The Apostle Paul urged wives to obey their husbands and husbands to love their wives.  This simple exhortation neatly sums up the traditional idea of the family throughout Jewish history as pictured in the Bible.  The man was the head of the house and the woman was the helpmate, but they were to work together for the benefit of each: the outcome was to be a partnership.

As in most of the Ancient World marriage was the ideal state.  Parents arranged the marriage with a view to finding a suitable match from the same tribe and the same or a neighboring village.  There were rules that prohibited a man from marrying his sister, mother, daughter or anyone else that would mean that his wife would be tied to him in more than one way.  Marriage between cousins, however, was acceptable.  Polygamy was acceptable though not very common beyond the wealthy, who could afford the extra expense, in the earliest days.

The bride's family was giving a daughter to the groom's family; it seemed reasonable that the groom's family should give an appropriate gift in return so that both families could be seen as giving and receiving something of value.  While the woman moved to her husband's home she still retained a kinship relationship with her birth family.

The husband was obligated to support his wife, but she could keep her own property.  It was assumed, however, that a married couple was an economic partnership, and if the man was bankrupt and unable to pay his debts she would be sold into slavery along with him.

A wife's first duty, and greatest joy, was to give birth, preferably to a son to continue her husband's name and lineage.  So important was it for a man to have a son that the most common reason for divorce---easy to obtain for a man---was childlessness.  In well-to-do families it was common for the wife to have a personal slave.  It the wife could not conceive she could give the slave to her husband.  Any child that resulted would give the wife as much status as actually giving birth herself.

If a married man died without a son, the man's brother (or closest male relative) was expected to marry the widow.  In this way she would have a husband to support her and could still produce a son closely enough related to her dead husband to continue his name.  This was quite feasible since polygyny was acceptable.  The Biblical story of Ruth gives us a picture of how this worked.





Women and the Law in Ancient Israel

Ruth, Naomi and the Levirate Marriage

Daily Life in Ancient Israel