Patriarchal Constitution of the Family ( 1).
Marriage Effected by Purchase ( 2).
The Wife's Property Rights ( 3).
Polygamy the Rule ( 4).
Tendency toward Monogamy ( 5).
Ethical and Social Limitations and Preferences ( 6).
Divorce ( 7).
Legal Status of Woman ( 8).
Social Position of Woman ( 9).
Wedding Customs ( 10).
Legal Position of the Widow ( 11).
The Levirate ( 12).
Desire for Children ( 13).
Customs at Birth ( 14).
Legal Status and Training of Children ( 15).
Position of the First-born ( 16).


1. Patriarchal Constitution of the Family. In historical times the Israelite family was patriarchal, i.e., kinship, tribal affinity, and inheritance were determined by descent from the father; though there was a time when matriarchy existed among the Semites, these relations then being determined by the mother. And it must be admitted that among the Hebrews traces are found of former matriarchal conditions, e.g., the position occupied by such women as Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, Keturah, and Hagar. Expressions found in Gen. xlii. 38, xliii. 29, xliv. 20 (cf. Judges ix. 2) show how long the feeling persisted that relationship was determined by the mother. Descent from the same mother but not from the father formed a barrier to marriage. This is shown by marriage with half-sister, stepmother, and daughter-in-law, a practise which continued till the exile (Ezek. xxii. 10-11). Characteristics of the matriarchy were: derivation of name from the mother (Gen. xxx. 3), inheritance through her (Gen. xxi. 10), marriage of the girl through the brother's initiative (not the father's; Gen. xxiv.; only in verse 50 is Bethuel's name added), and marriage of the man into the family of the wife (Gen. xxiv. 5; Judges xiv., xv. 2).

2. Marriage Effected by Purchase. Marriage was effected by purchase. The legal relation was founded upon an engagement accomplished by the payment of purchase-money. The engaged girl became the property of the man, and in case of rape or infidelity was treated as a married woman. Written marriage-contracts, which were customary among the ancient Babylonians (Code of Hammurabi, 128), are not mentioned until a late period (Tobit vii. 14). The father received the purchase-money; but in course of time this custom changed and a part of the money went to the bride. On an average the price was about fifty shekels (Deut. xxii. 29; cf. Ex. xxii. 16-17; Code of Hammurabi, 139). This obligation could also be met in other ways: Jacob served as a hired hand (Gen. xxix. 15 sqq.), others accomplished feats of war (Josh. xv. 16; I Sam. xvii. 25, xviii. 20 sqq.). While not explicitly stated in the Old Testament, it is implied that the unjustifiable withdrawal of the bridegroom caused him to lose the purchase-price. If the father-in-law withdrew, he had to repay the money twofold (Code of Hammurabi, 159, 160).

3. The Wife's Property Rights. All that the wife brought with her were the presents, if any, received from the groom (Gen. xxiv. 53, xxxiv. 12; cf. Code of Hammurabi, 159), and those from her family (Josh. xv. 16 sqq.), including particularly slaves for her personal service (Gen. xvi. 2, xxiv. 59, xxix. 24 sqq.). There is no mention of a dowry, properly speaking, until after the exile (Tobit viii. 21; Ecclus. xxv. 22; I Kings ix. 16 proves only the Egyptian custom). Daughters could not inherit paternal property; but whatever they brought into matrimony with them remained theirs. The husband had no authority over the personal slaves of the wife (Gen. xvi. 6, xxx. 3 sqq.). In the absence of any express statement to the contrary, it must be assumed that in case of separation or death of the husband, the wife received back her original property (cf. Code of Hammurabi, 137, 138, 171, 172).

The consent of the girl was not necessary to the engagement, though it is probable that she was usually consulted (Gen. xxiv. 58). The negotiations were conducted by the girl's father or guardian (Gen. xxiv. 50, xxix. 23, xxxiv. 12); for the unmarried daughter belonged to her father, who had the right to sell her (Ex. xxi. 7). The seduction of a girl was a trespass against the father, who could demand of the offender the usual price of a wife without being required to give the girl in marriage to the seducer (Ex. xxii. 16-17).

