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In the Bible

An accurate sociological description of the family and its legalstatus in biblical times is virtually impossible because the relevant evidence is not of a strictly socio-descriptive nature.


Some of the most often quoted examples of family life and its functions come from literary passages in the epic tradition. Thus, one finds considerable attention given to the interaction of various members in the patriarchal community. The history of the Israelite people is predicated on the Divine promise made to its eponymous ancestor Israel and his progenitors. The different branches of the tribal league are traced back to the sons born to Israel by his four wives, and neighboring peoples are judged according to their ancestral relationship to the Hebrew patriarchs. The framework of these relationships is literary, taking the form of stories about the family life of Abraham and his descendants. Other important figures such as Moses and Aaron are also identified by their family ties with the Levitical tribe. Another focal point for tales of family life is the period of occupation and settlement in the land. Family glimpses are afforded of such heroic figures as Caleb and his daughter, Gideon, and Samson. The prophet Samuel and the first Israelite monarchs are also cast in vivid family portraits.

The lack of suitable documents dealing with everyday life (see below) makes it necessary to utilize these literary allusions to family life in developing a picture of the family in biblical times. It should be noted, however, that there are sometimes discrepancies between the situation reflected in biblical narratives and that reflected in legal texts (e.g., marriage to a half-sister, while forbidden in Lev. 18:9, 20:17, and Deut. 27:22, is recorded in Gen. 20:12, in connection with Abraham and Sarah, and the possibility is indicated in II Sam. 13:13, in connection with Amnon and Tamar). A gap between law and practice would not be surprising, and perhaps it is this which is reflected in the divergence between the legal and narrative traditions.

A second source of information is genealogies, found especially in Genesis (pertaining to the patriarchs and other ancient figures) and in I Chronicles (giving the family trees of the main tribal leaders and groups), but also scattered throughout the epic passages of the Pentateuch (e.g., the genealogies of Moses and Aaron).

In poetical compositions, too, one sometimes finds allusions to marriage or to marital relationships (e.g., the prophetic allegory of Ezek. 16 and the depiction of the ideal wife in Prov. 31:10–31).

Strictly legislative materials are unfortunately few and of limited scope. Leviticus 18 and 20 gives the "forbidden degrees," i.e., a list of those relationships which are consanguineous and therefore make marriage forbidden (see below). Numbers 5:11–31 describes the ritual process for testing a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity. A case in the epic tradition is cited as a precedent for the inheritance rights of daughters in the absence of sons (Num. 26:28–34; 27:1–11; 36:10–12; Josh. 17:1–6). Social legislation pertaining specifically to the family is found primarily in Deuteronomy. The legal responsibility of the bride to be a virgin (if advertised as such) when entering into marriage and certain subsidiary matters, such as intercourse with a marriageable girl before marriage, are dealt with in Deuteronomy 22:13–23:1. The process of *divorce is outlined (in only the briefest form) in Deuteronomy 24:1–4, while military exemption for a new bridegroom is prescribed in verse 5 of the same chapter. The laws relating to *levirate marriage appear in Deuteronomy 25:5–10. Apart from scattered verses on miscellaneous aspects of family status, these are the main legal passages on the subject of family law. It is obvious from this brief survey that many basic themes are neglected entirely.

Unlike the discoveries from other cultures in the ancient Near East, the discoveries from ancient Israel have yielded no strictly legal documents pertaining to marriage. Mesopotamia has yielded hundreds of contracts and other types of documents, many of which are marriage arrangements. Much has been learned from such documents found at Nuzi, and the *Elephantine papyri include a marriage contract. That such documents were used by the Israelites is clear: it is known, for example, that a marriage was dissolved by giving the wife a sefer keritut ("writ of separation," Deut. 24:1, 3; Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). The earliest direct reference to a Jewish marriage contract (apart from the one in the Elephantine papyri) is in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, where it is written that Raguel "… took a scroll and wrote out the contract and they affixed their seals to it" (Tob. 7:14). These scattered allusions seem to confirm that marriage contracts were used in ancient Israel; the lack of direct evidence is apparently accidental.


The Israelite family as reflected in all genealogical and narrative sources is patriarchical. Attempts have been made to find traces of matriarchy and fratriarchy in the earliest stages of Israel's history, but none of the arguments is convincing (see below).

