Wibble Wednesday: Extra Virgins (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19)

We’re still keeping it pretty interesting, as we go into פָּרָשַׁת כי תצא (“When you go” portion), which has a lot of civil laws.

The quick snarky summary: Jews are enjoined, in several ways, to be excellent to each other. Yay! There are occasional horrifying bits to remind us that we’re discussing an ancient culture here, like killing kids for being uppity and keeping stained sheets around for skeevy proof-of-virginity purposes.


We start off with an explanation which may be kind of part and parcel with the “how to conduct war” bits of the last parsha. Remember that, in foreign wars, Israelites take home the chattels and the women of the foes (which may sound harsh, but contrast with their homefront wars, where they kill everyone and burn all thier property). Property is easy to see the reassignation of, but we might have to plumb into the murk of the question of just what is being done with all those captive women. The text itself is silent on specifics, but there are definitely some obvious and unsavory possibilities which are pretty in line with the typical ancient-world nature of war. Reading between the lines, enslavement is almost certainly part of the treatment of these captives. But oddly, the text that we see here seems to some degree to refute the likely prospect of sexual enslavement.

So, here’s what we see here: a Jewish soldier, if he conceives a passion for a captive woman, can undergo a process to marry her. All this rigamarole surrounding the consummation of his passion suggests—although it does not say outright—that forcible casual sex is not actually regarded as an option (not that the woman gets a choice in the marriage either, so “forcible” is still on the table, but by the standards of the time a marriage to an unwilling participant was regarded as a lesser cruelty than an unembellished rape). There’s a procedure to be followed, however, with the woman being stripped of traditional aspects of beauty (nails and hair) and set to grieving. This performance seems to have two major purposes: first, in leaving her home and family, the woman has a life to mourn, and this gives her an opportunity to do so; second, the uglification is meant to accentuate her outsider status in the community. My constant search for Deuterocanonical motifs keeps finding specific community-building aspects: a community formed on the notions of common worship practices, centralization of administration and ritual, and now of ethnic and cultural purity. The Deuteronomic authorities almost certainly disapproved of marriage outside the community as an act detrimental to cohesiveness, so in setting down the laws permitting one to marry a captive, they’d necessarily include elements which put the woman who was to join the community “in her place”, as a lesser participant. After the ritual shaming, she is married, which gives her status in the community, so like so many of the Biblical laws which seem to be raw deals for women, they might well still be better treatment than was all-too-typical at the time. A hint at the alternative is given by the verse providing an out if, in the end, the man chooses not to marry his captive after all: in this case (but presumably not in other cases!) the woman goes free instead of being enslaved, because of the mortifying procedure described earlier. I imagine many of the slave women would be willing to go through said procedure for manumission, so probably in the eyes of the drafters of these rules, providing this concession to the spurned captive is more than fair.

More laws of justice to family (or, in the case above, to those you fail to make family) follow. Several verses are devoted to inheritance processes, specifically indicating that first-born portions can’t be alienated. Then we get an oft-quoted section about rebellious sons. The draw of this to drive-by Bible quotation is that it’s capital punishment attached to what seems like an awfully minor crime, and one that’s not even particularly attached to the popular Biblical berserk-button topics (idolworship, sexual transgression). Here, a young man can and should be killed for repeated disobedience to parents. This one’s actually authentically hard to justify: family structure was important in a lot of ancient societies, but the death penalty seems an awfully big gun to bring to bear on it. There are specific vices of excess attached to the rebellious son in the procedure described, namely, gluttony and drunkenness, but elsewhere these individual sins are never named as deserving of such condemnation as they are here.

Incidentally, the scholars found this verse problematic too, to the extent that the commentary in the Mishnah very strongly suggests that this passage was never actually applicable, and was in the Bible for purely instructional purposes. This feels a lot like a later justification for something where values changed to make the original meaning unacceptable. I don’t have a line on other contemporary law codes as regards filial obedience, but maybe this particular weirdness was actually, at the time, all too normal.

