Did Old Testament Men Treat Their Wives Like Property?

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/01/2017

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.

There are also examples of individual men who don’t fit the wives-as-property narrative. I often think of the kindness of Hannah’s husband towards her when she was unable to have children:

Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8)

And listen to this interaction between Boaz and Ruth:

Boaz replied to her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband has been fully reported to me, and how you left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and came to a people that you did not previously know. May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.” ... Then he said [after Ruth expressed a desire for marriage], “May you be blessed of the Lord, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich. Now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence.” (Ruth 2:11–12; 3:10–11)

One might object, “But men paid a ‘bride price’ for their wives!” True, but it certainly doesn’t follow that they believed they bought their wives and thought of them as property. The money paid by a man to a woman’s parents proved the man valued her and could take care of her (this seems similar to an engagement ring today), and it expressed indebtedness to the parents.

We see this practice when Jacob works for many years in order to earn the right to marry Rachel:

Now Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” ... So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her. (Gen. 29:18–20)

It was his love for Rachel that compelled him to serve her father for seven years. This does not come across as a misogynistic business transaction. Consider, also, this interaction between Rebekah and her parents when Abraham’s servant sought to bring her home as a bride for Isaac:

[T]hey said, “We will call the girl and consult her wishes.” Then they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.” Thus they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse with Abraham’s servant and his men.... [S]he became [Isaac’s] wife, and he loved her.... (Gen. 24:57–59)

Throughout the Bible, we see interactions like this as a rule, not as exceptions (though, of course, there are exceptions of bad behavior, just as there are today). All verses in the Old Testament (particularly in the Law), since they come from a culture unfamiliar to us, ought to be interpreted in light of passages like the ones quoted above. There’s a tendency for people to jump to the worst possible interpretation of everything, but that isn’t fair to the text. 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.