Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHARTER TWO
MARRIAGE

1. Polygamy and monogamy

THE story of the creation of the first two human beings ( Gn 2: 21-24) presents monogamous marriage as the will of God. The patriarchs of Seth's line (e.g. Noah in Gn 7: 7) are said to be monogamous, and polygamy first appears in the reprobate line of Cain, when Lamek takes two wives ( Gn 4: 19). Such was the traditional story of the origins of man.

In the patriarchal age, Abraham had at first only one wife, Sarah, and it was because she was barren that he took her handmaid Hagar, at Sarah's own suggestion ( Gn 16: 1-2). Abraham also married Qeturah ( "Gn" 25: 1), but since this is related after the death of Sarah ( Gn 23: 1-2), Qeturah could have been his lawful, wedded wife. (Against this view, however, Gn 25: 6, which speaks of Abraham's concubines in the plural, seems to refer to Hagar and Qeturah.) Similarly, Nahor, who had children by his wife Milkah, also had a concubine, Reumah ( Gn 22: 20-24); and Eliphaz, son of Esau, had both a wife and a concubine ( Gn 36: 11-12).

In all this the patriarchs are following the customs of the time. According to the Code of Hammurabi (about 1700 B.C.), the husband may not take a second wife unless the first is barren, and he loses this right if the wife herself gives him a slave as concubine. The husband can, however, himself take a concubine, even if his wife has borne him children; but the concubine never has the same rights as the wife, and he may not take another concubine unless the first is barren. In the region of Kirkuk, in the fifteenth century B.C., the same customs obtained, but it seems that there the barren wife was under an obligation to provide a concubine for her husband.

In all these instances there is relative monogamy, for there is never more than one lawful, wedded wife. But other examples show that these restrictions were not always observed. Jacob married the two sisters Leah and Rachel, each of whom gave him her maid ( Gn 29: 15-30; 30: 1-9), and Esau had three wives who were of equal rank ( Gn 26: 34; 28: 9; 36: 1-5). It would seem that the patriarchs followed a less stringent code of conduct than that which prevailed in Mesopotamia at the same time, but the latter too was soon relaxed. At the end of the second millennium B.C., the Assyrian Code of Law assigns an intermediary place, between the wife and the concubine who is a

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