Marriage in the Bible – Part 5: The Virgin Test

In biblical times, as in many cultures, virginity was important. A man liked to know that his new wife (which he may have paid a pretty penny for) was wholesome and pure. Of course, if he paid for her– either in shekels or blood– a lack of virginity was tantamount to false advertising. But then as now, there were people of looser moral character, who might claim that a virgin was not, to “get his money back”. Fortunately the bride and her father need only turn to the bible for a solution to their problem: the virgin test.

This is day five of my “marriage in the Torah” series. If you are just joining me, the days so far are about the creation story, marrying your brother’s widow, polygamy, and the bride price. I had planned on posting about divorce on Friday, but it was depressing. Virginity is more fun, anyway, and I’ll loop back around to divorce shortly.

So, how does biblical law ensure the fairness of virgin brides? Read on!

A Jewish wedding, 1904
A Jewish wedding, 1904 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The key passage in testing virginity comes in Deuteronomy 22:13-21. It’s a long passage, so I’ll break it down.

If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, and lay wanton charges against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say: ‘I took this woman, and when I came nigh to her, I found not in her the tokens of virginity’;

Deuteronomy 22:13-14

I don’t think I need to spell out much of this part. You have a bride and groom that have slept together on the marital bed. Unfortunately, the man secretly harbors a grudge against the woman and so wants to slander her by claiming that she was not what she claimed to be.

then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate. And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders: ‘I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; and, lo, he hath laid wanton charges, saying: I found not in thy daughter the tokens of virginity; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.

Deuteronomy 22:15-17

Now, it’s up to the father to dispel this allegation and he has to do so in a public way: by going directly to the elders of the city with a very special package, the “token of virginity”. In this case, what the father is bringing is the marital sheet upon which the virgin bride is expected to have bled. How did the father get this sheet? Well, that’s not elaborated on in the Torah.

A wedding canopy (chuppah)
A wedding canopy (chuppah) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Rashi, writing in his 11th century commentary on the Torah, claims that this is metaphor only and that the parents were not expected to have a bloody sheet to show off. I think the plain words of the text suggest otherwise, but it does answer a critical question as to exactly how the father and daughter were supposed to sneak the bloody sheet out of the house– if the husband was inclined to slander his wife, it would have been easy enough to hide it. After it, it was his sheet, wasn’t it?

While I am positive the Talmud also comments on this someplace, I cannot find it.  Perhaps another time.

And the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him. And they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel; and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel; then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die; because she hath wrought a wanton deed in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.

Deuteronomy 22:18-21

This rule ends with the punishment of the transgressor:

  • If the man is lying: He is chastised, fined 100 shekels to be given to the bride’s parents, and is permanently bound to his wife and cannot divorce her under any circumstances. This seems to me to be as much a punishment for the wife as the husband as she now needs to deal with an abusive and untrustworthy person for the remainder of her days.
  • If the man is not lying: The bride is taken to her parents’ house and stoned to death.

Either way, the woman loses. If the man is inclined to lie, the worst thing that happens to him is that he is fined. If the woman can’t prove her purity, she is put to death. Worse, the burden of proof is on her (and her parents) to prove it. Realistically, how difficult must that have been?

Rashi, btw, actually takes this rule to a further uncomfortable extreme. He looked at this passage and noticed that the woman never defends herself. In fact, it is up to her father and her husband to battle this out in front of the elders. While the bride’s mother is mentioned, she is also not seen to be speaking. What is the “logical” conclusion that Rashi draws from this? That a wife may not speak out against her husband, even in a circumstance where if she didn’t she’d be stoned to death. 11th century Judaism may not have been much better for wives than almost two thousand years earlier.

Although this rule existed in Deuteronomy, there is no example (that I am aware of) from Genesis or Exodus of a patriarch discovering his wife wasn’t a virgin, or undergoing this process. Presumably all unmarried women were assumed to be virgins unless the text explicitly said otherwise, which it never does.

I see a different subtext to this rule: Inheritance. This was the only way that a man could be sure the woman’s first child would be his and not some pre-marriage suitor. That would also explain the harsh punishment of stoning, perhaps (and I dread to use this term) as a form of mother-and-child abortion which would ensure that there was no children of questionable legitimacy to claim the father’s property or to deny the birthright to his later children.

There’s really nothing else that I can say about this; it really speaks for itself. While this rule isn’t as bad as the rape rules (and really, what can be that bad?), it still makes me uncomfortable that people may took these rules literally and seriously.

Up next: Umm… I don’t know. Either divorce or the rules for which relatives you’re allowed to marry.

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