Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

When Husbands Were Lords and Masters

Posted by foryourfaith on February 7, 2012


In the Book of Genesis, when the time came for Abraham’s son Isaac to marry, Abraham summoned a trusted household servant and sent him on a journey back to the region where the clan of Abraham’s father still dwelt. The servant took a caravan of men, camels, and choice gifts and was commissioned to find and negotiate for a wife for Isaac.

When with God’s help the servant found Rebekah, who was the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel, he gave her two gold bracelets and a ring that was to be worn through the side of her nose. Then he negotiated with both her father and her brother Laban, telling them of Abraham’s wealth, of Isaac’s inheritance, and of God’s guidance in finding Rebekah.

When Bethuel and Laba agreed to the marriage, the servant gave gifts of gold, silver, clothes, and ornaments to Rebekah, Laban, and their mother. Soon the servant and Rebekah returned to Abraham’s home with Laban’s blessing: “Our sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them!” (Genesis 24:60). When Rebekah first saw Isaac from afar, she veiled herself. Isaac then received her into his tent, “and she became his wife; and he loved her” (Genesis 24:67).

Few institutions illustrate so well the cultural distance of the modern Western world from ancient Hebrew society as the institution of marriage. In Western society, the decision to marry usually follows a period of growing romantic attraction between a young man and woman that reaches an intensity that we call “falling in love.” Parental involvement in this process is often minor or absent. The modern notion of individual choice was virtually unknown among the Israelites. They of course knew about passionate sexual attraction, but generally they did not base marriage and family on that foundation. Neither Isaac nor Rebekah made any decisions in the process, but affirmed the decisions of their families.

In all societies, marriage is part of a web of social relationships by which a people express and perpetuate themselves. In ancient Israel, kinship was central to society. The entire nation perceived itself as the “children of Israel.” The whole was broken down into tribes, each of which was thought of as children of a single patriarch. Within those tribes there were smaller clans and extended families until, at least theoretically, every single individual could be accounted for within the treat family.

In some societies, ours among them, ties of kinship are distributed through both parents. In Israel’s patriarchal society, kinship was defined through the father only. (This practice contrasts with Jewish law in more recent centuries in which one’s status as a Jew is established through the mother.) Children were part of their father’s clan and had no special ties to the ancestors of their mother unless she was of the same clan. This was how kinship groups were defined, which functioned powerfully as political and economic units as well as social ones. Children had a single line of ancestry through their father and father’s father, rather than a family tree spreading back from both parents.

So powerful was the patrilineal pattern that Jesus’ descent is considered only in these terms. The genealogies of Jesus given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell how Jesus was born in the Virgin Mary without any involvement of Joseph, her betrothed husband. Still, when each Gospel comes to present Jesus’ extended genealogy, it is listed through Joseph rather than Mary. Jesus was considered to be a descendent of David because Joseph descended from David; no mention is ever made of Mary’s ancestors. The tradition of kinship being defined through the male simply could not be overturned.

In ancient Israel, marriage often took place relatively soon after a child reached puberty. The idea of waiting until after adolescence was practically unknown. The father of a boy took the lead in finding an appropriate match, though he might well take the boy’s feelings into consideration, especially if they were passionate. There was no question about it; a boy would get married. At a later date the rabbis would intone, “He who has no wife is not a proper man.” It was unlikely that the idea of his son remaining a bachelor ever entered an Israelite father’s head.

Marriages between first cousins were common. Thus, it seems that in seeking a daughter-in-law, the father was guided by a desire to preserve the distinctiveness of his clan, or tribe, so his search usually focused on his own community and its environs. In Genesis we find Rebekah marrying her first cousin, Isaac. Later, we find Isaac telling his son Jacob, “Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and take as wife from there on of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.”

There were strict rules to prevent incest. Though the bride and groom could be first cousins without violating Leviticus’ rule on consanguinity, other marriages between those who were “near of kin” were banned, including marriages between mothers and sons, grandfathers and granddaughters, sisters and brothers, aunts and nephews. Ties of affinity also were regulated, barring such unions as those between a son and his stepmother, a man and his paternal uncle’s wife, and a brother-in-law and sister-in-law.

After the conquest of Canaan, there were warnings against intermarriage with the non-Israelites of the land. Such marriages were seen as a snare designed to entice Israel to follow other gods.

In spite of this prohibition, however, mixed marriages were apparently not uncommon. For example, Samson married a Philistine woman, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women – one of whom was Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Bathsheba, the woman with whom David fell in love, was already married to a Hittite. Even the strictures of the law provided an exception that allowed a man to marry a woman captured in war, after she had ceremonially mourned the loss of her family and country (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).

