Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Atheist Devotional Reflections on תּוֹרַת יְהוָה – Pre-Marital Sex

In the previous ethical reflection on Pentateuchal legislation, I pointed out the inadmissibility of indirect evidence in biblical jurisprudence. In both testaments it was shown that direct evidence in the form of witnesses is required to indict a man of an accusation. I mention "man" in this previous sentence not to be sexist but rather because there are exceptions when a woman cannot invoke the need for witnesses to protect herself from punishment for promiscuity. One of these cases already covered relates to the "spirit of jealousy" and a trial by ordeal prescribed in Numbers 5 in which the accused wife is made to drink a potentially lethal or sterilizing solution to "determine" her innocence. The man who is suspected of being her accomplice is not required to submit to any trials by ordeal, and, unless there are witnesses to adultery, he gets away without consequence. The next case is prescribed in the following:

If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a virgin: 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 given occasions of speech [against her], saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these [are the tokens of] my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; And they shall amerce him in an 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, [and the tokens of] virginity be not found for 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 folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

Tokens of Virginity

In case the reader is not familiar with this term, "tokens of virginity" (בְּתוּלִים, plural for virginity) refers to the custom of keeping a stained garment or sheet from the deflowering of a virginal bride. This sheet becomes an acknowledgement that the virgin bride's hymen was intact until the wedding night and hence is deemed an evidence of the bride's virginity. This passage presumes this practice which is otherwise not directly prescribed in the Pentateuch.

The quality of this evidence must be openly questioned. The hymen is a poor attestation to the virginity of a woman. The hymen does not always create a full obstruction and may even remain intact after years of intercourse. Additionally, the hymen will often break or tear from non-sexually related activities. Hence, the hymen is not a reliable barometer of sexual activity. Unfortunate for the Israelite bride, her life may depend on the integrity of her hymen—a membrane which she may have no control over. The admissibility of the "tokens of virginity" in this case represents a break from the general Pentateuchal requirement for direct witnesses and places many a potentially innocent bride at risk with no risk to any potential male accomplice.

The Elders..Shall Chastise Him

This passage does prescribe a punishment for the husband who wrongfully accuses his wife of pre-marital unchastely behavior. He is required to pay off a monetary fine and he is required to maintain his wife without the possibility of divorce. Though, honestly, divorce at this point seems a mercy to the wife, it allowed for her financial security in a patriarchal society where men owned property and the means of production.

Stone Her with Stones

If the "tokens of virginity" cannot be produced to absolve the bride of guilt, she is punished with loss of life. There are a number of telling descriptions here. Christians generally accept that pre-marital sex is forbidden in the Bible. Though they are partially correct in assuming this, few would be willing to accept the biblical qualifications for why the act is evil. This text plainly states that her fault is in bringing shame to her "father's house." Hence, the woman's action is not a violation of personal dignity or value as it is seen today in post-feminist cultures; rather, it is defined by the impact that it has on male or patriarchal prestige. In reference to this passage and others, Brueggemann (2002) states,

…the way in which the laws in Deuteronomy 20:14, 22:13-20, and 24:1-5 "construct" sexual roles of man and woman … are profoundly sexist. While evidences of partnership exist, for the most part the laws articulate the woman as the property of the man, certainly subordinate and without equal entitlement. The prohibition against coveting (Exod. 20:17, Deut. 5:21) thus parallels "wife" to "field," indicating the two prize possessions that are to be honored and respected as the man's possession (p. 192).

In the same vein, it is worth noting that Pentateuchal adultery is qualified by the marital status of the woman, not the man. Brueggeman (2002) notes,

Indeed, adultery committed by a man is not adultery if with an unmarried woman. The act is only adultery if it is committed with the wife of another man, whereby the affront is fundamentally against the husband of the woman… (p. 193).

The Pentateuch is hardly sexually egalitarian. It prescribes one set of standards, albeit both risky and strict, for the woman and then does not apply the same to the man. The married man is able to have sexual relations with any unmarried woman. The married woman must remain exclusive as the property of her one husband. The married woman can be accused at any time of infidelity and punished without direct evidence. The man can only be punished with direct witnesses to his misconduct.

I realize that most Christians distance themselves form the "old Jewish law" and now look to the "law of Christ" as their guide. They are often willing to accept the fact that the Old-Testament God is cruel and sexist, but the Jesus of the Gospel is merciful and egalitarian. I do not buy into this paradigm. If the Paul of the New Testament can declare, "…the law [is] holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (Romans 7:12), then truly Paul would not have accepted such a frame of God as bipolar or schizoid. The God of the Old Testament is the theologically the God of the New Testament. I know that Jews and Christians do not apply Deuteronomy 22:13-21 in their congregations, but I ask biblical theists to consider the ethics of a God who is partial against the plight of the woman. The atheist is morally free from the regressive implications of this passage, where the theist is forced to ignore the same.


  1. My wife probably detached herself from church long before me. While she doesn't label herself as an atheist or even an ex-christian, she doesn't like the "church" scene.

    I asked her why once. She said she didn't like the way women were generally treated or regarded-- not limited to stories from scripture, but also in the church congregations that we usually attended.

    I think women notice these issues and are sensitive to them more so than men.

    I remember visiting a minister at his home. His wife always called him "sir". He justified this by citing how Sarah called Abraham "lord". He equated that with "sir" and expected her to address him that way.

    That's not typical behavior, by the way. People out there think that way, though.

  2. Uruk,

    It is common in some SE Asian countries like the Philippines to call any man with a college degree 'sir.' I broke up with a Filipina in the last year and part of the reason was because she would not stop calling me "Sir Zee." Was his wife Philipino by any chance?

  3. "Who's Brueggeman?"

    I'm guessing Walter Brueggemann.


  4. yep, Walter Brueggeman. I am a fan of his writings. He is a believer and a theist, but he is painfully honest about biblical matters.