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Volume 7, Issue 4: Childer

Virgins and Vows

Douglas Wilson

Everyone dates. Or at least, everyone is supposed to date. Or, if they don't date, then something is wrong, or someone is ugly, right?

In modern America, recreational dating is taken to be a positive good, like food, air, and sunshine, a necessary, inescapable activity. It is considered to be a normal and natural part of growing up - what could be more wholesomely American than taking a girl to the prom? It makes us think of the fifties, when things weren't so messed up.
In reality, dating is a custom which began in this century, and was entirely unknown at the time the Scriptures were given to us. This means that for those who take the biblical teaching on the family seriously, we should consider what the Bible has to say on the formation of families.
The first thing we must consider is the biblical teaching on the authority of fathers with regard to their daughters' commitments. For this, we may turn to Numbers 30:3-16. Of particular importance is verse 5. "But if her father overrules her on the day that he hears, then none of her vows nor her agreements by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the Lord will release her, because her father overruled her" (Num. 30:5). As this passage shows, the normal pattern in the biblical family was for a woman to be under her father's authority until she came under her husband's authority. There are scriptural exceptions to this pattern - widows, for example, or someone like Lydia, who was the head of her household. But the modern pattern of an "interim independence" between father and husband was unscriptural. The idea that a young girl could say, "I'm eighteen and I can do what I want" is alien to the biblical way of thinking.
Some may argue that the requirement in Numbers refers only to a religious vow - a vow before the Lord. The first thing to note is that if a father could nullify a vow made to God, how much more would he have the authority to nullify a promise made to a young suitor? But we do not have to rely on an a fortiori argument - the Bible acknowledges the authority of the father in a situation that directly relates to the subject of marriage. "If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins" (Ex. 22:16-17). This demonstrates that a father has legitimate authority in the area of his daughter's romantic interests. In the situation described here, there has been a failure in the home - the daughter was not brought up to resist seducers effectively - but the father's authority is still not set aside because of it. When there has been such a failure, the response must not be to abdicate further - Scripture assumes the continued authority of the father of the young girl.
This authority is also assumed in the common biblical phrase "given in marriage," as in Psalm 78:63 - "and their maidens were not given in marriage." We have a vestige of this understanding in our modern wedding ceremony. ("Who gives this woman to marry this man?") But in biblical times, this was not an empty tradition. The daughters were really given in marriage.
Virginity was an inheritance to be brought into a marriage, and the father of the bride was responsible to preserve that inheritance. If a new husband slandered his bride and claimed that she was not a virgin, the bride's father and mother would defend her name and the name of their family. They would present the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city (Dt. 22:15). In such a case of slander, the husband would be prohibited from divorcing his wife. In addition, he was required to pay one hundred shekels of silver to the father of the bride (Dt. 22:19).
But sometimes the charge was not slanderous, and the woman was not a virgin. In such a case, the bride was to be executed in front of her father's house. "But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father's house. So you shall put away the evil from among you" (Dt. 22:20-21). It is important to note that this law does not require death for fornication, but rather death for sexual fraud. Virginity is important, but if someone squandered that inheritance, the penalty was not death - this is clearly seen in the earlier case from Exodus when a maiden was seduced. She was not put to death; the seducer was required to marry her if her father permitted it.
The pattern is different for sons. From the beginning, God has intended that sons leave home in order to establish a new home. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). But when we remember the authority of the father of the bride, we see that when a young man leaves home, he needs to approach the father of the young woman he seeks to marry.
Much remains to be said about how this may be done in a godly fashion. But one thing is certain - our modern system of recreational dating does not fit into the picture.

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