On Deut. 22:13-21

It has not been the subject of criticism by anyone I am aware of, but we saw a good chance here to write an expository item on Deut. 22:13-21 as a reader passed us a copy of an article titled Sex, Lies and Virginal Rape by Bruce Wells, in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2005, p. 41 that contained a detailed analysis that deserves a summation and a passing on, in case someone out there has (or does) bring it up.

Let's begin of course with the text:

13If a man takes a wife and sleeps with her, but then hates her 14and brings charges against her and causes an evil name to come upon her, saying, "I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find in her the signs of virginity," 15then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take the signs of her virginity and bring them to the elders of the city at the gate. 16The father of the young woman shall say to the elders, "I gave my daughter to this man as a wife, and he has hated her. 17See, he has brought charges against her, saying, 'I did not find in your daughter the signs of virginity.' But these are the signs of my daughter's virginity." And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. 18Then the elders of the city shall take the man and flog him, 19and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has caused an evil name to come upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he may not divorce her for the rest of his days. 20But if the charge is true-signs of virginity were not found in the young woman-21then they shall bring the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death, because she has committed a shameful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father's house. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst.

I have certainly seen Skeptics make a big deal over the display of the tokens of virginity, as they assume that, like us, this was an individualistic society where the girl would be embarrassed by such things. But beyond that, one may object that the man gets off lightly if he is wrong, and indeed, bears false witness as forbidden in Deut. 19:16-21:

16If a malicious witness rises against another to accuse the other falsely, ''then both parties to the dispute shall appear before Yahweh and before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused the other falsely, 19then you shall do to the witness just as the witness intended to do to the other person. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20The rest of the people shall hear and fear and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Given the "eye for eye" equation, one might argue that the husband ought to be stoned, since that is the fate his slandered bride would have endured; hence women are being treated unfairly.

Wells disagrees, and draws upon the context of ANE law to show how there is "a remarkable degree of congruence between the passage about the slandered bride and the law of false accusation." His three critical points are:

  1. The "authors of the text do not portray the husband as seeking his wife's death when he makes his accusation." Rather, he seeks the monetary damages and punishment on the wife that ends up being out on him.
  2. Related to this, the legal systems of the ANE "allowed the same infraction to be punished with different penalties. The wronged party often had the right to choose which penalty or penalties to impose on the offending party. A husband who had been wronged by pre-consummation sex plus deception thus had a range of penalties from which to choose," including death, but also lesser penalties.
  3. Finally, "the provisions in biblical and cuneiform law collections dealing with the commission of a wrong typically list only the most severe penalty allowed by law and leave other possible penalties unmentioned." This is reflective of an error we have seen many times: Deuteronomy is not a literal handbook, but is really intended to be didactic -- a book of case law.

Wells' argument boils down to this: The "penalties inflicted on the husband essentially match the penalties he was seeking to impose on the other party - the father of his bride - thereby satisfying the law of false accusation."

He sought to humiliate the family; hence he is humiliated (with the flogging). He sought to keep the dowry; hence he pays it back. He sought to divorce the woman; hence he is not permitted to do so -- and this would require him, we may add, to sustain her for his lifetime; and that in turn would be enforced by the elders of the village and the family.

As Wells notes:

Divorcing a wife in the ancient Near East was a legal act that involved a man's declaring the dissolution of the marriage and sending the woman away from the household, either to fend for herself or to return to her father's household. Her former husband was no longer responsible for providing for her. If the husband in the passage about the slandered bride wants to send his new bride away, he would in essence be returning her to her father and forcing the latter to support her, probably for quite some time. Other men would be reluctant to marry her since she had already been with at least one man. Indeed, the biblical text itself portravs the husband as having this in mind.
The same is essentially true of the man in this passage but on somewhat different terms. Typical divorce may not be the husband's intention. In a typical divorce, the other party involved would be the wife. Here the husband is taking action against the father-in-law. A different sort of divorce or, more precisely, annulment may be what he has in mind. In the ancient Near East, when a father failed to make good on an inchoate marriage agreement, by letting another man have his daughter or the like, he was often required to return to the original groom twice the amount that was paid as the bride-price.

This is, in essence, the situation in which the husband claims he finds himself. His bride's father has broken the marriage agreement by allowing the young woman to have sex with another man and then deceiving him; therefore, he says, he has justification for initiating a case against his father-in-law, dissolving the marriage, and requesting the appropriate compensation, namely, twice the amount of the bride-price. A number of scholars believe that Deut 22:29 reflects fifty shekels of silver as the amount of a bride-price at that time. If that is true, then the husband is requesting a payment of one hundred shekels from his wife's father. The element of money thus becomes clear in the husband's intentions.

Then there is the flogging; and that is correspondent to the public shame of the accusation, and perhaps as well as other shaming devices that the man may have performed on the wife (such as kicking her out of the house naked). This would humiliate not only the woman but her family as well, particularly her father, "who had allowed her virginity to be violated while she was under his supervision. He is the one primarily responsible for what has happened, and shaming his daughter in this way is tantamount to shaming him."

Thus it is that Wells points out:

All of this means that the charge of sexual misconduct is not a lone accusation. It is part of an effort by the husband to execute a justified annulment as a result of his father-in-law's breach of contract. This is an action he cannot perform independently. He must bring the case to court-perhaps before a tribunal of elders-in order to justify his action and reap its benefits. The text, though, reveals the fraudulent nature of the man's actions and shows how he is punished....the punishments are a remarkable mirror image of the man's original intentions.

First, instead of seeing his wife and her father publicly humiliated, he undergoes a form of public humiliation himself.

Second, the financial penalty enforced against the man is one hundred shekels of silver, the exact amount the man would have received if his charges had been believed. Instead of having one hundred shekels of silver pass from his father-in-law to himself, the man must take one hundred shekels of silver from his own resources and transfer them to his father-in-law.

Finally, instead of being rid of this woman forever and forcing her father to care for her, he must bring her back into his household and be permanently responsible for her support.

This leaves the matter of that the stoning of the woman who actually was guilty must be shown to not be the only option. Wells on this point notes concering ANE justice:

Victims could ask that the harshest penalty allowed by law be imposed, or they could accept something less severe. In the case of murder, for instance, the family of the victim possessed the legal right-enforceable by the court-to seek full measures and demand the death of the murderer, even to carry out the execution themselves. It was also the case, though, that "that same right could be commuted into a money payment, i.e. that revenge could be bought off with a ransom."

At this point simple common sense comes into play: The text specifies lesser penalties for the man, and the harshest penalty for the bride, because the picture is of a man trying to make money. Since he was pulling a con game, and wants money, asking for the woman's death (the harshest possible penalty) would make no sense. As Wells puts it:

....the man is not interested in the death of his bride; he prefers simply to dissolve the marriage and receive a handsome sum from the father. Thus, the law in Deut 22:13-21 assumes that partial measures were permitted, since [the first part] is based on the premise that the husband selects that option.

Thus any charge of inconsistency or unfairness is dissolved.