The family was aptly termed bet av ("house of a father"; e.g., Gen. 24:38; 46:31). To found a family was "to build a house" (Deut. 25:10). The bayit ("house") was a subdivision of the mishpaḥah ("clan, family [in the larger sense]," Josh. 7:14). The criterion for membership in a family (in the wider sense) was blood relationship, legal ties (e.g., marriage), or geographical proximity. The genealogies of I Chronicles sometimes speak of the clan leader as the "father" of a town, or towns, in his district (e.g., I Chron. 2:51, 52). A common livelihood or profession was probably a major factor in family and clan solidarity. Besides those families who engaged primarily in agriculture (conducted on their own lands), there were others who practiced some specific trade (e.g., they were linen workers, I Chron. 4:21, or potters, I Chron. 4:23). The sacerdotal functions of the Levites and the sons of Aaron are the most striking case in point.

Family solidarity is reflected in customs such as blood revenge (Num. 35:9–34; Deut. 19:1–13). Not only was this vengeance exacted upon members of another clan who had killed a kinsman (II Sam. 3:22–27, 30), but even within the framework of a clan, the members of a particular family were responsible for exacting the death penalty when another member of their family was killed in an intra-family murder (II Sam. 14:4–11). The avenger (go'el) also had other responsibilities. A near kinsman was required to redeem a relative who had been forced by penury to sell himself into slavery (Lev. 25:47–49). The same obligation held true for family property that had been sold because of poverty (Lev. 25:25; cf. Jer. 32:7). The Book of Ruth refers to this custom but is complicated by the requirement that the surviving widow also be taken (more or less in line with the Levirate practice (Deut. 15:5–10)). The family was a religious as well as a social unit (Ex. 12:3; I Sam. 20:6, 29; Job. 1:5; see *Education).


The ties of blood relationship that forbade sexual relations are spelled out in order to prevent ritual violations (Lev. 18:6–18; 20:11–14, 17, 19–21). One's consanguineous relatives, "near kin" (she'er besaro), as thus defined, were the father (av), mother (em), father's wife (eshet av), sister (aḥot) – whether the daughter of the father or the mother, granddaughter – whether the daughter of a son or of a daughter, daughter of the wife of one's father (bat-eshet av), the father's sister, the mother's sister, the father's brother and his wife – the aunt (dodah), the son's wife (kallah) – in biblical terms, the "bride" in relation to the parents of her husband, and the brother's wife (eshet a). It was forbidden to take a woman and her daughter (Lev. 18:17; stated conversely, a woman and her mother, Lev. 20:14) or granddaughter; likewise a man was prohibited from taking his wife's sister (called ẓarah, a "rival") while his wife was still alive (Lev. 18:18; contrast Jacob's marriage to Leah and Rachel).


The respective functions and status of these persons are reflected in scattered passages. The father was the head of the family unit and owner of its property (Num. 26:54–55). He was the chief authority and, as such, is portrayed as commanding (Gen. 50:16; Jer. 35:6–10; Prov. 6:20) and rebuking (Gen. 37:10; Num. 12:14). Ideally he was expected to be benevolent, to show love to his family (Gen. 25:28; 37:4; 44:20) and also pity (Ps. 103:13). The patriarchal blessing (Gen. 27) evidently carried legal force with regard to the distribution of the patrimony and other attendant privileges.

The mother, if she were the senior wife of a harem or the sole wife of a monogamous marriage, occupied a place ofhonor and authority in spite of her subordination to her husband (see below). At his death she might become the actual, and probably the legal, head of the household (II Kings 8:1–6) if there were no sons of responsible age. As a widow, she was especially vulnerable to oppression; concern for her welfare was deemed a measure of good government and wholesome society (e.g., Deut. 24:17). The influence of famous mothers in epic tradition, e.g., Sarah (Gen. 21:12) and the wife of Manoah (Judg. 13:23), is illustrative of the significance attached to their role. Not all of their power was exercised openly; often the motherly stratagem is deemed worthy of special notice in the epic tradition, e.g., the stratagems of Rebekah (Gen. 27:5–17), Leah (Gen. 30:16), and Rachel (Gen. 31:34). The mother naturally displayed care and love (Gen. 25:28; Isa. 49:15; 66:13; Prov. 4:3).

The role of the queen mother (gevirah) stands out in several instances (e.g., I Kings 2:19; 15:13; cf. II Chron. 15:16). The almost uniform practice of naming the mother of the newly crowned Judahite king (e.g., I Kings 14:21) may be a reflection of her special status, but not necessarily. The biblical narrative was evidently concerned with keeping track of the royal heirs by this means, perhaps in order to stress the particular family or region whose daughter had gained the distinction of having her son rise to the throne (cf. II Kings 21:19 and 23:36 where the Galilean origin of the kings' mothers is indicated). It is not certain that in every case the son of the chief wife gained the succession.

