13 Suppose a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her, and then rejects her, 14 accusing her of impropriety and defaming her reputation by saying, “I married this woman but when I had sexual relations with her I discovered she was not a virgin!”

In ancient Israel, a woman was betrothed to a man some time after the onset of puberty but lived in her parents’ house before the wedding. If she had sex with anyone else during this interval she was to be executed for committing adultery. Scholars disagree on whether vv. 13-21 apply only to sexual relations the woman had while betrothed or to sexual relations the woman had at any time before the wedding.

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It seems this law envisions the husband rejecting the wife shortly after the consummation of the marriage. One may recall Amnon’s hatred of Tamar after his lust was satisfied (2 Sam 13:15). The phrasing of v. 14 indicates this procedure is only invoked if the husband makes his charge public. The matter could have been taken care of privately (e.g., her family refunded the bride-price).

The Hebrew literally has the man saying, “I did not find virginity in her.” Keep in mind the Hebrew word betulim can denote “female adolescence” or “virginity.” What might the “evidence of virginity/adolescence” be? Possibilities include an intact hymen, bleeding during the first act of sex, or menstruation. Talmudic sources recognized that not all virgins have intact hymens or bleed the first time they have sex.

The husband’s motive is probably to get a divorce and get the bride-price back. If he divorced her without cause he would likely forfeit the bride-price.

15 Then the father and mother of the young woman must produce the evidence of virginity for the elders of the city at the gate.

The father and mother had given the young woman to the man for marriage. It was their responsibility to defend their daughter. The evidence of virginity was saved for just such an eventuality and because it was a symbol of family pride. The custom of verifying wedding-night virginity is known in many cultures.

16 The young woman’s father must say to the elders, “I gave my daughter to this man and he has rejected her. 17 Moreover, he has raised accusations of impropriety by saying, ‘I discovered your daughter was not a virgin,’ but this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” The cloth must then be spread out before the city’s elders.

What is the cloth that serves as evidence of the wife’s virginity/adolescence? It is unlikely to be the bloodstained sheet from the wedding night, preserved by the wife’s parents, because the husband, knowing such a cloth existed, would not bring charges and face inevitable punishment. It may be an article of clothing with menstrual bloodstains on it to prove she had not been pregnant before the wedding. An additional problem, as Talmudic and medieval sources recognized, is that it would be easy for the bride or her parents to produce a fake cloth. Shadal suggests the charges are made easy to rebut in order to protect women and to discourage husbands from bringing such charges.

18 The elders of that city must then seize the man and punish him. 19 They will fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, for the man who made the accusation ruined the reputation of an Israelite virgin. She will then become his wife and he may never divorce her as long as he lives.

The Hebrew of v. 18 suggests the husband may have faced some kind of corporal punishment (e.g., flogging; Josephus says the forty lashes minus one). The fine is double the amount assessed the seducer in v. 29.

The amount of the fine was considerable relative to that economy. David, for example, later bought Araunah’s threshing floor and oxen for only fifty silver shekels (2 Sam 24:24). Such an enormous penalty would clearly deter young husbands from such frivolous and fallacious allegations.1

Although the bride was disgraced, the fine is given to her father because the financial loss caused by the accusation would be his, and because the accusation disgraced him, too, since it implied that he did not raise a virtuous daughter. There would be no point in giving the fine to the bride since, as Abravanel observes, she is under her husband’s authority and he would be able to take the fine back from her.2

This law suggests the security that comes with being married, even to this kind of man, is preferable to the insecurity of being a divorced woman that nobody else is likely to marry. It also prevents the man from achieving the goal he had set out to achieve in the first place (divorce or the reduction of the bride-price). Merrill wonders if the woman could initiate a divorce if she so desired, but it is not clear whether ancient Israelite women could initiate a divorce.

According to Deut 19:16-21 the person who makes a false accusation should face the same punishment as would have been carried out had his false accusation been believed. In this case that would be death (vv. 20-21), yet the lying husband does not face execution. This prompts some scholars to speculate that the punishment in vv. 20-21 is meant as a deterrent and not to be literally carried out.

20 But if the accusation is true and the young woman was not a virgin, 21 the men of her city must bring the young woman to the door of her father’s house and stone her to death, for she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by behaving like a prostitute while living in her father’s house. In this way you will purge evil from among you.

The execution takes place at the father’s house to indicate the shame that rested on the family (and perhaps because it was where the sin occurred). The daughter was guilty of both fornication/adultery and misrepresenting herself as a virgin to her parents and the groom.

This law does not mention the normal requirement of two witnesses to a crime for conviction and execution (Deut 19:15). Jewish tradition holds that two witnesses must testify that they saw the woman about to sin.

Tigay says the use of the term “fornication” instead of “adultery” means this law concerns all premarital sex on the woman’s part, not just that limited to the period of betrothal. But Lundbom says the term does not require that the sexual misconduct occurred before the engagement. If Tigay is correct then this law conflicts with Ex 22:15-16 and Deut 22:23-24, which only call for execution if the woman has sex while she is betrothed. If Deut 22:13-21 is understood as applying only to a betrothed woman the contradiction disappears.

Bibliography

Craigie, Peter C. The Book of Deuteronomy. 2nd Edition. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Lundbom, Jack R. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013.

Merrill, Eugene H. Deuteronomy. The New American Commentary 4. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

Thompson, J. A. Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 5. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1974.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.

Woods, Edward J. Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 5. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2011.

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Wright, Christopher J. H. Deuteronomy. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996.