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The formalization and sanctification of the union of man and woman for the procreation of children. The common Hebrew term lāqaḥ, “to take in marriage,” should be seen in association with the verb bā‘al, “to be master, rule, or possess in marriage,” as well as with the noun ba‘al, “master, lord, husband.” A comparable New Testament verb would be gameō, “to marry, take to wife,” along with its cognate forms gamizō and gamiskō, both meaning “to give in marriage.”

Marriage in historical perspective

The sociologists of today recognize the distinction between marriage as an act, event, or even a process, and the family as a social institution. Marriage is the legal union of a man and a woman and the ceremony initiating and celebrating them as husband and wife. The family is the social institution developed around the child-mother relationship and creating the social climate in which human nature may be conditioned and realized. Marriage and family, therefore, constitute two distinct systems even though they are found within a single nexus. This is particularly true in the contemporary Western society where marriages may not produce children for several years, or perhaps not at all; and, therefore, do not develop into families. The family is a more complicated and binding system than the marriage. It binds parents to children. It places the children under the obligation of the parent. It makes it incumbent upon the couple to care for relatives and sometimes even for the servants.

There are many categories of social facts which are difficult to classify properly and clearly as belonging to the study of marriage or to that of the family. Such social facts are treated, therefore, by various authorities, in either one or in both of these areas designated as marriage and family.

Looking to the evolution of marriage in historic perspective, of primary concern in this presentation are the characteristics and the features identified with marriage in the Bible lands through the various stages and periods of history. Historically, as Hebrew society developed from nomadic to village settlement, more complex customs and feasts became associated with the ceremony of marriage, and in the Christian era it became regarded as a sacrament.

Pre-Semitic Palestinian family life

Pre-Semitic Palestinian elements have been incorporated by the Hebrew people into their culture as they were influenced by Aramaean, Amorite, and a large mixture of the blood of the central Asiatic people which was found in early Elam and Babylonia, from which the Hittites and Hurrians descended.

The evidence for a prehistoric stage of polyandrous marriage among the ancestors of the Hebrew people is of no great weight. However, the evidence for the presence of so-called matriarchate, or “mother-right” is of far greater significance. The value of this evidence must be appraised with moderation, for some of the arguments are far-fetched and rather weak.

Arabia was the cradle land of the Semitic society. Authoritative sources offer evidence that a number of deviations from normal monogamous marriage were well known in early Arabia, and therefore among the primitive Semites. Worthy of mentioning particularly are three types of deviations:

  • Polyandry, a family system that includes a plurality of husbands.
  • Beena-marriage, in which the husband goes to live in the wife’s village and the children are regarded as members of her tribe. Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel is a case in point (Gen 29:28).
  • Mot-a marriage, differs from beena-marriage only because of its temporary nature.
  • The question whether the clan has preceded the family as the first social unit in the early stages of development has been debated by W. Robertson Smith, who, at the beginning of his discussion on relations of gods and men in the oldest Semitic communities, considered the clan as the earliest social unit. This theory is not supported by the present sociological research. By his investigations Robert H. Lowie makes it probable that the earliest social unit is the family, and that larger social groups such as clans and “sibs” came later as natural developments.

    In harmony with the views sustained by later sociological inquiry, what was the nature of the marriage ties in the earlier stages? Some scholars claim that in the primitive society monogamous marriage was practically unknown. They claim that promiscuity characterized the relation of the sexes. E. Westermark argued for permanent mating. The progress of knowledge appears to have vindicated the correctness of his position. He argued that polyandry did not represent the earliest stages of the evolution of human marriage, but rather degenerations from the primitive types.

    Marriage in Biblical times

    In the general environment of the ancient Near East, marriage was often a means of strengthening and promoting the fortunes of the family, quite aside from the prospect of producing children. A bride was more likely to be chosen because of the desirability of union with her family, or for her healthy physique and suitability for family life, rather than for other considerations. The father was responsible for finding a suitable bride for his son, and the wishes and feelings of the young people were largely irrelevant to this decision. On some occasions the bride’s consent was asked for after the actual marriage arrangements had been made. Thus Isaac’s marriage was arranged between his father’s servant and his future wife’s brother. She was then consulted (Gen.24.33-Gen.24.53, Gen.24.57-Gen.24.58), though perhaps only because her father was no longer living. On rare occasions, parental advice was either ignored, rejected, or not sought (Gen.26.34-Gen.26.35), and, in a most unusual initiative, Michal, daughter of Saul, expressed her love for David (1Sam.18.20).

    In general, marriages were arranged with relatives or with those of the same clan. One might marry a member of the same tribe or possibly move outside this circle to marry within another Israelite tribe. Marriage to a foreigner was generally discouraged, though some Hebrews took wives from among those women captured in war, while others, such as Samson, received permission from their parents to marry a foreigner, Samson marrying a Philistine woman (Judg.14.2-Judg.14.3). Concern was always expressed that marriage with a non-Israelite would dilute the covental faith by the introduction of ideas and practices concerning strange gods (1Kgs.11.4).

    In the ancient world the primary purpose of marriage was procreation rather than companionship, and, as a result, large numbers of offspring were regarded as an asset. But an important secondary objective of marriage was the maintaining or increasing of family property, and in royal circles many marriages constituted the seal to what in fact were really political alliances. From the time of the patriarchs, wealthy and powerful people were able to indulge in polygamy, but because of the bride-price there were comparatively few men who could afford more than two wives. One way of circumventing this problem, however, was for a man to have several concubines, and this custom seems to have had quasi-legal sanction in cases where the legitimate wife was barren. Thus the childless Sarah provided her handmaid Hagar for her husband Abraham (Gen.16.3), as a woman in these circumstances would also have been required to do under the law code of Hammurabi (146). Jacob, already married to the two sisters Rachel and Leah, was also provided with the maid of each of his wives (Gen.30.3-Gen.30.9), while his brother Esau had three wives (Gen.26.34; Gen.28.9; Gen.36.1-Gen.36.5).

    The most fruitful sources for the understanding of the nature of the family ties are to be found in the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch and the Book of Ruth.

    The story of the creation of the first two human beings reveals monogamous marriage as the expression of the will of God. Polygamy first appeared in the reprobate line of Cain, when Lamech took two wives.

    Marriage in pre-exilic times

    The Bible contains evidence of a certain evolution of marital relations without presenting exclusive clear patterns.

    The creation of new marital relations in the early Old Testament period must be understood against the background of the relationships and roles ascribed to various members of the family. The relationships between brothers were of fundamental significance. A brother in that era meant all the members of a family, or even a tribe. Each brother was obligated to offer protection and help to all the other brothers, when conditions made his services necessary. “Go-el,” meaning protector or “redeemer” was a close relative bound to redeem his brother from slavery, bound to buy the family patrimony sold under necessity, bound to bury his deceased brother or sister, bound to observe the levirate law, bound to take upon himself the obligation of blood vengeance for a murdered brother. Clear distinctions of relationship degrees were not easily made because of the wider, larger and more inclusive consanguinal family structure of their society.

    Because marriages with close relatives were common, limits of consanguinity are recorded for the Israelites to follow (Lev.18.6-Lev.18.18). Formerly, a man could marry his half-sister on his father’s side (Gen.20.12; cf. 2Sam.13.13), though this is forbidden in Lev.20.17. Cousins—such as Isaac and Rebekah, as well as Jacob, Rachel, and Leah—frequently married, though a simultaneous marriage with two sisters was specifically forbidden (Lev.18.18). The union between an aunt and her nephew produced Moses (Exod.6.20; Num.26.59), though a marriage between such relatives was subsequently forbidden by the Mosaic Law. In the period of the patriarchs evidence is offered that Abraham married his own half-sister. In patriarchal times cases were recorded, like that of Jacob, when the same man married two sisters. Again, later, the law of Moses prohibited such marriages. Many of the institutions developed in the patriarchal period later disappeared.

