Treatment of Women in Deuteronomy

Women have struggled for centuries to achieve equality with their male counterparts. Women did not even achieve the right to vote until 1919 upon the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. As recent as the last ten years, women have worked to achieve parity in the military, most recently being allowed into previously male only combat positions; positions needed for a woman’s ability to move up the ranks as do men. The caveat for this is that a woman who has twenty percent less body mass than a man must be able to perform the exact same physical training regimes as a man. Even before being recognized for their equality, women soldiers were dying in combat.

The women in Moses’ time were a possession of their father or their husband. The husband could have more than one wife, could cohabit with concubines, could decide his wife no longer pleased him and could divorce her. In the book of Deuteronomy, specifically Chapters 22-24, God tells Moses how the Israelites are to deal with some issues involving women.

Levinson introduces Joshua 22:13-23 by stating “In the ancient Near East marriage was a contractual relationship. A woman, regarded in terms of her relation to her father or her husband, could not act independently. There was little conception of the woman as a free agent, either in legal or sexual terms. She remained in the household of her father until a suitor paid a bride-price…to compensate the father for the reduction of the household. At that point she became formally engaged in the sense of legally contracted for, although still living “under her father’s authority.” Later, at the marriage feast, the union was consummated (Gen 29.22-25) and the woman took up residence in the household of her husband.

God instructs Moses regarding the instance of a man who after marrying his wife wishes to defame her. Chapter 22:13 states “A man marries a woman and cohabits with her. Then he takes an aversion to her and makes up charges against her and defames her, saying, “’I married this woman, but when I approached her, I found that she was not a virgin’”. Levinson states “In such a case, the girl’s father and mother shall produce the evidence of the girl’s virginity before the elders of the town at the gate… and they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. The elders of that town shall then take the man and flog him and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father; for the man has defamed a virgin in Israel. Moreover, she shall remain his wife; he shall never have the right to divorce her.”

Levinson notes that the man’s reason for “using this potion to end the relation may well be mercenary. Displeasure with a wife provided grounds for divorce, but divorce would almost certainly have required the man to provide financial support, as presupposed by the requirement for a “bill of divorce.” In contrast the slander, ‘I found that she was not a virgin’, would entail the refund of the price and payments of a penalty for breach of contract.”

The evidence referred to in verse 17 is the “cloth upon which husband and wife slept upon consummation of the relationship” although “there is scant medical support for the underlying assumption (Levinson).” A different approach was taken in Number 5:11-31. In these verses, the Lord tells Moses how to deal with a jealous husband who believes his wife has been unfaithful. God instructs that the woman be brought before the priest and the priest is to make a “mixture of sacral water, dust from the sanctuary floor and ink rubbed off the inscription of the curse for the woman to drink…the priest administers the woman’s oath and utters the curse (Nili Fox).” If the woman was innocent, nothing would happen to her, but if she was guilty “the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag (Numbers 5:27-28).” I read this passage with a blasphemous thought, that this curse sounds exactly like what happens to the woman’s body after menopause.

Numbers 22:23-28 addresses a virgin who “lies” with a man. It states “In the case of a virgin who engaged to a man if a man comes upon her in town and lies with her, you shall take the two of them out to the gate of the town and stone them to death; the girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he violated another man’s wife…but if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country, the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl…He came upon her in the open; though the engaged girl cried for help, there was no one to save her. Levinson’s note for verse 25 states “The assault in the open country where witnesses are unlikely, suggests planned malice.”

In Numbers 22:28 God tells Moses “ If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her. Levinson writes “In contrast to Ex. 22.15-16, the payment to the father does not represent compensation for the loss of the bride-price, which is normally a negotiated amount. As a fixed amount externally imposed by the law, the payment here seems closer to a fine, paid for the woman’s violation…the law requires the man now also legally and contractually to marry the woman by paying the bride-price to the father.

Exodus 22:15-16 referred to above states “If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride price has not been paid and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price. If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still weigh out silver in accordance with the bride price for virgins.” Jeffrey Tigay writes in his commentary for these verses: “Seduction of an unbetrothed virgin diminishes her chances of marriage and her father may never receive the bride-price.” According to, a quarter shekel weighed 2.63 grams so that the payment of fifty shekels of silver would have been 526 grams or $699.90 by today’s standards. (

Joshua 24:1 describes a man who divorces his wife because “she fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her”, she then remarries and is either divorced or widowed, and the first husband is prohibited from remarrying her as “she has been defiled.” Levinson writes in his commentaries: “This complex law…addresses only the specific case of remarriage after divorce to a wife who subsequently married; it does not prohibit remarriage in general…Male-initiated divorce was the norm, though there is some evidence…of marriage contracts permitting either party to initiate proceedings.” He explains further that “It is unclear from the term (obnoxious) whose exact meaning is debated in early Jewish texts, what valid criteria for divorce were.” Levinson’s note for 24:4 states “Since she has been defiled, not in general since she is permitted to remarry, but specifically as regards relations with her first husband.”

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