A grab-bag of what are mostly civic decencies follows this law. Executed criminals need to be buried instead of being left to rot, lost property should be returned to its owner, people should provide assistance in others’ tribulations, accessible roofs should be fenced in to keep people from falling. I sometimes rag on the more brutal parts of the text, but these basic decencies are nice to see. I’m not convinced they make the Torah much more enlightened than the contemporary law codes of other nations, but it’s nice to see some laws here which are about public welfare instead of about authority. Another law which is on the edge of being of this type is the rule to not take a mother bird and its young at the same time: there’s a viewpoint where doing so is a compassionate act, rather than completely obliterating the whole family of birds.

Mixed in with these laws, at seemingly random intervals, are a few issues which, while they ostensibly operate in the civic sphere, are somewhat ritualistic in their prohibition, in that they don’t seem to impinge directly on public welfare. They deal mostly with forms of forbidden “mixing”: Israel seemed to have a thing about ambiguity or mixtures. So, for instance, the “gender mixing” implies by transvestism is forbidden, the sowing of two different types of seed in the same field is forbidden, the yoking of an ox with a donkey is forbidden, and wearing clothes of blended fibers is forbidden. Interestingly, no punishment or justification is suggested for any of these crimes, merely the suggestion that these acts are offensive. They all do seem to be variations on a common theme, though, and I imagine that they may shed some light on the Deuteronomists’ authoritarianism: they’re big fans of order, and have no qualms about attempting to enforce their notion of orderliness on public behavior.

We also get a repetition of a previous rule from Numbers 15, to wear fringes on one’s garment. This is pretty much pure holiness code, and seems really out of place here; maybe the insertion of the civil code separated this verse from more natural fellows.

The end of Chapter 22 spends an alarming amount of time on describing specific cases of lost virginity. It’s pretty clear where all this focus on virginity comes from: from the early days of patrilineal inheritance, womens’ sexuality was tightly controlled to make sure they were bearing children to the “right” men, and this motivated a whole cultural presupposition that verifying a woman’s sexual history is important and produced a fetishization of virginity which is with us still today.

As a result, in the ancient world, the virginity of the bride was a Big Deal in marriage contracts, and verses 13–21 explain how to handle accusations of non-virginity in a bride. The only evidence taken in such a case, according to the text, is the cloth of the bridal bed. As I understand it, blood on the consummation of the marriage is taken to mean virginity, a metric which is and surely even at the time must have been inconclusive, since there are many scenarios to explain both a ruptured hymen prior to sex and bleeding without a ruptured hymen. So the fact that this one bit of dodgy evidence is the only acceptable information described in this section is kind of alarming, particularly in light of the high stakes: while a judgment against the man incurs simply a fine and nability to divorce, a judgment against the woman incurs the death penalty. That seems really harsh and as grotesque as the rebellious son business above, but remember that sexual transgressions seem to be one of the few things the Deuterocanonicals will cheerfully dispense capital punishment for. Likewise, we’re told that anyone caught in the act of adultery should be killed. At least this last transgression and punishment applies equally to the male and female participant, whereas the virginity rule is one which, for both social and physiological reasons really only hits women.

More horrifying extrapolations from the business-transaction aspect of the virgin trade appear in verse 23–29. Most of this section deals with cases where the marriage arrangements (namely, the bride-payment) had already been made. In modern legal parlance, this would all fundamentally come under tort law: a contractual obligation having been drawn up for the delivery of a bride in exchange for payment, the bride in question has been, in the perspective of the time, damaged and cannot be delivered in accordance with the terms of the contract. The example provided here is even pretty short on liability for the bride or her family, inasmuch as the text strongly suggests loss of virginity throguh rape rather than consensual sex. Based on the way I’ve described it, you might think the Torah would treat the poor woman decently, as a victim and inasmuch as the whole affair seems to be discussed as basically a contract dispute. Surprise! There’s plenty of victim-blaming to spare, and here the woman is held responsible for not calling for help. To anyone with even an ounce of modern feminism in them, this is an appalling call. So what’s in store for her? Ritual humiliation is popular, and lashes are common, but, hey, this is a sexual crime, so, sorry, she’s got to die.