4. Polygamy the Rule. In contrast to the custom in ancient Babylon, polygamy was the rule in Israel. In Babylon (Code of Hammurabi) a man could marry only one principal wife, but he was allowed to keep another woman in addition, unless his wife gave him one of her slaves as a concubine. In Israel the only limit to the number of wives was ability to support them. Wealthy men made extensive use of their rights (cf. II Sam. v. 13; I Kings xi. 1 sqq.); still the law of the kingdom, referring covertly to Solomon, forbade the King to take many wives (Dent. xvii. 17). The Talmudists allow to the king not more than eighteen wives at one time, to a man of the people not more than four. Presumably the commoner in Israel, like the modern peasant in Palestine, was content with one or two wives. If the first wife remained barren, the husband was entitled to either another wife or a concubine, in which case the wife might voluntarily give him her handmaid (Gen. xvi. 1 sqq., xxx. 3 sqq.; cf. Code of Hammurabi, 144).

5. Tendency toward Monogamy. But even this limited polygamy caused much inconvenience, particularly in the status of the childless wife (Gen. xvi. 4 sqq.; cf. xxx.; I Sam. i. 1 sqq.). The later law took the part of the discarded wife (Deut. xxi. 15 sqq.); and the former custom of marrying two sisters at the same time was prohibited (Lev. xviii. 18). The development was toward monogamy; and Gen. ii. 18 sqq., as well as passages in the Prophets, where the relation of God to his people is characterized as one of marriage, shows that monogamy was regarded as the normal state. The praise of the virtuous wife in the Proverbs and elsewhere proves that the later period saw in monogamy the ideal marriage (Ps. cxxviii.; Prov. xii. 4, xviii. 22, xix. 14, xxxi. 10 sqq.; Ecclus. xxv. 1 sqq., etc.).

6. Ethical and Social Limitations and Preferences. Impediments to marriage were unknown to ancient custom, except that marriage between father and daughter or mother and son was always looked upon as an abomination. Theoretically the young man might choose a wife wherever he pleased; practically, he was limited. Since it was a question of admitting a woman into the family, marriage became a family affair. The father chose the bride for his son (Gen. xxiv. 2 sqq., xxviii. 1 sqq., xxxviii. 6), and it was unseemly for the son to marry against the will of his parents (Gen. xxvi. 34-35, xxvii. 46). Yet the preferences of the young people were taken into account; and, since there were no particular restraints on the social intercourse of the sexes, there was ample opportunity for the development of such attachments (Gen. xxiv. 58; Ex. ii. 16; I Sam. ix. 11, etc.). Yet by custom, marriages outside of the tribe were interdicted, while marriages with relations were preferred (Gen. xxix. 19; Num. xxvi. 59, and often in patriarchal history). Particularly the cousin on the father's side was chosen as a girl's wooer (cf. the cases of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel), a custom that still exists. To be sure, settlement in Canaan brought changes, and marriages with Canaanites and other foreigners were not infrequent (Judges iii. 6; II Sam. iii. 3; I Kings xi. 1, etc.). In the regal period friendship for the Canaanites turned to hatred, and marriages with heathen peoples, except the Egyptians and the Edomites, were prohibited (Deut. vii. 1 sqq., xxiii. 4 sqq.; cf. Ex. xxxiv. 16). Still, the law was not carried out, and no lasting change was effected till the time of Ezra (Ezra ix. and x.). The law sought also to limit marriages with relations and forbade marriage with stepmother, with sister or half-sister, and with mother-in-law (Deut. xxvii. 20, 22). But even this did not break the popular custom (Ezek. xxii. 10-11). Finally, the priest-code forbade marriage with mother or stepmother, niece or aunt, with the wife of an uncle on the father's side, with mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, or with the wife of a brother (Lev. xviii. 6 sqq.; cf. xx. 11 sqq.). The prohibition of marriage with a daughter is probably omitted through error in the text. Thus, union between uncle and niece, between nephew and widow of the mother's brother, and between the children of brothers and sisters was permitted. On the whole, these regulations correspond to pre-Islamitic Arabian custom, which Mohammed enacted into law.

