Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
When I first received a letter offering me a routine pap smear test, I replied saying I didn’t want one. Why? I wanted my hymen to remain intact until I was married.
The nurse who followed up took some persuading when I said I was celibate, but she respected my wishes and conceded that the risks of cervical cancer were significantly reduced while I was sexually inactive. She did however express some bewilderment at how many young women, especially those with religious backgrounds, turned down cervical screening. It’s offered free of charge in the UK where I live and can be lifesaving.
The risk of cancer had never entered my mind. All I was concerned about was doing abstinence, marriage, and sex the “biblical way.” That meant leaving my hymen alone until I had penetrative sex for the first time, which I hoped wouldn’t happen until I was with my husband, on our honeymoon. Then, and only then, did I want this thin membrane inside my vagina to break and bleed.
Well, I didn’t bleed.
Fortunately, I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, and my husband never suspected that I’d lied about being a virgin (partly because I was so clueless about sex). But the truth is, many women don’t have a hymen, and of those that do, it doesn’t usually bleed. As sex educator Emily Nagoski puts it in her book on women’s sexuality, “Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication than damage to hymen.”1
I’ve written before about how lack of sex and consent education harmed my husband’s and my sex life in the early years of our marriage. But as I look back, I realize that’s only one side of the coin. The other was biblical illiteracy.
You have to understand, I believed I knew enough about my body because I’d read Deuteronomy 22:13–21; the passage is about proving a young bride’s virginity and I took it largely at face value. No, I didn’t expect my parents to retain my bloodied honeymoon bedsheets (neither did they, thank goodness!), but I did expect my physiology to be consistent with the women of ancient Israel. Why would the Bible say something about the hymen that wasn’t true?
Despite being encouraged to read the Bible from cover to cover, my only additional tool for interpreting Deuteronomy was knowing it was written by Moses. This is ironic, because many Old Testament scholars believe that it was attributed to Moses but not written by him.2 I had also assumed it was written as a continuous piece, but the majority of scholars also think that it’s a collection of writings that span centuries3 and was compiled, even recompiled, and edited.
Don’t get me wrong; I still believe Deuteronomy is authoritative as Scripture. What I’m saying is that its compositional features have a profound impact on how we might understand the intentions behind the text and their relevance for today, including Deuteronomy 22:13–21.
Before I go on, I want to highlight that these verses are extremely violent. I don’t promise comfortable answers for those who carry on reading, but I do hope to offer better tools so you can avoid some of the mistakes that I made.
Very briefly, this passage concerns a bride whose marriage arrangements specifically expected her to be a virgin (note: that wasn’t the case for all marriages). It has two parts.
The first part (verses 13–19) is about the parents of the bride accusing the bridegroom of spreading slander against their daughter and, by extension, her family. As plaintiffs (not defendants!), they prove their case by producing bedsheets from the wedding night, stained with the bride’s hymeneal blood.
The second part (verses 20–21) is written in a completely different style4 and upends the initial premise that the bridegroom’s accusation was malicious (verse 13). It concludes that if the evidence of virginity is not produced, the bride is to be stoned (the possibility of historic rape is not considered).
Defending a Daughter
I used to think this passage was an unambiguous biblical model for how the hymen can be expected to work when a woman loses her virginity. Now, however, I read these two parts as very different laws for different purposes—neither is really about the hymen. Verses 13–19 are an old law designed to give parents-in-law a mechanism of holding slanderous bridegrooms to account. Verses 20–21 are a later addition, responding to a much broader political concern, though that doesn’t mean the penalty was ever carried out.5
Moreover, verses 20–21 are inconsistent with other writings concerning virginity and adultery, both in the Bible and other law codes of the ancient Near East.6 Also, if we consider other Bible stories (such as Joseph’s brothers pretending he had been killed by a wild animal), folk literature, and ethnographic reports, we find that the faking of bloodstains is a common trope.7
That might feel like a brain-bending twist, but once we factor these considerations into our reading, we realize that this law doesn’t really ask whether a bride’s hymen bled. It asks whether her mother and father are willing to produce evidence, real or fake, to vindicate her.8 In other words, this passage is not about biology but rather the bride’s relationship with her parents.
I appreciate that this interpretation might seem a leap in logic, and it’s not helped by the fact that I’m summarizing a number of complex arguments in a very short space. But this shift in focus, away from the hymen and towards parent-child relationships, has transformed how I understand this passage.
It’s also consistent with a parallel law that applies to sons in Deuteronomy 21:18–21.9 That law is stylistically similar and again carries the death penalty, though the son’s disobedience is exemplified not through his sexual activity but rather gluttony and drunkenness. Again, it’s debatable whether this law was ever put into practice,10 but we can be sure that Jesus was alluding to it when he told the parable of the prodigal son—which isn’t about eating and drinking habits but the son’s relationship with his father.