    There are some well-known instances in the Old Testament of the bride continuing to live with her own family. After Jacob had worked for the agreed period of fourteen years in order to pay his father-in-law Laban the required bride price for his daughters Leah and Rachel, he remained voluntarily with Laban for a further six years (Gen.31.41). Laban considered that the children of the union belonged to him and were a part of his family (Gen.31.43). Similarly, Gideon’s concubine and her son lived with her family (Judg.14.8; Judg.15.1-Judg.15.2). These examples, however, are few, and neither Gideon, visiting a concubine rather than a wife, nor Samson, whose bride was a foreigner, was ever considered a part of the woman’s family.

    In addition to finding a bride who was healthy and suitable for the family alliance, parents also had to be aware of the bride price that was payable to the girl’s father. However this is viewed, whether as a payment for the loss of her services to her own parents or simply as a gift, it still retains something of a stigma by implying that the exchange of gifts or money meant that, in fact, the bride had been sold by the father to her future husband. Under the Mosaic Law a man’s wife, children, slaves, and animals were listed as his possessions (Exod.20.17).

    The sum of money payable for the bride price varied according to the “value” of the bride and the social position of the family (1Sam.18.23-1Sam.18.25). Where it was thought desirable, jewelry, animals, goods, or service could be substituted for gold or silver (Gen.34.12; 1Sam.18.25). In Lev.27.4-Lev.27.5, ten to thirty shekels is mentioned as a price when people made special vows to the Lord, but whether the thirty shekels mentioned in connection with a woman was the same as the bride price is unknown. There seems some reason for thinking that by the time of the second temple a sum of about fifty shekels was more usual as a bride price for a virgin, whereas a widow or a divorced woman was worth only half that amount. It was during this period that a marriage with a virgin bride normally took place in the middle of the week, so that if she were found not to be a virgin, her husband had time to take proof to court the following day, which was still prior to the Sabbath.

    Traditions concerning the bride price show some variation. Often the bride price came to the daughter on the death of her father. Under Assyrian law it was paid directly to the bride, while the Code of Hammurabi specified that the sum had to be paid to the bride’s parents, with a penalty clause of double the amount if the engagement was broken off (160-61). The Babylonian tradition was for the bride’s father to bring gifts to the husband, similar to a dowry, for his use but not his ownership, since they reverted to the bride on the death of her husband. It was customary for the Hebrew groom to bring gifts for other members of the bride’s family, but these would rarely have been as valuable as those that Rebekah and her family received (Gen.24.53).

    Under the Judges and monarchy, Israel shifted toward a wider practice of polygamy. Bigamy was recognized as a legal fact (Deut 21:15-17). Less mention is made of polygamy after the patriarchal period ended, though Gideon is described as having “many wives” (Judg.8.30-Judg.8.31), and the practice was still popular in royal circles, where vast polygamous marriages for political reasons were common. Solomon is described as having had “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines” (1Kgs.11.1-1Kgs.11.3). Individual preferences gave rise to strong rivalries between wives and children in such polygamous households (1Sam.1.6). Nevertheless, the law codes of Assyria (about 2000 b.c.) and Hammurabi (about 1760 b.c.) both protected the rights of the wife, concubine, and children, and this precedent continued to be followed by the Israelites.

    Nevertheless, it is clear that the most common form of marriage in Israel was monogamy. Monogamy received the sanction of the Mosaic Law (cf. Exod.20.17; Exod.21.5; Deut.5.21, et al.). This followed the tradition of the instruction to Adam and his descendants that “a man...shall cleave to his wife” (Gen.2.24), and Adam’s fidelity to the one mate. No cases of bigamy among the commoners are found in the books of Samuel and Kings. The Books of Wisdom, which provide a picture of the society for this period, never mentioned polygamy. The Book of Tobias, which is a family tale, never refers to any other kind but monogamous families. The image of a monogamous marriage was in the minds of those prophets who represented Israel as the one wife chosen by the one and only God, Yahweh. Ezekiel developed the same metaphor into an allegory (Ezek 16).

    Marriage in postexilic times

    In the postexilic period the family underwent changes but remained essentially oriental and patriarchal in character. Monogamy was the general practice. In the postexilic period the emphasis that Ezra laid on the purity and integrity of the Jewish national stock reinforced the ideals of monogamy (against which the marital encounters of Herod the Great would stand out as a glaring exception). The father had the responsibility of educating his sons and training them in some practical and useful trade(s). The Hebrew traditions helped to preserve some high standards of Old Testament and postexilic sexual morality by comparison with other Near Eastern peoples.

    The Babylonians practiced basically monogamy, but the Assyrians were polygamous.

    There is no direct information about the period of the second Temple. From the Apocrypha it appears that they continued to be monogamous, although not without exception. Selection of mates, the nature and the size of the dowry, and other decisions were made normally by the parents.

    The papyri of Elephantine show that the mohar (dowry) was considered the property of the woman, even though usually it was given to her father. In the period of the second Temple, the mohar was replaced by the sum registered in the Kethubah (marriage contract). For a virgin bride the amount suggested was fifty silver shekels and for a bride, if she was widowed or divorced, the amount was reduced to half.

    According to the law, kiddushin meant that the bride could have been bought (betrothed) either by money, by writ (a brief contract) or by cohabitation. Betrothal by contract was suspended before the Middle Ages. In the case of betrothal by cohabitation the man and the woman entered a private chamber, having first declared to witnesses their intention to become betrothed. At the end, and following the period of the second Temple, it was customary for the wedding of a virgin to be held on a Wednesday. This arrangement offered the husband, if he found the absence of the tokens of virginity, the necessary time to bring the case to court on Thursday. The widows and the divorcees were married on Thursdays so that they could enjoy two uninterrupted days with their husbands before the Sabbath.

    The prevailing Jewish concept was that marriage was the proper state for a man.

    Marriage during the Talmudic period

    The regenerative forces of the Jewish people were greatly enhanced by the institution of Jewish marriage. The Jew’s whole life, including his sexual instincts, was scrupulously subjected to the supervision of religion. Social factors, such as the increasing concentration of the Jewish masses within the lower middle class contributed to a greater exercise of sexual self-control. In this realm of human behavior the rabbis chose the path of moderation. They fought with relative effectiveness all forms of licentiousness. They did not consider, like Paul, the sexual appetite as evil in itself—that is, as some Church Fathers interpreted Paul.

    The Talmudic legislators neither elevated marriage to the position of a sacrament nor did they regard it as a mere contract in civil law. The act establishing the communion between husband and wife was termed kiddushin, or “sanctification,” without implying the indelible character of a sacrament. In general, married life was regarded as sacred and under the direct ordering and control of Providence. The ascetic trends which ran through Talmudic Jewry had no bearing whatsoever upon marriage.

    The Talmudic writers were determined to promote marriage. It was esp. vital for Judaism to build the strength of the family structure as a good foundation of their ethnic life. They were willing to relax some ancient customs, such as to reduce the acquisition of a wife to “mere mutual consent,” in order to facilitate marriage. The rabbis in the 3rd cent., however, outlawed this informal type of marriage, penalizing the transgressors by public flogging.