7. Divorce. The husband could divorce his wife at will, since she was his property (so in Code of Hammurabi); but he forfeited the purchase-price and the wife's property. In the Code of Hammurabi, if the wife is not to blame, the husband must compensate her. This tended to limit divorce. On the other hand, the wife and her family suffered no injustice thereby; at least no moral blemish attached to the wife. The law in Deuteronomy evidently attempts to limit divorce. It demands a written bill of divorce (xxiv. 1 sqq.), deprives the husband of the right to divorce a wife at all in two cases (xxii. 19, 28), and decrees that a divorced woman who has married again can not return to her first husband when she is free a second time (xxiv. 1 sqq.), in contrast to the earlier custom, which corresponded to the Arab usage (Hosea iii. 3; cf. II Sam. iii. 14). Finally, this law requires that there must be cause for divorce. Hillel's school interpreted this to mean that any cause was sufficient for a divorce, particularly any unseemly behavior. The more austere school of Shammai found that immoral conduct was meant. Unfortunately the true meaning of the law can not be learned from the Old Testament, and by way of comparison one may well consult the Code of Hammurabi ( 141-143), where an unwifely attitude, extravagance, etc. are made grounds for divorce (cf. Ecclus. xxv. 18 sqq., xlii. 9). In Deuteronomy the tendency is toward a higher position for the wife; and Malachi (ii. 13-14) condemns divorces unconditionally. Unlike the women of ancient Babylon (Code of Hammurabi, 142) the Hebrew woman had no legal right to leave her husband and no means of freeing herself.

8. Legal Status of Woman. The legal status of the Hebrew wife was lower than that of the wife in ancient Babylon, where, as regards property at least, she enjoyed a degree of independence (see HAMMMURABI AND HIS CODE). In ancient Israel the wife was simply a possession; but it must be added that her position had compensations. In bearing sons she gave to the tribe its most valuable possession; and the rights of the husband over her did not extend to her person. She was not a slave that he might sell, as he could his daughter; nor could he sell her handmaid that had become his concubine.

9. Social Position of Woman. While her lot may have been a rather unhappy one, since a considerable part of the hardest work was imposed upon her, yet the Hebrew woman was by no means intellectually and morally in the position of the Mohammedan townswoman of the present. She had much more freedom, and there is no indication that she was secluded. The wife had her private rooms, which no strange man was allowed to enter (Judges xv. 1, xvi. 9; II Sam. xiii. 7; I Kings vii. 8); but she was by no means forbidden to associate with men and might even take part at banquets (Ex. xxi. 22; Deut. xxv. 11; Ruth ii. 5 sqq.; II Sam. xx. 16; Matt. ix. 20, xii. 46, xxvi. 7). Women enlivened the popular feasts with song and dance (Ex. xv. 20-21; Judges xvi. 27, xxi. 19 sqq.; I Sam. xviii. 6). As already mentioned, the position of the wife was gradually improved in the course of time; and in the account of creation J makes her the helpmate and equal of man. Still, the jealousy of the husband continued to deprive her of property-rights. Death by stoning was the penalty for adultery by the wife (Deut. xxii. 22 sqq.; cf. Exek. xvi. 40, and John viii. 5, 7). The suspecting husband could force his wife to submit to the ordeal of the bitter water (Num. v. 11 sqq.). The law imposing a penalty for false accusation of a wife (Deut. xxii. 13 sqq.) never became effective. However, this austerity did not prevent the prophets from complaining again and again about adultery (Jer. xxiii. 10, Hos. iv. 2; Mal. iii. 5, etc.).

