I don’t know too much about the attitudes to marriage, sex and women in Israel at the time of Christ, but I have read Gerda Lerner on Patriarchy, and her account of the Code of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia outlines an attitude probably not very different from the one still prevailing in Israel in Christ’s time, as it was in all the countries of the Middle East.  This is an extract from my book Rehumanizing Sex.


‘Just how revolutionary and radical Christ’s teaching was only becomes apparent when we consider the attitudes to sex and marriage that had prevailed in the pagan world before the New Testament.  Central to the whole psychology of ancient Mesopotamian culture, and all the middle eastern civilizations that followed it, including the Israelite, was the subordination and depersonalization of women.  All females were regarded as property in Mesopotamia and their sexuality was vigorously and routinely dehumanized.  At the bottom of the female hierarchy were the slaves.  Originally all slaves were females because the high ratio of guards needed to supervise male captives made it more practical to kill them or at least blind them, as happened to Zedekiah whose fate was recorded in the Second Book of Kings, although this lowered their economic value.  Indeed the original word for slave in Akkadian cuneiform is woman + mountain (i.e. a female foreigner).  The captive women were depersonalized through natal alienation, i.e. deportation, and through routine rape.  They were thus psychologically imprinted through being dishonoured, the inability of their men to protect them was emphasized and their possession by their new owners symbolically affirmed.  Slave girls were often sold into brothels but even when this was not the case, under the Code of Hammurabi an owner had complete sexual as well as property rites over his slaves.  Gerda Lerner thinks that there was a subtler link between womanhood and slavery.[i]  Before physical enslavement there has to be the concept of forced subordination and the reification of persons.  With the accumulation of property and the desire of men to hand it on to male heirs arises the exchange of women, who are thus already regarded as negotiable possessions even before they are actually enslaved.  Apart from capture in war women or children could also become slaves when their husband or father sold them into slavery to redeem his debts, as they were regarded wholly as his economic possessions, and this practice too is controlled and regularized by Hammurabi.


Above slavery was concubinage.  This occurred when a man found his wife was barren and took one of her slaves to provide him with heirs. This happened both to Sara and Rachel in the Old Testament. Although the concubine was still a slave she had some rights, and Hammurabi even legislated for circumstances in which she could attain her freedom. Although the wife owned the concubine the distinction between them was only one of unfreedoms.  Marriage was regarded as a wholly economic transaction and its purpose was to ensure the inheritance of property by sons.  The groom’s parents paid a bride-price and the bride’s a dowry.  Strictly speaking the dowry was a loan to the husband and if he died or divorced his wife she could return to her parents with her dowry intact, in order that her economic value would not be lowered and she could be married off again.  By the same token it was not paid until she had shown herself capable of bearing sons. The bride-price, on the other hand, could be paid at any age and the wife-to-be then became the property of  her prospective husband’s family, and she would move to their dwelling until she became old enough to marry.  These arrangements often led to the rape of the girl by her prospective father-in-law, and as her economic value was now lowered this was a prolific source of litigation.  If you had no daughter and were not rich you often had to sell land to pay a bride-price on behalf of your son, and this was a frequent cause of debt and the sale of wives into slavery in order to defray it.  If you had no land you had to sell your daughter into concubinage in order to obtain the cash for a bride-price.


In sexual behaviour the double standard was taken for granted.  A man could have sex outside marriage as often as he liked, whereas if his wife committed adultery he could impose fearful punishments upon her.  These punishments were codified both by Hammurabi and the Assyrian legal codices and included cutting off noses and ears.  This is because the principle at stake is that there has been an injury to the husband’s property.  If the husband does not punish the wife the state will not punish the paramour, and whatever punishment the husband decrees for the wife the state will impose on the paramour. The laws against rape are all based on the principle that it is not the woman who has been injured, but her husband or father whose asset has been devalued.  If the woman was unmarried the rapist had to marry the girl so that her father could have the bride-price of his now useless asset.  If the woman was married her husband had the right to ravish the rapist’s wife in order to equalize the loss of value.  If a man killed another man’s daughter, then not he but his daughter was to be killed in retribution.  A self-induced abortion was regarded as the gravest of crimes because the father had lost the economic asset of his future child, and was to be punished by impalement or drowning, whereas a father could expose an unwanted infant whenever he chose.


The wives of rich men were often well off themselves economically.  Queen Shagshag, wife  of Uragakina of Lagash, for example,  was immensely rich.  Wives had a great deal to lose if they did not behave themselves. An essential instrument in the subjugation of women was the use of the veil to distinguish respectable wives from slaves and  prostitutes.  Sacred prostitutes were sharply distinguished from commercial ones.  Men went to the temple of Ishtar to have sex with the highly honoured nindingur prostitutes as a religious act.  Below these were the naditum priestesses, meaning  “the infertile”.  These were women whose sexuality had been consecrated to the goddess and were vowed to perpetual chastity.  But they played an important economic role and often brought wealth to their families in circumstances in which it had not been possible to sell them for a bride-price.  Below these were the kulmashitum or temple servants, often employed as wet-nurses.  Finally there were ordinary prostitutes, some owned by the temple for commercial purposes  and others working for themselves.  These were the dregs, and their lack of a veil meant that they were completely unprotected from male violence and exploitation.  The weight of the law fell not on a respectable woman who failed to wear the veil but on an unrespectable one who did.  If a harlot is seen veiled she is to be flogged fifty times and have pitch poured over her. A slave girl caught with a veil is to be stripped naked and have her ears cut off.  A man failing to denounce a veiled prostitute is to be stripped and have his ears pierced and is to be led naked through the streets with a cord through his ears.  Thus the sexual subjugation of respectable women was achieved partly through maintaining the existence of an underclass into which they might fall if they did not behave, and partly by distinguishing them from this underclass by allowing them to share in the economic privileges of their husbands and protectors.  Through these means respectable women come to take both the de-humanizing and the subordination of their sex for granted, and to value their distinction from the unrespectable as much as do their men, and they too become thoroughly imprinted with patriarchal values.  Any society less worthy of the accolade of civilization than those supposedly at its origins could hardly be imagined. ‘

[i] Gerda Lerner: The Creation of Patriarchy

Once we realize that if they divorced a wife the Pharisees had to return her dowry to her family, their reluctance to do so become comprehensible.  It was much cheaper just to ‘put the woman away’. Once a woman was just ‘put away’, if her family refused to take her back she was relegated to the dregs of society and often her only survival option was prostitution.  It was these female dregs whom Christ defended and consorted with, which is what caused the pharisees’ anger.  It undermined the whole social order. I’m just wondering whether the emphasis  in Christ’s words is not ‘because marriage is indissoluble you can never divorce’, as it is so often taken to have been, but ‘marriage is in its essence an indissoluble union between two free persons (although sadly sometimes in the  circumstances of this life…)’.




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