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Word study - bethûlâh

This study considers the word bethûlâh as used in various Old Testament passages and elsewhere. The word is commonly translated 'virgin', but certain of the uses do not support this. Instead, they seem to indicate a young woman past puberty, whether or not sexually active. Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972), pp 326-348 forms a basis for this study.


Old Testament passages

As well as the singular (grammatically feminine) noun bethûlâh, there are two plural forms - bethûlôth, a straightforward plural form, and bethûlîym, a more obscure word translated as 'signs of virginity' in many Bibles on the assumption that bethûlâh means virgin. The linguistic root of the word is thought to be the verb bâtal, sever / separate, though this verb does not occur in the Old Testament. It is not altogether clear what separation means in this context. There is also a possible connection with Akkadian batûlu / batultu, young man / young woman.

The singular and simple plural forms occur scattered throughout the Old Testament, both in the natural sense and (in the prophets) figuratively of nations. bethûlîym is more restricted in its use, and appears only in Leviticus (once), Deuteronomy (five times), Judges (once), and Ezekiel (twice, of Israel and Judah personified as Oholah and Oholibah). The Ezekiel uses are slightly different and are discussed separately below. The Vetus Testamentum article argues strongly that bethûlîym is used to indicate the signs of, or capacity to have, a female period, rather than anything to do with virginity.

The key passages are Exodus 22:15-16 (law concerning seduction), Leviticus 21:7,13-14 (allowed priestly marriages), Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (forced sex), Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (husband dislikes new wife and accuses her of immorality), and Judges 11:37-39 (Jephthah's daughter). Each is set out in detail below and summarised here.

Exodus 22:15-16 penalises the seducer for his actions, but not in a severe manner. The fact that the bride-price must be paid whether or not the father grants permission to marry means that the father is assured of the full price, even if a subsequent suitor is unhappy with the situation. The situation in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, in which the woman was unwilling but compelled, requires the man to marry her, and forbids him from ever divorcing her. The high-priestly marriage regulations require him to marry a woman in her bethûlîym, but the context does not make clear the interpretation of this.

The clearest indications arise from Deuteronomy 22:13-21 and Judges 11:37-39. The Deuteronomy passage sets out a fairly complex situation in which a man marries a woman but is then displeased by her (in a way not clearly identified but often thought to indicate sexual incompatibility of some kind), and denounces her for lacking bethûlîym. Rescue is effected by the woman's parents displaying evidence of bethûlîym in the form of bed-coverings to the town elders, who then penalise the man in various ways, including a financial penalty (twice that imposed for forced sex) and a lifetime prohibition from divorcing the woman. Failure to provide such evidence results in the death penalty for the woman.

Now, several points emerge from this suggesting that bethûlîym has to do with signs of having a period rather than virginity in the strict sense. First, there is no indication that the man would immediately notice and report the situation - instant recognition is a possible interpretation of the verses but not the only one. Secondly, the parents are expected to provide the evidence, and the man has no right of appeal or opportunity to present evidence of his own. It has been noted that a similar custom has been observed in recent times in the Middle East, in which the woman's parents retain the covering from the marriage bed, and it has been suggested that this custom was practiced in Israel in the era in question: however there is no independent evidence for this. Outside of this proposed parallel, it seems more likely that the parental household might have evidence that the woman had recently had periods. Clearly the benefit of doubt rests with the woman and her parents, as it would be hard to establish that bloodstained bedding really proved the point in question.

On the supposition then that bethûlîym represents signs of having a period (ie sexual maturity) rather than signs of virginity, the point in question becomes that the woman is firstly mature enough to be married, and secondly is not already pregnant. The complaint of the man becomes that he has been married off to a woman already pregnant by another man (hence the severity of punishment for her for this "shameless thing... act[ing] as prostitute").

Turning to Judges 11, Jephthah's daughter asks for a two month interval in which she and her (female) companions can weep at her bethûlîym. If the time interval is supposed to be meaningful, rather than simply a convenient block of time, this clearly gives her time for a period at some stage within the time spent in the hills. If simply weeping at the fact of being a virgin, the timespan chosen has no real significance. The final note she was never intimate with a man is easier to understand if this is an additional - and particularly poignant - fact not already indicated by having bethûlîym.

