In Deut 22:13-30 Moses reiterated the sexual purity rules in the Moral Purity laws of Leviticus but elaborates on them. Many are disturbed when they see that only a woman is punished for her lack of virginity, never the man. However, this law is not against a lack of virginity but rather initiating a marriage under false pretenses, when looking at the broader context of Deuteronomy 22.
When people got engaged to be married it was expected that the woman was a virgin if she was never married before. If the man claims his new wife lied about her virginity but her parents proved her innocence by showing a hymen blood-stained bed sheet from the Huppah (marriage tent), then he was beaten and fined for slander. However, if he is correct, and the woman deceptively claimed she was a virgin and she wasn’t, then she was killed for making a marriage covenant under false pretenses (Deut 22:13-21).
It wasn’t sinful for a man to marry a non-virgin woman unless he was the high priest (Lev 21:13-15). Non-virgin women included promiscuous women, prostitutes, rape victims, divorcees, and widows. The widows, divorcees, and rape victims were not sinners on the subject of virginity. One of David’s wives was Abigail, the widow of Nabal (1 Sam 25:39-40). Boaz married the Moabite widow Ruth (the Book of Ruth). Men throughout the bible have even married prostitutes. Judah married Tamar who prostituted herself in Genesis 38. Salmon married Rahab the Canaanite prostitute from Jericho (Joshua 6, Matt 1:5). Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth all ended up in the lineage of Jesus (Matthew ch. 1). Hosea also marries a prostitute, named Gomer, who cheats on him multiple times. This was used as a prophetic display of how Israel cheated on God multiple times. God then told Hosea to forgive her and take her back, because God would likewise take Israel back when they repent (Hosea ch. 1-3).
The issue in Deut 22:13-21 is that the woman lied about it. Most men’s personal preference was to marry a virgin because it was a guarantee of no STIs/STDs, and a way to ensure he wasn’t marrying a pregnant woman and raising another man’s child unintentionally. So a man who wanted a virgin would feel cheated if she lied about her status, which then shamed the woman’s parents because it happened under their roof and misrepresented their family (Deut 22:21). This was a violation of the 5th commandment to honor our parents (Exod 20:12-16; Deut 5:16-20; Lev 19:18). If she was honest and a man didn’t mind her not being a virgin, then they would marry without a problem. If he did mind, then he simply wouldn’t have married her. Many women feared this because there was a cultural shame of being childless, whether you are a barren woman or a spinster. The latter was worse because at least a barren woman is married. This explains why even rape victims may have considered marrying their rapist (Absalom’s sister Tamar, suggests this to her rapist Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:13). It was to avoid being a spinster because they are considered “damaged goods” by the men. Note again, the men would make this application, not God himself. David and his great grandfather Boaz were righteous men who valued widows enough to marry them.
Deut 22:28-30 describes what happens in the case of fornication (or premarital sex) when the woman is not married or engaged. If they are caught, no one is stoned to death. The man is required to pay her bride price and he can only marry her if her father permits (Exodus 22:16-17). He must still pay the bride price if the father doesn’t allow the marriage, and if he does marry her he can’t divorce her. The death penalty only applies if a marriage covenant is violated (Deut 22:22). Therefore, the woman would be guilty of contract breach if she made a marriage covenant under false pretenses (lying about her virginity). This is why she would be guilty of dishonoring her parents and would be executed in Deut 22:13-21.
Deut 22:23-27 contrasts two scenarios involving an engaged or married woman, one of adultery and one of rape. If an engaged or married woman has sex with the man in the city (where people can hear her scream if she is raped) but doesn’t scream for help, it is seen as voluntary sex and therefore adultery. If they have sex in the city she must cry out for help, this indicates she is being raped since no adulterer would draw attention to themselves knowing that there is a death penalty associated with getting caught. If they are in the country, where no one can hear her scream, then the bible says to believe her if she says she was raped. When a fiancé or wife is raped only the man will be killed. In the case of the country, the woman could lie and say she was raped since no one could have heard her scream, even if she initially consented. Ultimately God knows if she was truly raped or not. There is a test at the Tabernacle that could have exposed her in Numbers 5:11-31, but she will only be made barren, not put to death. God is not mocked everyone will reap what they sow (Galatians 6:7, Isa 59:13-19). Liars and false witnesses will not get away with it (Prov 19:9).
In the rape scenario, the woman is a rape victim and is considered innocent. Even if God says not guilty, men may still say no to marriage because a woman is not a virgin. This may cause them to end up being spinsters even though it wasn’t their fault. This was Tamar’s fear when Amnon raped her in 2 Samuel 13:10-22. Women in similar scenarios may have married their rapists because they are afraid of becoming a spinster. This means the preference towards virgins is a cultural thing and not a command from God. Otherwise, the bible would have said all non-virgins who are unmarried are banned from marriage. The command to only marry a virgin applied to the high priest alone and that was done to set him apart.
Non-virgins didn’t get put to death simply because they were non-virgins when they married. Three out of the five types of non-virgins are innocent of any sexual sin, and even prostitutes and promiscuous women can get married if a man is willing. This issue was the fraud committed by lying about one’s virginity status. Marriage back then was not a less romantic choice and more of a business transaction, but the marriage covenant was a lifelong spiritually binding contract, so a breach of such a thing was taken seriously. A feedback loop based on judgment and fear and if her parents were in on it they would be guilty of fraud. Unfortunately, this cultural preference for virgins would be the reason a woman is likely to lie, because of the fear of being a spinster for the rest of her life. However, stories of men like Salmon, Boaz, David, and Hosea show us that men of God didn’t devalue women based on this alone and were willing to take on non-virgin brides out of compassion. Learn more about the bible’s definition of virgins here.