In a challenge to Jesus' honor and test of his
Torah-acumen, the Sadducees (referring to Deut 25:5-10) pose a
"Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a
wife, but leaves no child, his brother must take the wife, and raise up
seed for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife,
and when he died left no seed; and the second took her, and died, leaving
no seed; and the third likewise; and the seven left no seed. Last of all,
the woman also died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the
seven had her as wife." (Mark 12:19-23; par. Matt 22:24-28; Luke
While the gospels relate this anecdote as a means of establishing
Jesus' honor, (putting aside the topic of resurrection) it raises for the
modern reader the issue of cultural assumptions. What sort of family
configuration does this case presuppose? Why would brothers even consider
providing their sister-in-law with children? What were ancient Judean
marriage strategies and regulations? What rules of inheritance does this
story assume? In what ways is childbearing related to family honor? It
is clear that this is not a middle-class U.S. family; so what would one
need to know in order to understand this text on its own terms and in an
ancient Palestinian context? My contention here is that a fundamental
aspect of understanding ancient texts, such as those in the Bible, is
knowing something about the kinship forms operant in those societies.
"Kinship" is an abstraction relating to the network of relationships
based upon birth (either real or fictive) and marriage, and it forms one
of the four foundational social domains which social scientists analyze.
While families are a universal phenomenon, they are configured in a
multitude of ways, are controlled by different mechanisms, and serve
different functions. Because humans universally construct relationships
with those to whom they are related by birth or marriage, "family" is
perhaps the easiest set of relationships to misconstrue when observing
another culture; it is the easiest place to ethnocentrically confuse
biology and culture.
The social spheres or domains addressed by social scientists
(politics, economics, religion, and kinship) are never discrete entities
that operate in isolation from one anotherthey are interactive in every
society. But beyond interaction, one sphere may be embedded in another.
By this I mean that its definition, structures, and authority are dictated
by another sphere. As Malina has demonstrated, religion in the ancient
Mediterranean (and specifically with regard to Judean Yahwism) was always
embedded in either politics or kinship (1986).
Kinship in ancient Israel and Judah, as well as in first-century
Palestine, was affected by the political sphere especially in terms of
lawmostly in terms of deviancefor example: incest (Lev
18:6-19), rape (Deut 22:23-29), adultery (Lev 20:10), marriage (Lev 21:7;
Deut 25:5-10), divorce (Deut 24:1-4), and inheritance (Num 27:1-11; Luke
12:13). But kinship also affected politics, most notably in patron-client
relationships (2 Sam 3:3; Josephus, Ant. 18.5.1 [§109]), faction
building (1 Sam 18:17-19), and royal genealogies (2 Sam 3:2-5; Matt
1:1-17). Kinship was affected by religion in terms of purity, for example:
intercourse regulations (John 7:538:11) and the status of spouses
(Deut 7:1-4; Luke 1:5). And kinship affected religion (embedded in
politics) in terms of descent: especially in the importance laid on the
lineages of priests and their wives, but also by regulating cultic
membership for the laity (Phil 3:5). And finally, kinship was interactive
with the economic sphere in terms of occupations (Mark 1:16-20), and the
distributions of dowry, indirect dowry, bridewealth, and inheritance (Luke
12:13). These configurations of kinship practices and norms are
startlingly different from our modern Western experiences, and this is why
such detailed analysis is called for.
It is essential for anyone studying other cultures to have a solid
grasp of her/his own culture. If one wishes to understand ancient Judean
marriage strategies, for example, one must understand that under U.S. law
marriage to close kin (e.g., uncles and nieces, or first cousins) is
illegal. It has been preferable in much of the Middle East, on the other
hand, throughout history. For overviews of U.S. kinship issues, I
recommend Williams (1970) and Schneider (1980). For an analysis of
African American kinship, see Stack (1974). For a sociological/social
psychological analysis of various immigrant families in the U.S., see
Papajohn and Siegel (1975). The following chart highlights a few of the
most significant variables in kinship analysis, and how twentieth century
U.S. society contrasts to that of first-century Judea (for a discussion of
many of these issues, see Malina 1993:119-26):
INSERT Comparative Chart HERE
But one must not underestimate how much American kinship is in the
midst of change. As Jacoby's popular article points out (1990), the U.S.
legal systemand U.S. society as a wholehas been confronted in
the past twenty years with a host of issues which challenge the very
definition of family: in terms of marriage-one parent families, same-sex
marriages, high divorce rates; in terms of paternity and reproduction
invitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, abortion, sperm banks, and DNA and
For those wanting an overview of the sub-discipline of kinship
analysis in the social sciences, I would suggest several possible entry
points. To become acquainted with the larger field, introductions to
anthropology usually include sections on kinship. Howard, for example,
has two relevant sections entitled "Kinship" (185-205) and "Sex, Marriage,
and the Family" (206-38). Overview essays are also available in
International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Sills 1968) and The
Social Science Encyclopedia (Kuper & Kuper 1985) on descent, family,
household, kinship, and marriage.
