Did Old Testament Men Treat Their Wives Like Property?

The sense I am left with after reading the Bible as a whole is that men loved and appreciated their wives, just as they do today.

By law, a newly married man had to be free for a year in order to “give happiness to his wife.” It seems significant that the stated goal is to make the wife happy. For a year. By law. If women were considered property, I could imagine a law saying the husband should be free to enjoy his wife for a year, but not one saying he should be free to make her happy for a year. And the fact that this was a law means it was a society-wide value. The whole society would have to be behind this in order for it to work—in order for a man to stay at home for a year, bringing happiness to his wife.

 

Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone throw out the idea that men in the Old Testament treated their wives like property as if it’s an obvious, accepted fact. I’m not convinced it’s true. Granted, I’m sure there were some men who did, just as there are terrible husbands now; but in the main, the passages I read in the Bible about husbands and wives don’t look at all like men viewing their wives as property. Here are a few verses that come to mind.

The first is a law in Deuteronomy:

When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out with the army nor be charged with any duty; he shall be free at home one year and shall give happiness to his wife whom he has taken. (Deut. 24:5)

By law, a newly married man had to be free for a year in order to “give happiness to his wife.” It seems significant that the stated goal is to make the wife happy. For a year. By law. If women were considered property, I could imagine a law saying the husband should be free to enjoy his wife for a year, but not one saying he should be free to make her happy for a year. And the fact that this was a law means it was a society-wide value. The whole society would have to be behind this in order for it to work—in order for a man to stay at home for a year, bringing happiness to his wife.

Next, look at Song of Solomon—an entire book of the Bible dedicated to a relationship between a man and a woman.

You have made my heart beat faster, my sister, my bride;
You have made my heart beat faster with a single glance of your eyes.
With a single strand of your necklace.
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine…. (4:9–10)

And the woman is given equal time in this book:

He has brought me to his banquet hall,
And his banner over me is love….
My beloved is mine, and I am his…. (2:4, 16)

I was asleep but my heart was awake.
A voice! My beloved was knocking;
Open to me, my sister, my darling,
My dove, my perfect one! …
I arose to open to my beloved;
And my hands dripped with myrrh,
And my fingers with liquid myrrh,
On the handles of the bolt…. (5:2–5)

Again, there’s no hint here that the man views the woman as his property. Neither do we find such a view in the description of the “excellent wife” in Proverbs 31; rather, we see respect, honor, and appreciation:

[H]er worth is far above jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
And he will have no lack of gain….
She considers a field and buys it;
From her earnings she plants a vineyard….
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future.
She opens her mouth in wisdom,
And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue….
Her children rise up and bless her;
Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
“Many daughters have done nobly,
But you excel them all.”

It’s reasonable to expect that the literature and Law that served as the foundation of their society (i.e., the Old Testament) both shaped and reflected the values of that Old Testament society.

Read More