    Rabbinic law treated illegitimate children almost on a par with the legitimate offspring. They enjoyed the full rights of inheritance of the estates of their fathers. Josephus correctly summarized the point of view held by the rabbis saying that the law recognizes no sexual connections except the natural union of husband and wife, and that only for the procreation of children. To avoid temptation, the sages recommended early marriages. The traditional mohar constituted serious limitations for many Jews interested in marriage, particularly after the ravages of the Bar Kochba revolt and after they became a little more urbanized. Charitable provision for needy brides eventually became the major responsibility of the community. Others had to choose between married life and scholarly pursuits. The rabbis felt the need of a compromise in such cases and to relax somehow the legal requirements. “If one’s soul is longing for learning he could postpone the assumption of marital relations beyond the stated age of eighteen.” This was in a period of heavy taxes when students could scarcely marry and study at the same time. Some remained single to the age of thirty and even forty. To encourage both learning and marriage, some men of wealth selected promising young students for their daughters and helped them through their early difficult years. The rabbis were quick to recognize and advocate such preferential treatment as a matter of good general policy.

    Marriage in New Testament times

    The New Testament exalts marriage to a new height of sanctity. “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). The epistle to the Ephesians presents a very high view of marriage and even compares it to Christ's relationship to His church (5:22ff.).

    Early in the history of the Church the idea of virginity, as a state of purity, especially pleasing to Christ, took roots among Christians and later received the sanction and the encouragement of the Church Fathers. Marriage has never been explicitly condemned or forbidden by Christian teachers; but it was placed third and lowest in the scale of Christian purity. The highest is absolute virginity. The next lowest is celibacy adopted after marriage or after the death of the husband. Marriage was regarded only the third best choice. “St. Paul looked upon marriage as a substitute for a worse state, that of illicit sexual intercourse.”

    An uncompromising view of adultery and other sexual offences is evidenced throughout the New Testament (Matt 5:27). The special insistence on purity for Christians is in all probability a good indication of the laxity of the age (Acts 15:29; 1 Cor 5:11; Gal 5:16-21).

    Marriage received the sanction of Christ Himself and the more reluctant recognition of Paul. Jesus preached mercy along with justice. The teaching of Jesus on marriage stressed the lifetime nature of the commitment, and while recognizing that Moses had regularized an already existing practice of divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Mark.10.4-Mark.10.5), He taught the traditional Hebrew monogamy and added that the remarriage of a divorced person while the spouse was still alive constituted adultery (Mark.10.11-Mark.10.12).

    Paul advocated celibacy for himself and for others who wished to serve the kingdom without hindrances. He recognized that family responsibilities encumbered a man's ability to serve (1 Cor. 7:32-34), and he wished that all the Corinthians might share his celibacy; but, like Jesus, he recognized that every man's marital status must be determined by God's gift of continency (1 Cor. 7:7). He encourages the unmarried and the widows to abide in the celibate state, but if they do not have this gift then by all means marry rather than burn in passion (1 Cor. 7:8,9). Paul's entire view of celibacy and marriage is greatly colored and even dictated by his eschatology. Paul looked for the imminent return of Christ, and he deemed it advisable not to change one's marital status during this time. It was time to prepare for the world where “those . . . will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (1 Cor. 7:29-31; cf. Luke 20:34,35). Although the celibacy passages are strong, Paul had a high view of marriage (1 Cor. 7:7, 10-11, 17,28,36).

    Outside the church, the Greeks and Romans saw marriage as a divine institution of importance to the state and to the family. Monogamy became the model for the institution, but divorce and remarriage were common. Since the primary reason for marriage was procreation, the wives often became bearers of children while the husbands amused themselves with concubines and prostitutes. Even with these discrepancies the Roman form of marriage had its effect upon the Christian institution.

    There is a basic kerygmatic core in the biblical view of marriage determined primarily by the fact that marriage rests upon a primeval order of creation and is at the same time symbolically or parabolically incorporated in the order of salvation. Jesus declares that marriage as an original order of creation is indissoluble (Mark 10:2-12; Matt. 5:31,32 does give the possible exception of fornication), but marriage was not compulsory; for some the demands of the kingdom might involve a celibate life. Monogamy, based upon the henosis concept of one flesh, was rapidly becoming the ideal.

    Marriage in post-Biblical times

    Marriage in Judaism

    The Jewish institutional traits of marriage were the subject of continuous development through the centuries, following the Biblical period. The priestly benediction of the union is mentioned neither in the Bible nor in the Talmud. The Talmud recommended that a “congregation” should be instituted for the purpose of celebrating a wedding. The presence of ten adult males was regarded as desirable. In the Middle Ages many Jewish communities formalized this desire into a binding statute. In the 10th cent. marriages were performed before a congregation in the bridegroom’s abode, or in the synagogue.

    By the 14th cent. the huppah (actual cohabitation) had become a mere religious emblem. Instead of a real room, it became a symbolical room, a canopy, or even a veil or garment (tallit) thrown over the heads of the bridal pair. In the 10th cent., the introduction of liturgical marriage hymns had become noticeable. On the whole at this time the Jews had become more tolerant in regard to mixed marriages. The Jews were reluctant, however, to consider marriage with the families of the newcomers in the community. This was due partly to fear, caused by the newcomers, partly to the long history of persecution suffered by Jews from the hands of the foreigners among whom they lived, and partly to the spirit of exclusiveness and pride of the Jewish people.

    Time has refined some of the grosser elements connected with weddings. The bridal procession leading the party from the home of the bride to the home of the bridegroom was changed in the Middle Ages, with the party going to the synagogue and not to the bridal chamber.

    Wedding odes were characteristic of medieval Jewish weddings. So were songs and jests in which wit and merriment scintillated to the end. The seven-day wedding feast was marked by incessant performances, which were not interrupted by the Sabbath. Wit of another kind was displayed at the wedding table. The wedding discourse by the rabbi was a conspicuous function.

    The Early Church Fathers and Marriage

    The earlier Fathers held varying views on the worthiness of marriage. Clement of Alexandria, who died in a.d. 220 declared that marriage as a sacred image must be kept pure from those things which defile it. In like manner Ignatius, in his epistle to Polycarp, and Athenagoras pled for Christians to maintain the purity of the marriage state. Jerome, who at the close of the 4th century preached the beauties of the monastic life, showed his growing antipathy to the married state. He based his strong opinion on the oftquoted statement of Paul, “It is better to marry than to burn.” He used to say: “It is good to marry simply because it is bad to burn.” In like manner Ambrose and Augustine manifested high appreciation for celibacy. Under such influences the praise of celibacy became more insistent and the deeply felt depreciation of marriage more simply and seriously accepted.

    The early Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, began to emphasize that all sexual desire was evil and that for most, marriage was an escape from sin. Clement thought marriage was superior to celibacy because a married man must practice self-denial and is less selfish; yet at the same time he speaks of the higher spiritual perfection of widows and virgins. Spritual marriages are advocated.

    Augustine advocated celibacy. Virginity was not necessarily higher than marriage, but those who lived it experienced a higher type of life. Marriage was given a sacramental position in the church, but the basic reasons for matrimony were procreation and the curbing of lust. Augustine came close to equating venereal emotion with original sin. Evil accompanied all acts, especially the coital act. Sex, even in marriage, was evil.

    Celibacy and Monasticism

    The basic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were propounded by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas followed Augustine in exalting celibacy and still maintained that marriage was for procreation, for the curbing of lust, and to experience a sacrament. Coition was not an integral part of marriage, and the very act transmitted original sin. Continence should be practiced as much as possible. Divorce was not possible if the marriage was lawful, consummated, and Christian; Aquinas did recognize that the wife was more than an instrument of sexual gratification and thus exalted her place in marriage.

