adultery and marriage in jewish and arab patriarchy

by Robert & Mollie Brow   (web site -

(An edited version of an appendix to Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage, 1996, posted on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list on February 7, 1997)

 It makes no sense to judge the attitudes of patriarchal men by our western idea of faithfulness and adultery. In their model of marriage it was acceptable for a man to have more than one wife (Genesis 4:19, 29:21-27, 1 Samuel 1:2, 25:42-44).

 In our culture if a man took a second wife he would be committing adultery. This was why nineteenth century missionaries forced a man in Africa with five wives to dismiss four of them before he could be baptized. The New Testament practice seems to have been to accept polygamists for baptism, but to require monogamy for church leadership ( See 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6).

 Nor was it considered adulterous in patriarchal culture to have a concubine. To our ears the word concubine suggests the using of women for male sexual pleasure. And undoubtedly there were as many men who misused women in the ancient world as there are examples of sexual abuse in our own day. But we should remind ourselves that in the Old Testament the word concubine simply meant a wife whose children would have no legal right to the family inheritance (Genesis 22:24, 36:12, Judges 8:30-31, 19:1-22, 2 Samuel 3:7, Chronicles 2:46,48).

 In some cases a woman would be taken in at her request, presumably for protection. An extreme situation was when most of the men had been killed off in war. "Seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, 'We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes; just let us be called by your name; take away our disgrace" (Isaiah 3:25-4:1). Here the concubines live in at their own expense, and in some respects are viewed as married to the man, but their children could not expect to be part of his family tree. Keturah for example was Abraham's wife, but she was later listed as his concubine because her children became the ancestors of several desert tribes, who were later united by marriage with other Arab tribes descended from Ishmael, Lot, and Esau (Genesis 25:1-18, 1 Chronicles 1:32). The children of Israel would descend through Sarah's son Isaac.

 In the Old Testament, as used to be the case in mediaeval Europe, the family title could only descend through one son. This explains the enormity of what Esau did when he sold the birthright to his twin brother (Genesis 25:29-34). An interesting exception to the rule of primogeniture was when the sons of Jacob were each given the right to become heads of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. A similar tribal division took place among the Arab clans descended from Esau (Genesis 36:15-16). But later, as in the genealogy of the royal line of David, descent was usually through the firstborn son.

 Where there is an exception to the rule, as in the case of Solomon, the reason is explained carefully (1 Kings 1:11-46). Similarly in the royal lines of Europe it is usually the firstborn son who is heir to the throne. If a woman takes over as queen, as happened in Britain with Elizabeth the First, Anne, Victoria and the currently reigning Elizabeth the Second, in the next generation the royal line goes back to the firstborn son.

 Patriarchal men and women also thought it was perfectly acceptable for a legal wife who was barren to obtain children by her servant. Sarai said to Abram "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her" (Genesis 16:2, see 30:3). In such cases the child born was usually viewed as belonging to her mistress and had a full legal title to the man's genealogical line. That is why for the past three thousand years to this day Arabs have maintained that Ishmael, the ancestor of their people was the rightful heir of Abraham's line.

 In the New Testament Jesus was asked a question about a man being required to raise up children for his brother's childless widow (Matthew 22:23-30, Mark 12:18-25, Luke 20:27-35, based on the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-6). According to this practice the woman was neither a second wife nor a concubine. Any children who were born were viewed as the legal heirs of the widow's dead husband. In our culture if a man offered to provide heirs for his dead brother by bedding his widow, we can imagine that his own wife, all the neighbours, and his church congregation would call it adultery.

 From reading the Old Testament we can attempt to guess what might have been the logic of these customs, and why they were not viewed as adulterous. One factor was that the men, and perhaps the women also, considered the family genealogy to be supremely important. This is why adultery was defined for a man as any act that endangered the genetic purity of another Jewish (or Arab) man's lineage. A woman who allowed her husband's lineage to be adulterated also faced the death penalty.