For more thorough discussions of the theoretical issues, introductions
to kinship will be helpful. Fox (Kinship and Marriage, 1967) provides a
readable overview, focusing especially on different types of descent
principles. But he also includes a detailed analysis of incest as a
persistent issue in anthropological studies (54-76). Keesing's volume
(Kin Groups and Social Structure, 1975) is also a widely used
introduction. He includes excellent charts and diagrams, as well as a
good introductory bibliography. Another useful feature is the inclusion
of twenty-two case studies: summaries of other anthropologists'
ethnographies that illustrate various kinship principles. Goode (The
Family, 1982) employs a sociological rather than anthropological
methodology; but the overlap of the methods is also evident here. He
covers such issues as the biological bases of the family,
legitimacy/illegitimacy, mate selection and marriage, household forms,
role relations, divorce and death, and changes in family patterns. This
is an excellent complement to the anthropological treatments.
For an analysis of kinship issues in contemporary Middle Eastern
cultures (which have many parallels to ancient Israelite and Judean
practices), one should consult Eickelman (1989:151-78) and Hildred Geertz
(1979). Eickelman stresses how "family" is construed in a variety of
ways, and that "blood-ties" are often metaphorical constructs for other
types of association. His overview of marriage strategies and weddings in
the Middle East is also informative. After addressing how earlier kinship
studies have treated the Middle East, Geertz analyzes three sets of issues
which are especially significant: living arrangements (the use of space
and social networks), cultural constructs of "family"including its
relationship to patronage and friendship, and marriage strategies. This
provides a more dynamic view of kinship transactions and their social
significances than one finds in most studies.
For a narrative account of families in a Middle Eastern peasant
village, it is difficult to overestimate the usefulness of Guests of the
Sheik (Fernea 1965). Among the many issues relevant to kinship that
Fernea describes are: marriage and weddings, dowry arrangements, polygyny,
and male and female space.
One aspect of kinship studies one should be aware of is that they
employ a highly specialized vocabulary. Terms such as "affine" (relative
by marriage), "consanguineal" (relative by birth), or "endogamy" (marriage
to close kin) may easily confuse the novice. The glossaries in Schusky
(1964:71-79) and Keesing (1975:147-51) are concise guides through this
linguistic maze. Furthermore, since each culture's kinship terms express
different interests, relationships, and sometimes overlapping meanings, it
is also helpful to analyze the semantics and socio-linguistics of the
"native" terminology; for a helpful guide to asking these questions, see
Fox (240-62). As an example of this type of problem, 'ab (Hebrew),
'abba (Aramaic), patros (Greek), and pater (Latin)
are all translated "father" in English; but each of them has a different
semantic range (see Barr 1988).
Williams draws our attention to three different aspects of kinship
analysis (1970:48). "Kinship structure" is the overall term referring to
the full range of kinship norms and organization. The "family system"
deals with the configuration of the basic kinship unit, for example:
polygamous or monogamous; patrilocal, matrilocal, or neolocal; patriarchal
or matriarchal. A text that raises these types of questions is Leviticus
18 on incest regulations. And "family groups" refer to actual
manifestation of kinship practices in particular forms and permutations,
for example the marriage strategies of Solomon (1 Kgs 3:1-2; 11:1-3).
At the most general level, kinship has two basic social functions:
group formation and inheritance (Howard 1989:204). But group formation
has a variety of dimensions: production (work and food), reproduction and
childrearing, protection, worship, sociality/belonging, patronage, and
play. Neither should inheritance be construed too narrowly as receiving
money from dead relatives. One of the most important aspects of ancient
Mediterranean culture is that status in the form of ascribed honor derives
from one's family (Matt 13:54-57; Mark 6:3; John 7:40-44; Malina
1993:33-39; see below). Another factor to consider is that for peasants,
the primary issue of inheritance was land, not money. Naboth, for
example, is offended at Ahab's offer of money for his ancestral land (1
Kgs 21:1-3). But women's dowries need also to be figured into this
inheritance picture (see below).
At the most basic level of kinship is the household. Elliott's
treatment of 1 Peter in A Home for the Homeless (1981; 1991) includes a
major section analyzing households in the ancient Mediterranean as a unit
of social organization of conjugal families, as well as fictive kin-groups
of different types (165-266). He interprets the importance of the
oikos ("household") as the unit of identity, solidarity, and
status, and how this impacts the use of household as a metaphor of other
types of relationships.
II. History of Research
Focussed research on kinship began in the mid-nineteenth century in
both the U.S. and Europe. Lewis Henry Morgan's League of the
Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851 ) was the culmination
of work he had been doing for a decade on the Iroquois tribes. The five
major works which emerged in the following two decades began the
discussion which has continued since (NB: the foreign works in this list
have all appeared in translation): Henry Summer Maine, Ancient Law (1861
), Johann Jakob Bachofen, Das Mutterrecht (1861 ), Numa
Denis Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité Antique (1864 ), John
Ferguson McLennan, Primitive Marriage (1865 ), and Morgan's
Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1868).
