Divorce and Virginity in Deuteronomy 22

One of my goals on this blog is to share my thoughts, but I also hope to learn from you. Consequently, some of my entries will not be me giving a decisive opinion, but rather me asking questions. This is one of those entries.

I study a chapter of Scripture every Friday night, and this evening I went through Deuteronomy 22. I have questions about divorce in this chapter and the Book of Deuteronomy in general. I would like to ask about other issues as well, but that will have to wait for future blog entries. Here are my questions, and I appreciate any insight that you can give me (on any of the questions):

1. In Deuteronomy 22:13-22, there is the scenario of a man who suspects that his wife was not a virgin before he married her. The man hates her, and her parents are required to produce evidence of the girl’s pre-marital virginity before the elders. If the parents do so, then the accuser is chastised and must pay the parents 100 silver shekels. Also, he is not allowed to divorce the woman for the rest of his life. If the girl was not a virgin, then the men of the town stone her to death. I guess my question is, If the man hated this woman, then why didn’t he just divorce her according to the law of Deuteronomy 24? I was thinking that he may have been upset because he paid for a non-virgin at a virgin’s price, but he does not get financially compensated once the women is found to have been a non-virgin. Maybe the answer to this is that he simply hated her and wanted to tarnish her reputation.

2. I also wonder why God/Deuteronomy allowed divorce in some cases but not in others. I understand why God would forbid a man who slandered his wife from divorcing her, since he may want to deter that sort of act. But I wonder why he prohibits a man who seduces and then marries a woman from ever divorcing her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Sure, the seducer violated the woman and made her a former virgin (meaning that she would not be worth as much as far as dowry goes), but the man of Deuteronomy 24 also had relations with his wife, yet he is permitted to divorce her. Moreover, a man who took a foreign female captive is allowed to put her away when she displeases him, even though he violated her (Deuteronomy 21:14, which has the same word, ana, that appears in Deuteronomy 22:29). What is the difference among these cases? One thought that came to me was that God wants to discourage men from impulsively acting on their passions. The man in Deuteronomy 21 at least had to wait 30 days before he could marry the foreign captive, so he was not exactly impulsive. Maybe that is a solution, but I wonder if anyone has a better proposal.

3. On a side note, why did the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East place such value on a woman being a virgin before she got married, since virgins required a higher price than non-virgins? A homiletical solution would be to say that the ancient world thought that “true love waits,” but I wonder if there is a better explanation, one that considers the culture of the ancient world on its own terms.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Deuteronomy, Questions, Religion, Weekly Quiet Time. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Divorce and Virginity in Deuteronomy 22

  1. Ryan says:

    Hi James!

    Hard, hard questions! I like to study, so I’ll start by taking a stab at the first one…

    You said… “I guess my question is, If the man hated this woman, then why didn’t he just divorce her according to the law of Deuteronomy 24?

    Deuteronomy 22:13-14 does not describe it as the man hating her. He is clearly charging her with suspected infidelity (adultery), and if this is the case, he is fully righteous to bring such infidelity to light. I suppose he doesn’t need to publicly shame her; he could quietly divorce her if he cared about her (recall Joseph’s intent when Mary was found to be with child during their engagement). That is a tough one, because she was bearing a child. But he didn’t have to divorce her if she was found to not be a virgin. Deut 22:13 doesn’t say, “If he finds her to not be a virgin, then he must publicly shame her” — it merely says if he rejects her, then this is the procedure. But he doesn’t have to reject her.

    I think if you look closely at Deut 24, it is not stated as a law, but the way it is written, permittance is implied. It doesn’t say, “If a man marries a woman and he finds some indecency (improper behaviour, but not adultery) in her, then he must write her a certificate of divorce, put it in her hand and send her out.” Rather, it narratively describes it as though it happened and Moses has allowed it. Recall Jesus’ exposition of Deut 24 in Matthew 19:7-9:

    “They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.'”

