Deuteronomy Week 2 Reading Guide

Family and Inheritance Law

Passages on Marriage and Divorce

LH 137–140 and 148–149; Deuteronomy 22–25; Malachi 2:13–16; Matthew 19:1–12

A member of a group or class of Old Babylonian temple dedicatees, with special inheritance privileges and economic freedoms; some groups lived in cloisters or compounds, others married but were not permitted to bear children. (from Roth’s glossary)
A member of a group or class of temple dedicatees, with special privileges, but always inferior to a nadītu. (from Roth’s glossary)
Money or movable property brought by the bride from her family into the marriage that generally stays with her no matter what
Money or movable property given by the groom or his family to the father of the bride

This selection of laws in Hammurabi provide special-case protections for women of the temple-class, barren women, and women afflicted with illness. The default scenario is that the husband restores the dowry and the woman is free to remarry or be supported by her sons.

The selection from Deuteronomy contains several laws related to marriage, including the expectation of a bride’s virginity (22:13–21), non-marital sex with and without consent (22:22–29, more on 22:28–29 next week), various prohibitions of incest and intermarriage, remarriage of divorced couples (24:1–4), and levirate marriage (25:5–10). First, one may observe that the laws are interspersed with other laws that we could categorize differently. This could be explained as an accident of composition by committee or a deliberate attempt to present a holistic manner of living. The important fact about the prohibition of remarriage of a divorced couple is that this is the only legal passage that explicitly mentions divorce. This law assumes the bill of divorce but does not describe the details of divorce procedures. Modern scholars can look to other ancient near eastern laws to reconstruct what went without saying in Deuteronomy. Premodern interpreters mostly rely on this passage to legislate the prerequisites of divorce, whether women can initiate divorce, etc.

The Malachi passage is poetry and very difficult to translate. The logic seems to be that spouses are joined in life-breath such that hatred of a wife is hatred of oneself, violence against one’s wife is violence against oneself, and rejecting the (potential) mother of your children is like killing your children. The common translation “I hate divorce says the LORD” is appropriately powerful but not quite accurate because the hater is the one who divorces. A more literal translation would be:

One who hated and sent away [i.e., divorced his wife]
Says the LORD, God of Israel
Is [seen by God as] one who covered himself with violence splattered all over his garments
Says the LORD of armies
Take responsibility for your own life-breath, and don’t commit treason

Recall the context is people coming before the altar to seek favor. The priestly code requires that priests not come before God with blood-spattered garments, which is somewhat challenging given the quantity of blood involved in animal sacrifice. However, coming before God covered in human blood resulting from treason would be significantly worse. If this sounds a bit dramatic recall that a woman’s legal protection depended on her father or husband. Returning to her father or finding a new husband was the best case scenario, but the worst case scenario for an unprotected woman could indeed have been violent. It seems to me that the basic message is that people should take responsibility for doing what they can to prevent exploitation and violence against women. “God hates divorce” misses the mark if it stigmatizes people for whom divorce is the less hateful, violent, or exploitive situation.

For purposes of this course we are interested in Jesus and Matthew as premodern interpreters of Israelite law. Jesus and the Pharisees are interpreting Deuteronomy 24. Rabbinic literature also describes arguments among rabbis about grounds for divorce (ranging from adultery to spoiling dinner). Like Malachi, Jesus appeals to the creation stories to emphasize the divinely-ordained unity of the married couple. As portrayed here, Jesus agrees with those rabbis who restrict divorce to cases of adultery. The issue of temporality vs. eternality of law also appears here. If you are interested in views of marriage in early Christianity pay attention to the discussion of “it is better not to marry” here and more in 1 Corinthians 7.

Numbers 27:1–11; 36 (inheritance)

What are the rights of daughters to inherit?
What is the rationale?
What are the limitations?
Is there any tension or difference in assumptions between the two passages in Numbers?
What are the implications of the alternatives (e.g., daughters and sons inherit equally, brothers inherit)?
How does Numbers compare to Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25?

Besides inheritance, the issue of endogamy (marrying within the clan) comes up in this passage. The Torah forbids intermarriage with certain nations and uses logic that might imply that marriage to an idolater is a bad idea, but never categorically forbids intermarriage. Later texts, such as Ezra and Jubilees, categorically and rigidly forbid all intermarriage. The implications of intermarriage continue to be hotly debated in Judaism today. It has been argued that in agrarian or struggling societies endogamy has economic benefits of establishing property continuity across generations. The economics of inheritance may be part of the issue, but I would not want to reduce it to that when there are more immediate concerns of identity formation. Something related to intermarriage could be a good paper topic.

Numbers 30 (vows)

Is the law more giving power to men to revoke vows, or more limiting that power?
Can a rationale or particular assumption about women be reconstructed that would explain the rulings?