Most of these scholars were lawyers by training, and they were especially
interested in the aspects of kinship represented in law, as well as upon
genealogical and descent principles. For an overview of these early years
of kinship analysis, see Trautmann (1987).
A. R. Radcliffe-Brown's structural-functionalist approach to kinship
was first articulated in his ethnography of Australian tribal groups
(1930-31). Here he introduced a solidly synchronic methodology, in
contradistinction to the previous century's thoroughly historical
approach. In examining the social structure of kinship, Radcliffe-Brown
argued that these structures had to be analyzed in relationship to the
total social organization. In this series of articles he employed a set
of four variablesrespect, joking, avoidance, and
familiarityidentifying each with a specific category of family
relationships. For a discussion of Radcliffe-Brown's contribution see
Fortes (1969:42-59), who argues that these variables remain useful in
Claude Levi-Strauss, proposed in Elementary Forms of Kinship (1949
) to subsume genealogy and descent to marriage relationships in the
organization of kinship: so-called "alliance theory." He pursued the
question of the relationship between the incest taboo and marriage
alliances in primitive cultures, arguing that the incest taboo in
primitive bands was a means of imposing exogamy (marrying outside one's
close kin) in order to create ties to other groups through marriage. By
giving up sexual access to females within their own group, males of one
group contracted access to females of other groups, thereby creating
political and economic interdependence and encouraging common language and
culture. "Exchange," he argues, is the universal key to marriage
prohibitions. Rather than choosing between descent and exchange as the
fundamental principle of organization, Fox points out that these can be
seen as viewing kinship from two different angles (1967:23-24). While
Levi-Strauss's ethnographic analyses, as well as his conclusions, have
been seriously critiqued, many of his insights have continued to influence
Jack Goody has been a leading advocate of synthesizing synchronic
(systemic) and diachronic (historical) approaches (see Goody 1969): "Any
human institution is best understood if one can examine not only its
meaning and function in a particular society but its distribution in space
and time" (1976:2). In his Production and Reproduction: A Comparative
Study of the Domestic Domain (1976) Goody attempts several things: (1) to
provide cross-cultural correlations between different variables especially
marriage, inheritance (including dowry), and economic structures; (2) to
map out a structure of roles, differentiating categorical roles and
behavioral roles: e.g., how a wife fits into a genealogical and descent
schema of a particular society vis ŕ vis how she functions within the
family; and (3) to integrate statistical/mathematical analysis with
In The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage
and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia (1990) Goody
pursues his interests in marriage, inheritance, and economics by
addressing four major regions in a sweeping cross-cultural analysis:
China, India, the Near East, and Greece and Rome. Here he is again
interested in providing a synthesis of synchronic and diachronic
Several books of collected essays provide the reader with a diversity
of methods and ethnographic detail. Readings in Kinship and Social
Structure (Graburn 1971) includes fifty-nine entries grouped under
sixteen headings. These essays and excerpts from books cover a century of
kinship analysis from the 1860s to the 1960s and include historical,
psychological, sociological, and anthropological approaches. The articles
in Kinship and Culture (Hsu 1971) all discuss the importance of
dyadic relationships in the interpretation of kinship structures (e.g.,
fatherson) proposed by the editor. Especially relevant is F.
Barth's article "Role Dilemmas and FatherSon Dominance in Middle
Eastern Kinship Systems" (Hsu 1971:87-95). The Character of
Kinship (Goody 1973) is a Festschrift for Meyer Fortes, and includes
thirteen articles on: Kinship and Descent, The Nature of Kinship, The
Nature of the Family, and Marriage and Affinal Roles. And the articles in
Mediterranean Family Structures (Peristiany 1976) include
ethnographic analyses by anthropologists on a variety of Mediterranean
societies and sub-groups.
III. Family Systems
The work of Emmanuel Todd is significant because he proposes a
typology of the basic family forms throughout the world in The
Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems (1985).
Building upon the model of an eighteenth-century sociologist, Frédéric Le
Play (18061882), Todd makes a bold proposal that identifies the basic
family types with different ideologies:
A universal hypothesis is possible: the ideological system is everywhere
the intellectual embodiment of family structure, a transposition into
social relations of the funda mental values which govern elementary human
relations . . . One ideological category and only one, corresponds to
each family type (1985:17).
Whether or not one accepts Todd's hypothesis of a one-to-one
correspondence between family form and ideology, his typology of family
forms is useful to analyze large, cross-cultural patterns. He employs the
variables of spousal choice (determined by custom, parents, or individual
choice), spousal relationship (exogamy or endogamy), division of
inheritance (equality or unequal shares), and cohabitation of married sons
with their parents. His typology yields seven basic family forms:
1) Exogamous Community Family: equal distribution of inheritance;
cohabitation of sons with parents; and exogamous (33-54)e.g.,
ancient Roman, China, and Russia.