The two uses of bethûlîym (in fact the construct form with pronoun suffix) in Ezekiel are somewhat different. The context is figurative, in which the nations of Israel and Judah are personified as two daughters prostituting themselves with other nations. The phrase daddêy bethûlêyhen/bethûleyhâ is used, once of the two daughters togethe (23:3) and once of Oholah (Samaria/Israel) alone. This indicates breasts of their/her bethûlîym and does not fit very well with either interpretation discussed above. Here, an interpretation such as puberty seems closer, and it might reasonably be supopsed that the word had changed in meaning over the years between the time of Leviticus/Deuteronomy/Judges and that of Ezekiel.

Non-Biblical uses

Ugaritic material

b.t.l.t (the older form of Hebrew b.t.l.h, retaining the final -th feminine ending) is regularly used as a stock description of ‘Anat. Most translations render the phrase Virgin ‘Anat, but other passages make it clear that she is not virgin in the strict sense of having no sexual experience. For example, KTU 1.10 and 1.11 appear to describe her as having sexual relations with Ba'al. Some scholars maintain that sexual activity is never unambiguously attributed to 'Anat, though this is perhaps more difficult to defend: in any case it is reasonable that a goddess would be given an epithet suggesting ever-youthful.

Middle Assyrian laws

MA law 55 describes a situation similar to those of Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 22, in which a young woman living in her father's house, not asked for in marriage, is forced to have sex by a man. The phrasing suggests that the state of being bethûlâh is different from that of being a virgin in the modern sense. Indeed, the clumsiness of phrasing required to indicate that the woman in question had not previously had sexual relations suggests that there was no simple, single-word way of indicating this. The details of the regulations vary depending on whether the man concerned is married or not. If he is, then the girl's father is entitled to take the wife for himself and give his daughter in marriage to him. It is implied that the normal bride-price would be paid. If the man is not married, then he must pay an extra 1/3 on top of the normal bride-price. In either case the father has final say in whether the marriage takes place (as in Exodus 15): if marriage is allowed, then (as in Deuteronomy 22) future divorce is not permitted.

The Hebrew passages in full


 Exodus 22:15-16
15.[a1] Suppose a man seduces an un-bethrothed bethûlâh and lies with her, he shall surely pay the price for a bride and she shall be wife to him, vekîy-yephatteh ’îysh bethûlâh ’asher lô’-’ôrâsâh veshâkhab ‘immâh mâhôr yimhârennâh lôw le’ishshâh
16.[a2] but if her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall weigh out silver as though it were the bride-price for bethûlôth. ’im-mâ’ên yemâ’ên ’âbîyhâ lethittâh lôw keçeph yishqôl kemôhar habbethûlôth
 Leviticus 21:7,13-14
7.[b1] (Priests in general)
He shall not take as wife a prostitute, or a woman who is defiled, or a woman sent away from her husband, for holy is he to his Elohim.

’ishshâh zônâh vachalâlâh lô’ yiqqâchû ve’ishshâh gerûshâh mê’îyshâh lô’ yiqqâchû kîy-qâdôsh hû’ lê’lôhâyv
13.[b2] (The high priest)
He shall take as wife a woman who is in her bethûlîym.

