About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22: it’s not what you think

Picture of a bride with her eyes closed, standing against a white flowing veil-like background with the words: About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22:13-21... it's not what you think. Forget the hymen. This was about power. And money.. workthegreymatter.com

There was some justifiable outrage recently when rapper T.I. said that he had a gynaecologist annually test that his daughter’s hymen was still intact.

Leaving aside the brutal, if not fatal, penalties that women may suffer even today if they lose their virginity in a socially unacceptable manner, T.I.’s attitude is reminiscent of Old Testament times.

Or is it?

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of murder and toxic purity culture.

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 is one of the scarier passages for impressionable young Christian women, as it seems to hold up pre-marital sex as a crime punishable by death. Even for married women, such as myself, the passage can be puzzling: hymeneal blood following intercourse is a notoriously unreliable proof of virginity.

So, do we:

  1. Take Deuteronomy 22:13-21 as nevertheless prohibiting all pre-marital sex,
  2. Write it off as an ancient relic, void of Christian love as we know it, or
  3. Say there’s got to be more here than meets the eye?

In case you hadn’t guessed, this post is all about option 3. (If you want a summary in fewer than 500 words, click here.)

What’s with the hymen?

The hymen is a thin membrane along the lower edge of a vaginal opening. Supposedly, if it’s intact, that’s proof that no penis has entered a woman’s vagina and thus she is a virgin.

I first properly learned about this body part when I read Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. “I guarantee that virtually everything you were taught about the hymen is wrong,” she writes, before explaining that many women don’t have a hymen and of those that do, it doesn’t usually bleed.

“Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication than damage to hymen.”
Come As You Are, p68

You might think that reading this would jolt me into re-evaluating this Deuteronomy law. Nope. It wasn’t until some years later that I wrestled with these verses. The reason? I noticed a disparity in the penalties.

The problems of Deuteronomy 22:13-21

According to other Old Testament laws, if person A accuses person B falsely, the penalty for A (the perjurer) is whatever the penalty would have been for person B if person B had committed the crime.

But that doesn’t seem to hold in Deuteronomy 22:13-21. There, if the girl wasn’t a virgin bride then she dies; however, if her husband falsely accuses her of not being a virgin bride, he faces penalties but doesn’t die. There’s no explanation for this asymmetry.

When I realised this, married, aged 32, doing my evening Bible-reading, a palpable chill went down my spine. Hitherto, I had been willing to believe this law was written in good faith. But once I saw there was apparent inconsistency even within the Old Testament, no excuse I tried to make could stack up.

Fortunately for me, there were academic resources waiting to be discovered. One of them was a paper by Aaron Koller: Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22 (p279-296, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte, 2010:16). (It’s available for a free download from Academia.edu. Also, from here on, pages numbers in square brackets refer to this paper.)

He said the problem with this law was bigger than I had first appreciated.

(I looked up Aaron Koller because he’s a Jewish scholar who wrote a simply amazing book Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought. I reviewed it in this post here.)

The riddles of this law

Brace yourself, this is heavy stuff!

The law starts with a situation when a husband maliciously accuses his bride of not being a virgin when he married her. He has to take her to her parents (EDIT: actually, this isn’t in the text; I just always assumed he took her to her parents, though I’m now pretty sure that interpretation is flat wrong – keep reading). The parents publicly present the bedsheets from the wedding night (it was the custom for the parents to keep these)[p282]. When they show the sheets are stained with the woman’s hymeneal blood, the parents call the man out as a liar. He then faces a triple penalty, but not death.

Then we have the sub-case: if the parents do not produce proof of the woman’s virginity, she is stoned to death by the men of the town for doing something shameful.

Oof!

Here are the problems Koller lists with this law [p280]:

  • the hymen doesn’t work that way (if you haven’t read Come As You Are, do);
  • it was known in the Ancient Near East that the hymen doesn’t work that way;
  • even if she’s not a virgin, that could be through no fault of her own;
  • even if she’s not a virgin, that doesn’t prove she cheated during the betrothal period;
  • the ‘proof of virginity’ could be faked easily; and
  • (as I had noticed) the penalties appear imbalanced.

Where do you even begin with a law like that?

Well… Koller argues that if the bride is found guilty, her crime had nothing to do with sex or biology.

Seriously.

This law is not about sex.

It’s not about the hymen either.

It’s about power.

And money.

Social structures and expectations in ancient Israel

Brace yourself, there’s some deeply uncomfortable backdrop to explain here.