One should keep three factors in mind when employing Todd's typology.
First, these are dominant forms in a given society, not necessarily
practiced by every single family. Secondly, the typology is significant
for historical studies because family forms are relatively constant over
time; this is especially true in peasant societies. And thirdly, Todd has
not fully taken into account the role dowry systems play in inheritance
2) Authoritarian Family: unequal distribution of
inheritanceone son inherits; cohabitation of the married heir with
parents; and exogamous (55-98)e.g., Germany, Japan, and Korea.
3) Egalitarian Nuclear Family: equal inheritance delineated by
rules; no cohabitation of married children with parents; and exogamous
(99-132)e.g., northern France, northern Italy, and Greece.
4) Absolute Nuclear Family: no definite inheritance rules; no
cohabitation of married children with parents; and exogamous
(99-132)e.g., U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
5) Endogamous Community Family: equal inheritance delineated by
rules; cohabitation of married sons with parents; and endogamous
(133-54)e.g., ancient Israelites, and the traditionally Muslim
countries of the Middle East.
6) Asymmetrical Community Family: equal inheritance rules;
cohabitation of married sons with parents; and restricted
endogamymatrilateral cross-cousins (155-70)primarily southern
7) Anomic Family: uncertainty about brothers'
equalityinheritance rules egalitarian in theory, flexible in
practice; cohabitation of married children with parents rejected in
theory, but accepted in practice; and the possibility of endogamy
(171-90)e.g., Indonesia, Philippines, and native South
IV. Genealogy and Descent
"Genealogy" is a particular sub-genre of the genre "list" (note also
in the Bible: king list, administrative list, booty list, itinerary).
They are lists of relatives arranged by generation, but may skip any
number of generations for a variety of reasons. Genealogies may be oral
or literary in origin, and organize relatives (literal or fictive) into
their appropriate relationships by generation and parentage. Their
importance in the biblical tradition is pervasive, usually embedded in
narratives: in the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen 5:4-32), the Deuteronomistic
History (e.g., 2 Sam 5:13-16), the Chronicler's History (e.g., 1 Chron
3:10-24), the short story (e.g., Ruth 4:18-22), the Apocrypha (e.g., 1
Macc 2:1-5), and the gospels (e.g., Matt 1:1-17).
Wilson has analyzed the biblical genealogies in terms of their social
functions and uses in traditional cultures (1977). He provides a
cross-cultural comparison of the biblical genealogies to those of other
traditional peoples (for a brief summary of his conclusions, see Wilson
1992). Wilson's work is significant, not only for the specifics of his
analysis, but also for leading the way among biblical scholars in
employing cross-cultural analysis.
Segmented genealogies (those which identify more than one member per
generation) seldom extend beyond four or five generations, even in written
form. They can serve a number of different functions, separately or
simultaneously. They are important in traditional cultures to defend a
claim to honor (articulating the web of significant family relationships),
identify social roles and obligations, establish inheritance rights,
identify eligible endogamous marriage partners or actual exogamous
partners, and within the family to indicate birth order, honor order, or
motherhood (important in polygynous families).
Linear genealogies (those tracing only one member per generation) are
not as diverse in their interests. Wilson argues that they have one
function: "to ground a claim to power, status, rank, office, or
inheritance in an earlier ancestor. Such genealogies are often used by
rulers to justify their right to rule and by office-holders of all types
to support their claims" (Wilson 1992:931). Wilson also identifies
several metaphorical uses of genealogies: political relationships,
economic or cultic status, and geographical location (1992:931; see also
It is fundamental to note, however, that genealogies are always social
constructs, not objective reflections of reality. That is to say, a
variety of factors affect genealogy construction: how many generations one
covers, whom one includes (all known kin, only males, only the narratively
significant), excludes (females, embarrassing relatives, the narratively
insignificant), puts first and last (the current generation or apical
ancestor), and whether they are patriarchal, matriarchal or
cognaticall of these issues are choices in composing genealogies and
say something about the interests of those who compose or repeat them.
How one composes a genealogy reflects one's social values, perspective,
and specific goals. As Wilson says: "All of them are accurate when their
differing functions are taken into consideration" (1975:182). But one
must add to Wilson's caveat that they are all "accurate" given their
particular construction of reality and cultural matrix. This comports
with another of Wilson's conclusions: "All genealogies, whether oral or
written, are characterized by fluidity" (1992: 930), although writing
tends to limit this fluidity (931).
Johnson analyzes the genealogies in terms of their theological
functions (1988 [1st ed. 1969]), Robinson in terms of literary function
(1986), Auffrecht in terms of history (1988). For an analysis of the
Herodian family's genealogies and a discussion of descent principles, see
Hanson (1989a). Brown's detailed treatment of Jesus' genealogies in
Matthew and Luke is a classic treatment in terms of history, theology, and
literature, but includes no social analysis (1977).
