Mothers, Daughters and Wives in Israel
In order to accurately understand the position of the woman in Israel, it is necessary to carefully look at the New Testament. The picture of social life presented there gives a full view of the place which women held in private and public life. The Jewish women were certainly treated differently than the other Oriental women of those times and even today. They were often influential and had leading parts in many religious movements.
Among Israel the woman was pure, the home happy, and the family hallowed by a religion which consisted not only in public services, but entered into daily life, and embraced in its observances every member of the household. This was so not only in New Testament times but always in Israel.
In Rabbinical writings, the respect and obedience of the wife set forth a pattern for her daughters. The following illustration is written in Tanch. 28, 6: A certain wise woman said to her daughter before her marriage: “My child, stand before thy husband and minister to him. If thou wilt act as his maiden he will be thy slave, and honour thee as his mistress; but if thou exalt thyself against him, he will be thy master, and thou shalt become vile in his eyes, like one of the maidservants.” In Genesis 18: 12, Sara obeyed Abraham and called him lord.
Some further details may illustrate the matter better. The creation of woman from the rib of Adam is commented on in Shab. 23: “It is as if Adam had exchanged a pot of earth for a precious jewel.” The ‘four mothers’ (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel) were held in special awe and reverence and still today hold a place in Biblical history. Miriam, the sister of Moses and the one who had originally saved him, lead the song of deliverance on the other side of the Sea after the dramatic deliverance by God. She continued to have much influence until her death, though it was not always in doing good. Deborah was a judge in Israel. The mother of Samuel definitely would have a great place in history. Abigail knew how to avert the danger of her husband’s foolish ways. There was also Huldah the Prophetess, and one could not forget Ruth and Esther.
There were many women who ministered to Jesus, and the Bible plainly shows that He was truly grateful and blessed them greatly for their efforts. In many instances it was the women who believed first and persuaded the men to believe. Some of the women talked about in the New Testament were Dorcas, the mother of Mark, Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lois, Eunice, and other noble women of Greece and Rome who were not named specifically.
Polygamy was definitely in force at the time of our Lord. In fact Jesus did more to set the woman up on a pedestal than anyone else either before or since. At the time of Jesus, in the secular world, women really had no rights and divorce could be easily obtained by a man just for a woman doing a very minor thing that he was not pleased with. In the Jewish state of affairs, though, there were many safeguards about marriage and the family and polygamy, so it would have been much harder to just be displeased with your wife and divorce her for nothing. In fact, the Rabbinical ordinances grew in the direction of recognizing the rights of a woman, and this was carried out with much scrupulousness that even reached down to the Jewish slaves. In cases of dispute between a man and a woman, the law generally leaned towards the woman. Under Jewish law, their rights were taken seriously.
The Rabbis worked hard at trying to keep the Jewish family together, as that was the foundation of their whole system. They did not look favorably on divorce. Below is a poem written by one of the Rabbis that was written down in antiquity, that shows how they felt about the subject:
“If death hath snatched from thee the wife of youth, It is as if the sacred city were, And e’en the Temple, in thy pilgrim days, Defiled, laid low, and leveled with the dust. The man who harshly sends from him His first-woo’d wife, the loving wife of youth, For him the very altar of the Lord Sheds forth its tears of bitter agony.”
The social interaction between the sexes was nearly as unrestricted as we have today. It would have been natural for a young man to make personal choice of his bride. Scriptures offers several instances of this. The woman also had to give her own free consent to the marriage, though, or the union was invalid. Minors who were up to twelve years and one day could be betrothed or given away by their father, but when they got old enough they had the right of insisting upon a divorce.
Woman did not attain her full state until under the New Testament, but the Jewish women were treated much differently than the women from other religions and races. The qualities that were most admired in a woman were meekness, modesty, and shamefacedness. Brawling, gossip in the streets, and immodest behavior in public were sufficient grounds for divorce. Of course, Jewish women would never have attempted “teaching” in the synagogue. The occupied a separate place from the men there, but Rabbinical study was disapproved of in the case of women. The Rabbis felt that a man must seek after a woman, not a woman after the man. There was a Rabbinical saying that “Whoever allows himself to be ruled by his wife, shall call out, and no one will make answer to him.”
The Rabbis felt that since man was formed from the ground, and woman was formed from man, that when a man tried to find a woman he was only finding what he had lost. They similarly observed:
“that God had not formed woman out of the head, lest she should become proud; nor out of the eye, lest she should lust; nor out of the ear, lest she should be curious; nor out of the mouth, lest she should be talkative; nor out of the heart, lest she should be jealous; nor out of the hand, lest she should be covetous; nor out of the foot, lest she be a busy-body; but out of the rib, which was always covered.”
Modesty was definitely a prime quality desired in a woman. Even though Jewish women definitely had more privileges than the heathen women, there were still many areas that they were forbidden to be a part of, or especially hold any type of leadership position for the most part. The women were admonished to encourage their husbands in excelling in Jewish studies.
Ordinarily, a young man was expected to enter the wedded state at the age of 16 or 17, with 20 being the utmost limit. This was the case unless study so absorbed the man’s time and attention that it left no leisure time for the duties of married life. Still it was thought, though, that it was better to neglect study than to remain single. The men dreaded the thought, though, that they might have money cares because of having a wife and children.
The Bible implies that there was a difference between betrothal and actual marriage, though they were very similar. From the moment of her betrothal a woman was treated as if she were actually married. The union could not be dissolved except by regular divorce. Any breach of faithfulness was regarded as adultery; and the property of the woman became virtually that of her betrothed, unless he had expressly renounced it. Even in that case, though, he was considered her natural heir.
The Mishnah states that there were regular writings of betrothal that were drawn up by the authorities, with the bridegroom paying the costs. These were stipulated by the mutual obligations, the dowry, and every other thing that the parties had agreed on.
The form that is presently used by the Jews says that the bridegroom weds his bride “according to the law of Moses and of Israel:” that he promises “to please, to honour, to nourish, and to care for her, as is the manner of the men of Israel,” adding thereto the woman’s consent, with the document being signed by two witnesses. This was probably something very similar to the way it was done in ancient history.