    The monastic ideal, which Luther had once embraced, became the object of his bitter criticism. Even Catholic historians agree that the abuse of monasticism in Luther's time was rife. Clerical concubinage was an accepted institution, and homosexuality was lightly condoned. However, Luther condemned not only these desecrations, but the very institutions of celibacy. He felt that God had ordained marriage for all men as a remedy for sin. Only a very few men were given the ability to lead chaste lives outside the bonds of marriage. These few were to be considered angels on earth.

    The Reformation and Its Legacy

    The rite of marriage, for Luther, was a “worldly” (civil) act for which the church had no constitutive importance. In the very order of creation, marriage was constituted for all men and not only for Christians; the church can only give her blessing to the marriage that has already been contracted. The marriage becomes the business of the church only when a matter of conscience is involved. For Luther to designate marriage as “worldly” did not mean that it had not spiritual relevance; on the contrary, the worldly and spiritual poles of marriage are not antithetical, but complementary. Luther denied the sacramental nature of marriage, but held tenaciously to its permanency. The Reformer John Calvin* gave new and refreshing interpretations of marriage. First, he elevated woman to a position of mutual responsibility within the marriage. He still saw marriage as an institution for procreation and as a remedy for sin, but he went much further. He taught that the primary purpose of marriage is social and not generative and is the highest relationship known to man. No bond in human relations is more sacred than that by which husband and wife unite to become one body and one soul. He did not condemn virginity, but did disapprove of celibate vows. He also was willing to grant grounds for divorce for adultery, impotency, desertion, or religious incompatibility.

    The Puritans built upon the teachings of Calvin and gave greater equality and independence to women; discouraged celibacy; liberalized divorce laws (but few were granted); proclaimed marriage a civil ordinance; and encouraged the companionship concept of marriage. The sexual ethics of Calvin were, however, reinterpreted in a more legalistic, narrow way. Coitus was just for procreation, but was not to be refused if the other partner felt it necessary. Along with the early Church Fathers they saw all sexual relationships, even in marriage, as bad or evil.

    Marriage Today

    The Christian concept of marriage is the union between a man and a woman that is recognized by society and has intended permanency. This ideal has not been, nor is now, practiced by all societies. The number, rights, and duties of married persons and the dissolubility of the marriage are sources of variance from society to society.

    In more recent decades the attitudes of Christians toward the sexual aspects of marriage have changed considerably. The deeper understanding of personality and human behavior made possible by modern psychology has caused sexual activities to be viewed as a more positive element within marriage-not merely a “remedy against sin” or a means of procreation. This new understanding has brought about a wide acceptance of contraceptive methods.

    Officially the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to these, but many Catholics use them. Much has been made of the psychological understanding of the sexual consummation of marriage. The psychological unity produced is akin to the biblical henosis and affects the vital wills of these persons. It also produces an intuitive self-awareness and self-understanding that is unavailable in any other context. This too is amazingly kin to the biblical concept of “to know.”

    Contextual ethics with respect to divorce, remarriage, and all borderline cases have become acceptable to many. They maintain that men must, as Paul did, make their standards relative but never forget that all relative achievement must fall under the judgment of God. As far as the order of creation is concerned there can be no divorce and hence no remarriage, but the “order of necessity” is real and the allowance for divorce is in keeping with reality. Many reject this as being too arbitrary.

    Patterns of marriage continue to change in modern society-group marriage, monogamy, polygyny, exogamy, and polyandry are all found to some degree. However, monogamic marriage with premarital chastity and marital fidelity seem to be the ideals established by the Christian community. The ideal of premarital chastity has been heavily challenged by the younger generation, but the church has stood firm on its New Testament interpretations.

    Various cultural traits

    Bars to marriage

    In early Israel it was a general practice for a man to marry within his own clan (Gen 24:4; 28:2; 29:19; Judg 14:3). Long after the tribal framework of Israel’s life had been broken up, marriage within the same family was still considered ideal.

    Cousin marriages were common in Israel during Biblical times and continue to be preferred even today among the Middle East Arabs.

    Marriage with Canaanites was prohibited (Deut 7:3). Priests were forbidden to marry a harlot or a divorcee (Lev 21:7). A high priest was prohibited to marry a widow and he was restricted to one wife (Lev 21:13, 14). According to the later Jewish law, the consent of parents was no legal requirement when the parties to the marriage were of age. Melziner stated that because of the high respect and veneration in which father and mother have ever been held among Israelites, “the cases of contracting marriage without the parents’ consent belonged to the rarest exceptions.” One very important reason for the connection between filial submissiveness and religious beliefs was no doubt the extreme importance attached to the curses and blessings of parents. The Israelites believed that parents, and esp. a father, could by their blessings and/or curses determine the destiny of their children.

    Another prohibition was related to seniority. Such custom was found in China, and among Sem. and Aryan peoples. “And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (Gen 29:26 KJV).

    Marriages with foreign women did take place as in the case of Esau, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, Ahab, and others. Many of these were marriages of kings which were partly inspired by political considerations. The kings, however, encouraged a fashion that spread to their subjects. After the settlement in Canaan, an embargo on racially and ethnically mixed marriages was considered necessary (Exod 34:15, 16; Deut 7:3, 4). Mixed marriages nevertheless continued as in the case of Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:27) and Hiram (1 Kings 7:13, 14). Deuteronomic law takes for granted that non-Israelite women captured in war will be married by their captors. This was not considered an infringement of Israel’s law. The actual prohibitions prob. date from the days of monarchy when national and religious solidarity were considered to be of the greatest importance.

    The attitude of the Essenes and the sectaries of Qumram toward marriage, as revealed in the DSS, suggests that a definite laxity had developed in regard to the prohibited degrees.


    Circumcision as an initiation rite before marriage was practiced from about 1500 b.c. in Palestine and Syria. The Hebrew tradition of circumcision was of an independent kind, however, since it signified the admission of the baby to the fellowship of the covenant nation. It was in this connection that God legislated for that event to occur for male children on the eighth day (Lev.12.3). The events in Gen.34.14-Gen.34.19 and Exod.4.24-Exod.4.26 are of a different category, however, the former relating to adult males who, as uncircumcised persons, wished to enter the Hebrew community by marriage, while in the latter the child was uncircumcised, perhaps according to local custom.

    Choosing the bride

    It appears that both boys and girls were married very young. Later the rabbis fixed the minimum age for marriage at twelve for the girls and thirteen for the boys. The parents usually made the decisions for the young people. However, there were love marriages in Israel. The young man could make his preferences known or he could make his own decision without consulting his parents. He could make his own decisions even against the wishes of his parents.

    Mohar—the price of the wife

    Mohar is usually a present to the bride’s father, either in the form of a sum of money or its equivalent in kind. Sometimes mohar can be an unusual deed; the mohar is not a fixed sum. It depends upon the social standing and the wealth of the parties concerned as well as the means of providing and the wish of the girl’s father. Mohar is a compensation to the father for the loss of his daughter as well as the means of providing her with certain necessities. The fundamental purpose of the mohar seems to be to insure the woman against being left unsupported if widowed.

    The word occurs only three times in the Bible (Gen 34:12; Exod 22:16; 1 Sam 18:25). For a compulsory marriage after a virgin had been raped, the law prescribed the payment of fifty shekels of silver (Deut 22:29). The ordinary mohar must have been less.