Descent is the series of links which connects the members of a
kin-group to a common ancestor; it defines who constitutes a family
intergenerationally. But Sahlins broadens our perspective here:
[D]escent in major residential groups is a political ideology and not a
mere rule of personal affiliation. It is a way of phrasing political
alignments and making political differentiations. It is a charter of
group rights and an expression of group solidarity. And quite beyond
relating man to man [sic] within the group, the descent ideology makes
connections at a higher level: it stipulates the group's relation, or lack
of relation, to other groups (1968:55).
But societies are interested in different sets of ancestors. The
different principles of descent exemplified throughout the world have
attracted the attention of anthropologists; indeed the overviews of
kinship spend a great deal of space on analyzing the possibilities (Fox
1967:77-174; Keesing 1975:9-100). The primary types are patrilineal,
matrilineal, and cognatic. "Patrilineal descent" traces the kinship
associations through the father's ancestors, "matrilineal descent" through
the females, and "cognatic descent" through a combination of male and
female ancestors (Keesing 1975:17; Hanson 1989a:81-83). For the
standardized patterns of visually diagramming kinship relations, see
Howard (1989:186-88). Reading texts that refer to Israelite, Judean,
Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and other families calls for attention to the
variations of descent principles in these societies.
The consequence of eastern Mediterranean cosmology and anthropology,
employed in both Israelite and Christian writings, is that descent can
only be passed through the generating male (see e.g., Delaney 1987). This
impacts the Mediterranean customs of genealogies, inheritance, residence
patterns, gender-role differentiation, and pollution ideologies.
Studying the biblical genealogies calls for attention to detail with
regard to why the author/redactor has included it, how it is structured,
and whose honor and interests it manifests. Rather than just boring lists
to be quickly passed over, genealogies are important texts which pass on
key information to the reader. In the present text of Ruth, for example,
it becomes clear that, given the genealogy in 4:18-22, the story stands in
the interests of the Judean monarchy. The genealogies of Jesus in Matt
1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 are also structured differently and have different
apical ancestors, and therefore different intentions.
V. Marriage and Divorce
In traditional societies, the marriage of a male and female is seldom
(if ever) an arrangement between individuals. It is a social contract
negotiated between families, with economic, religious, and (occasionally)
political implications beyond the interests of sexuality, relationship,
and reproduction. As a Moroccan informed Hildred Geertz: "Arranging
marriages is a highly serious matter, like waging war or making big
business deals" (Geertz 1979:363).
The three primary strategies for choosing a spouse are: custom (e.g.,
preference for close kin), the choice of the parents, and the choice of
the marrying individuals. But even where custom is a heavy determinant,
the parents or other relatives may play a key role in the precise choice.
One cannot say that one of these strategies fits all of the biblical
texts, since the Bible covers such a long time-period and diverse cultural
pressures. Malina has summarized some of the key shifts in the following
INSERT Malina Chart HERE
I have argued that, in the "defensive" strategy practiced among
Judeans of the second temple period, endogamy had become the dominant
practice (Hanson 1989b:143-44), which comports with what Malina identifies
with the symbol of "holy seed" (above). This is demonstrable in the
apocryphal books of Judith (8:2) and Tobit (1:9; 3:15-17; 4:12-13), as
well as Jubilees (second-century B.C.), which retells biblical stories.
Of the fifty-one known marriages within the Herodian family twenty-four of
them were endogamous (1989b: 144). For help through the maze of issues
(and secondary literature) on cousin-marriage in the Middle East, one
should consult Holy (1989).
Divorce is the severing of the marriage bond. And just as marriage in
the ancient Mediterranean was the negotiating between and binding of
families, divorce also has broad social ramifications. It potentially
affects the disposition of the woman's dowry, the change of residences,
the ability to find another spouse, and the honor of the families.
The gospel texts relating to divorce provide two different
perspectives. In Mark 10:2-9 the Jesus-saying indicates that divorce was
allowed under no circumstance. Matt 5:31-32 and 19:3-9 allow divorce in
the case of the wife's adultery, paralleling the rabbinic school of
Shammai (m.Git. 9.10a).
For an analysis of Roman divorce practices, one should consult the
essays by Treggiari and Corbier in Rawson (1991:31-46; 47-78). On the
freedom and social evaluation of divorce Treggiari concludes:
[I]n the classical period, it was an option available in law to both
husband and wife. Both marriage and divorce were free. No automatic
social stigma attached to the spouse who divorced or the spouse who was
divorced. The upper class, at least, may show a tendency towards not
attributing blame in unilateral divorce and towards preferring bilateral
divorce bona gratia. (in Rawson 1991:46)
And Corbier sees divorce and adoption in the larger framework of Roman
acquisition of honor, power, and social networks. They were
. . . used by the Roman aristocracy as special, additional strategies
among a whole range of other strategies aimed at regulating the
circulation of women and wealth, the formation of alliances between
families and between individuals, and the definition of legitimacy in the
context of political power. (in Rawson 1991:77)
These factors are important to early Christian writings since they would
have heavily influenced the cultural ethos of the first-century
Mediterranean. The Pauline and other epistles have a great deal to say on
marriage and divorce (e.g., 1 Cor 7:1-16; Eph 5:216:9; Col 3:18-4:1;
1 Thess 4:3-8; 1 Pet 3:1-8; 1 Pet 3:1-7).
VI. Dowries, Bridewealth, and Inheritance
"Dowry" is the property that a bride's family provides the bride or
couple (usually under the control of her husband) at the time of marriage.
