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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: H. Hastings Weld :: The Women of the Scriptures

H. Hastings Weld :: Jewish Domestic Customs

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The custom among the Israelites that most revolts a Christian reader is the plurality of wives; and this custom exercised the greatest influence on social morals. Polygamy was not instituted by the Mosaic law, but it was permitted by it. The moral evil that a law permits with impunity necessarily is subversive of the power of the law for promoting good. Indeed, the difference between a practice instituted and a practice permitted is merely theoretical. That which the law does not condemn it virtually allows. However just might be the Mosaic laws in reference to woman in other particulars, the permission of polygamy, spread over the otherwise fair page of Jewish social institutions, and depressed the condition of their women. It mattered not how high in station, how cultivated in intellect, how exalted in spiritual privileges, the Jewish women were; any custom that deteriorated the sacred domestic institution of marriage must have been powerful in counteracting and subverting their privileges: Christianity, in purifying domestic institutions in reference to marriage and divorce, consolidated the social rights of woman, and placed them on the sure foundation of equity and moral purity.

Nearly all the domestic miseries and social grievances of the women of the Hebrew Scriptures arose from the evil practice of polygamy. Sarah in almost regal state had her life embittered by Hagar and Ishmael. Jealousy, envy, and every evil passion disturbed the domestic circle of Rachel and Leah, and descended as a fearful legacy to their offspring. Hannah-the virtuous, high‐minded, gifted Hannah!-is grieved to the utmost extent of human endurance. However equitable in the abstract the Mosaic laws were, they were practically neutralized, as far as woman was concerned, by this permission of polygamy. It may be said that the instances in which polygamy occurred were rare; that long periods of time take up but brief space in the comprehensive and condensed page of Scripture. But the fact that some of the holiest and wisest men of ancient times evidently were polygamists; that it was a practice not condemned; that it appeared to excite no remark, are all evidences which support the opinion that polygamy was commonly practised; and if so, that woman could not possibly have enjoyed under that code any thing like the elevation and dignity to which she was raised under the hallowed Christian system.

This impure institution operated as unfavourably on children as on women. Who that reads of the impiety of David's sons can doubt that one cause of that impiety must have been the dissensions and conflicting interests of a household where there was a plurality of wives? One of the noblest privileges of woman is the right of educating her offspring; she can only do this adequately in a virtuous home, she must have sufficient authority to preside over the social circle, and direct its arrangements, or she cannot have influence over her child. There could have been little individual authority where many possessed an equal right to rule. The obedience of children mainly depends on the consideration in which a parent is held: long before a child can understand the character of its mother, and obey her from the operation of esteem and love, he can perceive the estimation in which others regard her, and catches the reflection of their manners towards her. Thus the rights of women as mothers were as much endangered, as their privileges as wives must have been depreciated, by this custom.

But not only did the old dispensation labour under a defect in reference to the domestic customs that obtained: there were some of the express laws of the Jews that pressed heavily on woman. The facility of divorce was one of these, particularly as that power depended on the husband, and was apparently constructed with sole reference to his feelings and pleasure. This, we are expressly told by our Lord, was a concession of Moses to the people, for "the hardness of their hearts." "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so," &c. (Mat 19:8.)

The spiritual privileges of woman were not on such a basis of equality as would bear any adequate comparison with the spiritual freedom conferred by the Gospel equally on both sexes. We have seen that women might go up to the house of the Lord, and join in the worship of the sanctuary. The instances are not few when Moses assembled the people of Israel, women as well as men, and delivered his laws to them. Yet the interference of man in the relative positions of father or husband was recognised in spiritual matters even to the disallowing of solemn vows and oaths to the Lord. Under that dispensation the sanctity of vows, their binding character, was expressly acknowledged and adhered to under all circumstances. Jephtha's vow, though it consigned his only daughter to a violent death, was not annulled. It seems to have been the highest form of human intercourse with the Most High, and in this spiritual intercourse between the soul and God, woman was not free; so that equal rights of conscience with man she certainly did not possess. The following is the doctrine of vows: "If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father's house in her youth; and her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her, then all her vows shall stand, &c. But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth, not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand; and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father hath disallowed her. And if she had at all an husband when she vowed, or uttered ought of her lips, wherewith she bound her soul, and her husband heard it, and held his peace at her in the day that he heard it, then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. But if her husband disallow her on the day that he heard it, then he shall make her vow which she vowed, and that which she uttered with her lips, wherewith she bound her soul, of none effect; and the Lord shall forgive her. But every vow of a widow, and of her that is divorced, wherewith they have bound their souls, shall stand against her. And if she vowed in her husband's house, or bound her soul by a bond with an oath, and her husband heard it, and held his peace at her, and disallowed her not, then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. But if her husband hath utterly made them void on the day he heard them, then whatsoever proceedeth out of her lips concerning her vows, or concerning the bond of her soul, shall not stand; her husband hath made them void, and the Lord shall forgive her. Every vow and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may establish it, or her husband may make it void." (Num 30:3-13.)

Under this law Elkanah could have disallowed Hannah's vow, by which she consecrated her son Samuel to the Lord. In secular affairs good order might demand that one sex should be supreme and the other subordinate, but in spiritual matters it was for the dignity of woman, as a rational, intelligent immortal soul, that her conscience should be unfettered, and her intercourse with Heaven unrestricted. The same pure dispensation that forbade polygamy by the lips of its Divine Founder, saying, "He which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they TWAIN shall be one flesh: wherefore they are no more TWAIN but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder;" (Mat 19:4-6)-(the mention of twain here certainly implying two persons, and two only;) and the same decree that forbade divorce to caprice, and restricted it to one offence,-that pure, holy, elevated dispensation, while it conserved all secular arrangements tending to good order and wholesome subordination, raised woman's spiritual privileges and moral obligations to an equal level with man's. The apostle remarks with triumph, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither MALE nor FEMALE: for ye are ALL ONE in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28.)

Another fact marking the immeasurable inferiority of the old dispensation is the circumstance of the Mosaic laws being restrictive in their operation. They were intended for a particular people, for a limited time, for a special purpose. Though, therefore, the women of the Hebrews were elevated by their holy faith far above all heathen nations in social, political, and religious freedom; yet their institutions benefited them only, were restricted to them only, jealous care being observed in the restriction. The women of other nations of the world were not in any way benefited or affected by them. Christianity, like the noon‐day sun, diffuses its beams everywhere;-is sent for the world. Wherever there is an immortal soul, that soul is a subject for its privileges. It knows nothing of exclusiveness. Colour, clime, condition, cannot affect the privileges of Christianity. The monarch in his purple and fine linen, the beggar in his rags, the man in high authority, the woman in lowly obscurity, are equally the recipients of its privileges. The Mosaic law sought the elevation of the Jews-the Christian system provides for the regeneration of the world.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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