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Women and Marriage in the Old Testament

May 2, 2011

I have already addressed one important aspect of marriage in the Old Testament, polygamy, in a previous article. However, the issues of marriage and the status of women within marriage are an important for understanding the lives and roles of women in ancient Israel.

Women are always under the authority and protection of a man, with the possible exception of older women who outlive their husbands. This is initially their father and eventually their husband. Brothers are also supposed to protect their sisters and in some stories do a much better job of said protection than fathers. The need for protection is clear – women are regarded as part of the spoils of war all across the Near East. Towards the end of the book of Judges we read about an incident in which a tribe is allowed to mount a raid against another tribe to capture women to be wives. Even aside from military threats ancient Israel was a society without a police force to deal with assault on the individual level. Early in the book of Ruth Boaz tells Ruth not to glean in anyone else’s field and appears to justify this comment by saying that he has ordered his young men (his servants and hired hands) not to touch her. The simplest reading is that Boaz is concerned that Ruth will be sexually assaulted. The Bible does record two incidents in which a woman is forcefully raped (and possibly another in which the coercion does not appear to have involved the use of physical force – Bathsheba) and we hear about the specific aftermath. (This excludes a number of general statements of woe wherein rape is one of the terrors of war.) In the first case, that of Dinah (Genesis 34), the rapist (Shechem) attempts to acquire his victim (who he appears to have kidnapped) as a wife. Dinah’s father Jacob sees little choice in the matter but two of his sons, both full brothers of Dinah, take matters into their own hands and manage to trick Shechem into temporarily rendering himself and his army unable to fight. They then slaughter Shechem’s entire household. In a similar incident in 2 Samuel 13 Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. Her full brother Absalom tells her not to do anything about it, waits two years, and then invites Amnon to a banquet where he kills him. These stories should remind us that protection in ancient societies is often a personal matter and that someone without a family or clan is quite vulnerable.

Protection, of course, can be given without reducing the protected individual to a subordinate status. This is not what happens in ancient Israel. We learn in Numbers 30, for instance, that a husband or father can cancel a woman’s vow. He has to do it within a specific time period but if he does not like the vow she makes he can cancel it. Fathers have no such right over sons (although men under a certain age are probably not considered capable of making serious vows).

This returns us to the issue of marriage. Marriage is extremely valuable for both men and women. The highest levels of social power are reserved for the patriarchs and matriarchs of clans. A man needs sons to increase his wealth and, when necessary, fight his enemies. A woman also needs children, especially sons, to increase her wealth and status as well. However, a woman also needs the protection and muscle-power of a husband. A consistent theme in the Law (which we will discuss in more detail later) is that a husband is responsible for his wife’s support. This assumed earning disparity is not surprising in a muscle-powered society.

The simplest part of marriage for an ancient Israelite women that we can discuss is, oddly, sex. Before a woman marries she should not have sex with anyone. Exodus 22:16-17 lays out a clear rule: a man who sleeps with a woman must marry her. Her father can refuse (although the man must still pay the bride-price) but sex is marriage in the Law. Disturbingly, this applies even to rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). In the case of rape a man is also not allowed to divorce his victim. There may be social aspects that we do not understand here. In the story of the raped Tamar Amnon is disgusted by Tamar after raping her and orders her to leave. She insists that this would be even worse. One possibility (and what actually happens to Tamar) is that Tamar realizes that she will never marry if she is considered simply a raped woman. There’s certainly a strong emphasis on virginity in ancient Israel. The description of the attractive Rebekah in Genesis 24:16 includes, seemingly as an accolade, that no man had known her (a good Hebraic euphemism for sex). Additionally, based on context, “the bride-price for virgins” appears to be the highest bride price in the aforementioned Exodus 22:16-17. At the same time, divorced women did remarry and so the picture is not entirely clear.

Deuteronomy 22:13-25 covers a whole gamut of other rules about sexual activity. While these can be a little complicated, they are all much more understandable once you realize that a betrothed woman is considered married in many respects and so if she is caught having sex with someone who is not her betrothed this is considered adultery, a stoning offense. Most of Deuteronomy 22 is focused on how to determine who should be stoned for specific actions. In some cases, such as when a betrothed woman is raped, only the man is stoned. In other cases the woman is considered complicit as well. This probably explains the potential confusion one might experience if one read Exodus 22:16-17 right next to Deuteronomy 22:13-21. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 appears to be applicable only in the case where a woman is thought to have slept with someone to whom she was not betrothed while she was in fact betrothed to another. It certainly doesn’t make any sense when applied in other cases, like a divorced woman remarrying. Given the nature of the Law (something I intend to tackle one day) this probably means the law doesn’t apply to that situation. Many obvious examples of exceptions in the Law seem to be skipped over because they are obvious and do not need mentioning.