    A fiancé could compound for the payment of the mohar by providing a service as Jacob did for Leah and Rachel, David did for Michal, and Othniel for Caleb’s daughter.

    In the thinking of the Israelites mohar seems to have been not so much a price paid for the woman as a compensation given to the family. It is also probable that the father enjoyed only the usufruct of the mohar, and that actually the mohar reverted to the daughter at the time of succession, or if her husband’s death reduced her to penury.

    Gifts presented by the bridegroom on the occasion of the wedding were quite different from the mohar (Gen 34:12). The presents were rewards for the acceptance of the proposal of marriage. In general the custom of providing a dowry never took root in Jewish territory. Fathers gave with their daughters no gifts other than maidservants. There were special cases when fathers gave portions of land with their daughters.

    In order to protect the wife in the event of her becoming widowed or divorced, it was established by the Jewish law that before the nuptials the husband was to make out an obligation in writing, which entitled her to receive a certain sum from his estate in case of her divorcement. This obligation was termed kethubah or the marriage deed. For the security of the wife’s claim to the amount fixed in the kethubah all the property of the husband, both real and personal, was mortgaged. The kethubah is still retained in most Jewish marriages, though it has little legal significance in many countries.

    In the Talmudic law the mutual consent of the parties to marry each other has to be legally manifested by a special formality, which gives validity to the marriage contract. The usual formality is that called kaseph or “money.” The man gave to his chosen bride a piece of money, even a peruta (the smallest copper coin in use in Pal.), or any object of equal value, in the presence of two witnesses, with the words, “Be thou consecrated to me.” In the Middle Ages the piece of money was replaced with a plain ring.

    The Babylonian law required the bride’s parents to make their daughter a wedding gift or settlement which remained her property, the husband receiving the interest as income on it.

    At the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, the gifts the bride brought with her from her parents began to be known as a “neduniah,” or dowry. The sum involved was registered in the kethubah. If it was money which the husband would invest in his business he promised to repay his wife, under specific conditions, the full amount plus one-third interest. If it consisted of clothing and household goods, their value was registered but the husband was committed only to repayment of the value less one-fifth, to allow for depreciation.

    Marriage formalities and ceremonies

    In the ancient Near East, marriage was a civil matter. The marriage deed was a legal contract defining the rights of the parties concerned. Marriage contracts appear to have originated with the Sumerians and soon became common features of life in Mesopotamia and beyond. Indeed, according to the Code of Hammurabi (128), they were essential to a marriage, since they constituted the public attestation of the event. From Ugarit, evidence contained in contacts shows that marriages could be temporary or permanent, while tablets from Nuzu mention a childless wife forced to secure a concubine for her husband, in order to safeguard the future of the family (cf. Code of Hammurabi, 146). Egyptian marriages were often documented by means of contracts, and some contracts recovered from Elephantine, near Aswan, stated the terms of the union and made provision for divorce and the disposal of property in the event of the death of either partner. For the Israelites it was a covenant or b’rith.

    Since early times, there have been two stages to a Jewish marriage: betrothal and marriage proper. The betrothal is a legally binding promise of marriage (Deut 20:7). A man betrothed was exempt from military service. The betrothed woman was regarded as though she were already married. Any other man who violated her was stoned to death as an adulterer.

    The rabbis continued the distinction between the two stages of marriage: “erusim” or “kiddushin” (betrothal) and “huppah” (the word means “canopy”) which represented the actual ceremony of bringing home the bride.


    According to the law the bride might be bought (betrothed) either by money, by writ (a brief contract) or by cohabitation. Betrothal by contract was suspended before the Middle Ages, and is now almost unknown. In the case of betrothal by cohabitation, the man and woman entered a private chamber, having first declared to witnesses that their actions would count as a betrothal. During the New Testament times this manner of betrothal was disapproved because of its licentious nature. This left the betrothal by money as the last alternative. In the early Middle Ages betrothal by ring was introduced into Palestine and this has remained the custom ever since.

    The betrothal (Deut.28.30; 2Sam.3.14) had a particular legal status attached to it that made it almost identical to marriage. The law required that a man committing adultery with a betrothed virgin should be stoned for violating his neighbor’s wife (Deut.22.23-Deut.22.24). A one-year betrothal was considered normal, and it constituted a part of the permanent marriage relationship (Matt.1.18; Luke.1.27; Luke.2.5). For one year after being married the groom was exempt from military service (Deut.24.5) so that the marriage might be established on a proper footing. The bride’s father already used the term “son-in-law” from the time of the betrothal (Gen.19.14), a custom that enhanced the concept of family solidarity.

    There remained a distinction between betrothal and marriage, however, especially in the later periods of Jewish history; and although Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and in all other respects she was considered his wife, intercourse would not have taken place until after the marriage, and in this particular situation not until after the birth of Jesus. Following normal Hebrew practice, sexual relations were not resumed until after the baby was weaned, at approximately three years of age.

    At the time of the Restoration, after the Exile and thereafter, the betrothed girl was expected to remain virgin. During and after the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, however, the requirement of chastity was relaxed and the betrothed girl was permitted sexual relations with her future husband.


    Huppah was the actual wedding ceremony of bringing home the bride. The wedding ceremony itself was usually brief, but from early days it became surrounded by an elaborate tradition of ceremony and feasting that was very much in vogue in the time of Christ. The chief ceremony was the entry of the bride into the bridegroom’s house. The bridegroom was the king for a week. During the whole week their majesties wore their festal clothes, did not work, and merely looked on at the games—except that now and then the queen joined in a dance. Accompanied by his friends with tambourines and a band they went to the bride’s house where the wedding ceremonies were to start. Both bride and groom were attired in the finest, colorful clothing, the bride being especially resplendent in an elaborate dress. She had previously been washed, perfumed, and decked out with the gold and jewels of her family, together with any personal gifts that she had received. Toward sunset of the marriage day the groom would set out in procession with his friends, attendants, and musicians for the home of the bride’s parents, where she would be waiting with her procession of friends and handmaidens. Then the marriage procession, with the attendant torchbearers, would pass through the village or town streets, to the accompaniment of shouts and singing.

    Dissolution of marriage

    In the pre-Christian period, divorce was an option that was always available to the husband and sometimes also to the wife. After the return from exile, wholesale divorce was required of those Hebrews who had married foreign wives. This provision was to ensure that the purity of the Hebrew religion would not be tainted by the influence of those who had grown up with the tradition of strange gods and idolatrous practices. Normally, however, there was a distinct tendency in Jewish tradition to discourage divorce, and, following Egyptian custom, a substantial fine of “divorce money” was levied as a deterrent. The status of the wife was not very high, however, and the bill of divorce could take the form of a simple repudiation by the husband in some such expression as, “She is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hos.2.2). In the early Christian period, divorce could be considered only when there was a mixed marriage (between a Christian and a pagan), and even then the Christian was not permitted to remarry while the spouse was alive. It was even thought that the early church was exercising leniency when it first permitted widows to remarry.

    Historic developments

    The fundamental principle of the government of the patriarchal family was the absolute authority of the oldest male ascendant, who was the law giver and the judge, and whose rule over his wives, children and slaves was supreme. This power remained his right throughout the subsequent history of the Jewish people, although in the course of time it was greatly modified and curtailed.

    As far back as the history of domestic relations can be traced, the husband’s right to divorce was absolutely untrammeled. It was only with the gradual breakup of the patriarchal system, and the substitution of an individualistic system for a socialistic state, that the woman acquired, at first merely negative rights, such as protection against her husband’s rights, and finally, positive rights.

