David Instone-Brewer examines the effects on women of some controversial Old Testament practices and unearths surprising parallels with today.
I have married several concubines over the years...well, let me explain. As a minister, I’ve married many people, some of whom had lived together before the wedding as cohabitees. In Old Testament times, a woman in the equivalent relationship of a cohabitee today was called a concubine. So I have married several concubines.
A frequent criticism of the Old Testament is that it seems to uphold inequality – many of the practices described seem barbaric and backward. The status and treatment of women is surely a case in point – the prevalence of prostitutes and concubines, for example. But I wonder if we may be a little unfair in taking the moral high ground.
In Israel, like other ancient Near Eastern societies, a woman became a wife when she exchanged marriage vows with her bridegroom before witnesses. But a woman could also live with a man without being married to him, as a ‘concubine’. As a concubine the woman was in an ongoing, legally recognised, marriagelike relationship, and her children were legal descendants of the man – but she herself had very few legal rights. She could, for example, be dismissed without any of the financial compensation given to a divorcee.
UK law scrapped the concept of a ‘common law wife’ in 1753, and most countries followed. Like concubines in the ancient world, a cohabitee who has been living with a man – even for several years – does not have the legal protection enjoyed by a married wife and her children. Modern Britain has, in effect, many more ‘concubines’ than ancient Israel.
Another common lifestyle choice in the UK is sexual promiscuity. Prostitution in ancient Israel was almost identical to the modern one-night stand. We can see how it worked in the sad account of how Judah met his ex-daughter-in-law Tamar when she was disguised as a prostitute (Genesis 38). She sat alone by a public gateway and he approached her to negotiate a price. He paid the going rate – a goat. The prostitute would normally be allowed to keep one joint of meat for herself and the rest would go to the priests at the shrine where she lived.
Prostitution in the Old Testament world was mostly run by religions. That’s why, when Judah went back to find Tamar, he asked, ‘Where is the sacred prostitute?’ He assumed that she belonged to a local shrine (Genesis 38:21). We might imagine that religious prostitutes were better cared for than most – they were, after all, called ‘sacred’ (quadesh) – but actually they were society’s lowest of the low. When Job’s friend described the descent of a young man into penury and beyond, he said, ‘he’ll die young, living as a cult prostitute’ (Job 36:14).
Some prostitutes were independent – like Rahab, who hid the Israelites when they were spying out weaknesses in Jericho. People sometimes like to present her as a perfectly moral ‘innkeeper’; the Bible is less coy and calls her a zonah – an immoral woman (Joshua 2:1). The Bible doesn’t clean up her history; rather, it shows that sinful people can be made clean. Rahab and Tamar later got married and are among the few women named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3,5).
There’s an interesting account in 1 Kings that gives us a valuable clue about the status of prostitutes in ancient Israel…and perhaps it’s not what we expected. To illustrate Solomon’s wisdom, his biographer described his judgement in a law case that might have baffled others. Two women who lived together both had a baby, but one of the babies died in the night. Both women claimed the living baby was theirs, and the dispute was unresolved until it went before Solomon. When he famously offered to cut the baby in two and give them half of the body each, the real mother was revealed. She cried out: ‘Let her [the other woman] have him; only don’t harm him.’ The women were prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16) and this shows us that they had the same legal rights as any other woman, with access to the highest court.
The Old Testament does not condemn prostitution in the way that we might want it to. The use of prostitutes wasn’t made illegal – perhaps because this kind of law usually hurts prostitutes more than their ‘clients’. However, prostitution was severely criticised as immoral and those who forced others into prostitution were utterly condemned (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 23:17–18). Proverbs, which is largely addressed to young men, is full of warnings about the dangers and immorality of using prostitutes, and it especially condemns women who act like prostitutes in their lifestyle (Proverbs 6:26; 23:27).
Treatment of Women
We are understandably angered by the way women were treated in Old Testament times, but the Law of Moses gave them far greater protection than women in other ancient nations. God was working with his people to move them slowly from the standards of their contemporary culture towards the society that he wants for us all.
Britain can be said to treat such women just as unfairly. Our laws about prostitution are roughly equivalent to Israel’s: a prostitute isn’t liable for prosecution, though she cannot work in a protected environment because any agent or employer can be prosecuted.
Modern-day cohabitees are the legal equivalent to Old Testament concubines. There is no automatic inheritance or financial protection for a woman or her children if the man she lives with dies or leaves her. So if the man owns the house, his ex-partner will have no claim on it – though the courts can intervene to ensure that dependent children have support.
I am saddened by the fact that so many people choose to live together instead of getting married, not least because they don’t realise what they are missing. They forgo the security and respect which comes from someone publicly affirming their loving commitment. Many women are quite content with living as a cohabitant, but many more – perhaps the majority? – would prefer to be married. For some time there has been a growing reluctance by men in particular to commit themselves in marriage. Promising love in public doesn’t mean any more than in private, but if your partner refuses to make a public promise to you, that may certainly mean something.
I have a message for reluctant grooms: Weddings don’t have to cost much! Details of how you can do it for less than £100 can be found at HundredPoundWedding.com. It’s true that a marriage certificate is only a piece of paper, but this paper will protect your partner and your children in case you fall out or fall dead.
And to churches I say this: Put up a large advert saying, ‘Get married here for £100: Certificate £67 + Service £33.’ Pay the extra costs from the evangelism budget. This could rescue many women who are in a legally perilous situation, without realising it.