs, which we would not follow today, knew the difference between molesting and marriage."
And, then, of course, there is the fact that Luke (1:26-38) and Matthew (1:18-26) both make clear that Joseph was the father of Jesus in name only and, Matthew 1:26 says that Joseph refrained from any sexual relations with his wife until after the birth.

The ridiculousness of Zeigler's claim is clear. But what isn't clear is that there are many many people in the world who think that there is actually nothing wrong with a 30 year old man and a 14 year old girl, not just biblical literalists like Zeigler. And this is in part because our ancient texts--biblical and classical alike--are awash with representations of powerful men preying on and impregnating young women and our modern moral structure is, in large part, shaped by ancient texts.

In antiquity, it was common for girls to marry either shortly before or shortly after they began menstruating (though places like Sparta are said to have waited until girls were closer to 18). Men, on the other hand, didn't typically marry in many ancient societies until they were of full political or military age. This age in places like Athens or Sparta would be anywhere between 25-30. So, it was not unusual to have a 30 year old married to a 14 or 15 year old. We even hear of marriages taking place with girls as young as 7-10 (particularly in Rome), though the marriages weren't supposed to be consummated until the girl had reached puberty. The conditions in antiquity (e.g. high infant mortality, danger of pregnancy, short average lifespan, patriarchal views of women’s roles) encouraged girls to marry and start giving birth young.  These conditions are no longer valid, or should not be.

Outside of practice, ancient stories abound about sexual desire and sexual assault of girls outside of marriage contexts or in adultery. Sure, when Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to the underworld, he did so to marry her and with her father Zeus' consent. It did not make her kidnapping any less violent. In fact, Zeus was one of the great perpetrators of forcing himself on girls and young women, not bothering to control his own sexual appetites , frequently leaving them pregnant (or worse): Europa, Io, Semele, Danae, Leda (pictured above with Zeus as a swan)...I could go on. And his sons Apollo and Herakles followed his lead. As have so many men in the modern world who, raised on the Bible and the Classics--the "pillars" of "western civilization"--who found models, justifications, and excuses for their own sexualization of girls and their taking advantage of their power and authority to act on their desires.

Picasso Rape of the Sabine Women 1962.
Consider the "Rape of the Sabine Women," part of the foundation story of Rome. As the story goes, the Romans, unable to get marriage agreements with nearby towns, planned a festival to which they invited the neighboring Sabines, who brought their wives, daughters, etc. The Romans (all men at this point), on a signal, seized all of the unmarried girls and sent their families packing. They then forced them to become their wives. These new wives, pregnant with or already having given birth to their rapists children, are credited then with uniting Rome and the Sabines by stopping the war that ensued after the mass rape. But these "women" are not "women". They are unmarried girls--likely 14-15 year olds.

It isn't just the Greek gods and heroes or Romans who can be mustered up to sanction this behavior and attitudes that girls are "ripe" for plucking. Zeigler points to Joseph. But, not to be entirely sacrilegious here, as one commenter on the Washington Post article reminds us:
"In Christian tradition, Joseph was not Jesus's father, though, in fairness, God was also much older than Mary."
The fact that a 14 year old Mary is pregnant by a Holy Spirit entering into her while she slept (or in a vision) and that this is celebrated as a good thing doesn't inspire confidence in the morality of the bible as a guide to the modern world anymore than Zeus' proclivity for raping girls in Greek mythology does or Rome founding itself on the rape of neighbor girls. While Mary's impregnation was an act of divine will, so was the impregnation of Io and of Semele and of Europa and Danae by Zeus. The motif of the unmarried girl made pregnant through the divine is an old and widespread one. Why should we be surprised that it persists today? Especially since in some conservative Christian circles, underage/early marriage is a norm. The Quiverfull movement is particularly well-know for it.

In a recent study, it was found that more than 200,000 children were married in the US since 2002. Girls (and some boys) as young as 10 and 11 being married to men in their 20s and 30s through legal loopholes that allowed the bypassing of age of consent laws. In a case in Alabama, a 14 year old married a 74 year old. The numbers (and actual statements by Moore's supporters) suggest that there are large numbers of people in our country who do not think that Roy Moore did anything wrong or out of the usual. And why should they, when they use 2000+ year old texts, removed from their historical contexts, as their guide? And when it is consistently argued that these ancient texts are the foundations for modern morality? And when any type of pregnancy, even one resulting from incest or rape, is called a "gift from god"? (here's another such story for funsies from Sept).

There are many many things in ancient Mediterranean texts that are good and useful, but using them as guides for marriage and the treatment of girls and women isn't one of them.