The greatest misfortune that could befall a woman was childlessness (Gen. 30:23; I Sam. 1). Children were a blessing from the Almighty (Ps. 127:3–5); they assured the continuance of the family name (Num. 27:4, 8; 36:8b). The mother was more directly involved in the early training of the children than was the father (Prov. 1:8). When the children grew older, the father assumed responsibility for instructing the son (Gen. 18:19; Ex. 12:26–27; 13:8, 14, 15; Deut. 6:7), while the mother evidently kept charge of the daughter until marriage (Micah 7:6). Children were exhorted to honor both parents (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16), and the inclusion of this command in the Decalogue probably accounts for the threatened death penalty to offenders (Ex. 21:15; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 27:16). The decline in respect for parents was symptomatic of the dissolution of society (Ezek. 22:7; Micah 7:6; Prov. 20:20). The demonstration of this respect was primarily through obedience (Gen. 28:7; Lev. 19:3; Deut. 21:18–21; Prov. 1:8; 30:17). Parental control included the right to sell daughters in marriage, although there were limitations on selling her into slavery (Ex. 21:7–11; cf. 22:15–16; Neh. 5:5), and an absolute ban on selling her for prostitution (Lev. 19:29). The father could annul his daughter's vows (Num. 30:4–6), and damages were paid to him for a wrong done to her (Ex. 22:15–16; Deut. 22:28–29). A daughter who was widowed or divorced might return to her father's household (Gen. 38:11, Lev. 22:13; Ruth 1:15).

The terms "brother" (aḥ) and "sister" (aḥot) applied both to offspring of the same father and mother (Gen. 4:2) as well as to offspring who had only one common parent, either a father (Gen. 20:12) or mother (Gen. 43:7; Lev. 18:9; 20:17). Attempts have been made to find traces of a fratriarchal system in the most ancient Israelite traditions; e.g., in Laban's role (Gen. 24) as head of the family when his sister Rebekah was sent to marry Isaac. Laban's role, however, can be explained without recourse to fratriarchy; Laban, as the direct descendant of Nahor (Gen. 24:15, 29; 29:5), certainly was slated to become head of the family after his own father's demise. Another biblical incident, the concern of Jacob's sons after the humiliation of their sister, whom they called their "daughter" (Gen. 34:17), can also be understood in this way.

Brotherly solidarity is frequently stressed (e.g., Prov. 17:17), and harmony among brothers was held up as an ideal (Ps. 133:1). Brothers were obligated to avenge each other's murder (II Sam. 3:27) as part of their duty as go'el ("defender" or "redeemer"; Num. 35:19–28; Deut. 19:6; Josh. 20:3; II Sam. 14:11). Another aspect of this responsibility was the requirement that one ransom a brother who had been taken captive or had gone into servitude as the result of financial adversity (Lev. 25:48; Ps. 49:8; cf. Neh. 5:8).

The term "brother" is often extended to more distant relatives, e.g., nephews (e.g., Gen. 13:8; 14:14), fellow tribesmen (Lev. 21:10), and others (Deut. 2:4, 8; 23:8).

Other members of the immediate family were the paternal uncle (dod; e.g., Lev. 10:4; 20:20) and the paternal aunt (dodah; the father's sister, Ex. 6:20; and the wife of the father's brother, Lev. 18:14; 20:20); also cousins (male, ben-dod, Lev. 25:49; Num. 36:11; female, bat-dod, Esth. 2:7).


Though a man left his parents when he married (Gen. 2:24), he normally remained a member of his father's family. In relation to his wife, he was "master" (ba'al; e.g., Gen. 20:3; Ex. 21:3, 22; Lev. 21:4; Deut. 24:4). He "took" her from her parents, or she was "given" to him by her father, or by her master or mistress, if she was a slave (Gen. 2:22; 16:3; 34:9, 21). The marriage agreement, which, judging from neighboring cultures, was probably set down in a written contract, was made between the husband and either the bride's father alone (Gen. 29; 34:16; Ex. 22:16; Deut. 22:29; Ruth 4:10) or both her parents (Gen. 21:21; 24). The marriage negotiations might result from an attraction that had already developed between two young people (e.g., Samson and the Philistine girl, Judg. 14), but generally the father must have taken the initiative since evidently he had the right to determine who would be his daughter's spouse (Caleb, Josh. 15:16; Saul, I Sam. 18:17, 19, 21, 27; 25:44). If a man seduced a virgin, he had to pay her bride-price to her father, who could, at his own discretion, give his daughter to this man in marriage or withhold her from him (Ex. 22:15). However, if he forced her, he was obligated to marry her and pay her price, and had no right ever to divorce her (Deut. 22:28–29).