10. Wedding Customs. Very little is known of wedding festivities among the Hebrews. The principal feature was the bringing of the bride into the home of the bridegroom. This ceremony signified the entrance of the girl into the family of the husband. On the day of the wedding the bridegroom, in wedding-ornaments (Isa. lxi. 10) and accompanied by friends (Judges xiv. 11-12; cf. Matt. ix.15), went to the home of the bride and conducted her to the home of the groom, or to that of his parents (Jer. vii. 34; Cant. iii. 6 sqq.; Matt. xxv. 1 sqq.). The bride was likewise ornamented but veiled (Isa. xlix. 18; Jer. ii. 32, etc.) and was accompanied by her girl friends (Ps. xlv. 14). Only seldom was the bride conducted to meet the bridegroom (I Macc. ix. 37-38). The wedding-banquet took place at the home of the groom; and in families of wealth and distinction this extended over a week or two (Gen. xxix. 27; Judges xiv. 12, 17; Tobit viii. 20).

11. Legal Position of the Widow. The lot of the widow was a sad one. She had no hereditary rights whatever in her husband's property (similarly the Code of Hammurabi, 172), but, in the earliest period, was a part of the estate. Even during his father's lifetime Reuben wanted to enter upon his inheritance (Gen. xxxv. 22), Absalom showed himself his father's successor by seizing David's harem (II Sam. xvi. 20 sqq.), Abner's intercourse with Saul's concubine was a trespass on the rights of Ish-bosheth (II Sam. iii. 7), and in Abishag Adonijah demanded a part of Solomon's inheritance (I Kings ii. 22; cf. 15). In spite of the law to the contrary, marriages with the stepmother were not unusual even to the time of Ezekiel (xxii. 10; cf. I Chron. ii. 24 in the Septuagint). The story of Ruth shows that, even if there were no children, the heir had to accept the widow along with the real estate, though not obliged to marry her. He might give her in marriage to another; or, if he chose, he might renounce the entire inheritance in favor of another heir (Ruth iv, 5 sqq.). The story of Tamar illustrates the right of the heirs to the childless widow. Judah refused to marry her, but he retained his right over her and regarded her intercourse with other men as adultery (Gen. xxxviii. 24 sqq.). At the same time, the story shows that the right of the widow to marry again was recognized. Yet these old customs fell more and more into disuse. Deuteronomy (xxv. 7 sqq.) even allows the brother of the deceased to decline to marry his childless sister-in-law, a thing that was formerly a duty. Otherwise, this law is outspoken in the interest of the widow, assigning her legal rights (Dent. x. 18, xxiv. 17, xxvii. 19), and recommending her, together with the Levites and the poor, to the benevolent care of the people (Deut. xiv. 29, xvi. 11 sqq., xxiv. 19 sqq.). Not till a much later period were certain rights in the property of the deceased conceded to the widow, concerning which the rabbis promulgated detailed rules. The law determines nothing concerning a second marriage, except as to marriage with the brother-in-law.