 This model of marriage and adultery is suggested by the prominence given in the Bible to genealogical lists. Genesis 25 for example gives the original genealogy of the Arabs descended from Hagar and Keturah. They belong to a different line from the children of Israel, but they also have a continuing place in God's purpose (Genesis 17:20, 21:18).

 Jewish Old Testament priests had to prove their direct descent from the line of Aaron (Exodus 6:16-25, 40:12-15. Although Moses' Arab father-in-law was described as a priest in Exodus 3:1, tribal Arabs apparently never developed a hereditary priesthood). Early genealogies of the children of Israel show how important a proven lineage was for what later became the royal line of David (Genesis 46, Exodus 6:14-25, Numbers 26:4-61, Ruth 4:18-22. The first eight chapters of 1 Chronicles show how the process of genealogical listing later continued to be important).

 This is why Matthew's Gospel begins with Joseph's lineage. And when Joseph accepted Jesus as his son, and listed him as such in the Bethlehem census, the eternal Son of God was also assigned the legal right to be undisputed heir of the royal line of David. If his enemies could have denied this, they would have had an easy proof that he was not the Messiah from the line of David.

 The patriarchal concern for family lines meant that adultery was limited to acts where there was the possibility of a married woman being impregnated by another man. What the man did by taking another wife, or concubine, foreign woman, or even a prostitute, was therefore not considered adulterous. The writers were astonished to discover that a similar model of what marriage was about, and what would adulterate it, has continued unchanged over three thousand years among the Arabs of Arabia.

 We have no way of knowing whether Saul, the rabbi from Tarsus, was committed to every detail of what we have called an Old Testament patriarchal model before his conversion. He called himself a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), which suggests that he belonged to the more liberal wing of the Pharisees who belonged to the school of Hillel as opposed to the more conservative school of Shammai. Perhaps he had already changed from some of the ideas which we have called patriarchal.

 Our use of the term patriarchal is from the Old Testament picture of the culture and attitudes of one particular nation. But the Bible makes clear that God is interested in all nations, and they each have their history and traditions. Paul preached in the Areopagus of Athens "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search fore God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each of us" (Acts 17:26-27).

 When the Son of God came and took birth among the Jewish people of that day he had to contrast their traditions with God's way of loving. Some of their laws, and ideas, and practices were good, and needed to be affirmed. Others needed to be amended or deepened. Similarly every nation at any time in its history has its own set of patriarchal and other traditions. And the words of the Sermon on the Mount "It was said . . . but I say to you" need to be explained in every nation of the world in relation to every detail of that culture's life and attitudes (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Among the early Christians the patriarchal definition of adultery was radically changed, and that went with a quite different model of what marriage and divorce was about.

 This was perhaps one explanation of the huge church growth that took place in the Arab world to the east after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. But by the time of Muhammad patriarchy had again renewed its grip on marriage. And it is for that reason that the impact of a genuine feminism of love and mutuality in our day may have already prepared the ground for a huge harvest of the loving marriages that God has in mind in countries where patriarchal marriage is still the norm.

 In another article we will offer a mutuality model to explain the logic of the first Christian Rabbi in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. But already it should be obvious that none of the ten points of Paul's post-conversion model in any way fit the Old Testament patriarchal model.


Note: There are other explanations of the logic of Old Testament marriage, adultery, and divorce in terms of property. L.W. Countryman focused on the concept of impurity in Dirt, Greed and Sex (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988; London: S.C.M., 1989). See also an important earlier work, M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge, 1966; New York: Praeger, 1966).

 In our generation patriarchy has been given a broader meaning than in the model we have identified in the Old Testament. See for example Genda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Sandra Schneiders defines patriarchy as "the absolute and unaccountable power over wives and concubines, children, servants, slaves, animals and real property enjoyed by the pater familias" (Women and the Word [New York & Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986], p.11).

 In a later book Sandra Schneiders maintains that "All forms of feminism recognize that patriarchy is a basic cause of women's oppression" (Beyond Patching [New York: Paulist Press, 1991], p.18). We have no objection to this widening of the definition among modern feminists. Our interest is focused much more narrowly on the model change that occurs from Old Testament patriarchy in the New Testament vision of marriage.


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