    This ancient right of the husband, to divorce his wife at his pleasure, is the central thought in the entire system of Jewish divorce law. It was not until the 11th cent. of the common era that, by the decree of Rabbi Gershom of Mayence, the absolute right of the husband to divorce his wife at will was formally abolished, although it had already been for all practical purposes non-existent in the Talmudic times.

    The Old Testament, written at a time when the domestic law of the patriarchal family was in full vigor, accepted divorce as a matter of fact.

    Divorce is the legal dissolution of the marriage relation while both parties are still alive. The ethical principle of marriage is certainly against such a dissolution; but the ethical principle is not always sufficient for life’s actual circumstances. When, instead of being a source of the highest felicity, marriage becomes the source of the deepest woe and misery, then the sanctity of matrimony makes it advisable that the unhappy union should be dissolved.

    Deterrents to divorce

    Law did not prevent the husband from divorcing his wife under any and all circumstances. In the following cases the wife could not be divorced:

  • Seduction: If the husband accused his newly married wife of antenuptial unchastity, and the charge proved to be slanderous, she could not be divorced.
  • Ravishment: In the case the husband ravished his wife before marriage, she could not be divorced.
  • Insanity: When the wife had become insane or an alcoholic, she could not be divorced.
  • Captivity: While the wife was in captivity she could not be divorced. It was the duty of the husband to ransom her.
  • The minor wife could not be divorced.
  • Religious disqualifications

    Mishnah provided for another exception. If the woman for any reason whatsoever had religious disqualifications which could not be removed, the ravisher had to marry her and to keep her as wife for ever.

    Divorce difficult and expensive

    Another deterrent to divorce exercising some restraint on the husband was the legal necessity for the husband to seek help of one learned in the law who usually tried to bring reconciliation. The husband also was compelled to pay the wife her dowry, and a certain amount of money, of the property brought to him by the bride or her parents at the time of the marriage. Gradually men became accustomed to going to the rabbi when they wished to divorce; and, forgetting their ancient rights, they accepted new guiding principles regulating marital relations.

    Deaf-mute after marriage

    The deafmute if becoming deaf-mute after his marriage could not lawfully divorce his wife.

    Kinds of divorce

    Four kinds of divorce were possible on the basis of the rabbinical law:

  • Divorce by mutual agreement of the parties. In this case the wife was entitled to receive the dowry fixed in the kethubah.
  • Divorce enforced upon the wife on the petition of the husband. The wife as the guilty party forfeited her dowry.
  • Divorce enforced upon the husband on the petition of the wife. The husband was compelled to give her the bill of divorcement and to pay her dowry.
  • Divorce enforced by court without petition of either of the parties.
  • Divorce and the support of the children

    The influences that modified the legal status of the wife (according to the decree issued around 1025 C.E. [a.d.] by Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah of Mayence) and entitled her to demand and receive a divorce from her husband, affected her rights with respect to her children. In Talmudic times she seems to have had stronger rights than her husband to their custody.

    The first regulations concerning the custody of the children of a divorced woman appear to have been made during the early Mishnaic period and were related exclusively to the charge and care of sucklings.

    Rabbinical decisions concerning children beyond nursing age provide evidence that both the male and the female children were given to the mother. However, the custody of the boys could be claimed by the father after their sixth year.

    The Rom. law gave the court the power to award the custody of the children of the divorced couple according to its discretion.

    The Jewish law, under the decision of Rabban Ulla held the father responsible for the support of his son while in the custody of the divorced wife until he had reached the age of six. The father was required by the law in all cases to support his daughter.

    Divorce procedures

    Divorce procedures, at first simple, became complex. By using complex technical forms lawyers and judges sought precision and the avoidance of dispute and litigation. The complicated system of procedure among the Jews acted as a check on the theoretically unrestricted right of the husband to divorce his wife at his pleasure.

    The husband had not only the right to divorce his wife but also to couple the divorce with conditions upon the fulfillment of which its validity depended. The husband could make his own death the condition upon which the divorce became valid. The purpose of this, in all likelihood, was the desire of the husband to give his wife the chance of avoiding a Levirate marriage. With a Bill of Divorce with this condition, at the moment of his death she was not his widow, but a divorced woman; not any longer restricted to marry any of the husband’s brothers but free to marry any man of her own choice.

    Causes favoring the husband

    The husband was entitled to divorce:

  • In the case of the wife’s adultery, and even on strong suspicion of adultery.
  • In the case of the wife’s public violation of moral decency.
  • In the case of the wife’s change of religion or evidence of disregard for the ritual law in the management of the household.
  • In the case of the wife’s obstinate refusal of connubial rights for a full year.
  • In the case of the wife’s refusal to follow him to another domicile.
  • In the case when the wife insulted her father-in-law, in the presence of her husband, or for insulting her own husband.
  • In the case when she suffered certain incurable diseases, rendering cohabitation impractical or dangerous.
  • Causes favoring the wife

    Jewish women could obtain divorce on their own rights, in the following cases:

  • False accusation of antenuptial incontinence. Philo has recorded the fact that the woman was entitled, if she wanted, to be released from the marriage with the man who by his false accusation had become odious to her.
  • Refusal of conjugal rights. The Torah says, “her food, her raiment, her duty of marriage shall he not diminish.” This was obligatory on the husband. Its refusal constituted good ground for divorce.
  • Impotence. If the marriage was childless after ten years of cohabitation and the wife charged the husband with physical impotence, she was entitled to divorce.
  • Vow of abstinence. Under the Mosaic law, the husband had the right to annul the vows of his wife. If after the annulment of her vow, she persisted in her resolution, she was released from the payment of the Kethubah, if he chose to divorce her, since the wife provided the cause for divorce. For the same reason the wife could choose to divorce her husband.
  • Physical blemishes. If the husband was afflicted with any serious disease such as leprosy, or where he was engaged in some malodorous business such as gathering dog’s dung, the wife was entitled to a divorce.
  • Nonsupport. When the husband could no longer give her the absolute necessities of life, he was obligated, on her application, to give her a divorce; and her Kethubah remained a lien on all his subsequently acquired goods, until he had paid it in full.
  • Restricting wife’s lawful freedom. Where the wife by a vow deprived herself of any right or privilege, and the husband did not absolve her, as he might have done, she was entitled to a divorce. When the husband treated his wife tyrannically and sought to deprive her of her lawful freedom, she was entitled to a divorce.
  • Wife beating and desertion will cause the court to compel the husband before desertion to give his wife a bill of divorce.
  • Licentiousness. As long as polygamy and concubinage were legally sanctioned, there was a marked distinction made between the sexual immorality of the husband and that of the wife. Technically, adultery at that time could be committed only by the wife. After a change in the sex mores, with a more rigid acceptance of monogamy, the licentious conduct of the husband was deemed more serious, and his wife was entitled to divorce him on grounds of adultery.
  • Divorce of betrothed wife. Betrothal among the Jews in the old days took place twelve months before marriage. The bride being in all respects bound as a wife she could be freed only by death or divorce, under the same divorce laws as the married woman.
  • Crime. The husband committing a crime compelling him to flee from the country gave the wife the right to petition for divorce.
  • The levirate marriage

    The importance of maintaining and protecting the family name and property led to the institution of levirate marriage, from the Latin levir (“husband’s brother”). Where a man died without issue, it was the responsibility of the closest male relative, usually his brother, to marry the widow. The first baby born of this union would then be regarded as the child of the dead man and would be entitled to his name and the entire rights of his property. Even if the widow already had children, the male relative would still be expected to marry and support her on the theory that women needed to live under a protector all their lives.