Yup, there’s capital punishment for being a rape victim. It’s only slightly ameliorated by the addendum that she gets off the hook if she was raped somewhere where she couldn’t be heard crying for help. I mean, I know the values of the time were pretty different, but this is really quite abhorrent.

The next bit is also pretty horrible by modern standards, but there’s a lens through which it at least can be read to make sense with regard to the values of the day. Namely, if a woman who isn’t contractually bound to marry is raped, the rapist is supposed to pay her father and marry her. Again, not something we would countenance at all today, but in the society in question it could at least be read as being motivated by the welfare of the victim: as seemed to be the case earlier, virginity was a saleable commodity, and by taking it, a rapist has both impaired the victim’s ability to marry (and so get support outside her birth family) and devalued the victim’s father’s possession (yes, the idea that women are property of their fathers is disgusting; remember I’m trying to read this through the cultural standards of the time). Under the circumstances, I can see how a certain sort of judge might conclude that making the rapist pay a bride-price and marry the victim would solve these problems. It does not address at all what the woman might actually want, or the risk that her husband would be abusive, but I can at least see what they were trying to do here.

Sexual transgressions segue in chapter 23 into holiness laws: namely, who can serve God, based on parentage and sexual status. So, eunuchs are forbidden, and so are bastards. In fact anyone within ten generations of a bastard is also not allowed into the congregation. Ten generations from Ammonites and Moabites are also forbidden, for various crimes against the Jews in the desert, and three generations of descent from an Edomite or Egyptian are enough to cleanse their family line.

I’ll admit I’m not sure exactly what this forbiddence from the “congregation of the Lord” entails. It’s presumably the community of Israel in some specific sense, but it’s not clear whether this particular structure is civil or religious: are these outsiders people of lesser status and rights in the community, or are they just not allowed to take part in the religious practices? The text, I’m afraid, doesn’t say. But later on in the Bible, we’re going to encounter Moabites and Ammonitres living among the people of Israel.

Verses 23:10–15 continue to present holiness codes, now with regard to military action. Arguably, these are closer to sanitary codes, requiring that sundry bodily waste (semen, urine, feces) be handled in a sanitary manner. Verse 14–15 have occasioned mirth for some, because the practical upshot of these two is basically “God’s walking in your camp; don’t let him step in your shit.”

After this we’ve had enough holiness for a while, and return mostly to social welfare (with the exception of verses 18–19, which forbid cult prostitution and would probably be happier elsewhere in the text). Verse 16 offers refuge to runaway slaves (it would be interesting to see antebellum American interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:16, given the Biblical basis cited for slavery as an institution). Verses 20 and 21 forbid usury within the community, where usury is defined as “charging interest at all”. This prohibition is basically untenable in a modern economy and Bible-observers throguh the ages have had to dodge it in various ways, to the extent that Islamic institutions and nations (which obey a similar principle) to the present day follow complicated financial rules which basically require expertise in their specific laws to navigate successfully. Verses 22 and 23 simply enjoin people to fulfill their promises, with a return to specific social welfare at the end of the chapter: a wanderer (or a pauper) may consume produce from a field, as long as they aren’t actively harvesting.

Chapter 24 mostly continues to deal with social welfare, although it starts with some family matters: a divorced couple may not remarry each other. Incidentally, this is the first mention we’ve seen of divorce, and it’s short on details. What it provides is a tantalizing glimpse of a larger procedure, in that a man may divorce his wife, but must provide her with a written record thereof. The Talmud expands upon the specifics of this divorce contract, but we don’t actually know how it might have worked back then. Nonetheless, this passage suggests a certain measure of female autonomy, in that the divorced woman does have her freedom to find anther household.

Verse 6–22 return to social welfare as concerns the affaris of the least fortunate members of the community. For instance, verse 6 forbids the taking of a millstone as a security on a loan: this seems oddly specific today, but in an agrarian economy the ownership of a millstone was a vital part of a farmer’s ability to sell his wares, so the underlying principle is to basically not take as security anything which your debtor vitally needs for his business. Continuing on the topic of loan security, verses 10–15 require the debtor and the laborer to be treated with a measure of kindness, not depriving the debtor forcefully or unduly of their property, and paying laborers promptly. (verses 8 and 9 seem to be completely wayward, as they’re an irrelevant warning against leprosy and a reminder of that time back in Numbers 12 when Miriam contracted leprosy.)