12. The Levirate. Intimately related to the hereditary right just discussed was the institution of the levirate. In the earliest period the right to inherit the widow had already become a duty to marry her if the deceased had left no sons. If there was no brother-in-law to marry her, this became the duty of the father-in-law or of the agnate who inherited, whoever he might be; and the first son of this marriage was regarded as the son of the deceased. Since levirate marriage is found chiefly among peoples who hold to ancestor-worship (Indians, Persians, Afghans, etc.), it is probable that herein lies the explanation of this institution in Israel. It is significant that the law in regard to such a marriage was made in favor of the deceased, not of the widow, the purpose being to provide him with descendants (Gen. xxxviii. 8; cf. II Sam. xviii. 18). After this form of belief had lost its significance the levirate marriage continued, having acquired new importance after the settlement in Canaan, in view of succession to property. At this time the custom served to secure the family property. Since the first son of a levirate marriage was reckoned to the deceased, this son inherited from his putative not from his real father. Thus was accomplished what the law had often attempted: the disintegration of property and its acquirement by strangers was prevented, and the family to which it belonged was perpetuated. Deuteronomy had limited this matrimonial duty of the brother of the deceased, allowing him to decline to marry the widow, but such a course brought him into disrepute. The ancient ceremony of the shoe is given an entirely different meaning in Deuteronomy: after having been publicly rejected by her brother-in-law the widow was to go with him to the proper authorities, tear his shoe from his foot and spit in his face (Deut. xxv. 5 sqq.). Later, in default of sons, daughters were given the right to inherit, that in this way the family estate might be preserved (Num. xxvii. 4); and then the levirate became limited to cases where the deceased had left no children at all. The priest-code tried to prohibit the custom entirely, as being incestuous (Lev. xviii. 16, xx. 21); but the ancient custom proved more potent than written law (Matt. xxii. 24 sqq.).

13. Desire for Children. It was the heart's desire of the ancient Israelite to have numerous children. For a woman to be sterile was considered a great misfortune, even a punishment from God (I Sam. i. 5 sqq.); for as the mother of a son the wife held a position of distinction in the family (I Sam. i. 6-7; cf. Gen. xvi. 4, xxx. 1 sqq.). For the man to have no sons was even worse, since this threatened the extinction of his house. It is noteworthy that the custom of adopting a strange child, prevalent in ancient Babylon (Code of Hammurabi, 185 sqq.) is not found in ancient Israel. Rather the slave was allowed to inherit (Gen. xv. 3). Sons were especially desired because they alone perpetuated the family and the family worship, since the daughters married into other families; and only the sons belonged to the kahal, "congregation," or body of men able to bear arms. Their precedence is shown especially by the fact that they alone could inherit (see LAW, HEBREW, CIVIL AND CRIMINAL), in contrast to the custom in ancient Babylon (cf. Code of Hammurabi, 180 sqq.). However, these views were not peculiar to the Israelites, being found also among the Arabs. The fact that a girl could be sold into matrimony and was therefore not without value, formed a sort of counterpoise to the disdain in which she was usually held. At all events, no trace is found in the Old Testament of the thorough contempt for the girl prevalent among other peoples; and, so far as can be seen now, the custom of killing female infants, a frequent occurrence among Arabs, was never practised by the Hebrews.

The distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy in their present significance did not exist. In so far as the father was known, all children were legitimate, whether borne by concubines or lawful wives (Gen. xxi. 10). Even Jephthah, the son of a prostitute and, in the strictest sense, illegitimate, was reared with the father's legitimate children; and if later these thrust him out it was only a case of might (Judges xi. 1 sqq.). The hereditary rights of such a son may not have been the same as that of the sons by lawful wives. There seems to have been no rigid custom regarding this, much depending upon the good-will of the father.

14. Customs at Birth. The Israelitish women had the reputation of bearing children with great ease (Ex. i. 15 sqq.); though even in the earliest period they employed midwives (Gen. xxxv. 17; Ex. i. 15 sqq.). At the time of Jer. xx. 15 the father was not present at the accouchement. Job iii. 12 has been interpreted as expressing a symbolic act whereby the father acknowledged the child, similar to the custom of the Roman father of lifting the child from the floor as a token that it was to live. If this be correct, the passage is the only reminiscence of a former custom of child-murder. After the navel had been cut, the newly born babe was bathed in water, then rubbed with salt and wrapped in swaddling clothes (Ezek. xvi. 4). The peasants of to-day think that salt strengthens the child; originally it probably had religious significance. The mother nursed the children herself (Gen. xxi. 7; I Sam. i. 22; I Kings iii. 21), and only exceptionally did she resort to nurses (Gen. xxiv. 59, xxxv. 8). This custom seems to have become more common later with the wealthy (II Sam. iv. 4; II Kings xi. 2; cf. Ex. ii. 9). Nursing continued two or three years as in modern Palestine (cf. II Mace. vii. 27; according to the rabbis two years). Weaning was the occasion of a family celebration (Gen. xxi. 8; I Sam. i. 24). The birth of a child rendered the mother unclean (see DEFILEMENT AND PURIFICATION, CEREMONIAL). This notion, still common to uncivilized peoples, was generally held by ancient peoples. The foundation of this belief was either the view that child-birth was a disease and like other diseases, under the influence of certain demons; or else, that it was protected by some spirit, together with other processes of sexual life.

