The marriage relation imposed upon the husband certain obligations and conferred upon him certain rights more generally described in the Scripture but rather minutely regulated in the rabbinical law. The modern Jews, in all the civilized countries of the world, are more mindful of and govern themselves much more, if not entirely, by the laws of the countries whose citizens they are.
The Husband in Early Israel
In the Hebrew household the husband and father was the chief personage of an institution which was regarded as more than a social organism, inasmuch as the family in early Semitic society had a distinctively religious character and significance. It was through it that the cult of the household and tribal deities was practiced and perpetuated. The house-father, by virtue of being the family head, was priest of the household, and as such, responsible for the religious life of the family and the maintenance of the family altar. As priest he offered sacrifices to the family gods, as at first, before the centralization of worship, he did to Yahweh as the tribal or national Deity.
We see this reflected in the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the Book of Job. This goes far to explain such records as we have in Ge 31:53; 32:9, and the exceptional reverence that was paid the paternal sepulchers (1Sa 20:6).
Abraham was regarded as being the father of a nation. It was customary, it would seem, to assign a "father" to every known tribe and nation (Ge 10). So the family came to play an important and constructive part in Hebrew thought and life, forming the base upon which the social structure was built, merging gradually into the wider organism of the clan or tribe, and vitally affecting at last the political and religious life of the nation itself.
The Husband's Authority
The husband from the first had supreme authority over his wife, or wives, and children. In his own domain his rule was well-nigh absolute. The wife, or wives, looked up to him as their lord (Ge 18:12). He was chief (compare Arabic sheik), and to dishonor him was a crime to be punished by death (Ex 21:15,17).
He was permitted to divorce his wife with little reason, and divorces were all too common (De 22:13,19,28,29; Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8; 5:8; Mal 2:16, etc.). The wife seems to have had no redress if wronged by him. Absolute faithfulness, though required of the wife, was apparently not expected or exacted of the husband, so long as he did not violate the rights of another husband. In general among Eastern people women were lightly esteemed, as in the Japhetic nations they came to be.
The Husband’s Duties
The Old Testament and the Mosaic law in particular, do not contain express provisions concerning marital rights and responsibilities, except the injunction made in definitely clear terms: “Her food, her raiment and her conjugal right shall he not diminish” (Exod 21:10 KJV). It is upon this casual intimation that the elaborate regulations of the rabbinical code are based. The responsibilities of the husband can be included largely under the following headings:
The responsibility of the husband is to provide his wife with the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and dwelling. The extent of this responsibility depended upon his fortune and situation in life, and also upon the local customs.
The responsibility of the husband is to have conjugal cohabitation with his wife. A continued refusal, on either side, regarding this duty was not excused by sickness and circumstances and offered sufficient grounds for divorce.
The responsibility of the husband is to provide proper medical care and nursing when the wife is sick.
The responsibility of the husband is to protect his wife and to ransom her in the eventuality of her falling into captivity. The frequent invasion of Bedouins in the Near Eastern countries and the continued wars in Europe during the Middle Ages made the provision for such an eventuality quite necessary.
The responsibility of the husband is to provide for her burial in case of her death. The duty of providing for the wife’s burial included also that of providing for her a tombstone and the covering of expenses for funeral solemnities according to his and her station in society.
The husband’s rights
The husband’s rights according to the Jewish law were as follows:
He was entitled to whatever the wife earned by her labor and industry. His right to her earnings was based on the consideration of his obligation to support her.
He was entitled to whatever she gained by chance, inheritance, donation, legacy, or in any other way.
He was entitled to the usufruct of all the property she brought into marriage at the time of their marriage.
He was entitled to become her sole heir on her death.
Figurative Use in the Bible
Used figuratively of the relation
Between Yahweh and His people (Isa 54:5; Jer 3:14; Ho 2:19 f).
Between Christ and His church (Mt 9:15; 2Co 11:2; Eph 5:25; Re 19:7; 21:2).
Commentary on Male Relationships with their Family
Plato counted a state "disorganized" "where slaves are disobedient to their masters, and wives are on equality with their husbands." "Is there a human being," asks Socrates, "with whom you talk less than with your wife?" But from the first, among the Hebrews the ideal husband trained his household in the way they should go religiously, as well as instructed them in the traditions of the family, the tribe, and the nation (Ge 18:19; Ex 12:26; 13:8; De 6:7, etc.). It was due to this, in part at least, that, in spite of the discords and evils incident to polygamy, the Hebrew household was nursery of virtue and piety to an unusual degree, and became a genuine anticipation of the ideal realized later in the Christian home (1Co 7:2 ff; Eph 5:25; 1Pe 3:7).
Bibliography and Further Reading
L. A. Lambert, Thesaurus Biblicus (1880), 386-389
M. Mielzinger, The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce (1901) 100-102.