I therefore believe there’s a strong case for interpreting Deuteronomy’s law about the bride first and foremost in the context of parent-daughter and parent-child relationships. If we do draw any lessons about sexual ethics, we should think about what that means for sons, just as we’ve asked what Jesus’s parable would mean for daughters.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Of course, this won’t answer all our questions about Deuteronomy. Was it right that a daughter’s disobedience was measured through her sexual activity but a son’s through his excessive eating and drinking? Was it right for laws to imply that parents could take the lives of their children? How were children protected from abusive parents? Perhaps most significantly: if laws as harsh as these were—and still are—included in Scripture, what does that say about God’s character?
I don’t have neat answers. But I do gain a better appreciation of several other New Testament passages (alongside the parable of the prodigal son) when I read them in the context of these laws in Deuteronomy. Jesus, for example, was accused multiple times of being a glutton and a drunk (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). These accusations were code for a wayward and rebellious son. And, of course, there’s his mother Mary, who was pregnant before she married.
I sometimes wonder if the bleaker stories and laws of the Old Testament were passed down, not because they reflect God’s heart but because his heart is better revealed against that backdrop. Deuteronomy asks what kind of sons and daughters do unmarried children want to be. And yes, that’s important. But in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus flipped the question round: What kind of fathers and mothers do parents want to be?
Meanwhile, the myths of the hymen and their potentially lethal stakes are just as real today as they were in ancient Israel. When rapper T. I. made headlines in 2019 for having his daughter’s hymen tested, the story highlighted how virginity tests are a worldwide problem and closely linked to “honor” based abuse.
Fortunately, we don’t all need to geek out on hermeneutics to fight against this. But I do believe Christians are better equipped to bring transformation today when we grapple with Deuteronomy, not as a perplexing glitch in the biblical canon but as the complex product of different times and theological tensions. And perhaps when we see Deuteronomy as itself a progression of thought, we will feel more empowered to search for new answers today.
Because as much as I love the Bible, I can’t help but believe that the performance of virginity is something we would do well to leave behind. When we place too much value on the hymen and virginity in ways that have no ethical, biblical, or spiritual substance—and aren’t even medically accurate—all I can see are recipes for false pride and undue shame. Yes, of course we should be honest with our sexual partners about our sexual history. But it’s not biblical to turn down cervical screening or to be uneducated about sex because of unfounded fears.
If we want to follow Deuteronomy’s wisdom, we will do better by loving God with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5).
At least, that’s what Jesus taught. And I think he was right.
1. Emily Nagoski, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life (London: Scribe Publications, 2015), 68.
2. There are indications in the Bible that Moses wasn’t the final author/editor of Deuteronomy. As Peter Enns observes, for example, the opening words of Deuteronomy are “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel beyond [on the other side of] the Jordan.” Given that Moses never crossed the Jordan River to enter Canaan, other authors/editors likely contributed. See Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019), 83.
3. For further reading on the dating of the different sections and strata of Deuteronomy, see Alexander Rofé, “The Book of Deuteronomy: A Summary,” in Deuteronomy: Issues and Interpretation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002), 1–14. I’ve also summarized a number of Rofé’s arguments in a post on my blog.
4. As Rofé explains: “The first [part, verses 13–19,] contains a long and wordy description of the particulars of the case, including the claims of both litigants. The second [part, verses 20–21,] is short and restrained; it goes straight to the legal decision and the rationale behind it, coming to a close without discussing any sort of negotiation in the presence of the town elders.” See Rofé, “Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant,” in Deuteronomy, 173.
5. Numerous scholars, including Rofé, date verses 20–21 from the late monarchic period (or later), given their similarity with other laws in Deuteronomy concerning apostasy. If the author was from around the time of King Josiah, it is reasonable to infer that these verses responded to the wider problem of immorality within Israel. In other words, verses 13–19 are principally domestic in scope, but verses 20–21 reflected concerns about the state of the nation. See Rofé, “Family and Sex Laws,” Deuteronomy, 177–180.
6. Rofé highlights how in Genesis 24:16, Rebekah is praised for being a virgin, but it wouldn’t make sense to praise her for not committing a capital offense. He also cites the very disturbing stories in Genesis 19:8 and Judges 19:24, in which men offer up women to be gang raped. He observes that such an offer would be inconceivable were the loss of virginity, in itself, considered a capital offense. See Rofé, “Family and Sex Laws,” Deuteronomy, 175–176. See also Joseph Fleishman, “The Delinquent Daughter and Legal Innovation in Deuteronomy XXII 20-21,” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 58, no. 2 (2008): 191–210.
7. Aaron Koller also gives ancient and modern examples regarding the faking of hymeneal blood, including the Palestinian Talmud and The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. See Aaron Koller, “Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22,” Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 16 (2010): 279–296.
8. This is the conclusion of Koller in his paper.
9. The similarity between these laws was noted by Koller, Fleishman, and Rofé, as well as others.
10. See Rofé, “Family and Sex Laws,” Deuteronomy, 180.
Find more on this topic here:
"Tattoos, Debt, and Virginity: What Does the Bible Actually Say to Women?" by Jill Lin
"5 Purity Culture Myths and Why They Are False Promises" by Camden Morgante
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