“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
During the last two weeks an investigative journalist named Rukmini Callimachi has published extensive reports of an organized, large-scale system of sexual violence and slavery that the Islamic State has established in territory it controls and calls a caliphate. The details are so circumstantial and horrific as to shock even readers jaded by a daily surfeit of reported mayhem.
“In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl," Callimachi begins, “the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.”
Generally speaking wars are fought by young men under conditions that undermine civilized social norms and enable transgression. Rape and pillage go together like fire and sword in the pages of our history textbooks. Long before "The Rape of the Sabine Women," foreign females might have been viewed as a convenient source of breeding stock. The cultural exchange was not always violent. Following the Second War there came to this country large numbers of “war brides” from Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines — places where large numbers of young Americans had passed through as allies, invaders or occupiers.
As Johnson points out in a Rambler essay, “Precept has generally been posterior to performance.” The religious sanction for rape, perhaps the most shocking element in Callimachi’s story, justified “facts on the ground,” as we now call them. The Times reassures us that ISIS' practice is based on a “narrow interpretation” of the Quranic text, one that most Muslims would disavow. That gives some comfort, though probably not so much to the Yazidi girls in the sacral brothels of Iraq or the little Nigerian girls carted off by Boko Haram.
What would a broad interpretation mean? Consider some earlier Semitic texts held to be sacred. Many of the early Christians were so disturbed by certain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that there was a lively debate as to whether the writings could actually represent Revelation. The history of the conquest of Canaan is essentially a catalogue of war crimes. What do you do (see Judges, chapter 19) with a Levite who, with a butcher knife, cuts up his gang-raped concubine into 12 parts?
More immediately to the point, how do you deal with the epigraph from Deuteronomy at the top of this essay, which is another primitive justification for sexual booty in the ancient Near East? Fortunately for lovers of western classical literature, Saint Jerome and other early exegetes found a way of saving the scriptures from themselves. Jerome thought that this Deuteronomic legislation could have no literal application in the Age of the Incarnation. Its force was instead allegorical or spiritual.
The passage was an allegory not of sexual conquest but of cultural appropriation. The beautiful female captive should be understood to mean the beautiful literature of ancient Greece and Rome. The poems of Homer and Virgil were full of polytheistic mythology, sexual violence and martial barbarity. But they were likewise replete with ancient wisdom expressed in language of unsurpassed beauty. To obliterate or suppress them would be to throw out more baby than bathwater.
So the classics were, as we say, “preserved” by being sent off to the allegorical nail salon. Were it not for the work of pious, devoted medieval monks with their monkish commentaries, there would be no “classics” to study in our schools and colleges.
Saint Augustine found in another scriptural text the identical lesson. Shortly before they exited Egypt the Hebrew slaves robbed Pharaoh blind, gathering up all the expensive and ornamental cookware they could find — vessels of silver and vessels of gold. The Hebrew euphemism for this was “borrowing,” but they had not the slightest intention of returning the goods. “And they spoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36).
As grand theft might appear to be an unseemly habit for the chosen people, Augustine found in the episode an allegory of the humanistic impulse. Christians did not have a monopoly on the truth — which wherever it found expression belonged to the Lord — but they should take it and use it wherever they found it. The gold was the wisdom of the ancients, the silver the beautiful rhetoric in which it was clothed.
In the great medieval Christian epic "The Divine Comedy," the character Dante chose as his guide and mentor not Saint Peter or Saint Paul but the pagan poet Virgil. Though he could lead others to belief, Virgil was himself an unbeliever. He is therefore sadly damned for all eternity. As Hell goes, he’s definitely in one of the better neighborhoods, but still.
Among the first words he utters in the poem are these: “I lived in the time of the false and lying gods." This detail is to be sure judgmental on Dante’s part, but it is very different from blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas. You don't have to read "The Aeneid" if you don't want to, but you don't get to incinerate the last copy.