Note: This is the second post in an ongoing series where we look at what the Bible actually says about marriage. The first post can be found here.
The concept of marriage is refined in Exodus mostly through concrete laws established directly from God. Some of these laws reflect the status of women during the time of Moses, and it isn’t pretty. There are also some anecdotes that reinforce their likely sexist implementation.
First, we’re shown that women, or at least daughters, do not have complete control over who they can marry. After Moses flees Egypt, he rescues Reuel’s (or is it Jethro’s?) daughters from some shepherds. Raul then gives Moses one of his daughters, Zipporah, as a wife (Ex. 2:21). Now granted, the first couple chapters of Exodus are very abbreviated, so maybe Moses had some time to wine and dine Zipporah, and they fell in love. Maybe. Or maybe not. Exodus doesn’t say either way. If the customs were similar to those in the times of Genesis (think Rebekah) there’s no reason to think Zipporah had any say in the matter.
Exodus further reinforces the lower status of women when they are not counted among the fleeing Israelites (Ex. 12:37).
Only some of the laws God presents about marriage have survived to modern times, and for good reason. Exodus 21:1-11 lays out some rules governing slavery, which includes the marriage and rights of female slaves and their children. No surprise here, female slaves are, well, still slaves. The marriage is owned by the master. Moving on.
Fornication and rape are considered in the law too. If a virgin who is not betrothed is “seduced” by a man, the man must pay the “bride-price” and then marry her (Ex. 22:16-17). The father of the former virgin is responsible for accepting or rejecting the marriage. Regardless, there is clearly a value tied to the purity of a woman. No doubt this law can be used to protect a woman from a culture that’s made a perversion out of virginity, however, the decision (by the law) is not hers to be made, and it’s not hard to imagine the scenario where a woman is forced to marry her rapist after he’s paid off her father.
God suggests that the Israelites avoid intermarrying with other peoples out of concern that they’ll stray from their tradition and worship the pagan gods (Ex. 34:15-16). A good strategy for maintaining the faith, but it doesn’t do much for marriage. As he said, he’s a jealous god.
There are two laws regarding marriage in the Ten Commandments and they seem to have survived to today. The seventh commandment prohibits adultery (Ex. 20:14), and the tenth coveting someone else’s wife (Ex. 20:17). Seems reasonable.
I will point out, however, that given women’s status in Exodus (mentioned at the beginning of this post) and what we’ve observed in more recently history (i.e. in some cultures men can’t commit adultery, only women), I’m doubtful that the rules applied equally to husband and wife during the time of Exodus.
Last point: after two books, the structure of marriage is still ill-defined in the Old Testament, but it’s clear that women don’t get a fair shake.