vehû’ ’ishshâh bibethûlehâ yiqqach
14.[b3] A widow, a woman sent away, or one defiled by prostitution: any of these he shall not take his wife. A bethûlâh from his own people he shall take as wife. ’alemânâh ûgerûshâh vachalâlâh zônâh ’eth-’êlleh lô’ yiqqâch kîy ’im-bethûlâh mê‘ammâyv yiqqach ’ishshâh
 Deuteronomy 22:28-29
28.[c1] Suppose a man finds a bethûlâh young woman who is not bethrothed, seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, kîy-yimetsâ’ ’îysh na‘arâ bethûlâh ’asher lô’-’ôrâsâh ûthephâsâh veshâkhab ‘immâh venimetsâ’û
29.[c2] then the man who lay with her shall give fifty of silver to the young woman's father. She will be wife to him to compensate for her humiliation, and he is not permitted to send her away all his life. venâthan hâ’îysh hashshôkheb ’immâh la’abîy hanna‘arâ chamishshîym kâçeph velôw-thiheyeh le’ishshâh tachath ’asher ‘innâh lô’-yûkhal shallechâh kol-yâmâyv
 Deuteronomy 22:13-21
13.[d1] Suppose a man takes a woman as wife, and going in to her he dislikes her, kîy-yiqqach ’îysh ’ishshâh ûbâh ’êleyhâ ûsenê’âh
14.[d2] and then he accuses her of immorality, giving her a bad reputation, and he says “I took this woman as wife, but on becoming intimate with her I have not found bethûlîym in her”. vesâm lâh ‘alîylôth debârîym vehôwtsi’ ‘âleyhâ shêm râ‘ ve’âmar ’eth-hâ’ishshâh hazzô’th lâqachetîy vâ’eqerab ’êleyhâ velô’-mâtsâ’thîy lâh bethûlîym
15.[d3] The young woman's father will take her and her mother, and they will bring the young woman's bethûlîym to to the elders at the town gate. velâqach ’abîy hanna‘arâ ve’immâh vehôwtsîy’û ’eth-bethûlêy hanna‘arâ ’el-ziqenêy hâ‘îyr hashsha‘erâh
16.[d4] The father of the young woman shall say to the elders, “I gave my daughter to him, this man, to be wife, and he dislikes her, ve’âmar ’abîy hanna‘arâ ’el-hazzeqênîym ’eth-bittîy nâthattîy lôw ’îysh hazzeh le’ishshâh vayyisenâ’ehâ
17.[d5] and see, he accuses her of immorality, saying, ‘I did not find bethûlîym in your daughter’ - but here is my daughter's bethûlîym.” and he will spread out her bedding in front of the elders of the town. vehinneh-hû’ shâm ‘alîylôth debârîym lê’môr lô’-mâtsâ’thîy lebittekhâ bethûlîym ve’êlleh bethûlêy bittîy ûphâresû hassimelâh liphenêy ziqenêy hâ‘îyr
18.[d6] Then the elders of his town shall take the man and discipline him, velâqechû ziqenêy hâ‘îyr-hahiv’ ’eth-hâ’îysh veyiççerû ’ôthôw
19.[d7] and they will fine him a hundred of silver and give it to the father of the young woman, for he gave a bad reputation to a bethûlâh of Israel. He shall have her as wife, and he is not permitted to send her away all his life. ve‘âneshû ’ôthôw mê’âh keçeph venâthenû lâ’abîy hanna‘arâh kîy hôwtsîy shêm râ‘ ‘al bethûlath yisrâ’êl velôw-thiheyeh le’ishshâh lô’-yûkhal leshallechâh kol-yâmâyv
20.[d8] But if there is truth in this word, and bethûlîym cannot be found in the young woman, ve’im-’emeth hâyâh haddâbâr hazzeh lô’-nimtse’û bethûlîym lanna‘a
21.[d9] they will bring the young woman to the doorway of her father's house, and the men of her town will put her to death with stones, for she has done a shameful thing in Israel, to act as prostitute in the house of her father. So you will purge the evil from among you. vehôwtsîy’û ’eth-hanna‘arâ ’el-pethach bêyth-’âbîyhâ ûçeqâlûhâ ’aneshêy ‘îyrâh bâ’abânîym vamêthâh kîy-‘âsethâh nebâlâh beyisrâ’êl lizenôwth bêyth ’âbîyhâ ûbi‘arethâ hârâ‘ miqqirebekhâ
 Judges 11:37-39
37.[e1] She said to her father, “Let this promise be made to me, that I be left alone for two months. I will set out and go to the hills, and weep at my bethûlîym, I and my companions.” vattô’mer ’el-’âbîyhâ yê‘âseh lîy haddâbâr hazzeh harepêh mimmennîy shenayim châdâshîym ve’êlekhâh veyâradetîy ‘al-hehârîym ve’ebekeh ‘al-bethûlay ’ânôkhîy verê‘ôythây
38.[e2] “Go”, he replied. So he sent her away for two months. She and her companions went, and they wept in the hills at her bethûlîym. vayyô’mer lêkhîy vayyishelach ’ôwthâh shenêy châdashîym vattêlekh hîy’ verê‘ôwtheyhâ vattêbekh ‘al-bethûleyhâ ‘al-hehârîym
39.[e3] So it came about at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he did to her according to the vow that he had sworn. She was never intimate with a man.
[a sentence bridges verses 39 and 40, of no importance here]
vayehîy miqqêts shenayim châdâshîym vattâshâb ’el-’âbîyhâ vayya‘as lâh ’eth-niderôw ’asher nâdâr vehîy’ lô’-yâde‘âh ’îysh ...


