This would be that law about the young bride who’s already lost her virginity.
Actually it’s not, but I’ll get to that later.
I promised myself I’d keep this post under 1,200 words: 200 for each thing to say, plus intro. So if you want detailed backup for what I’m saying here, check out the links and references for further reading. I’m drawing mainly on the work of Aaron Koller, Carolyn Pressler, Joseph Fleishman and, not least, Emily Nagoski.
I’m writing this post because in the Western evangelical church, Christians of all ages are encouraged to read the Bible, although there are some pretty puzzling things in it. And whilst it’s pretty standard to say “Jesus won’t mind if you ignore that bit,” if you’re talking to a teenage girl who’s anything like me, those arguments won’t wash. (Admittedly though, I’m pretty weird.)
I grant you, even if she’s grown up with purity culture, Deuteronomy 22 probably didn’t feature much in conversation. But it’s still likely she’ll completely misread the passage (as I did) if she reads it from a purity culture mindset.
So, here are five things to explain. Take it slowly and gently.
1. Despite appearances, this law is not about sex
A surface reading of Deuteronomy 22:13-21 suggests young women were once and/or should be stoned to death for pre-marital or pre-betrothal sex. No.
First, we’re talking very specifically about a young woman for whom virgin bridewealth had been paid (Pressler). Thus, there are financial and honour-related concerns embedded in this scenario and we shouldn’t generalise the law to all women or all pre-marital sex.
Second, neither pre-marital sex, nor lying (not even to parents), nor prostitution (unless it was linked to worship) were capital offences in the Old Testament. Plus, there is no precedent for two non-capital offences combining to become a capital one (Fleishman). It doesn’t stack up that the young woman might be killed for deceiving her parents.
Third, the reasons given in Deuteronomy 22:21 for the death penalty are markedly different to those given in other laws concerning adultery (Fleishman). Yes, adultery could apply during the betrothal period (not just marriage), but still, this law is different.
Lastly, it would have been impossible to prove retrospectively whether illicit sex had taken place (Koller). All this points to the law being about something other than sex.
2. These laws are about threats to family honour
The passage starts with a groom slandering his bride — which would have brought disgrace not just to her, but to her family and parents in particular.
In fact, the legal proceedings laid out in Deuteronomy 22:13-19 are the bride’s parents taking action against the groom. They accuse him of slandering their family and, by extension, unjustly attempting to recoup the bridewealth and get a divorce. Hence his triple penalty (Koller).
Yes, back then, there were strong links between family honour and the sexual activity of the women in that family (Frymer-Kensky). It’s also true that the sexual activity of men and sons was not under such scrutiny (I’ll come back to this).
However, it is one thing to say that the laws recognise the gendered linkage between sexual activity and family honour. It’s another to say the laws promote or endorse the gendered linkage.
Meanwhile, this was a patriarchal culture where arbitrary divorce was a powerful instrument of abuse against women. When the groom is forbidden from divorcing, that was to protect the bride’s social and economic status, not to preserve marriages at all costs.
3. These laws are not about the hymen
Hymeneal blood is a wholly unreliable indicator of virginity.
The hymen is a thin membrane along the lower edge of a vaginal opening; many women don’t have a hymen and of those that do, it doesn’t usually bleed (Nagoski).
What’s more, it was known in the Ancient Near East that the hymen was an unreliable proof of virginity (Koller). Thus, we make a mistake to read this law from a purely scientific point of view. Instead, the scribe wrote the law knowing that — whether the bride was a virgin who didn’t bleed or not a virgin — the parents could easily fake the ‘evidence’ of bedsheets stained with hymeneal blood (Koller, Frymer-Kensky).
Remember, verses 13-19 are about parents prosecuting their son-in-law for slander. As litigants (not defendants) they have to provide evidence, but the evidence they provide is interpreted according to custom (not science).
The point is, the fate of the bride rests wholly with her parents (Frymer-Kensky). The question being investigated is not the fact of whether she’s a virgin or whether her hymen bled, but whether her parents are willing to publicly defend her honour (Koller).
4. These laws are about parental authority
Exodus 20:12: Honour your father and your mother.
Exodus 21:17: Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.
Deuteronomy was so named because it was ‘deuteros nomos’ — a second rendering of the law. Probably compiled in the late monarchical period (Josiah’s reign), it expanded and innovated on many pre-existing laws.
The laws of the ‘rebellious and wayward’ son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), and the daughter who ‘played the harlot in her father’s house’ (Deuteronomy 22:20-21) are both extended applications of Exodus laws concerning parental authority and, by extension, social order.
The question is: did the laws limit (Fleishman) or expand (Pressler) the circumstances when parents could invoke the death penalty? Or were they principally instructive for ideology (Edenberg), not intended for punitive application (Rofé)?
Opinion is divided.
What most scholars agree on though, is that the son’s and daughter’s offences are one and the same. Gendered metrics are used to measure them — gluttony and drunkenness vs harlotry — but they are both about undermining parental authority so grievously and persistently as to threaten the social order. And they carry equal penalties.
Sounds scary? Hold on — we’re not done yet.
5. To exegete Deuteronomy 22, exegete the Prodigal Son
Imagine a man dividing his property between two sons. That’s the subject of Deuteronomy 21, just before it talks about the wayward and rebellious (drunken and gluttonous) son.
Sound eerily familiar?