Westbrook, Raymond. “Introduction: The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law.” In A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, edited by Raymond Westbrook, 1–90 (selection: 44–62). Leiden: Brill, 2003. (PDF)

Pages 50–55 (children, adoption, property tenure) are tangentially related to the theme of the week, and can be skimmed for basic concepts.

Are there analogous customs in the U.S. that serve the same function, symbolically or substantially, as the bride-price and dowry?

Part of the fun is trying to follow how societies dealt with unusual situations, and how they reveal unspoken assumptions about gender, family, and property. Most of all, though, keep track of the major changes in socio-economic status that women underwent in the relatively common situations:
divorce with sons
divorce without sons
widowhood with sons
widowhood without sons

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Simone. “Anatolia and the Levant: Israel.” In A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, edited by Raymond Westbrook, 975–1046 (selection: 1007–1019). Leiden: Brill, 2003. (PDF)

Frymer-Kensky discusses the biblical passages that are relevant to the major legal categories. As I have mentioned before, she does not always make clear the distinction between what happens in narratives, what laws prescribe, and what historically was practiced. We will discuss narrative as law later in the course, but I would be reluctant to accept narratives such as Genesis 38 or Judges 19 as “the way it was.” However, even legal fiction can be telling about the concerns and categories of a society.

Overall, how did the socio-economic opportunities for women in Israel differ from elsewhere in the ancient Near East? What limits our ability to make direct comparison?

LH 131–132 and Numbers 5 (suspicion of adultery)

These passages are discussed in the following article.

It has been argued that the ordeal establishes certainty if not truth (i.e., it settles the issue, whether it is accurate or not). The ordeal may have been more effective than one might think. The ritual would be terrifying even if our society, which may be less prone to “superstition.” In fact, I might wonder if even a clean-conscience could get someone through the ritual without panicking or fainting. As Matthews explains, the ritual would have partly served to prevent adultery or rumor in the first place. The threat of such an ordeal may prevent the offense. The penalty for slander might prevent the spreading of rumors. The cost of the animal sacrifice and the humiliation of the ordeal may discourage a husband from letting jealousy fester.

Matthews, Victor H. “Honor and Shame in Gender-Related Legal Situations in the Hebrew Bible.” In Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, edited by Victor H. Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, 97–112. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. (PDF)

Matthews studies laws pertaining to gender for their aspects of economic and social relationships and explains the logic behind some rather disturbing laws. Systems of honor and shame, codified or not, are important for understanding how societies organize themselves. Shaming as a formal punishment is less common in Israel’s law codes, but there are exceptions such as Deuteronomy 25:9–10. Honor as an economic entity will come up again in the class on conflict resolution. Matthews explains a simple formula: honor of women = sexual purity = responsibility of father or husband = measure of his ability to control in general.

Matthews gives a positive assessment of the role honor and shame can have in a society. I can picture that positive function, say in Japan, but I tend to associate honor and shame with people killing each other over minor offenses against “honor.” The system of honor and shame has some rather disturbing implications in the case of Ben Sira, who was a wisdom teacher in Jerusalem in the second century BCE. His status in society was high but entirely dependent on his reputation as a model citizen and head of household. He lived in fear of losing his reputation and livelihood if his wife or daughter caused a scandal.

There is hardly an evil like that in a woman; may she fall to the lot of the sinner!
Like a sandy hill to aged feet is a garrulous wife to a quiet husband.
Do not be enticed by a woman’s beauty, or be greedy for her wealth.
Harsh is the slavery and great the shame when a wife supports her husband.
Depressed mind, gloomy face, and a wounded heart—a wicked woman.
Drooping hands and quaking knees, any wife who does not make her husband happy.
With a woman sin had a beginning, and because of her we all die.
Allow water no outlet, and no boldness of speech to a wicked woman.
If she does not go along as you direct, cut her away from you. (Sirach 25:19–26)

His fear that his daughter will embarrass him leads him to justify intimidation, not unlikely in the form of domestic violence.

A daughter is a treasure that keeps her father wakeful, and worry over her drives away sleep:
Lest in her youth she remain unmarried, or when she is married, lest she be childless;
While unmarried, lest she be defiled, or in her husband’s house, lest she prove unfaithful;
Lest she become pregnant in her father’s house, or be sterile in that of her husband.
My son, keep a close watch on your daughter, lest she make you a laughingstock for your enemies,
A byword in the city and the assembly of the people, an object of derision in public gatherings.
See that there is no lattice in her room, or spot that overlooks the approaches to the house.
Do not let her reveal her beauty to any male, or spend her time with married women;
For just as moths come from garments, so a woman’s wickedness comes from a woman.
Better a man’s harshness than a woman’s indulgence, a frightened daughter than any disgrace. (Sirach 42:9–14)

If you are the sort of person that is persuaded that women are people too, some of the points from this week may be disturbing. It may be even more disturbing if you or your community views these not just as old ideas but as the word of God. Next week we will encounter the contributions of feminist biblical interpretation to concerns such as these.