Some of these rules allow some leeway for women to choose their husbands. However, if a woman does not wish to take drastic action (like sleeping with a man she wants to marry and hoping he can jump through the resulting hoops, or eloping) what choice does she have? This depends a lot on her social situation. Widows seem to be able to work things out for themselves to some degree. Ruth and the widow Abigail (1 Samuel 25) both seem to work the system to their advantage. Younger women don’t seem to have much choice. In Genesis 24 Abraham’s servant and Rebekah’s male kin negotiate Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac without her input. Of course, this brings up an important point: Isaac doesn’t have any say, either. These are arranged marriages on both sides and the only people who seem to arrange their own marriages are people who are on their own. (For instance, Jacob arranges his own marriages to Leah and Rachel but he does so while he is a semi-fugitive far from his family.)

Since women do not choose their own husbands (nor husbands their wives) in the normal course of events it’s worth asking what a woman can do if the marriage turns out to be a bad one. While there’s no explicit statement about this it appears that the expected behavior is for a woman to leave and return to her father’s house. In the horrifying story found in Judges 19 (which we may handle in depth at a later date) a man’s concubine returns to her father’s house and the man has to go follow her to “speak kindly to her and bring her back”. (Of course, given how he later treats her his sweet talk is probably a load of crap.) The law about female slaves (who are probably concubines or wives [see this earlier article]) in Exodus 21 specifies that if a man fails to provide for his slave-wife she may leave him without any transfer of money. Taken together, these two passages suggest that the normal social recourse for a woman whose husband is particularly unpleasant is to leave him and return to her family who, presumably, can prevent her from being dragged back. Of course, women are subject to the whims of the individuals involved to a rather large degree here.

What is a man expected to provide? The law in Exodus 21 lists food, clothing, and “marital rights”. Food and clothing are simple enough. Since a husband controls the land that produces wealth he is expected to make sure that his wife or wives receive support from that production. There is also at least one example of a man distributing food that he acquires in other ways. At the beginning of 1 Samuel 1 Elkanah is depicted giving meat from the sacrifices to his wives. Elkanah would have acquired this by bringing the sacrificial animal to the priests who would kill the animal, burn a portion, take a portion for themselves, and give Elkanah a portion. However, I seriously doubt that this means that the husband was responsible for doling out food at every meal. The comparison with clothing may highlight this. As I’ve pointed out in a previous article working with cloth seems to be a part of women’s work. It’s unlikely, then, that a man was expected to provide clothes to his wife as much as he was expected to make sure that she had the materials to make clothes and, since Exodus 21 specifically addresses a wife who is a slave, that she be allowed to take the time to make herself clothes.

Marital rights makes a little less sense. The word does not have other clear attested usages (the only other one marked by the same Strong’s number appears to be a misspelling of an entirely different word meaning “guilt”) but most translators seem to think that this word actually refers to sex. Given the audience for Biblical translations this word is then toned down a bit in the English. However, the context for this command is the case where a man has taken a second wife. He is, apparently, not allowed to stop having sex with his first wife. This makes sense: children are status. (One of the topics I’ve skipped for lack of clear evidence, the difference between a wife and a concubine, may actually hinge on the inheritance rights of children.) Even within the examples I’ve covered elsewhere in this series we see this with Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel, and Hannah and Peninnah. In all of these pairs the two wives compete with one another via children. In fact, in the case of Leah and Rachel we see something else odd. In Genesis 30:14-18 Leah acquires some mandrakes (hallucinogenic plants that can sometimes be shaped like small humans) which Rachel wants. Rachel probably wants these as a cure to her barrenness – one of the traditional powers of mandrakes in other cultures and one that makes sense out of the Hebrew word for mandrake which shares a root with “beloved”. Leah objects that Rachel has stolen her husband and is not entitled to her mandrakes as well (an objection that also makes more sense if mandrakes are supposed to cure barrenness). The two sisters strike a deal: Rachel will get some mandrakes and Leah will get to sleep with Jacob. This odd story indicates the importance of these “marital rights” but also highlights the independence of Jacob’s wives. One of the last things I expect in a polygynous culture is for the women to make decisions about their husband’s sex life. This seems contrary to the whole premise of polygyny.

This brings up our final point in this article. Humans tend to fall into patterns of working with one another regardless of arranged marriages and hierarchical inequalities. Arranged marriages still occur in many areas of the world and they seem to generally work. There are failures but most people in an arranged marriage will learn to cooperate. This is probably especially true when marriages are arranged for economic or other external reasons. One of the main restraints on a man mistreating his wife in these cultures is his father-in-law. (Notably, Hebrew has its own word for father-in-law suggesting that this is a notable relationship.) If a marriage has joined two economic units together the necessity of working with one’s father-in-law becomes greater. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus records an instance in which one of the Herods (there were several Jewish rulers with this name) divorced his wife, an Arabian princess, thereby causing a war between himself and his former father-in-law (Antiquities, book 18, chapter 5). In some ways this survey of the rules and regulations fails to take into account the reality of how humans actually work. Yes, there were probably brutal, wife-beating tyrants in Israel who made full use of the inequality between men and women. But there were probably a lot of good marriages where both partners learned to work with one another for their mutual benefit, too. Ultimately, most of the explicitly-expressed ideas about the relationships between men and women would all be subject to the less-predictable framework of human emotions. While this falls far short of explicit safeguards, it’s also not a recipe for universal terror.


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