    The Mosaic law (Deut 25:5-10) provided for the possibility and necessity, at the death of one brother, to have his childless wife marry one of the surviving brothers. The first son of this union was to be regarded as the son of the dead brother.

    The purpose of the levirate marriage was:

  • To prevent the name of the dead brother from being put out of Israel (Deut 25:6; Ruth 4:15).
  • To restore the name of the dead to his inheritance (Ruth 4:5).
  • To keep the family property intact. The child born of levirate marriage would be the heir of the dead husband; he would also be the heir of his real father. This fits the purpose of preserving and consolidating a family property.
  • The custom went through a process of development before being written in Deuteronomy. At first the levirate law was binding on the entire family of the dead husband (Gen 38). In the code of Deuteronomy the obligation of the levirate law was limited to the brothers only, and moreover, to brothers living together.

    The woman’s brother-in-law could refuse levirate by allowing his reputation to suffer as he was subjected to the ceremony of “Halitzah” (Deut 25:7-10). Modern Judaism has reduced the custom to the ceremony of the “Halitzah.” The obligation was not superseded if the deceased left daughters.

    Leviticus 18:16 forbids marriage with a deceased brother’s wife without any qualification. This represents a clear collision of codes. The famous disputation with the Sadducees clearly implies that the Levitical law was regarded as binding in the time of Jesus (Matt 22:25ff.).

    Before marriage, a woman was a member of her father’s household, and as such she was subject to his authority. At marriage, her husband became her protector, and on his death, through her levirate marriage, she found her new “redeemer.” Like many other Hebrew traditions, the levirate marriage was also known to the Canaanites, Assyrians, and Hittites. The best-known levirate marriage in the Old Testament is that of Ruth the Moabitess, who married Boaz after the next of kin refused to undertake the responsibility (Deut.25.5-Deut.25.10; Ruth.4.1-Ruth.4.12). See also Kinsman. Normally the bride left her family at marriage, and from that time she, and subsequently her children, became part of her husband’s family or clan (Gen.24.58-Gen.24.61) and, as such, part of their responsibility also.

    Succession and inheritance

    The rule of primogeniture was generally accepted in Israel. The rule held good throughout Israel’s history, was confirmed by the Mishnah and Talmud and is valid to this day in Jewish religious law.

    The first-born received the prime choice of the inheritance. He was expected, however, to share it, equally, by lot, with the others. Upon the death of his father, he inherited twice the share of his brothers in the family property (Deut 21:17). At the same time he became the head of the family. While his father was living, the eldest son was second in rank and authority and had special religious, social and economic responsibilities.

    Every first-born was considered sacred to God in Israel. The first-born humans were redeemed and were not sacrificed as were the animals (Exod 13:15). The consecration of all Levites to the service of God was regarded as a suitable substitute for the rest of the people (Num 3:12, 13; 8:16-18).

    The Jewish father, according to Israelite custom, was expected to make a will before his death (2 Sam 17:23; 2 Kings 20:1; Isa 38:1). In so doing, however, the father was legally restrained from trying to deprive his oldest son of his right to a double share in the inheritance.

    Only legitimate sons were entitled to inherit. Children of concubines were not included in the inheritance. A Heb. father could declare the sons of his concubines legitimate during his lifetime. In the case of Abraham, he could have made Ishmael his legal heir. According to the Bible record he received, however, a command from God to comply with the wishes of his wife, Sarah (Gen 21:10-12). The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah born “upon the knees” of their mistresses, ranked with the sons of Rachel and Leah (Gen 49:1-28).

    As a general rule the daughters were not included in the inheritance of their fathers. There were exceptions as in the case when a man had no sons. In such a case, in order to keep the estate within the tribe, the girls were expected to marry men of their father’s tribe and were entitled to their father’s inheritance. Cases in point were the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27:1-11; 36:1-12), and the daughters of Eleazar who were married to their own cousins (1 Chron 23:22). Job’s three daughters inherited equally with their brothers—but Job was not necessarily a Heb.

    When a man died leaving neither sons nor daughters, his relatives were the inheritors and not his wife. A childless widow would be remarried under the levirate law, or else return to her father’s house (Gen 38:11; Lev 22:13; Ruth 1:8). A widow with adult sons would expect them to support her, but if she had small children it was her job to administer her husband’s estate until they grew up and entered into their inheritance.

    The status of women

    A Heb. woman’s status was inferior to that of women in Egypt—who were found to serve as heads of their families, or in Babylon, where a woman could acquire property, be a party to a contract and share in her husband’s inheritance. In Israel a woman could only own her marriage portion of the dowry, and even this was administered by her husband. She was excluded from her husband’s inheritance but had the right to administer her husband’s estate until her sons became of age after their father’s death.

    Even though the Israelite women have not enjoyed greater privileges their status was far higher than that of the Assyrian women who were treated as, or worse than, beasts of burden.

    The birth of children, esp. of boys, usually heightened the status of women. The law commanded that children honor their mother on an equal basis with their father. A wife, if divorced, regained her freedom and enjoyed the right to remarry. A wife could never be sold by her husband.

    The Israelite women even played their part in public affairs. Only a general atmosphere of social respect for them could have produced women of the caliber of Miriam, Deborah, Jael, Huldah and Athaliah.


    A girl was expected to be chaste until marriage. The bride’s parents had the responsibility to preserve the “tokens of virginity” of their daughter, the blood-stained garment or sheet from the nuptial bed. Such proofs were preserved as proper evidence in case the husband accused his wife of unchastity. In the case that he was found to be a liar he was first whipped, then fined twice the amount of a normal dowry (Deut 22:13-19). However, if the accusations were true the wife was stoned (22:20, 21).

    Married women

    The Israelite law has developed detailed and strict regulations governing a woman’s sexual role and life. Her rights were few, her obligations many. The generally accepted sexual double standards placed upon her the burden of the code of sexual morality.

    The role of the wife was always subservient to that of her husband. He was the provider, decision-maker, protector, and master. The wife was the legal mother of his sons and manager of his household. She obeyed his instructions, was his helper, and became his confidante. By Roman times the status of the wife had improved, particularly at the higher levels of society. In those households where menial tasks were performed by slaves, the Roman matron occupied a position of respect and was able to indulge in her own special way of life.

    With a few exceptions, the wife was deprived of the right to divorce her husband. Legally she was regarded as a piece of his property.


    The only certain provision for widows in the law and tradition was the dowry and the marriage settlement she had received under the Kethubah. She could choose to remarry one of her brothers-in-law under the levirate law. She was also free to remain with her husband’s family or to return to the house of her father (Gen 38:11; Ruth 1:8, 9). If she was the daughter of a priest she was free to partake of “priestly portions” as before her marriage (Lev 22:13). The widows with children were in the most pitiable condition and the Bible makes reiterated appeals for charity toward them (Exod 22:21-23; Deut 10:18; Isa 1:17).

    The Code of Hammurabi and the Ugaritic Epic of Danael (Daniel) show that widows did not have legal status and were in great need of protection all over the Near E, in Israel as much as in Assyria and Babylon.


    According to the Jewish law adultery was the most serious violation of a marriage or betrothal contract by the woman. A husband’s infidelity did not constitute adultery among the Jews, just as among the Greeks and the Romans. The misconduct by the wife was considered to be the “great sin” in the OT and various Egyptians and Ugaritic texts. Adultery by either a married woman or a betrothed girl was considered to be not only a crime against the husband, but a moral offense, “an evil act in Israel.” Both the lover and the unfaithful wife were liable to suffer the death penalty (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-27). The wife accused of infidelity had to undergo the ordeal of the “bitter water” (Num 5:12-31) in order to prove her innocence or guilt.