Young virgin women had a high social status in ancient Israel. This high social status was reflected in how a young man had to fork over virgin bridewealth (as in, the virgin bride price) to a virgin woman’s father if he wanted to marry her.

Families where the daughters were virgins also had high social status because — don’t grind your teeth too much! — their virginity demonstrated that the men of her family, particularly her father, exercised authority over their house.[p287]

I’m not saying this is right, I’m saying this is how it was.

But what if a virgin daughter is not a virgin? Then her entire family bears shame.

What’s more, if she actively chose to lose her virginity outside of her parents’ authorisation, then she has brought this shame and she has undermined her parents.

This was a big deal.

Bear in mind, ‘honour your father and your mother’ is the fifth of the Ten Commandments; it comes before ‘do not murder.’ Don’t take this the wrong way, it doesn’t mean parents were always thought to be right; some Old Testament passages go so far as to command people to disobey their parents.[1] But, on a normal day, for right or for wrong, subverting parental authority was interpreted as — deep breath — undermining the fabric of society. [p289]

What Koller points out is that some actions were culturally recognised as indicating that a daughter (or a son) had indeed undermined their parents. However, the indicators of the crime are not the crime itself. [2] [p287]

As such, Koller argues that if the bride is deemed guilty, then her crime is not that she had sex; rather, it’s that she subverted her parents’ authority and thus also undermined the power structures of the social order.

Hence the title of his paper: ‘Sex or Power?’

Does this legitimise the kind of control T.I. was exercising over his daughter’s sexuality? What about women who don’t have a hymen or whose hymens don’t bleed during their first sexual encounter? (For the record, I am one of those women.)

Hold on, there are several more twists to come.

What does the proof prove?

Take your time with this section because it’s even more brain-bending.

If, as Koller argues, this law is not about sex, but power, then the only question that matters is whether the young woman’s parents are willing to disown their daughter for subverting their authority.

In other words:

This law is not trying to establish the fact of whether the woman was a virgin.[3]

Let’s pause for a moment to let that sink in.

For those of us who want to believe good things about the Bible, this suggestion might be conjuring all sorts of strong feelings.

It might be a relief. After all, the hymen test doesn’t work and virginity has no medical meaning. If the lawmaker actually knew that, we might feel this makes the Bible more credible.

On the other hand, if the lawmaker knew that bloodied sheets don’t prove virginity, then WHY ON EARTH WOULD THEY SAY THAT THEY DO? I mean, this is meant to be a law of truth, right? This is meant to be God’s word written, right? This is meant to be part of a covenant so wise that it would bring outside peoples to come and worship God, right? So why, why, WHY would anyone be inspired by the Holy Spirit to write that bloodied sheets are a legit proof of virginity when they knew they aren’t?

Deep breath.

Well, here’s what I think is a plausible reason: to prevent greedy husbands from slandering, or indeed murdering, their brides.

Imagine a scenario…

Imagine you are a scribe in ancient Israel.

You’ve got several cases of newlywed husbands grumbling that their brides were not virgins and therefore, that the women’s families cheated the grooms out of virgin bridewealth. There’s also tell of one groom being so enraged at his bride’s apparent promiscuity that he killed her.

Except you’re not so sure these women weren’t virgins. Also, you’re disgusted these men haven’t confronted the brides’ parents. Their families’ honour is their responsibility and they should have a chance to answer any accusation that they defrauded the grooms.

You also abhor this kind of killing.

You can’t erase the deeply entrenched cultural norms surrounding virginity, and you definitely can’t do away with family honour altogether. So, you introduce a law: if a husband discovers his bride isn’t a virgin, he doesn’t get to accuse her directly. He has to go to her parents.

No, scratch that. You’re not interested in waiting until he levies a formal accusation. You want to give the parents power to lay a formal accusation against the husband for slandering their daughter. So you write that if a husband has been rumouring about his bride, the parents can bring him before the elders of the town, accuse him, and exact a hefty penalty from him. (Read this footnote for backup: [4] )

This law has traction because it’s consistent with cultural honour codes (though it also means the husband can’t kill her).

To make their case, the parents present the bloodied bedsheets from the wedding night. This is a straightforward requirement firstly because it’s customary for the parents to retain them and secondly because hymeneal blood can be faked. Easily. (Read Koller’s paper for how we know this [p283-284]. Or my footnote here: [5])

Yes it’s strange for a law to recognise evidence that might be fake, but you’re OK with that. The accusation is already an ordeal for the women concerned and you want to ease that by make sure the bedsheets end the matter.[p282] Meanwhile, you write that the groom faces a hefty (and financial) penalty when the bride’s parents vindicate her. With that included, this law’s going to put a big dampener on any would-be bride shaming, money grabbers out there.

