Marriage in Numbers

Note: This is the fourth post in an ongoing series where we look at what the Bible actually says about marriage. Earlier posts can be found here, here, and here. 

Numbers contains a hodgepodge of rules and laws related to marriage. Once again, the common theme is misogyny.

Numbers 5 describes an infidelity test that a jealous or suspicious husband can have his wife take. Basically, the woman drinks some magic water from the priest that puts a curse on her. If she’s been unfaithful, she’ll miscarry. And if she has a miscarriage, well, justice (i.e. death) awaits (Lev. 20:10). Notice that there’s no equivalent trial for a husband. Considering the rather permanent nature of the consequences, the uncomfortably high chances for a false positive, and it’s blatant sexist bias, this test seems wildly inappropriate and unjust.

Numbers, of course, gets its name from the two censuses taken at the beginning and end of the book. Those results are used by God to fairly distribute to Israel its inheritance, or share of the promised land. Here, as in Leviticus, women are considered to be worth less than men. Actually, because the census only counted men aged at least twenty years, women don’t count at all!

This didn’t sit well with the daughters of the deceased Zelophehad. He had no sons, and therefore they were to receive no inheritance from God: so they objected to Moses. God conceded that they were deserving of their father’s inheritance, gave it to them, and then proclaimed a general rule of inheritance that applies to this and other scenarios when a man dies without a male heir. Later, in Numbers 36, an additional condition is introduced requiring women who inherit in this fashion to marry (if they do) within their tribe. This way they will not violate another rule that the land cannot transfer between tribes. All of this is far from being fair and equal, but it is certainly an improvement over what we’ve seen so far.

The last Numbers says on marriage can be found in chapter 30 is related to pledges and contracts. Basically, if a woman is unmarried and living in her father’s house, she can only make pledges that her father approves. Similarly, if she’s married, pledges only count with her husband’s consent. There’s no good way to spin this: it’s pretty obvious that the legal system of the day place women as second to men. There is an exception: if the woman is divorced or widowed, she can make pledges of her own. No doubt the promised land was lacking in female business executives.

As always, the blatant sexism in the Israelites’ methods is not surprising, but it is still disappointing.

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