It was only after the Babylonian exile that serious attempts were made to enforce a ban on intermarriage. During the religious revival and purifications of Israel under Ezra, the leaders believed the problem was so urgent that a large number of men divorced their non-Israelite wives and disowned the children of those marriages. The Book of Ezra provides a list of men with foreign wives who submitted to this rigorous reform, but it does not tell how many refused to go along with it or ignored it altogether.

Throughout the history of Israel, monogamy was the rule for most ordinary folk. When the story of creation was told, the ideal pair of one man and one woman was set: “a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become on flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Perhaps significantly, it was to the progeny of Cain that the Scriptures attributed the first marriage to more than one wife. The ideal of happiness was indeed the image of a prosperous man with his wife and many children. The prophets also joined in urging faithfulness to a single spouse.

Polygamy was never outlawed in ancient Israel, however. Quite the contrary, many of the greatest heroes of Israel’s history were polygamous. The form of polygamy in Israel is more accurately described as polygyny – one husband married to more than one wife – never the reverse, polyandry. Polygyny was known and practiced from earliest recorded history, but usually only by a relative few. The expense of maintaining more than one wife as well as the rivalry and even hatred that often developed between wives militated against the practice. It is primarily among the wealthy or in the special situation when a first wife could bear no heirs that examples of polygyny are described in the Scriptures.

The kings of Israel were polygamists on a grand scale. David had at least 20 wives and concubines, but that seems practically ascetic compared to the lavish harem of his son Solomon, who reportedly had “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” (1 Kings 11:3). By contrast, Solomon’s son Rehoboam lived on a more modest scale, with 18 wives and 60 concubines, who bore him a total of 88 children. Such practices among kings are condemned in Deuteronomy 17:17, but regulations regarding polygamy are limited. In Deuteronomy 21:15-17 the concern is to control the almost inevitable effects of favoritism and rivalry in inheritance rights.

A standard part of the marriage negotiations was the matter of the mohar. This was not a dowry, but a gift (usually in the form of money) that was negotiated between the two families and that the bridegroom or his father had to pay to the bride’s father. There are many different theories on the significance of the mohar. Some scholars believe that it was probably intended to compensate the father of the bride for the loss of a daughter and all the progeny she represented, as she now became part of another family. In any event, the giving and receiving of the mohar sealed the validity of the marriage. The Bible does not specify how large the mohar had to be. Although it could vary, it was probably less than the punitive 50 shekels of silver that the law says a man who has seduced an unbetrothed virgin must pay to her father. In addition to the mohar, the bridegroom would also give gifts to the bride and her family that were in keeping with his financial status.

The time of betrothal was an intermediate period between the transfer of the mohar, which accompanied the formal commitment of the bride’s father to the marriage, and the time when the bride actually moved to the house of the bridegroom. Betrothal was far more binding than a modern engagement. While the couple did not yet cohabit, they were essentially married. So binding was this commitment that if a betrothed girl was raped, the crime was treated as adultery with a married woman. Finally, a betrothed man was exempted from military service until after the marriage.

The Bible most often refers to marriage in terms of a man “taking” a woman. Indeed, the heart of the “wedding” was the transfer of the bride’s residence; no particular ceremonies, either religious or civil, were required. The joy and festivity of the event, however, led to great celebration.

On the wedding day, the groom put on a crown and went to the bride’s house accompanied by his friends, who sang and played musical instruments. On the return trip the veiled bride, adorned with jewels, was also escorted by her exuberant friends.

The next 7 to 14 days were spent in celebration and feasting, with guests coming and going. The entire book of the Song of Solomon provides us with examples of the beautiful and sensuous love poetry that could be sung on such occasions. It was a time for food, laughter, and free-flowing wine. According to a practice that is known from the Jews of Egypt, the bridegroom would at some point solemnly announce, “She is my wife, I am her husband, from this day forever.” Later, it became customary for the bridegroom to recite the following words: “Behold, you are consecrated unto me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”

Social and economic status largely determined the quality of life in the marriage. While society included the spectrum from slaves to royalty, the life of most men and women was one of unremitting toil. A woman’s life centered around a multitude of household tasks: preparing food, including cooking and small farming, making cloth and clothing. She reared the children. And she made her own household equipment from baskets to oil lamps. In wealthy households, she supervised the servants. It is no wonder that when the ideal wife is described, we are told that “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens.”

Honor could accrue to such a woman, but very few rights were ever hers. This is clear in the matter of divorce. In keeping with Deuteronomy 24:1, a man could divorce his wife for practically any cause, “if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her.” The wife, however, could not seek a divorce at all and had very few safeguards against her husband seeking one. The blood-stained sheet from the night the marriage was consummated was kept by the bride’s family against the possibility of a husband charging that she had not been a virgin at the time of the marriage.

The many taboos and legal hedges that surrounded the institution of marriage show its importance for a society that was as family-centered as Israel. The Bible is in a sense a book of generations – generations of marriages and the love that grew within them, the children that they produced, and the struggles that they survived.


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