Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Biblical Perspective on Sex Trafficking

It is important to recognize that while sex trafficking is not a new issue, the world at the time of Scripture did not deal with this issue as individuals do now. Therefore, there are no Scriptures that clearly condemn sex trafficking, but there are many Scriptures that condemn the kind of twisted sexual practices seen in trafficking situations and a clear command for God’s people to seek justice for the vulnerable. Deuteronomy 22:22-29, Isaiah 58:6-10, Micah 6:6-8, and James 1:27 are amongst many examples of texts that communicate these messages.

Deuteronomy 22:22-29 is perhaps the most direct yet initially difficult passage, which makes it a good starting place. Still, to grasp what this passage is communicating will take some time so hang in there with me. Here it goes: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor's wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her. If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days" (Deuteronomy 22:22-29, ESV).

Deuteronomy 22:22-29 gives the Israelites instructions for what to do when a married woman has sex with another man, an engaged woman and a man have sex, an engaged woman is raped by a man, or a man rapes a woman who is not betrothed. It is important to understand that while the punishments and language surrounding these instructions may seem odd to modern day readers Moses is not writing to modern day readers. If Moses were writing to modern readers, he would give different instructions that better fit the context of today’s society.

The first two potential scenarios when read as they appear in the text may sound like the woman is being condemned unreasonably for her involvement but it seems as though the woman willingly had an affair with the man (Clements, R.E., 1998, 456). Block also said “the specified punishment suggests the act was consensual” (2012, 525). The final two scenarios seem to address when a woman is raped, especially since the situations between scenarios two and three are otherwise nearly the same (Clements, R.E., 1998, 456). The notable difference between scenarios two and three is the part about the woman crying out. In the town the residents would have lived very close to one another and in the second scenario “since no one heard the woman’s cry for help, it is assumed she did not cry out, which suggests the sexual act was consensual” (Block, D.I., 2012, 525). The full and severe punishment against the woman was only to be in effect when the woman did not cry out but easily could have and was acting willingly (Clements, R.E., 1998, 456). This is why the consequences between scenarios two and three are very different.

As Moses writes to the Israelites, he says the penalty for sleeping with a virgin is to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). This may seem like a horrible fate for the woman to live with as she is forced to live with the man who forced himself upon her but what Moses is focused on here is that the man must right the wrong he has done by paying the bride price and caring for her forever (Kalland, E.S., 1992, 139). While the exact specific procedures involved with such cases may not be relevant to today’s culture, the message remains the same. When someone is sexually abused by another, the abused have not sinned. They have been wronged. In the patriarchal society of Moses’ day this meant part of righting the wrong was by paying her father for her if she was not betrothed, since the sin would have seen as being done against the family. Today it would be understood that the sin was primarily done against her but her community is also affected. Victims deserve justice and to be cared for. This is hinted at here even though the focus seems to be on the family. On the other hand, the abusers should also both act justly and receive justice for their wrongdoing.

Another passage which speaks to the importance of God’s people being a community of justice is Isaiah 58:6-10. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday" (ESV).

Grogan said the questions the Lord asks in verses 6 and 7 following those of verse 5 where the people ask questions related to religious acts “serve to point out the people’s separation of religious observance and social righteousness, a theme the 8th century prophets never tired of expounding” (1986, 323). Their fasting had become about showing up others rather than about abandoning themselves but “God calls for behavior that is self-forgetful and outward-looking” (Oswalt, J.N., 2003, 625).

Here they are taught that freeing and helping are acceptable forms of worship (Watts, J.D.W., 1987, 272). The Lord specifies three acts which are related to the needs of the time (Watts, J.D.W., 1987, 274). God’s people could not change the whole oppressive system themselves but the Lord does not let them off the hook because they were still called to do justice however they could. Watts said “God’s people were and are intended to promote freedom” because “all forms of bondage are distasteful to God, whether economic, political, or social” (1987, 275). Sex trafficking is clearly a form of bondage thus it must eliminated.

The next few verses communicate the idea that when this kind of active, other-oriented faith is demonstrated the light of God’s people shall “break forth like dawn” (Isaiah 58:8, ESV) and the Lord will answer their calls. Grogan said the final concluding verse of this passage suggests “social concern is not just to be seen in an isolated episode but it is to be a way of life for God’s people. We are to spend not just our money but ourselves” (1986, 323). This need to give up one’s self for the sake of another still exists today while individuals continue to live in oppressive, impoverished systems such as those which promote sex trafficking.

Micah, another prophet active in the same context and some of the same time period as Isaiah, had a similar message for God’s people and shared that clearly in Micah 6:6-8. “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (ESV)

In the first part of this passage, the people ask the Lord what kind of sacrifices He desires but he responds “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV). These three commands God gives are still in effect today. God’s command for justice implies movement because justice is something to be done (Simundson, 1996, 580). Simundson said “this is a dynamic concept that calls on God’s people to work for fairness and equality for all, particularly for the weak and the powerless who are exploited by others” (1996, 580). McComiskey said “‘to love mercy’ is to freely and willingly show kindness to others” (1985, 436). To walk humbly with God means to exhibit both obedience and humility (Deane, 1950, 88). Deane said “to walk with God is to make it our fixed purpose and determination to live to him, to devote ourselves to his service” (1950, 93). Relative to trafficking, these commands suggest believers fight for justice for them and show them mercy and kindness, especially since they are a group which is largely without a voice.

Finally, James 1:27 says “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (ESV). Burdick said this verse teaches that “genuine religion is a life-changing force” (1981, 176). These actions James advocates for are not to be empty ones though, as the other prophets would also say. They “must spring from an inner spiritual reality that expresses itself in love to others and holiness before God” (Burdick, D.P., 1981, 176). True faith “shows its authenticity by giving gifts to the needy in the same way God gives them to all creatures” because giving gifts to others is a natural reaction when there is a deep understanding of the way God blesses and gives life to all (Johnson, L.T., 1998, 189).

In many ways, James continues the themes of the prophets regarding true religion, justice, and compassion (Nystrom, D.P., 1997, 97). One significant thing James does is that he identifies two particular groups that demanded the immediate attention of the Christian community: widows and orphans. This is because widows and orphans were considered “emblematic of all groups open to exploitation” (Nystrom, D.P., 1997, 97). While widows and orphans are still vulnerable groups, trafficked women could easily be added to the list of the most vulnerable individuals across the globe today. Another element which is relevant to the conversation of sex trafficking is James’ point about not being polluted by the world. Even “Christians” engage in trafficking to some degree or in some form sometimes but this verse and others clearly speak against such evil worldly engagement.

These are just four of many verses that could be chosen that relate to this topic. What these passages teach believers is that God’s people are called to do justice, care for the most vulnerable and oppressed, and pay attention to the broken realities of sexual sin.

Block, D.I. (2012). Deuteronomy. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Burdick, D.W. (1981). “James.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 12. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Clements, R.E. (1998). “Deuteronomy.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume 2. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Deane, W.J. (1950). “Micah.” The Pulpit Commentary: Volume 14. Grand Rapids, MI: W.M. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Grogan, G.W. (1986). “Isaiah.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 6. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Johnson, L.T. (1998). “James.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume 12. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Kalland, E.S. (1992). “Deuteronomy.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
McComiskey, Thomas. (1985). The Expositor’s Commentary: Volume 7. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Nystrom, D.P. (1997). James. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Oswalt, J.N. (2003). Isaiah. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Simundson, Daniel J. (1996). “Micah.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nahville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Watts, J.D.W. (1987). Isaiah 34-66. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books.

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