Turning once again to our continuing study of Deuteronomy, we encounter one of the more difficult passages for modern Christians in the West, in a culture that is somewhat distanced from concept of honor, both personal and familial, that the facts of the cases under consideration may cause us distress.
Culturally, we are removed from the ancient reality of arranged marriages, something that I have written about here within a different context, but for a moment, we need to divorce ourselves from our place in time, where concepts of egalitarianism are present, and mentally transport ourselves to a time and a place which is foreign, we might even call it “sexist” or “chauvinistic”, but let’s allow the text to speak.
Of these verses, Matthew Henry notes that they are meant to serve as a curb against lust, in accordance with the seventh commandment’s prohibition against adultery. Moreover, our individualist sentiments may be inflamed because this passage places the priority with the family, primarily the father.(1) Like so many of the laws, these regulations are made by example, and in this passage the example is that of a husband who is dissatisfied with his wife. The Hebrew in v13 is rightly translated “hates” (ESV, AV), indicating that there is some reason that he wishes to deal dishonestly with her, he is forced to make his case, the example being a claim that she was not a virgin (v14), which was a very serious charge to make in ancient Israel, or in the ancient near east as a rule. Justin M. Glessner, writing in the Lexham Bible Dictionary, notes that there was a prized element to a woman’s virginity and that, “unmarried girls living in their father’s house are expected to remain virgins until they are married to a man of their father’s choosing.” (2)
Such an accusation was an affront to the honor of the woman’s father. Marriage was more like a business arrangement, and making the claim that the father had failed to deliver a virgin bride to her husband was a serious charge. Moreover, this charge is made at some later date than the wedding night, as atheists like Sam Harris has asserted, but that the man has had adequate time to be with his wife. More than likely, such an accusation would arise when a man was in a position that a divorce (discussed in Deuteronomy 24) would be too costly. The accusation is supposed to go before a hearing of the village elders (v16). If the wife is found “innocent”, that is proof of her virginity is produced (eg the marital bedding) and the husband is punished.(3) The man making the accusation is to be publicly whipped, he is fined a considerable amount that is payable to the woman’s father, and he loses any right that he had to divorce his wife (vv18-19). However, and this is considered unlikely, that she is actually found “guilty”, then the woman is to be executed (vv20-21).(4) Also, such an accusation would be unavailable, especially in matters of levirate marriage, such as seen in the Book of Ruth.
This straight forward law imposes the ultimate penalty on both participants caught in the act of adultery: the man because he has trespassed onto another man’s property (in this case, the wife), and the woman because she has broken her marital covenant.
This rather short prescription-by-example also imposes the most severe penalty on an engaged woman. It must be noted that this act must occur “in the city” (v23, ESV), with the assumption that such an act was willingly participated in by the woman. Even though she is not officially married, her betrothal period, usually a 12-month period between the engagement and consummation of the marriage for obvious reasons, her husband-to-be is guaranteed exclusive sexual access, and so the act is treated in the same manner as adultery.
This section moves out into the location to the countryside. Brueggemann notes here that, while tied to the previous section in context, it presumes that the act was an attack, that the woman was taken by surprise and assaulted.(5) As such, only the man is to be punished.
I have fuller expositions on this passage (here and here) it suffices to note several points. The statute shifts the focus to an unbetrothed woman. This instance is to be contrasted against the previous two laws, because it seems to combine two instances but shift the social status of the woman. Another fact that should be noticed, if we read the original Hebrew, is that there is a verb change.(6) Opponents of the faith often assert that the woman is forced to marry this man. However, if we contrast this passage to its close parallel in Exodus, we see that this may not be the case. The specific implications in this section are that the act was one of mutuality, due to its borrowing of language from vv13-21 in the imposition of a rather severe fine and a prohibition of divorce.
Another terse statute closes out this section: the prohibition against incest. Interestingly it should be noted that the prohibition is not against marrying ones mother, though that could be inferred, but specifically “his father’s wife”(ESV). The assumption seems to be that this is a woman to whom the man is related to only by marriage or concubinage, a woman who would be his stepmother. This woman may be the mother of siblings and as such any marital conjugation would disrupt the family. Such actions dishonor one’s father in an attempt to subvert him. (7)
The marital bond, in biblical terms, is sacrosanct. Western culture has demeaned it through the adoption of a libertine sexual morality that actually ends up causing deep harm, both emotionally and spiritually. The God who made men and women for each other intended for them to fully enjoy one another as they work together to build a life in marriage, that is why sex is so enjoyable. What we see in these passages that we have just examined is a hardness of the human heart. Whether it’s in a false accusation against a spouse, the violation of the marital bond, sexual violence, or even through casual premarital sex, the way that men and women are supposed to relate to one another has consequences when they are ignored.
How many loving spouses have been betrayed and had to defend themselves against a false accusation in a divorce? How many have flagrantly violated their marital obligations and vows in pursuit of an illicit relationship?
The church must decide where it stands and from whence it gets its standards. God’s standards reflect his desires for his creatures, and for them to have the greatest happiness in life and the greatest fulfillment in their roles as creatures in the aspect of marital realm, sexual integrity is paramount.
- Rousas J. Rushdoony. Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy. Chalcedon Publishing. Valencia, CA. 2008. p. 331.
- Glessner, Justin M. “Virgin.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016
- Rushdoony. p 332
- Walter Brueggemann. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary Series: Deuteronomy. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. 2001. p. 224
- Ibid. p. 225