How reliable was the virginity test mentioned in Deuteronomy 22?

Deuteronomy 22:13–21 is one of the most controversial passages in the Bible. The scenario is that of a man who has married a woman, consummates the marriage, then complains to the village elders that she was not a virgin. Her parents bring proof of her virginity, and the man is found out.

For his offense, the accuser will be punished and fined. According to Josephus, the word translated "whip" in the ESV, "chastise" in the NASB, and "punish" in the NIV (Deuteronomy 22:18) refers to flogging—"forty stripes save one." The man is prohibited from ever divorcing the woman, which means her children have the right of inheritance (see Deuteronomy 21:15–17). And he is required to pay the woman's father one hundred shekels of silver for dishonoring his reputation. Consider that Joseph was sold to slavers for twenty silver shekels (Genesis 37:28) and this is twice the dowry of a woman who has been seduced or raped (Deuteronomy 22:29).

There are several issues that this law addresses.

• The woman is protected. In the culture of the Old Testament, women had almost no rights. If a man married a woman, had sex with her, and then claimed she was not a virgin, she would be divorced, dishonored, and basically unmarriable – if the community didn't just stone her. Her options would be very limited, and her security would depend on a male relative having the mercy to support her. As in other places in the Mosaic Law, God protects the vulnerable. Not only is her honor restored, her future is established since the man is not allowed to divorce her in the future.

• God's plan for marriage is defended. In these times, marriage was usually not about romance. It was a business contract between two families. The reason given for the groom's rejection is that he "hates" the woman, but he would not go to such lengths if he did not also revile her father. The entire purpose of marriage is disregarded, and the man uses the woman to dishonor her family. God did not create marriage as a business transaction, but as a relationship where two become one (Genesis 2:24).

• The honor of the bride's family is restored. The reason the woman's parents bring the evidence of her virginity (thought to be a sheet or garment with blood on it, the result of the consummation of the marriage) is because they presented her to the man as an eligible bride. With the evidence, the family is vindicated, and the man is revealed as a crook.

• The criminal is brought to justice. A few things need to happen before the groom makes the accusation. The man needs to hate the woman, or be ambivalent toward her but hate her father. He needs to feel so passionately that he would rather see her dead than just divorce her or marry a second wife. And he has to be a fool because he didn't look to see if she used a cloth to clean up. The punishment of the man reflects what his victims would have paid had the charge been true. The bride's family would have been dishonored; the public flogging dishonors the man. The bride's father would have had to return the dowry; the man has to pay yet more. The man would have been rid of the woman; now he can never send her away.

• Israel is sanctified. The entire situation acts as prevention for all sides. Men are warned not to bear false witness against their brides — or to marry women whose father they don't respect. Women are warned against promiscuity. And fathers are reminded that their daughters are not negotiating tools. Further, Israel is forewarned to remain faithful to God and not seek after foreign idols — a warning they will regularly ignore.

If the charge is true, however, and the woman and/or her father lied about her virginity, she is to be stoned at her father's doorstep. Her punishment is rather obvious; she deceitfully presented herself to the groom as a virgin. The location of the stoning reflects on her father's honor. If the father used his daughter in another business deal (remember how Saul gave his daughter Michal to David, and then, after David left, to Palti in 1 Samuel 25:44), the father deserves the public dishonor. If the woman had sex without her father's knowledge, the dishonor is that he didn't control his child. It's been suggested that stoning was the ultimate punishment out of many options, and the groom could have chosen something less extreme, as Joseph intended with Mary (Matthew 1:19).

The inherent ambiguities in the law led to some interesting traditions and notes in the halakhah (the Jewish religious laws collected from the Written and Oral Torah). Sometimes the bride and groom were searched before consummating the marriage — she for a pre-stained cloth and he for a clean one. Groomsmen would enter into the bed chamber afterward to find the cloth and make sure the groom hadn't hidden it. If a woman was suspected of promiscuity before the wedding, she would be inspected by "reliable, honest women." Although their examination couldn't have been absolute, they were experienced, and their judgment would have been more accurate than a cloth. In one case, in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, a three-year old girl who fell from a chair was examined by such women who gave her parents a certificate stating the girl's hymen was not broken by intercourse.

The law was radical for its time in its protection of women, but there are three major controversies that this passage brings up today. The first is, why was there a test for the bride and not the groom? Why the emphasis on a woman's virginity and not a man's? This argument doesn't take into account the historical and cultural context of the law. At this time and place, men had all the power. Women had none. It was a sin for a man to have sex outside of marriage, but in the culture, he was rarely seriously punished for it unless he slept with another's wife (Deuteronomy 22:22). Changing this culture would have required changing the hearts of all involved, which would have been very difficult without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and submission to His leading. So, as God did frequently with His laws regarding women and slaves, He established protection for the vulnerable in the context of men's business dealings.

The second controversy is, what if the woman had no proof? What if her hymen was broken already? What if she just didn't bleed? There have been many speculative answers to this question. Girls didn't do gymnastics or ride bikes, so they wouldn't have broken yet. Sex was rough, not the gentle love-making we think of, so there would have been damage. Girls were probably married shortly after puberty; they would have been small, and sex with a full-grown man would have caused damage. The facts of the matter are, the law gave protection where previously there had been none, and the process allowed intervention by God. It's possible that He could have caused the girl to bleed to protect her, even if she wouldn't have naturally.

There is also some discussion as to the exact wording of Deuteronomy 22:20. It's been suggested that the clauses "if the thing is true" and "evidence of virginity was not found" are not directly connected. So even if the cloth was absent, the groom would still have to find incontrovertible proof, such as a confession or witnesses.

The final question is, why the harsh punishment? How is stoning a just consequence for not being a virgin? This is not the only sin that is held in such serious regard. For example, enticing someone to worship an idol (Deuteronomy 13:1–11); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:11–16); working on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32–36); rebelling against one's parents (Deuteronomy 21:18–21); premeditated murder (Exodus 21:12–14); adultery, homosexual sex, and bestiality (Leviticus 20:10–16); kidnapping (Exodus 21:16); and lying in an investigation (Deuteronomy 19:15–21) were all capital offenses. They were also all related to one of the Ten Commandments.

Deuteronomy 22:21 explains why: " … you shall purge the evil from your midst." God's chosen people are to live differently than those around them. We are often quick to criticize the severity of God's punishments in the Mosaic Law. But that criticism doesn't reveal God's cruelty, it reveals our too-easy acceptance of sin (1 Peter 1:16).

There is no passage in the Bible that describes a bride being stoned after her groom found or suspected she was not a virgin. Despite the seeming unfairness of the law, it's important to remember that God's law does not validate abusing the vulnerable, it reveals our natural tendency to do so.

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