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.
Well, having just published 2,600 words explaining this law (and that doesn’t count the footnotes), I thought I’d give the short version. Here it is in fewer than 500 words:
|About Deuteronomy 22:13-21||What I originally thought||What I think now|
|It regulates:||pre-marital sex||threats to family honour|
|It assumes:||all brides were expected to be virgins||brides were expected to be virgins when virgin bridewealth had been paid|
|The groom’s complaint is:||that his bride wasn’t a virgin||that he didn’t get what he paid for|
|The case is formally initiated by:||the groom, against his bride that she was not a virgin||the bride’s parents, against the groom that he is slandering their daughter’s (and her family’s) honour|
|The bride’s parents:||defend their daughter||are the plaintiffs|
|The burden of proof is on:||the parents, even though they are the defendants||the parents, who substantiate their case with bedsheets stained with hymeneal blood|
|The fate of the bride rests on:||an unreliable virginity test associated with the hymen||whether the bride’s parents want to uphold her honour|
|If the parents present bloodied bedsheets:||the bride is vindicated as having been a virgin||their daughter’s and their family’s honour is vindicated|
|The evidence, if presented:||is considered scientifically genuine||is interpreted according to custom; if the parents say it was genuine, everyone has to accept that|
|If the bride had been a virgin but her hymen didn’t bleed:||the law would give a false guilty verdict for her||that probably wouldn’t be a deciding factor in the outcome of the case|
|If the verdict goes against the groom:||he is punished for falsely accusing his bride (but not with death)||he is punished for falsely attempting to (1) slander the bride’s family honour, (2) recoup the bridewealth, and (3) obtain a divorce|
|The verses where the bride is not vindicated:||are an alternative outcome to the initial scenario, except the groom’s accusation is upheld||are a sub-case and a separate law added at a later date|
|If the verdict goes against the bride:||she is found guilty of pre-marital sex||she is found guilty of subverting her parents’ authority and undermining social order|
|The focus on female sexuality:||is weird; when a man has pre-marital sex it’s not a capital crime||reflects gendered assumptions about how family honour is upheld, but honour expectations applied to both sons and daughters|
|The underpinning ideology:||is the same behind both halves of the law||is different for first case and the sub-case|
|The death penalty clause should be understood:||solely in legal and literal terms||as possibly written by a moralist rather than a law-giver|
|The death penalty reflects:||the importance of saving sex until marriage||one of a number of possibilities: the assertion of patriarchal authority over women’s sexuality, an ideal to remind the people to be faithful to YHWH, or the seriousness of undermining social order|
|In the New Testament, Mary:||is the epitome of a young woman who waited until marriage; Christian women should emulate her||was innocent; this challenges Christians to re-evaluate our understanding of how sex should/shouldn’t relate to social order|
References are given in detail in the full post, but they include:
- Aaron Koller: Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22 p279-296, Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte, 2010:16
- Pressler, Carolyn, and Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (1991): ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web.
- 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
- 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.
These sources also cite:
- 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 : 19–36)
- If you’d like more detail on the second law (where the bride is stoned to death) and how to exegete it, you might like: Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to)
- Or indeed this piece that I wrote for CBE International: Proving My Virginity: Deuteronomy, Pap Smears, and the Hymen Myth
- There’s also Bailey Bergmann Steger’s writing about how you don’t have to break the hymen: The Sex Myth That Just Won’t Go Away
Lastly, I have a 30 minute video essay on Facebook that goes through the whole of Deuteronomy 22:13-29; so it includes these laws and the ones that follow it in the rest of the chapter.