Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Deuteronomy 22: On Stoning

Readers of the New York Times woke up to a chilling story on the front page of today's paper. Over the weekend, Taliban leaders in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz stoned a young couple to death for eloping. The woman, Siddiqa, was 19 years old; her father promised her to a relative of her lover, Khayyam, but the couple were unwilling to part. They escaped their village to marry but were lured back under the false assurance that their marriage would be allowed. Upon their return, they were hastily tried before a group of local mullahs and sentenced to death by stoning. Nearly 200 men--including Khayyam's father and brother--participated in the execution, which, the Times reports, took on a festive air.

Siddiqa and Khayyam were convicted of engaging in a sexual relation forbidden by local religious authorities' interpretation of sharia law--the body of Muslim legal precedent, derived from Muslim jurists' exegesis of the Qur'an and their understanding of the sunna, or examples of the Prophet. (There is no one global sharia; indeed, religious scholars approaching Muslim scripture with different hermeneutical assumptions may develop widely varying interpretations of the text.) This strident display of Taliban power suggests that their influence in the country is waxing, but a chorus of voices in Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world has roundly condemned the killings. Even some conservative Muslims have decried the execution as an unacceptable form of vigilante justice. (Radio Free Europe's web site continues the discussion here.)

Nonetheless, the mullahs' sharia is not the only religious code that calls for the stoning of men and women convicted of sexual impropriety. The Torah also demands that those involved in certain illegal romantic relationships be stoned.

The Hebrew Bible explicitly recommends--er, requires--that no fewer than seven types of criminals deserve stoning as punishment for their sins, among them blasphemers, idolators, witches, and children who disrespect their parents. (A handful of passages in Exodus also outline crimes for which oxen can be stoned--poor oxen.)

Further, like the version of sharia acted upon by the mullahs of Kunduz, Deuteronomy 22 also demands that certain sexual miscreants be stoned. Verses 13 through 21 describe a first sex crime punishable by death: if a man discovers that his new wife is not a virgin, she can be stoned to death outside the city "because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house" (v. 21).

However, verses 23 and 24 describe another romantic relationship--also punishable by stoning death--nearly identical to the "crime" committed by Siddiqa and Khayyam. That passage reads as follows: "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 neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst." This passage would cover situations like that of the young Afghan couple, and would call for death.

Contemporary Christians and Jews, though they still condemn adultery, no longer demand such heinous retribution. However, later Biblical evidence suggests that some believers in the early first century still did.

In John 8, Jesus is approached by a group of Pharisees escorting a convicted adulteress. Confronting Jesus, the Pharisees say, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" (8:4-5)

In response, Jesus draws a line in the sand and challenges the crowd: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (8:8). Jesus's gambit works, and as the crowd--the whole crowd--disperses, Jesus turns to the woman and says, "Neither do I condemn you" (8:11).

Tens of millions of Muslims all over the world share Jesus's sentiment when they hear the story of Khayyam and Siddiqa: neither do they condemn them. And nor do we.

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