    Status of children


    The role of professional midwives helping at the time of childbirth is clearly indicated (Gen 35:17; Exod 1:16). Two customary ways are mentioned as means by which childbirth was helped, in the ancient times in general, among the people of the Near E, and particularly among the Jews. A text in Exodus 1:16 suggests that “a woman in labor sat on two stones placed at a small distance from each other, to provide the equivalent of the birth-chair mentioned in the Talmud.”

    Children are described also as being born on the knees of another person, probably of a midwife or a relative helping the mother.

    In the cases of multiple births, the rights of the first-born were well guarded and the birth sequence carefully noted (Gen 25:25; 38:27). The newborn was washed with care, rubbed with salt and wrapped in swaddling clothes (Job 38:8, 9; Ezek 16:4). The mother or wet nurse, if the family was wealthy, was responsible for nursing the baby. Usually the baby was weaned at the age of three (2 Macc 7:27). On the day the baby was weaned a feast apparently was arranged (Gen 21:8).

    Naming the child

    The child was named as soon as it was born. Sometimes the mother was expected to name the child (Gen 29:32; 30:24; 35:18; 1 Sam 1:20), sometimes the father (Gen 16:15; 17:19; Exod 2:22).

    In many cases the names chosen included partly the name of God (El, Yahu) such as El-Nathan, “God Gave.” Sometimes such names appeared shorter, for instance Nathan for El-Nathan. Other more popular names were those of living things, such as Deborah (bee), expressing the wish that the child would have the qualities of its namesake. Occasionally the children were given names from the plant world, or an outstanding trait or feature, or event coinciding with his birth. An example of a Biblical name of this type is Ichabod (“Without Honor,” 1 Sam 4:21).

    After the restoration and especially during the New Testament period, Aramaic names became quite common. At about the same time these were found beside or instead of Hebrew names. The practice of modern times of naming a boy at his circumcision occurred only in the New Testament (Luke 1:59; 2:21) and not in the Old Testament.

    Child rearing

    The relation of Hebrew parents and children could be identified with a family of the patriarchal type. The father was responsible for the training of his children, including the religious training. It was expected from him to “command his children and his household after him,” to “keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment” (Gen 18:19 KJV). Every Hebrew male child was circumcised on the eighth day of his life and thus set apart to Jehovah (17:10). In the earlier years the child was under the close care of his mother. After his fifth birthday the boy came more directly under the care of his father, who instructed him in the Torah and in the Talmud. Moreover, every father was expected to teach his son a trade as a means of livelihood.

    At about the time of Christ, Rabbi Joshua ben Gamala instituted schools apart from the homes in every town and village of Palestine. The chief subject matters in the new schools continued to be the Mosaic law and the two portions of the Talmud, the Mishna and the Gemara. Because of the intercourse with Greece, it is likely that the Greek language was also studied.

    The education of girls was not neglected. Above all things their education was designed to fit them for their special sphere of responsibility, the management of the household. They were helped to become better wives and better mothers also through their participation in the family worship and the study of the sacred writings. The Heb. family was, therefore, an institution of significant moral, religious, social and economic value.

    Mixed marriages

    Although not encouraged but rather forbidden, marriages with foreign women did take place among the Israelites both before they had any real appreciation for a sense of national unity and later throughout their history. Esau married two Hittite women (Gen 26:34), Joseph married an Egyptian (41:45), Moses, a Midianite (Exod 2:21); David, an Aramean (2 Sam 3:3), Solomon, a harem with many foreign women (1 Kings 11:1), Ahab, a Phoenician (16:31).

    These were all marriages of kings or prominent men. They began, however, a fashion that spread among their subjects and the commoners. After the settlement in Canaan the need to protect the religion and high national interests brought about an embargo on mixed marriages (Exod 34:15, 16; Deut 7:3, 4). The mixed marriages nevertheless continued; Bathsheba married a Hitt. (2 Sam 11:3), Hiram’s mother married a Phoenician (1 Kings 7:13, 14).

    The more rigid prohibitions date from the days of the monarchy when the national and the religious solidarity were so important for the security of the nation. After the restoration from exile the restrictions ceased to be enforced and many mixed marriages were contracted. During the Hellenistic period the need to preserve the purity of the Jewish community prompted the reinforcement of restrictions relating to mixed marriages. Mixed marriages are much more readily accepted in Judaism today.

    Bibliography and Further Reading

  • W. Smith, Religion of the Semites (1894), 35
  • D. W. Amram, The Jewish Law of Divorce (1896), 24, 26, 120, 121, 130, 150, 163, 168ff.
  • M. Mielziner, The Jewish Law, Marriage and Divorce (1901), 1-131
  • R. H. Lowie, Primitive Society (1920), 4-8
  • E. Westermarck, History of Human Marriage (1922), 41, 75, 93, 216, 217, 307-310
  • E. Westermarck, A Short History of Marriage (1926), 125, 166; G. A. Barton, Semitic and Hamitic Origins (1934), 85, 99, ch. II.
  • E. Westermarck, The Future of Marriage in Western Civilization (1936), ch. II
  • C. Panunzio, Major Social Institutions (1939), 147
  • W. Goodsell, A History of Marriage and the Family (1939), 1-53
  • E. B. Reuter, Handbook of Sociology (1941), 117
  • S. R. Brav, Marriage and the Jewish Tradition (1951), 26-83; D. Kirshenbaum, Mixed Marriage and the Jewish Future (1958), ch. 1
  • B. Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism, 40-66
  • Ed. W. J. Cahuman, Intermarriage and Jewish Life (1963), 9-193; G. Cornfield, Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia (1964), 311-320
  • P. H. Goodman, The Jewish Marriage Anthology (1965), 72-81
  • E. P. Barrows, Sacred Geography and Antiquities (n.d.), chs. 19, 22.
  • D. S. Bailey, The Mystery of Home and Marriage (1952)
  • H. A. Bowman, A Christian Interpretation of Marriage (1959)
  • M. Burrows, “Levirate Marriage in Israel,” JBL 59 (1940); M. Burrows, The Basis of Israelite Marriage (1938)
  • P. H. Goodman, The Jewish Marriage Anthology (1965)
  • L. Köhler, Hebrew Man (1956)
  • W. Lacey, The Family in Classical Greece (1968)
  • B. Malinowski, Sex, Culture and Myth (1963); E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws (1944)
  • A. van Selms, Marriage and Family Life in Ugaritic Literature (1954)
  • D. H. Small, Design for Christian Marriage (1959)
  • W. R. Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1903)
  • E. Westermarck, History of Human Marriage, 1-3 (1922).
  • O.D. Watkins, Holy Matrimony: A Treatise on the Divine Laws of Marriage (1895)
  • G.H. Joyce, Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study (1948)
  • R.H. Bainton, What Christianity Says about Sex, Love and Marriage (1957); W.M. Capper and H.M. Williams, Towards Christian Marriage (4th ed., 1958)
  • D.S. Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (1959); H.A. Bowman, A Christian Interpretation of Marriage (1959)
  • P.G. Hansen et al., Engagement and Marriage: A Sociological, Historical and Theological Investigation (1959)
  • O.A. Piper, The Biblical View of Sex and Marriage (1960)
  • H. Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex (1964).