Generally, prior to the consummation of the marriage a *betrothal was entered into; under this arrangement the bride-price (mohar) was established (Gen. 34:12; Ex. 22:16; I Sam. 18:25), accompanied by a gift (mattan; Gen. 34:12). A time limit was set by which the payments were to be completed and the marriage put into effect (I Sam. 18:17–19, 26:27). The engagement was a legal transaction in the fullest sense. An engaged man was exempt from military service (Deut. 20:7). The legal status of a betrothed virgin was such that she was prohibited to other men. If someone besides her fiancé had intercourse with her, she was held guilty of adultery. If the act took place in town, where she could have cried for help, the woman was equally guilty; but if it happened in the country she was exonerated by the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she did cry out and was not heard (Deut. 22:23–27).

The essence of the *marriage ceremony seems to have been the transfer of the bride to the house of the groom. He would don a turban (Isa. 61:10) and proceed with his companions to the house of the bride. There the bride, richly attired (Isa. 61:10; Ps. 45:14–15) and veiled (Song 4:1, 3; 6:7; cf. Gen. 24:65; 29:23–25), awaited him. She was then conducted to the house of the bridegroom (Gen. 24:67; Ps. 45:15–16). The festivities included songs extolling the virtues of the bridal pair (Jer. 16:9) – Psalms 45 and Song of Songs evidently represent such compositions – and a feast of seven days (Gen. 29:22–27; Judg. 14:10–12) or even a fortnight (Tob. 8:20). Unusual circumstances might require that the feast be at the home of the bride's parents, but under normal circumstances it must have taken place at the home of the groom. The marriage was consummated on the first night (Gen. 29:23), and the bride's nuptial attire (simlah) was kept afterward as evidence of her virginity (betulim; Deut. 22:13–21).

The modern definitions of *monogamy and polygamy are not strictly applicable to the ancient world. It was normal for the head of a household to have only one legal, full-fledged wife (Heb. ishshah; Akk. aššatu); if she were barren, the husband had the right to take a concubine who was often the handmaiden of his wife (Gen. 16:1–2; 29:15–30; 30:1ff.). However, a man might take two wives of equal standing (Gen. 26:34; 28:9; 29:15–30; 36:2–5; I Sam. 1:2). In that case the law forbade his depriving his firstborn son of his legitimate double portion in the interests of the son of the other wife, should she be the favorite (Deut. 21:15–17). Royal polygamy (Deut. 17:17; I Kings 11:1–8) was partly a reflection of foreign policy, each new addition to the harem representing a new or renewed treaty relationship. Heroic leaders would also be expected to have numerous wives and to father many offspring (Judg. 8:30–31; I Sam. 25:42–43).

Living with her husband, the wife was normally close to her husband's father (ḥam; I Sam. 4:19, 21) and mother (ḥamot; Ruth passim; Micah 7:6). Occasions when the groom stayed with the bride's parents (ḥoten, e.g., Ex. 18:1; ḥotenet, Deut. 27:23) are noted in the Bible precisely because they were not the norm. Heroic figures such as Moses and Jacob (cf. also Sinuhe, the hero of an Egyptian historical novel) were forced because of unusual circumstances to spend long periods with their in-laws.

When her father died, a woman's brother would perform all the duties of the ḥoten (Gen. 24:50, 55). Brothers- and sisters-in-law were considered too closely related to marry (Lev. 18:16, 18; 20:21), except in the case of the husband's brother (yavam), who was expected to fulfill the Levirate responsibility.

*Adoption is clearly demonstrated in the case of Jacob's accepting Manasseh and Ephraim as sons (Gen. 48:5); parallels from other ancient Near Eastern cultures have been noted. The absorption of various clans, e.g., the *Calebites and Jerahmeelites into the tribe of Judah, suggests that adoption may have been more widespread in Israelite society. Divine adoption of the king seems to be reflected in certain passages (II Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7). It has been suggested, on the basis of parallel customs from Nuzi, that Abraham had adopted Eliezer, his chief servant (Gen. 15:2), and that Laban had also adopted Jacob before sons of his own were born (Gen. 31:1–2). The evidence is too scanty for firm conclusions, but one would be surprised if no adoption whatever was practiced (cf. the metaphorical use of adoption symbolism (Ezek. 16:1–7; Hos. 11:1–4)).


BIBLICAL PERIOD: The most important treatment of recent times is that of de Vaux, Anc Isr, 19–55 (incl. bibl., pp. 520–3); see also I. Mendelsohn, in: BA, 11 (1948), 24–40; idem, in: iej, 9 (1959), 180–3; R. Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East (1959); A.F. Rainey, in: Orientalia, 34 (1965), 10–22. POST-BIBLICAL PERIOD: D. Aronson, The Jewish Way of Life (1946), 104–123; I. Epstein, The Jewish Way of Life (1946), 196–9, 203–5; M.M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (1935), 416–22; I. Maybaum, The Jewish Home (1945).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.