This might be movable property (such as bedding, cooking utensils,
jewelry, animals), immovable property (land and buildings), cash, or a
combination of these. It is mentioned in the Bible in the context of the
patriarchal narratives as well as the early Israelite monarchy (Heb.
šilluchim, lit. "those things which are sent" or "gifts"; Gen
16; 1 Kgs 9:16). We also find evidence for dowries in the literatures of
Babylonia, Nuzi, Ugarit, Greece, Rome, and Judah. For a cross-cultural
analysis of these ancient societies' dowry systems, see Hanson (1990); for
dowry systems in Eurasia, see Goody and Tambiah (1973).
Three cross-cultural studies of pre-industrial societies have appeared
which inform our understanding of dowry. Goody was the first to
demonstrate that dowry has broader implications than just as one aspect of
a marriage transaction. It is, in fact, a payment of a daughter's share
of the family inheritance (full or partial) given to the daughter at the
time of marriage (see e.g., Gen 31:14-16; Josh 15:18-19; and m. Ket. 6.6).
Women in traditional, patriarchal societies shift from being "embedded
in" (under the authority, legal responsibility, and care of) their fathers
to their husband (e.g., m. Ket. 4.4-5). Thus the groom was given the
woman's property to administer (the legal term is "usufruct"); but it
nonetheless belonged to her and was passed to her children, as distinct
from the personal property of the husband, or his kin-group, or his
children from other marriages. This is nowhere made clearer than in the
Code of Hammurapi (CH §§137-184), where the laws of inheritance, dowry,
indirect dowry, and bridewealth are all interconnected. For examples, see
Tobit (third/second-century B.C.), Mibtachiah's dowry arrangements in the
Elephantine papyri (fifth-century B.C.), and the Babatha documents from
the Trans-Jordan (second-century A.D.).
Harrell and Dickey build upon Goody's work by further elucidating the
functions and intentions of the dowry (1985). They argue that the dowry
is not only an economic transaction, but is also an expression of the
family's honor on the occasion of a daughter's wedding. The size of the
dowry demonstrates to the community how wealthy the family is, and is one
signal of their publicly displayed honor. This is not hoarded wealth, but
transmitted wealth, providing the daughter with her portion of the
family's goods, money, and property. Schlegel and Eloul extend the
discussion of honor beyond the public display of wealth: a dowry may also
be the means of acquiring honor or a client: a son-in-law of higher
status increases the family's honor, or one of lower status may enlist him
and his family as clients (1988:301).
They go on to define the economic character of marriage more
precisely. They approach marriage transactions as "a function of the
kind of property relations within the society" (294), and as a means of
adjusting "labor needs, the transmission of property, and status concerns"
(305). They conclude that several characteristics are exhibited by
societies that utilize dowry and indirect dowry:
It is clear that all of these characteristics are evident among
first-century Judeans, and thus provide a social profile to accompany the
marriage transactions one observes in the biblical kinship arrangements.
- They are "complex agricultural and commercial pastoralist societies,"
rather than foragers, horticulturalists, or subsistence pastoralists (294)
- They have substantial private property (294)
- They have three or more social classes (297)
- They are patrilocal (298)
- Women play a minor role in subsistence (299)
"Bridewealth" is a term that covers a wide range of transfers of goods
and services from the groom's kin to the bride's kin. And, as Goody makes
clear, these diverse transactions have very different implications for
social structure (1973:2). Like dowry, bridewealth is also attested in
texts from ancient Israel (Heb. mohar; e.g., Gen 34:12),
post-biblical Judea (e.g., m. Ket. 1.2; 5.1), as well as in Babylonia,
Nuzi, Ugarit, and Greecebut not Rome.
"Indirect dowry" is property and/or cash given by the groom's kin
either directly to the bride or indirectly through her kin; it may be all
or part of the bridewealth. The story of Isaac's betrothal to Rebekah
demonstrates both indirect dowry (in the form of silver and gold jewelry,
and clothing) as well as general bridewealth given to her mother and
brother (Gen 24:53; see possibly Luke 15:8-10).
One may discount arguments that ancient cases of indirect dowry
constituted the sale of the bride. Finley has demonstrated that ancient
Greek marriage transactions could not be construed in terms of sale (1981
). The Hebrew, Akkadian, and Greek technical terms are all
associated with "gift-giving" rather than "sale." Bridewealth was used in
Jewish society to purchase furniture and household goods for the couple.
This does not, however, lead us to conclude that a daughter was a
free-agent in the marriage transaction in the ancient Near East, nor that
her rights were the same as that of a son.
