Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs

by Jim West, ThD

       Though there are some cultures in the Ancient Near East which were matriarchal in structure, Israel's was not one of them. Israel's family life was dominated by the husband (Pedersen, p. 61). When a marriage occurred the husband took his wife from her home and "ruled" over her, following the pattern of Genesis 3:16: To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Preuss, p. 103). Yet the Israelites "never went so far as the Muhammadan poet who says that mothers of mankind are only 'vessels' which receive the children without leaving any impress on them" (Pedersen, p. 61).
       Because the husband was the dominant member of the family, he was given the title of lib (Ba'al) which meant "lord", "master of the house", "leader of the family circle" and not "master" (which would have been ]da "Adon") Compare 2 Kings 5:13, Judges 18:19, and 2 Kings 2:12.
       The fact that some men remained single was an anomaly in ancient Israel, as we learn from Jeremiah 16. After all, it "is not good for the man to be alone", and a good wife is a gift from Yahweh (Pro. 18:22; Preuss, p. 104). We have, so far as I know, no reports of women who are commanded to remain single in Ancient Israel. Marriage was the norm.
       The wife was to be taken from within the larger family circle (usually at the outset of puberty or around the age of 13) in order to maintain the purity of the family line; but she could not be too closely related as is shown by Leviticus 18.

       You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.
       None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord.
       You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife; it is the nakedness of your father. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born abroad.
       You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son's daughter or of your daughter's daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's sister; she is your father's flesh. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother's sister, for she is your mother's flesh. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter- in-law: she is your son's wife; you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, and you shall not take her son's daughter or her daughter's daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are your flesh; it is depravity.
       And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.
       You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness.
       You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman's wife, and defile yourself with her.
       You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
       You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
       You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.
       Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.
       So keep my charge not to commit any of these abominations that were done before you, and not to defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God.

       This text clearly shows that certain relationships are out of bounds; because the practices described here were practiced by the Canaanites. And since they worshipped foreign gods the Israelites were not to imitate them in any respect. Not even their marriage practices.
       Thus, in Israel the practice was to marry within the tribe -- and if that was not possible, then within the larger tribal confederation (Num 36:10ff). That marriages were often arranged is well known. Yet these arrangements were not devoid of love (Gen 21:21, Judg 14:3, I Sam 18:17).
       The marriage was official when the betrothal took place. "There was no religious rite that was performed with the concluding of the marriage, although there was a feast at the conclusion of the festivities (Gen 29:27, Judg 14:10)"(Preuss, p. 104). A betrothed woman was, in the eyes of the people, legally married. When the marriage itself was consumated the husband received the wife and the family of the wife received a "dowry" (Pedersen, p. 68). This payment was made because, as the wife's family had given their flesh and blood the husband's family was bound to gives order to maintain balance between the families. The payment of the rhm (mohar, or "dowry") was simply compensation for the loss of the daughter's labor and should not be considered as a wedding gift (Preuss, p. 104).
       Within the family circle the husband was the "lord" while the wife was expected to "help" him by providing the family with children (Pedersen, p. 69). The will of the husband was binding on the whole family. If the wife wished to express her wishes in contradistinction to the husband, she had to do so slyly (as illustrated in the stories of Rebeccah (with Isaac) and Abigail (with Nabal).

For further reading:

Hanson, K.C. "The Herodians and Mediterranean Kinship. Part 2: Marriage and Divorce." Biblical Theology Bulletin 19 (1989):142-51.

Hanson, K.C. "BTB Reader's Guide to Kinship." Biblical Theology Bulletin 24 (1994):183-94.

Pedersen, Johannes. Israel: Its life and Culture, Vol. 1, p. 60ff.

Preuss, H.D. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 2, p.103f.