    Jesus corrects their misunderstanding; Moses didn’t command divorce, he permitted them to do it. So if there is immorality (adultery), Deuteronomy 22:13-14 applies. There is no divorce because, if it is true, the guilty woman is put to death. If it is not true, the husband is not permitted to divorce his wife for as long as he lives. However, the righteous person would not divorce a woman for indecency. So what you are dealing with in Deut 24 is someone who, as Jesus describes it, is hard hearted.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hey Ryan!

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I checked out Ryan’s notes yesterday. I especially liked your take on “lead us not into temptation,” since a woman at a church I attended in New York asked me what that meant.

    For Deuteronomy 22, the whole Mary and Joseph incident in Matthew had also entered my mind, but my conclusions were slightly different. I agree that Deuteronomy 22:13-14 may have applied to Mary, but another factor to consider is that Mary was betrothed. In that case, Deuteronomy 22:23-24 would apply to her, and that law says that a betrothed woman who lies with someone who is not her future husband is put to death. There does not seem to be room for choice on the part of the husband here, as there is in the Deuteronomy 22:13-14 law. One thing that Jeffrey Tigay’s commentary on Deuteronomy points out is that Deuteronomy’s law on adultery differs from those of other ancient Near Eastern societies. In the Code of Hammurapi, for example, a man whose wife cheats on him can pardon her, whereas the adulterer is put to death. Deuteronomy does not make this provision but says that both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. In this case (and in others as well), the biblical culture seems to have placed more value on family than did other ancient Near Eastern societies (depending on one’s definition of value).

    So what was Joseph trying to accomplish by putting Mary away privately? My thought was this, and I am open to correction: If Joseph put Mary away, then she was no longer betrothed to him. If she lies with another man when she is betrothed, then she is subject to the death penalty. If she does so when she is not betrothed, then she merely has to marry the man with whom she had relations. And, if that man abandons her or does not show up to fulfill his part of the bargain, then that is not her fault. Joseph may have seen some signs of Mary’s pregnancy and wanted to put her away quickly so that others would think that she slept with another man after the betrothal was dissolved. One problem with this proposal, however, is that Joseph put her away privately, and my proposal assumes that Joseph acted with the public view in mind.


  3. James Pate says:

    I must be having technical difficulties. I posted a comment, yet the main page says only “I Comment” rather than 2. I’ll post this so you know there are two comments and that I responded.


  4. april says:

    well first we must remember that this is one of the five books of moses. this is the law and laws and regulations were used to govern man’s limits after the fall of man in genesis. saying that, i don’t see this as god’s will and almost not even his permissive will. Let me explain that first and formost the law to keep or get rid of your wife shows the heart of man. this is why jesus had to come and fullfill the law because the heart of man is and was evil continually. God did not speak this to moses. Moses spoke these issues to god. I see this as a proposal by mose to god.of what to do with the women who is not a jew and the woman you no longer love and and so on in deut.22 and 24. remember jesus said that divorse is not the idea of god now or has never been. but for the hardness of man’s heart this is not the will or gods doing. matt.19:8 so we find that marriage is and never was meant by god to be legal but loving. what man lead by god will put his wife out of the home because he does not delight at a time where she has no mother or father living and she is not from this country this is the picture of an unregenerated heart. I believe god allows this law to be so in the land at that time to show just how much mankind needs his christ’s mercy , grace, truth and love.


  5. april says:

    let me say this in conclusion this is the way sin treats us not god in response to what was going on in deut.22 and 24. sin uses women and men up fools and blinds our heart from feeling others and trully loving like god this is really the issue in these two scripture text. So the question is not why would god allow this but why would man kind behave like this. everything that is written in the the two text are about man’s desire and wants and not about pleasing god. that is how you know that god is not allowing this law but tolerating man’s ignorance until the appointed time of grace.


  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your response, April. That’s an interesting way of looking at things. Moses came up with the law, yet God honored that for a pedagogical purpose. It kind of reminds me of the Ten Commandments movie with Dougray Scott.


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