That’s what matters to you right now.

Even if I’m extrapolating, this is still about malicious husbands

I’m aware that the above scenario has speculative elements. We don’t know that husbands were going so far as to murder their brides and recoup their money (and the academic resources I’ve read don’t discuss this possibility).

But we do know that:

  1. newlywed murders happen, even today;[6]
  2. this law is specifically about women for whom virgin bridewealth had been paid;[7]
  3. the fine imposed on the groom is punishment for attempting to recoup the bridewealth (or obtain a divorce without repaying it);[p295]
  4. husbands were publicly shaming their brides for not being virgins (verse 13);
  5. once it was clear that such shaming was unlawful, it would be clear that killing the bride was also unlawful.

Let’s remind ourselves how it begins in verse 13:

If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name… (NIV)

This law was written to curb abusive husbands, not to enable abusive parents.

Now I appreciate that it might still be chilling for those of us with parents like T.I.

We may well be able to envisage controlling, over-bearing parents who’d sooner see their daughter dead than live with knowing or suspecting she had sex without their authorisation. This is definitely a terrifying reality that many women face in the world today. I don’t want to diminish that in any way.

But it’s worth observing that the bit about parents stoning their daughter is only in the sub-case. Which is relevant only after the newly-wed husband makes a public accusation.[8]  I totally get that parental authority in the Bible is a big and complex issue; I don’t have space to discuss it in this post. But nowhere, anywhere, does the Bible suggest parents invasively inspect their daughter’s virginity. What’s more, there are other laws specifically designed to stop parents from killing their daughters.[9]

Meanwhile, scholars accept that the sub-case in verses 19-21 were added at a later date to the pre-existing verses 13-18.[10] Some even consider 19-21 to be indicative of an ideal rather than a penalty actually carried out.[11] Again, this makes sense if the law was principally designed to prevent a husband killing or, at the very least, slandering his bride.

If the verdict rests solely with the bride’s parents, then the odds are heavily stacked against the groom. In a culture where purity expectations had been normalised, his accusation would have been an extremely offensive accusation against the woman’s family.[p296] That being the case, if her parents took offence at the husband, then, regardless of whether or not their daughter previously had sex, they had the power to fine him double the bridewealth, see him flogged, and stop him from ever sending their daughter away (verses 18-19).

That’s a major disincentive for all husbands, even abusive ones, to make any accusation at all.[12]

Concluding thoughts

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s a thrilling thing for a young woman to have sex with a guy, hide the fact from her parents, and then enter a betrothal claiming to be a virgin. In fact, I think it’s one whopper of a consent violation to mislead a sexual partner about your prior sexual history. (I wrote more on consent here, by the way.)

There’s no suggestion that this law was intended to give women licence to lie.

But you know what? When I think about:

  • how unreliable the hymen test is anyway,
  • how suspicious husbands can get regarding their wives’ fidelity,
  • how senseless it was (and is) to prize virginity and turn sexual purity into a massive social construct,

I don’t have a problem with the odds being stacked against the groom.

I mean, this law only would ever come into action when he lands a public accusation. In contrast to something like a rape allegation, it would have been impossible for her to falsely accuse him of wrongdoing. So if you ask me, on his head be it if he tries his luck and the parents rebound the case back against him.

For goodness’ sake: in Matthew’s gospel Mary was betrothed to Joseph and ACTUALLY PREGNANT, but he still favoured a discreet divorce over the nuclear option.

With all that in mind, plus the insights we have from scholars like Koller, it strikes me that the simplest and most compelling explanation for this law is that it was designed to prevent bridegrooms from publicly shaming their brides.

And I definitely do not have a problem with that.

 


If you are a woman in the UK and you want to talk about a sexual assault, you can ring the National Domestic Violence Helpline on: 0808 2000 247 or visit the Refuge website: https://www.refuge.org.uk/

If you’re in the US, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit their website: https://www.thehotline.org/

I would also recommend Ashley Easter’s website as a resource for Christian women surviving sexual and/or spiritual abuse. https://ashleyeaster.com/


For more great reading, I recommend:


[1] See say, Ezekiel 20:18-19, or this very interesting post on Patheos: Children, Disobey Your Parents in the Lord, For This is Right.

