Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

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

CHAPTER THREE
THE POSITION OF WOMEN: WIDOWS

IT has already been said that the wife called her husband ba'al or 'master'; she also called him 'adôn or 'lord' ( Gn 18: 12; Jg 19: 26; Am 4: 1); she addressed him, in fact, as a slave addressed his master, or a subject his king. The Decalogue includes a man's wife among his possessions, along with his house and land, his male and female slaves, his ox and his ass ( Ex 20: 17; Dt 5: 21). Her husband can repudiate her, but she cannot claim a divorce; all her life she remains a minor. The wife does not inherit from her husband, nor daughters from their father, except when there is no male heir ( Nb 27: 8). A vow made by a girl or married woman needs, to be valid, the consent of father or husband and if this consent is withheld, the vow is null and void ( Nb 30: 4-17).

For all this, the wife of an Israelite was by no means on the level of a slave. A man could sell his slaves, or even his daughter ( Ex 21: 7), but he could never sell his wife, even though he had acquired her as a captive in war ( Dt 21: 14). The husband could divorce his wife, but she was protected by the letter of repudiation, which restored her freedom. Most probably, the married woman kept, if not the use, at least the ownership, of part of the mohar and of whatever she received from her parents (cf. Jos 15: 19; Jg 1: 15).

All the hard work at home certainly fell to her; she looked after the flocks, worked in the fields, cooked the food, did the spinning, and so on. All this apparent drudgery, however, far from lowering her status, earned her consideration. Sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, a woman could even take part in public affairs. Israel honoured Deborah and Jael as heroines ( Jg 4-5), Athaliah reigned over Judah for several years ( 2 K 11); Huldah the prophetess was consulted by the king's ministers ( 2 K 22: 14f.); and the books of Judith and Esther tell how the nation was saved by a woman.

Within the family, respect for a wife increased on the birth of her first child, especially if the child were a boy ( Gn 16: 4 and Gn 29: 31--30: 24; note the explanation of the names which Leah and Rachel gave to their children). Her husband became more attached to her, and her children owed her obedience and respect. The law condemned the faults of children against their mother as much as offences against their father ( Ex 21: 17; Lv 20: 9; Dt 21: 18-21; 27: 16), and the Decalogue ( Ex 20: 12) commanded equal

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