Family Life and Sexuality in Ancient Israel

In early Israel (c. 1200-1000 BCE), families lived in small villages of about 400 people. Houses were made of mudbrick with stone foundations and 3-4 rooms. Relatives maintained close connections by building homes in clusters around a common courtyard. This central area also held animals. The Israelites herded sheep and goats, tended fruit trees, and worked as farmers. Literacy rates were likely low to non-existent among these simple villagers. As urbanization began to develop in the 10th and 9th centuries, agriculture remained important, but advancements occurred in trade and commerce. Population growth developed in cities.

Women usually married around puberty. In the monarchic period the nuclear family probably included 2-4 children. A woman likely needed about 10 pregnancies to have 3 surviving children. In addition to caring for offspring, women labored alongside men to help the family survive. They engaged in weaving, grinding grain, making textiles, and tending animals. The biblical authors also describe women as sages (2 Sam 14:1-20; 20:14-22), prophets (Exodus 15:20-21; Judg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14), musicians and dancers (Exod 15:2-21; 1 Sam 18:6-7; 2 Sam 19: 35 [36]; Eccl 2:8; Jer 31:4), religious personnel (Exod 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22) and, in at least one case, a judge (Judg 4-5). 

Children likely began working at a young age. They could be sold as debt-slaves. Both the Covenant Code and the Deuteronomic Code regulated slavery for fellow Israelites. Sometimes children were adopted to provide an heir (boys) or a wife (girls). A girl’s status depended on what her owner or adopter decided to do with her. If she was married off to the patriarch’s son, she maintained status. However, if she was given in marriage to a slave, she lost status. Despite growing up fast, play probably existed among Israelite children. Ancient pull toys have been found in the region (see pictures).

Sexuality in Ancient Israel

A common misconception is that Israel was sexually pious while the surrounding nations were rife with promiscuity. This understanding stems from the biblical authors’ exaggerated polemic. The practices of Israel’s neighbors can best be summed up in this old Egyptian proverb: “Ask a woman, what is her husband; ask a man what is his profession.” Patricentrism was the norm across the ancient Near East. Fathers were head of the household and women’s sexuality was carefully monitored to ensure inheritance passed down legitimate bloodlines.

As in other nations, Israel prohibited incest and adultery. However, adultery was defined differently for men and women. For women, any extra-marital sex constituted adultery. She was expected to be a virgin on her wedding day and provide proof of it (Deut 22:13-21). After marriage, she could only have sex with her husband. For men, adultery meant having sex with a woman betrothed or married to another man.

Men could lawfully have sex with female slaves, concubines, or prostitutes even while married. No Israelite law banned sex with a prostitute. However, it was frowned upon by some biblical authors (and other ancient Near Eastern writers). If a man had sex with an unbetrothed girl, he could be required to marry her (otherwise the girl would not be marriageable). This was true even if he raped her (Deut 22:28-29; see also 2 Sam 13:1-21). Men could also marry more than one wife. Israelite law regulated the practice (Exod 21:10-11; Deut 21:15-17). While polygyny was likely rare among the average male, a common man might take a second wife if his first spouse was ill or infertile. A wealthy man, however, could afford more wives.

It appears that male sexuality did not become more restricted until around the 2nd century BCE. By this time, Greeks had introduced monogamous marriage to the ancient world. Jewish writings from Qumran argue against polygyny by using the story of Noah and the ark: the animals entered two by two. Other Jewish writings, including Sirach (23:18), Josephus’s Against Apion (2.201), and Jubilees (25:4-7) all suggest sexual exclusivity for men in a way not found in the Old Testament. Increasingly, not only were Jewish men expected to have one wife, but also avoid sex with slaves, concubines, and prostitutes.

The biblical authors, as typical throughout the ancient Near East, considered sex to be closely tied to procreation. But they also valued sexual pleasure. The biblical narrative includes the story of Sarah contemplating the thought of enjoying marital pleasure in her old age (Gen 18:12). The author of Proverbs 5:19 encourages a man to enjoy the breasts of his wife. And Song of Songs indicates awareness and appreciation of romantic love—although the book was accepted into the biblical canon as a metaphor of love between God and people.

Recommended Reading:

For a much more detailed description of sexuality in ancient Israel and early Christianity see my article “Sexuality, Critical Issues” in the Lexham Bible Dictionary. You can view this article online for free at Faithlife Study Bible: http://bible.faithlife.com/books/lbd. You will be asked to create an account to log in. When you search for the article, you must include the phrase “critical issues” as there is another article by a different author in LBD by simply “Sexuality.” Once logged in to Faithlife Study Bible go to the upper right search field and type in “LBD”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary icon should appear for you to click. Once you are in LBD, search for the article as “Sexuality, Critical Issues.” You know you have the right article if it begins with the descriptor: “A survey of Israelite and early Christian perspectives on sexuality in their ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman contexts.”  Topics covered include: marriage, procreation, incest, adultery, virginity, prostitution, homoeroticism, and erotic art and literature.

Sources for this essay:

Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).

Kristine Henriksen Garroway, Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014).

Karen Keen, “Sexuality, Critical Issues” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2014).

Carol Meyers, “The Family in Early Israel” in Families in Ancient Israel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 1-47.

Note: It should be pointed out that we don’t know exactly how the law codes in the biblical texts might have been used (or not used), or when they may have been written. The same is often true for other biblical narratives. However, these writings are the primary source we have for getting at how Israelites might have practiced their sexuality.

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