Understanding Deuteronomy 22 and the Virginity Test

Question: “How accurate was the virginity test mentioned in Deuteronomy 22?” (Original source here)

Answer: Part of the Old Testament Law dealt with the matter of a husband who accused his new wife of not being a virgin when he married her. If such a charge was leveled, “then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. Her father will say to the elders, ‘. . . Here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town” (Deuteronomy 22:15–17). If the proof of the bride’s virginity was given, her husband who made the false accusation was punished and fined (verses 18–19); however, if no proof could be found and the charge was true, then the unvirtuous bride was stoned to death (verses 20–21).

The “cloth” used as proof of a bride’s virginity was the material containing blood from the bride’s broken hymen. This evidence was collected on the wedding night by others and kept by the bride’s parents. The question before us is, how reliable was such evidence? What if the new bride did not bleed during initial sexual intercourse? And what if her hymen had broken previously, due to non-sexual physical activity?

To correctly interpret and understand a biblical situation, it is imperative that the situation is evaluated in its textual, cultural, and historical context—we must consider the cultural norms and social conditions in which a particular situation was addressed. The primary and most applicable meaning of any passage is the meaning intended for the original readers; all other meanings, interpretations, and applications are secondary to that primary meaning and can never contradict, negate, or overrule that primary meaning. With this in mind, we must evaluate the “virginity test” of Deuteronomy 22 in its proper context.

Let us first look at this “virginity test” in its textual context:

We see right away from Deuteronomy 22:13–14 that it’s possible the charge being brought against the woman is simply a concoction. The husband “dislikes” his bride and, being dissatisfied with her for some reason, uses the pretext of her supposed lack of virginity to slander her and have her punished. What the Law of Moses did was to extend protection to women who were falsely accused of infidelity. If there was evidence from the wedding night of her virginity, a woman could not be punished.

Also, the same law placed a penalty on the husband for lying. The law made clear that, if the “proof of virginity” was present, then the husband would be facing a stiff penalty himself (Deuteronomy 22:18–19). It would be foolish for him to level such a serious allegation and assume that the proof of her virginity would not be forthcoming. Prudence would dictate that he have something more tangible and universally acceptable in his hands to substantiate his allegations and not rely on mere accusation.

With this in mind, notice that there are two requirements that must be met before the woman was punished: “If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found” (Deuteronomy 22:20, emphasis added). First, the charge must be true; second, there must be no proof of the woman’s virginity. The first part indicates that an investigation is to be carried out and the allegation proved; this investigation is then supplemented by the lack of exculpatory evidence. Only then is the woman held guilty. We can therefore surmise that the final judgment was not entirely predicated upon the presence or absence of the evidence. The physical evidence no doubt had important bearing on the case, but the “virginity test” of the cloth was unlikely to be the sole means of establishing the woman’s guilt or innocence.

Now we look at the “virginity test” from a social and historical context:

We often err in understanding biblical situations because we look at the situations from the perspective of modern cultural and social norms. We need to remember that the Law was given to the Israelites soon after they had come out of bondage in Egypt. The instruction of Deuteronomy 22 was given to the people of Israel, a conservative and closed community, about 3,500 years ago. In that time period and in those conditions, what activities could the Israelite girls have indulged in that would have broken their hymens? There were no sports or horseback riding or other activities that sometimes result in a broken hymen. In Egypt, the girls would mainly have been confined to their slave quarters. In their trip to Canaan, they would have stayed near their camps and completed household chores—again without much chance of overly strenuous activity. Hence, the Law’s prescribed test of virginity would been considerably more accurate than what we might expect, given today’s norms.

With no medical facilities, no gynecologists, no surveys on virginity, and no social or familial leeway to allow for sexual promiscuity, the Israelites had to rely on the test mentioned in the Law. Of course, this “evidence of virginity” was not foolproof, but under those circumstances, for that time and culture, there was no readily available method of confirming virginity except for the bedsheet of the bride’s first night. As already discussed, the lack of that evidence was not incriminatory by itself. Any charge of impropriety against the bride would have to be investigated fully before a final verdict could be pronounced.

Cases of husbands suspecting their new brides of immorality or infidelity were not common. There is no record that any woman was ever stoned to death on the basis of this law, much less any woman who was unjustly executed due to her hymen being broken prior to sex with her husband.

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