a1] yephatteh - seduce / deceive / entice, the Pi‘êl imperfect 3MS form of pâthâh, be simple / open. ’ôrâsâh, be betrothed, the Pu‘al perfect 3FS form of ’âras, betroth. môhar is bride-price or dowry, with mâhar the related verb meaning acquire as wife by paying.

a2] yishqôl, he will weigh out is related to the word sheqel, implied but usually omitted in transactions involving silver. bethûlôth at the end of the verse is the standard feminine plural form of bethûlâh.

b1] zônâh is the Qal participle from zânâh, commit fornication / be a harlot / prostitute. chalâlâh is from châlal, pollute / defile / profane. gerûshâh is the Qal feminine participle from gârash, drive out / cast out, here used as a technical term for a divorced woman. lâqach, take, is here used in the sense of take as wife even when not explicitly indicated.

b2] The high priest has this additional positive requirement in addition to the list of prohibitions. Note that the woman is required to be in her bethûlîym rather than a bethûlâh. This (whilst still a grammatically feminine noun) appears as though a masculine plural.

b3] ’alemânâh - widow - is added to the list of preclusions to seek to ensure that the proposed wife has not had prior liason with a man, even under lawful circumstances. This verse returns to the use of bethûlâh to describe the woman.

c1] Here the woman is not only un-betrothed and bethûlâh, but also na‘arâ, the feminine form of na‘ar, youth. tâphas, here used in the Qal perfect form with suffix, has a violent or forceful air, hence seize.

c2] ‘innâh, here humiliation, is the Pi‘êl form of ‘ânâh, be bowed down or afflicted. shallechâh, send her away is used here as a technical term for divorcing a woman, and is not permitted in this situation. As mentioned in note [a2], sheqel is implied but not explicitly used regarding the silver transaction.

d1] ûsenê’âh literally means he hates her but is used several times to indicate sexual revulsion. An alternative looser translation would be she does not please him. At this stage of the discussion there is no mention of the woman's age.

d2] sâm (Qal 3MS from sûm) means put / place / set, here used in the sense of putting on display, hence accuses. ‘alîylôth can simply indicate deeds as well as wanton acts - here immorality has been chosen to give a single-word translation. A bad reputation is literally an evil name. qârab means approach / come near, here used in the sense of intimacy. bethûlîym is used here.

d3] bethûlîym is clearly a thing that can be taken and (verse 17) shown on the woman's bed-clothes to the town elders.

d4] The dialogue between the father and the elders in these verses is clearly formal phraseology. The woman is now identified as na‘arâ, a young woman.

d5] The benefit of doubt here is given to the young woman and her parents that the bedding displayed belongs to her, and the dissatisfied husband is not given any opportunity to challenge the evidence.

d6] The discpline here may well be unconnected with the financial penalty mentioned in the following verse.

d7] As in notes [a2] and [c2], sheqel is implied but not explicitly used here. The woman is finally identified as bethûlâh as well as na‘arâ. As in note [c2], the man is permanently forbidden to divorce the woman in these circumstances.

d8] The penalties for failure of the young woman's family to provide evidence are now indicated.

d9] nebâlâh denotes not simply a foolish act, but a morally dubious one as well. ûbi‘arethâ is the Pi‘êl form of bâ‘ar, burn / consume, and is used several times in Deuteronomy in a technical sense for utterly removing.

e1] shenayim châdâshîym - two months - varies between the absolute and construct forms for the numeral, with no obvious distinction of meaning. The companions here are female.

e2] This verse uses the construct form shenêy for two.

e3] She was never intimate with a man is literally She never knew a man, and is presented as an additional fact. It is reasonable to suppose then that it is logically separate from the state of having bethûlîym.

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