Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East

Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near EastMarriage and Family in the Ancient Near East

VICTOR H. MATTHEWS

An examination of the laws and customs that deal with marriage and fam- ily in the ancient Near East is necessarily incomplete. Scholars are limited in their conclusions by the fragmentary nature of the available evidence from that distant time. Therefore, much of what will be said below will be subject to change as new discoveries come to light. The following view, however in- complete, of life in ancient Mesopotamia is based on law codes, personal cor- respondence, business records, the annals of kings, religious documents, and archaeological data. This examination of marriage customs and family life will deal with the patriarchal nature of ancient society, the arrangement of mar- riage alliances, the importance of children, social problems such as divorce and adultery, and finally the protections afforded to widows.

PATRIARCHY

While there are some who would suggest that matriarchal social structures existed or even dominated in the ancient Near East,1 the weight of evidence indicates that male dominance was the rule and that patriarchal lineage and inheritance systems were the norm in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. One of the clearest indications of this situation is found in the mandate for a woman to worship the personal or household god of her male protector. Thus, ini- tially, a woman would worship the god of her father, and then, once her marriage contract had been arranged and she had officially joined the new household of her husband, she would transfer her worship to the god of her husband.2 This practice is also echoed in the story of Rebekah’s betrothal to  Isaac and her quick decision to leave her father’s household once the mar- riage contract was concluded (Gen 24:50-60).

Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East

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