Whilst Deuteronomy asks what kind of sons and daughters unmarried children want to be, Jesus flipped the question round: what kind of fathers and mothers do parents want to be?
So far as we know, Jesus never told a parable about a daughter who brought dishonour and financial loss to her parents. But his challenge of the loving father is just as pertinent for parents whose daughters’ sexual activity doesn’t conform to their expectations.
Meanwhile, lest we forget, parents don’t always get it right. Sometimes they get it badly, badly wrong (witness Saul, or Ezekiel 20:18-19). Sometimes we need children who disrupt society’s accepted wisdom.
Because that’s what Jesus did — and it’s why he was called a drunk and a glutton (a wayward and rebellious son) (Matthew 11:19).
You see, there are ethics and then there are expectations. But the spirit of God’s law is wisdom. So don’t think these verses teach about God’s expectations or the fragility of his honour.
If you liked this, you might also appreciate:
- Honour, not sex. Why applying Deuteronomy 22 is more complex than you thought. And why this matters.
- Flesh: what Paul meant when he used the word ‘sarx’ (Psst! — he wasn’t being sex-negative)
- To my egalitarian friends: please don’t hate on the Old Testament law (or at least, not on my blog)
- A whole bundle of other posts about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 on the Virginity, honour and violence page
- This post about Deuteronomy 22:28-29: Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.
- Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?
My research sources for this post were:
Koller, Aaron. Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22. Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte (2010:16):279-296. Web.
Pressler, Carolyn, and Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (1991): ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Web.
Fleishman, Joseph. “The Delinquent Daughter and Legal Innovation in Deuteronomy Xxii 20-21.” Vetus Testamentum 58.2 (2008): 191-210. Web.
Edenberg, 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.
Nagoski, Emily. Come As You Are (Scribe UK: 2015). Print.
These sources also quote from:
Rofé, Alexander. Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant Henoch 9 (1987): 131–59.
Matthews, Victor Harold., Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Simone. Frymer-Kensky. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (1998). Web.
Koller’s paper is available for free download from Acaemia.edu. Honestly, there’s so much in it. He explains the apparent asymmetry of these verses (if the man is guilty, he is fined, flogged, and forbidden from divorce; if the woman is guilty, she dies) saying that the crimes are essentially different and the woman’s (if she is guilty) more severe. He also substantiates his point that the hymeneal ‘evidence’ could be faked and that the apparent inconsistencies of the law resolve when you consider that the scribe knew this. Thus, he considers the case to be primarily about whether the parents are willing to uphold their daughter’s honour and agrees with Fymer-Kensky’s analysis that her fate rests in their hands.
Fleishman’s analysis re: the nature of the bride’s crime (and why it’s not sex) is on p194-195. From p198 he argues that the two Deuteronomy laws regarding disobedient children stem from Exodus 21:17. He considers this a legal innovation that narrowly restricts the circumstances when parents could carry out the death penalty (p207). On p202 he repeats Finkelstein’s view that the nature of the offence was a communal/societal one.
Edenberg interprets the laws as placing very onerous accountability on all women regarding their sexual activity and that this is motivated by a desire to reinforce exclusive worship of God. Page 60: “Thus, the Deuteronomist held that the degree of fidelity a woman owed to her present or future husband was no less than that which the people owed to YHWH; in neither case would coercion be considered a mitigating factor.” (See also page 52.) Whilst I find her observations regarding the political vacuum of the time interesting and arguably relevant to the formulation of these laws, I find the detail of her analysis (e.g. she considers the parents to be defendants) less compelling given various observations made by Aaron Koller, Alexander Rofé and Sara Milstein (in her paper Separating the Wheat from the Chaff).
Pressler argues on p30-31 that Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is not about limiting parental authority, on the basis that she sees no evidence that parents had the power of life and death over children in the late monarchical period (she dismisses the story of Judah and Tamar as too old to be relevant). Her view is thus in contrast to Fleishman’s.
Pressler also explains Rofé’s position on p49:
Rofe, “Family and Sex Laws,” 131-158, holds that Deut 22:20-21 is in tension with the view of premarital sexual relations found in other biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts. He notes that other laws do not regard sexual relations with an unbetrothed girl as a serious crime. Moreover, he notes that Deut 22:20-21 does not distinguish between a girl who has lost her virginity because of rape and one who has consented to sexual relations. This, he argues, puts the law in tension with Deut 22:23-27 (and with the cuneiform laws concerning sexual offense.) Rofe interprets this tension between Deut 22:20-21 and other biblical/ancient Near Eastern laws as an indication that Deut 22:20-21 was not drafted by a law-giver nor intended to be put into practice. Rather, it was written by a moralist who wanted to preach sexual morality. To support his case, Rofe points to the similarity between Deut 22:20-21 and Deut 21:18-21 (which he also views as late preaching of morals rather than genuine law).
Pressler goes on to dismiss Rofé’s argument (with reasons) but for myself, I find Rofé’s position more compelling than Pressler’s in the light of the analysis offered by Koller and Fleishman. Pressler agrees with Rofé that 22:20-21 was a later addition to a pre-existing law, though Edenberg disagrees.
On p37 Pressler argues that the parents are the plaintiffs in the case in Deuteronomy 22:13-19 and notes that it is not clear as to who brings charges in v20-21.
On page 51 she notes the careful way the scribe has described the young woman’s status as a betrothed virgin for whom bridewealth has necessarily been paid.
Emily Nagoski explains the hymen on page 68 of Come As You Are.