The girl was only 4 years old. She was lured from her parents by a man in his mid-20s and raped. The damage to her tiny body was terrible but not as terrible as what happened next. When the child’s parents found their daughter they did not call for medical help. Instead they abandoned her. Others in the community also turned a blind eye to the child, and the girl slowly bled to death lying alone at the site of the tragedy.
The reason for such brazenness? According to James Emery, author of a research article titled “Reputation is Everything,” the family and community felt the child’s misfortune would sully the family’s honor. Leaving the child alone to bleed to death was deemed an honor killing.
Honor killings are generally defined as murders of women by relatives who claim the victims brought shame to the family.
Afaf Younes was 17. Allegedly there was a pattern of sexual abuse by her father. Afaf ran away from home to get away from him. She was caught and returned to her father who then shot her in the name of honor. No one protested.
A 16-year-old Palestinian girl became pregnant after being raped by her younger brother. Once her condition became known, her family encouraged the older brother to kill her to remove the blemish (an out of wedlock pregnancy) from their honor. Both brothers — the rapist and the murderer — were exonerated. The girl was blamed.
An 18-year-old Palestinian man stabbed his teenage sister 40 times just because of a rumor she was involved in an extramarital affair. The family thanked God for her death.
Emery concluded “several thousand women a year are victims of honor killings.” Women are treated as commodities in these places. They are responsible for maintaining their moral and sexual purity. If they fail, for whatever reason, their “shame” is extended to the entire family and can be eliminated only by their death.
Honor killings usually occur in communities where reputation is everything, experts say. Frequently families will spend their entire lives in the same community. Mention a family name and people can tell you its complete history. Reputation and honor are the most important possessions one has whether one is wealthy or poor.
Most honor killings involve Muslims although the practice, Emery says, predates the founding of the religion and the Quran does not teach honor killings. “Some Jewish communities from the ancient fortress of Masada to conservative Hasidic sects of today have similar views of traditions and ritual law,” he writes.
When Emery writes, “Women are executed in their homes, in open fields and occasionally in public, sometimes before crowds of cheering onlookers,” one can easily draw parallels with John 8:1–11, where the Pharisees wanted to publicly stone a woman taken in adultery. Had the stoning taken place, it would have been an “honor killing” before a crowd of cheering onlookers.
Deuteronomy 22:20 demands the killing of a girl whose virginity cannot be proven. In verse 21, a girl who engaged in premarital sex was to be stoned to death by the men of the town. The purpose of the killings, one reads over and over again, is to “purge the evil” from the community.
It is important to remember that like many people groups in that part of the world, Israel had its own forms of honor killings deeply embedded in its history, traditions and practices. That reality causes one to read the Christmas story with a new sense of appreciation.
In Luke 1:26–38, the angel Gabriel appeared to a teenage Mary in the town of Nazareth. He was a stranger. Whether the angel appeared in her room in the middle of the night or at the well where she went to draw water, it was dangerous for her to be alone with Gabriel. No wonder she was troubled by his greeting.
After hearing that she would bear a son, one can hear the shock in her words, “How can this be?” One can almost hear the fear as she adds, “I am a virgin.” To hear the exchange between Gabriel and Mary as only an intellectual explanation of what is about to happen misses the human drama and fails to grasp the depth of dedication demonstrated by Mary.
While Nazareth was a small, out-of-the-way village resting atop a hillside, Sephora was a large regional Roman city in the valley about an hour’s walk away. It was a regional military post, one of the Decapolis cities complete with all of Rome’s vices.
Mary knew what happened to other girls who had gotten pregnant outside of marriage. She may have known about honor killings in her own community. She may have even witnessed them. So when the angel told her of the coming child, it is no wonder she protested that the foretelling could not be true. If what Gabriel said were true, it could cost her her life. She might join the list of honor killing victims stoned by the men of the town.
Against the fears of physical death, Gabriel told of the greatest longing of a Jewish heart becoming a reality. The Messiah would be born and Mary would be the human instrument of the child’s coming.
That day in Nazareth, hope defeated fear. In faith, Mary resolved, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Mary invited the shame and disgrace that would come when villagers learned she was pregnant. She made her family subject to humiliation because of the conclusions people would reach about her actions. She risked being stoned to death in an honor killing all because of the promise shared by the angel — “so the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.”
In the years that followed many people would suffer physical death because of their faith in Mary’s Child. People still die today because of Him. But these have the promise that “as God raised Jesus from the dead, so shall you also be raised.” Mary faced the possibility of death before Jesus was born. Her promise was about what was yet to be.
“May it be to me as you have said” — what a remarkable reputation that statement makes. What a wonderful faith it shows. It is a faith to be remembered and a faith to be celebrated as we prepare to commemorate Christ’s birth this Christmas season.