[2] Koller argues: “Sex has nothing to do with [her] crime, any more than eating meat has to do with the crime of the incorrigible son [in Deuteronomy 21:18-21]. Meat and sex are merely the symptoms or indicators of the true crime [of subverting the power of the family structure].” [p287]

[3] In fairness, Koller applies the logic in the reverse order: he starts by suggesting that the lawmaker wasn’t trying to establish the fact of whether the woman was a virgin, and then infers that the law is about power, not sex.

[4] Koller discusses, though Pressler explains in more detail, that the parents are the plaintiffs in the case, not the groom: “The terminology used to describe [the groom’s] allegations, however, leaves unclear whether he has formally charged his wife before the court, or whether he has slandered her in the community. It is also debatable whether the husband or the parents bring the case before the elders. The meaning of the phrase is not clear. Following Dillmann, most modern commentators translate it either “wanton deeds,” referring to the acts of which the husband has accused his bride, or “wanton words,” in which case the phrase refers to the husband’s false accusations. … It does make some difference whether the husband or the parents bring the matter to the elders. Has the husband falsely and formally charged his bride before the elders, thus jeopardizing her life or have the parents charged their son-in-law with spreading rumors about their daughter? The structure of the law seems to indicate that the parents of the girl are the plaintiffs in this case.” pp36-37, Pressler, Carolyn, and Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (1991): ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web. A revised version of her dissertation was later published: Pressler, Carolyn. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws. Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1993. Print. Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft ; Bd. 216.

[5] Koller argues on p283: “Lest a cynic claim that the ancients were more trusting, and it is only skeptical moderns who realize that the hymeneal blood can be easily faked, it may be useful to point out that fake hymeneal blood is a common trope in both folk literature and ethnographic reports. In the Palestinian Talmud the possibility of the bride using a bird’s blood is entertained. A very similar motif is found in [a story from 1,001 Nights]. … More recently, informants in Morocco reported that if a bride was not a virgin, a chicken would be slaughtered to produce bloodied sheets, and others from the same culture told of grooms who had slept with their brides would cut themselves to avoid humiliation on the wedding night.” When I weigh these cultural tropes, it strikes me that if we presume that this law was primarily written with a (flawed) scientific understanding, then that presumption reflects more on Western culture than it does on the text or the customs of its time.

[6] For example: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/husband-sought-after-pakistani-teenager-killed-on-wedding-night-a6965986.html

[7] See p51, Pressler

[8] See also the comments Koller makes on p287 regarding modern Bedouin societies.

[9] OK look, I’ve got a post on this but it’s still in draft and broken into several pieces, topping 9,000 words in total. Forgive me if I don’t explain this sentence right now.

[10] See p35 Pressler, or for more detailed analysis: p628, Milstein, Sara J. “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Independent Logic of Deuteronomy 22:25–27.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137.3 (2018): 625-43. Web

[11] This is the conclusion of Alexander Rofé, Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant,” Henoch 9 (1987): 131–59 (cf. in Hebrew in Beit Miqra 22 [1977]: 19–36). Rofé was cited in: Edenburg, Cynthia. “Ideology and Social Context of the Deuteronomic Women’s Sex Laws (Deuteronomy 22:13-29).” Journal of Biblical Literature 128.1 (2009): 43-60. Web.

[12] This also explains the asymmetry in the penalties: if the bride is found guilty, her crime is subverting social power structures, which is a capital crime. If the husband is found guilty, his crime is attempting to shame and slander the bride’s parents (hence why he is flogged), obtain a divorce (hence why he can never divorce his bride) and get back the bridewealth (hence why he has to pay the parents double).[p295]

2 thoughts on “About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22: it’s not what you think

  1. I really enjoy reading your take on Old Testament passages. They were written in a time so different from our own, that a surface reading won’t cut it. So it’s nice that you take the time and effort to untangle them for us.

    When it comes to the part about stoning, Matthew 19:8-9 comes to mind. “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Which laws were a reflection of the ideal that God wanted his people Israel to strive for? And which ones were about God meeting us wretched sinners where we are at?

    1. Thank you for your encouragement! I think that quote from Matthew is often at the back of Christians’ minds and yet it gets used as a reason to stop thinking and not dig deep. (I also have a hunch that Jesus didn’t mean what we think he meant, but that will have to wait until I blog about Deuteronomy 24!)

      My personal take is that no law is entirely descriptive or entirely prescriptive. They all have something to teach but they also all need to be re-interpreted for our time. That said, I think if we find a passage daunting or disheartening, then it’s important to pause and ask “Hang on, does God actually want me to feel this way?” Then we can open the door (with others) to search for other perspectives on it. We don’t necessarily find the answers right away, if ever(!), but when we find a perspective that brings us peace, we’ll know it.

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