Marriage and Bride Price Essay

Submitted By yaremis
Words: 1530
Pages: 7

We have seen that pre-literate societies used bride price to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of labor and Israelite society restricted it to a token amount as a symbol of engagement. In Babylonia the bride price almost always became part of the dowry. Depending on social status, the bride price could represent a significant transfer of wealth---perhaps a house and several acres of land--- but at the bottom of the economic ladder it might have been little more than an item of furniture or some kitchen utensils. Whatever it was it was, it became part of the new household’s assets and as such was administered by the husband, but legally it had to be kept separate for it was designed for the support of the wife and her children. (151-152)

It frequently happened that the bride remained in her father’s house for as much as a year after the contract was signed. If in the course of that time the groom changed his mind he did not have to marry her but he lost the full bride price. (159) The bride’s father might also have changed his mind, in which case he would have been required to refund the purchase price in full (160). If a wife died before giving birth to a son the dowry, less the bride price, was returned immediately to her father’s house (163-164). We will see later how the law strictly regulated the disposal of the dowry in other cases. Daughters did not normally inherit anything from their father’s estate. Instead they got a dowry that was intended to offer as much lifetime security for the bride as her family could afford.

At marriage a woman’s sexuality became the property of her husband. Adultery was defined in Babylonia as elsewhere in the ancient world as a sexual relationship between a married woman and a man not her husband. The marital status of the man was irrelevant. Even the appearance or possibility of adultery was taken very seriously. A wife caught in the act of adultery was to be tied to her lover and thrown into the water and drowned. A husband could save his wife but then he had to save her lover as well. (129)

By its nature adultery is a secretive activity, yet the mere possibility of such a serious offence was disruptive of the social order. If a woman’s husband accused her she may in the presence of a priest swear to her innocence and then return to her husband’s home. If someone else accused her she would have to undergo an ordeal in which she would swear before the gods to her innocence and then jump into the river. If she drowned it was a sign of guilt; if she survived it meant that the river spirits knew of her virtue and saved her. (Note that this is the reverse of the medieval European ordeal.) To the modern mind judgment was based on the woman’s ability to swim, but the ancient Babylonians were convinced of supernatural intervention. Swearing innocence was not as easy as it sounds because most people were quite certain that the gods would punish anyone who lied in their names, but any wife willing to risk divine retribution was free to return to her home if her only accuser was a jealous husband. If an outsider laid the charge the woman was likely to lose because few in Babylonia knew how to swim. Whatever the justice of the verdict for the individual, the matter was settled and order was restored in the community. (131-132)

Although marriages were arranged by the parents, there is no reason to suppose that they did not involve considerable love, affection and mutual support. Some relationships were bound to fail, however, and the code spelled out in considerable detail all of the options. If he simply ran away and deserted her she was free to marry someone else; even if he returned later he could not reclaim her; nor could she opt to return to her first husband: the Code, not the woman, made the choice. (136)

A man could divorce his wife without giving a reason, but if she had borne him children there were some serious conditions: she kept