Continuing on the matter of social justice, verses 17–22 further encourages kindness specifically towards widows, orphans, and strangers, with the last invoking the justification that the Israelites have themselves been strangers. The specific kindnesses due these three protected groups include the rights to any leavings in the field, arbor, or vineyards: anything left behind during the harvest is theirs.

Chapter 25 is mostly a grab-bag of civil laws, ranging from sensible justice to weird specific cases. It starts with a description of flogging as a punishment. There’s no real surprise here, except that the number of lashes is capped at 40, to avoid belaboring the punishment too much. Verse 4 randomly forbids the muzzling of oxen while threshing; if I knew more of Near East agricultural practices then maybe I’d know the significance of this.The next several verses deal with a peculiar practice which is meant as a mercy to a childless widow. I’ve spoken about this before, but for the most part a woman had to be a member of a household to have any status or support: in youth this would be her father’s house, in maturity her husband’s, and in age her son’s. For this reason a woman widowed without a son was regarded as particularly vulnerable, and to quickly save her from this condition, her brother-in-law was obliged to marry her. A peculiat provision, however, is given for a man who won’t perform this duty. There’s an element of ritual humiliation for the man, with the widow declaring publicly his refusal to fulfill his duty, spitting in his face, and removing his shoe. Incidentally, the levirite marriage became much less popular by the time of the Talmud, to the extent that this procedure was regarded as preferable to the marriage by many of the Rabbinic authorities.

Verses 25:11–12 describe a situation which must have been of burning importance to someone once, but it feels a bit weirdly specific these days: namely, the possibility that a woman might rescue her husband from an altercation by squeezing his opponent’s balls. I don’t really know what to say about this one, because I feel like there’s backstory we’re missing. Oh, and if you care, the punishment is cutting off her hand, which should surprise nobody, because Deuteronomy is not really all that respectful of women’s autonomy.

The remainder of the chapter is mostly dedicated to good civic laws again: weights and measures need to be honest, so as to not cheat others when trading. We close out with a reminder of how, during the Exodus, Israel was ambushed by the Amalekites, and thus they need to particularly destroy the Amalekites, to an even greater degree than all other nations. It’s worth noting that we don’t know who the Amalekites were, except for a vague geographical idea given by their presence in Sinai at the tiem of the Exodus. It’s not clear that the Deuteronomists knew who the Amalekites were either: by the time of the Deuteronomic revision, they hadn’t been mentioned as a power in the area for a long time. Taking the text of the Bible at face value, it appears that the nation might’ve ceased to exist as such during Saul’s war with them, which would’ve been centuries before the revision. So it’s not clear what specific socio-political point the animosity towards Amalek particularly is trying to make.

Anyways, that was a long section — and a long writeup! Hopefully folks can agree with me that on balance it’s almost decent: there are some disturbing reminders of the bloody and sexist society this was written for throughout, but there are a good number of pleas for social welfare and justice too.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Wibble Wednesday: Extra Virgins (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19)

  1. Lucian says:

    Nice! The possibly-apocryphal explanation for the ox muzzling that I have heard is that it’s an animal cruelty issue: you can’t force your ox to do all this work and not eat the grain if it’s hungry (which muzzling would prevent).

    Also, I believe we see at least the shoe part of the brother-in-law refusing to marry the widow in Ruth!

    • Jake says:

      I suppose that explanation for the ox-muzzling makes sense. Score another point for kindness as a theme in this section!

      I’m actually quite fond of Ruth, and looking forward to expounding on it. It’s a nice slice of domestic life of the time, and while there are some slightly sinister subtexts at places for the modern reader, the story as a whole feels refreshingly pastoral. I’m also looknig forward to many other texts in Kethuvim (there’s a lot to be said about, say, the Song of Songs and Job). But if I keep to an orderly progression, I’m going to have to hack my way through the prophets first.

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