Dowries and indirect dowries, as already noted, originate in opposite
families. On the other hand, they have the same (or similar) economic
result by bestowing property on the new couple. This gives each family a
vested interest in the new couple. Bridewealth that is not handed over to
the bride is utilized in some societies to secure wives for the bride's
brothers, if she has any: "Indeed it involves a kind of rationing system.
What goes out for a bride has to come in for a sister" (Goody 1973:5).
The place of indirect dowry in combination with dowry in agonistic
societies (such as those in the Mediterranean) is a procedure for
balancing honor concerns. By these means both contracting families avoid
becoming too indebted to the other (read: becoming the client of the
other); see Schlegel and Eloul (1988:303).
In her provocative historical and anthropological synthesis on the
roots of patriarchy, Lerner outlines the importance of taking class and
economics into any analysis of marriage arrangements. She makes it clear
that the stratification of society is perpetuated by dowries and
bridewealth: homogamy (marriage within the group of one's own social
level) circulates property and wealth within particular social classes
(1986:108). Furthermore, concubinage and slavery serve to keep a segment
of the women disenfranchised and powerless. In this vein, it is important
to note that the regulations for early Christian families assume that
household slaves are an integral part of the family structure (see Eph
6:5-9 and Col 4:1).
Goody (1973:21) summarizes the variables involved in bridewealth and
dowries (direct and indirect) in pre-industrial societies:
INSERT Goody Chart HERE
INSERT diagram HERE
For a collection of essays on dowry and bridewealth in cross-cultural
perspective, see Comaroff (1980). In Comaroff's introduction, previous
theories and approaches are evaluated (1-47).
Inheritance is the disposition of movable and immovable property, most
commonly at the death of the male head of the family (e.g., Gen 25:29-34;
Sir 33:23; Luke 12:13; 15:11-12). But, as discussed above, Goody has also
demonstrated that dowry is a means of "pre-mortem inheritance" given to
the daughters at the time of their marriage.
Emmanuel Todd's methodology is demonstrably sexist when it comes to
determining inheritance traditions (under his rubrics of "equality" and
"inequality" [1985:7]). He fails to take two variables into account. In
dowry-giving societies, such as those represented in the Bible and much of
the ancient Mediterranean world, the dowry functions as pre-mortem
inheritance (viz. a daughter's share of the family wealth given before her
father's death). And secondly, while Todd attempts to construct a kinship
typology of the whole world, he fails to consider that in many societies
(including ancient Roman and the U.S.) both sons and daughters may inherit
equally at the parents' death; he only speaks of sons inheriting (see also
Numb 27:3-4; Job 42:15). Note that the wife is included neither in the
Numbers prescriptive list, nor in most ancient lists of successors. The
reason is that her portion was her dowry and indirect dowry.
Deut 21:17 designates a double portion for the eldest son. This was
also practiced in late Judaism (m. B.B. 8:3-5), as well as in Nuzi and Old
Babylonia, but not in Greece or Rome.
VII. The Israelite/Judean Family
For overviews of the kinship issues in the Bible, see Patai
(1959/1960), Malina (1993: 117-48), Hanson (1989a; 1989b; 1990), and the
articles in the Anchor Bible Dictionary by Collins, Hamilton,
Wilson, and Wright (1992). Among those treating the biblical texts, only
Patai, Malina, Hanson, and Wilson employ social scientific methods. The
others take a basically descriptive or historical approach; the usefulness
of these others resides in their identification of historical shifts and
the listing of texts.
Patai aims to provide a comprehensive overview of biblical texts
related to kinship; his citation of texts is nearly exhaustive for each
topics: marriage and divorce, sexuality, child-bearing and rearing,
childhood, the life cycle, and inheritance.
Malina provides the reader with a brief introduction to kinship
analysis along with its importance for biblical studies (1993:117-48).
Besides the synchronic/diachronic chart of marriage strategies (see
above), one of the most helpful features of Malina's treatment is his
comparison of the main structural features of ancient Judean and modern
U.S. kinship systems (119-26).
For a detailed analysis of the levels of Israelite society as it
relates to kinship, one should consult Gottwald (1979). Here Gottwald
analyzes the configurations of the "tribe" (Heb. ševet), a
territorial and organizational grouping (245-56); the "clan"
(mišpachah), a protective association of extended families
(257-84); and the "father's house" (bayith/beth 'av), the extended,
residential family (285-92). He also argues persuasively that Israel
never manifested the exogamous clan (298-315).
Goody provides an analysis of the marriage strategies in Genesis and
Ruth and their implications (1990:242-60). And Pilch contrasts the
parenting styles and strategies of the modern U.S. to those articulated in
the Bible, especially in Proverbs and Ben Sira (1991:71-94; 1993); note
especially his helpful charts (1991:75-76; 1993:102-3).