For circumcision and naming see CIRCUMCISION; NAMES.

15. Legal Status and Training of Children. The father had almost unlimited power over his children. He could sell his daughter as a bride, or even as a slave, but not to foreigners (Ex. xxi. 7 sqq.). To assault or even curse the father was an offense deemed worthy of the death-penalty (Ex. xxi. 15, 17; for the later period cf. Lev. xx. 9; Prov. xx. 20; Matt. xv. 4). There is no mention of an age-limit to the father's authority, though in practise this was attained when the son married and founded a home. During the early years the education of the children was an affair of the mother (Prov. xxxi. 1). Boys and girls were left together in the harem where the girls remained till marriage. When the boys began to grow up they came under the care of the father, or, if the family was well-to-do, they might be entrusted to special tutors (Num. xi. 12; II Kings x. 1 sqq.; I Chron. xxvii. 32; Isa. xlix. 23). Special weight was laid upon early religious training (Ex. xiii. 8; Deut. iv. 9 sqq.); otherwise the main thing was to impart practical knowledge of some industry. The wealthier class also learned reading and writing, an art that was probably fairly well known at the time of Isaiah, and even earlier (Isa. viii. 1, x. 19; cf. Judges viii. 14). In the Old Testament there is no mention of a school. Not till a much later period were schools established, and then only in the larger cities (Josephus, Ant. XV., x. 5). After the exile particular stress was laid on the study of the law; and Deuteronomy contains numerous admonitions to instruct the children in the statutes and sacred history. Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus contain a sort of pedagogy. Stress was laid on education rather than instruction; and all knowledge was summed up in fear of God and obedience to parents (Prov. i. 7, and often). Strict discipline was to be maintained, nor was the rod to be spared (Prov. x. 17, xiii. 14, xxiii. 13, xxix. 17). These precepts applied to sons only.

16. Position of the First-born. The first-born son occupied a position of distinction among the remaining children; and as heir he received a double portion. The father might deprive him of his prerogatives and put the favorite younger son in his place (Gen. xxi. 1 sqq., xlix. 3 sqq.; I Kings i. 11 sqq.); but custom did not approve of this, and later it was prohibited (Deut. xxi. 15 sqq.). In return it was the eldest son's duty to take care of the female members of the family, since he became the head of the family at his father's death. Unfortunately it is not known whether landed property was partitioned or whether it all went to the eldest son, who then settled in some way with his brothers. This custom rested upon a religious foundation. The first-born was thought to take a certain precedence in holiness, since in him the common blood of the tribe flowed in its purest state (Gen. xlix. 3; Deut. xxi. 17). This superiority was deduced from the particular claim of Yahweh to all the first-born (Ex. xxii. 29). The supposed sacred character of the first-born accounts for his consecration to the service of Yahweh (I Sam. i. 11, vii. 1). But usually the first-born was redeemed (Ex. xiii. 13, xxxiv. 20); for the worshipers of Yahweh had always opposed the sacrifice of children, a custom common among their Semitic neighbors (Gen. xxii.), The idea of dedicating the first-born to Yahweh was first introduced into the law in the Priest-code, according to which all first-born belonged to Yahweh. Since, however, the first-born in Israel could not always maintain the purity necessary for the service of the sanctuary, the Levites (q.v.) took their place (Num. iii. 39 sqq., viii. 16 sqq.).