Using the Herodian family as a test case, I explored the main issues
in kinship studies with regard to ancient Israel and Judah through the
second temple period: genealogy and descent (Hanson 1989a), marriage and
divorce (1989b), and the economics of kinship: inheritance and dowry
systems (1990). These each include cross-cultural comparisons to
Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, Greek, Roman, and U.S. practices.
Steinberg analyzes the marriages in Gen 1150 using both
anthropology and literary criticism (1993). Her work is important for the
way in which she integrates issues of descent, marriage, and inheritance.
She argues that the marriage strategies manifested in these texts are
employed in order to provide continuity of descent and to establish
heirship. She organizes her analysis by the wives and marriage strategy:
Sarah & Hagar (polycoity), Rebekah (monogamy), and Rachel & Leah (sororal
VIII. The Greek Family
A wide-ranging analysis of the family in archaic and classical Greek
society is carried out by W. K. Lacey (1968). The macro-structure of the
book is historical and geographical in sequence: archaic (Homeric) Greece
(33-50); the development of the city-states (51-83); Athens (84-176);
Plato's ideal state, Sparta, and Crete (177-216); and other states
(217-33). The micro-structure is synchronic, dealing with the oikos
("household"), marriage strategies, children, property, the life-cycle,
aristocracy, law, the status of women, etc. An important complement to
Lacey's study is that of Hunter (1993), who explores the social
implications of law in comparison to actual practice of Greek kinship
structures and the impact these both had on the lives of Greek women.
Other relevant studies on particular aspects of ancient Greek kinship
are: kinship patterns (Humphreys 1986), marriage and family (Wolff 1944;
Thompson 1967), sibling relationships (Cox 1988), inheritance and dowry
(Levy 1963; Herzfeld 1980), blood-ties (du Boulay 1984), and women's roles
and rights (Schaps 1979; Humphreys 1983; Visser 1986; Versnel 1987; Henry
Campbell provides an outstanding ethnography of kinship among modern
Greek peasants kinship in his Honour, Family and Patronage (1964:36-212).
His analysis is especially illuminating with regard to family structure
and roles. Friedl's Vasilika (1962) provides a useful complement to
Campbell. She covers issues of family economics, consumption, dowries,
and inheritance (18-74). These works, though modern, are helpful because
of the many historical continuities in Greek social structure; and the
examples they employ are from real families in real situations, and
complement reconstructions from law codes, literary works, and
The importance of Greek kinship issues for biblical studies is two
fold. Firstly, Greek culture affected the entire eastern Mediterranean,
and as far east as India through the hellenization policies of Alexander
the Great and his successors (esp. the Seleucids in Syria and the
Ptolemies in Egypt), who controlled Judah for approximately two hundred
years. Secondly, many of the earliest Christian communities were formed
in Greece: e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, and Philippi.
IX. The Roman Family
The details of Roman kinship have been of particular interest to
anthropologists through the years for several reasons: the specificity of
Latin legal terminology for kinship relations and arrangements, the
comprehensiveness of Roman law, and the influence of Roman law on Western
culture. For a brief overview of the Roman family and household, see
Garnsey and Saller (1984:126-47).
Two volumes of collected essays edited by Beryl Rawson provide
detailed studies of Roman kinship issues. In The Family in Ancient Rome:
New Perspectives (1986) nine scholars contribute essays from general
overviews (Rawson 1-57) to examinations of individual cases for their
broader implications (e.g., Suzanne Dixon, "Family Finances: Terentia and
Tullia," 93-120). The bibliographic essay by Binkowski and Rawson (243
57) will guide the researcher through the massive literature. And the
extensive bibliography will be of special interest to those wishing to
pursue detailed issues (258-72).
In the second volume, Marriage, Divorce and Children in Ancient Rome
(Rawson 1991) nine more essays are offered. Again, they range from
overviews (e.g., Rawson, "Adult-Child Relationships in Roman Society,"
7-30) to very focussed ethnographic/archaeological analyses (e.g.,
Wallace-Hadrill, "Houses and Households: Sampling Pompeii and
Herculaneum," 191- 227). One should note that all the contributors to
these two volumes are classicists/social historians rather than
In examining kinship issues (or any other social phenomena), it is
important not to treat them in isolation. Social institutions do not
exist in a vacuum: they interact with, overlap, and change in response to
other institutions. Social institutions form a network or web of
relationships. Economics at the local level in ancient Palestine was
controlled largely by kinship institutions: what a person's parents did
for a living usually determined what that person didfarmers'
children became farmers, potters' children became potters. Kinship also
interacted with politics since traditional monarchies followed patrilineal
descent principles. And religion interacted with kinship in that
membership in the Israelite cultic community was based upon birth, as was
membership in the priesthood.
The nuances of laws, group regulations, and preferences are
distinctive in each society and historical period. Kinship studies
provide an analytical framework within which to ask questions, organize
data, and make cross-cultural comparisons. The characters we find in the
Bible lived and worked in families far different from our own; and if we
want to understand their experiences, perspectives, and values, we will
need to understand the different kinds of families in which they were
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