Friday, 8 January 2010

The Mosaic Law on Marriage and Family and its application for Christianity and the Modern Society

This is an old essay I wrote on Marriage according to the original Israel religion, mainly based upon Deuteronomy. This is of great interest to me, since critics and atheists constantly attack the Old Testament Laws, regulations, rules of war, etc. A number of these matters are indeed very different from the typical Western situation and society of our time and the typical mind may find it hard to understand how different laws and approaches may vary and apply to very different situations in a very different setting and time. This essay also considers the Deuteronomy Law on family and marriage in relation to Christianity. While Christianity is not required to abide strictly by the Mosaic Law there are a number of issues that still apply in the light of New Testament Law and indeed appear practical.

Careful some of the issues raised here are controversial.


From a modern angle, the ancient patriarchal and the later family system of Israel are often deemed suppressive and even barbaric. Yet, despite the alien structure of such a society and its family system, the modern mind needs to consider the circumstances in which the patriarchal structure developed. Additionally, it needs to consider some of its positive aspects, which currently may be lacking in and may improve the nuclear family. But is this possible and how is it possible?

Societal structure and the geographical family

Israel in every aspect functioned as a society based upon patrimonial authority; the God Yahweh ruled supreme (Deut.12: 1-3), kings as second (Deut.17: 14-20), followed by the tribes, the clans and finally the families ruled by the great grandfather (Jos.7: 16-8) (1 Sam.10: 20-1).[1]
Moses selected the wise and leading men to serve as tribe officials, such as judges and leaders; these leaders and the family elders, frequently represented the tribes in front of Moses (Deut. 1: 9-17; 5: 23). This hierarchal structure permeated the entire fabric of Israelite social life, including the family. In a sense the whole Israelite nation was perceived as one house, despite multiple households[2] such as the house of David (the Southern kingdom) and the house of Omri (the Northern kingdom).[3]

Vaux points out that the number of family members within a household was probably reduced after the Canaan settlement as sons began moving out and built their own houses.[4] Yet, the social structure of Deuteronomy still shaped the geographical settings of a village construction. Here Matthew points out that the earliest villages of the ancient Israelite society probably originated as multiple family compounds under the leadership of the great grandfather.[5]

Mutual unity and procreation

The purpose behind such societal and family structure was caused by the circumstances, which formed the paradigm of the ancient mind; structure provided the basis for security, safety and work in which society and the extended family centred.[6] Thus society and family was group oriented (Ex.20: 7-9); the family goal was mutual survival, which means that family was often extended and combined; the individual was not strictly excluded but neither emphasised; rather an individual was encouraged to benefit the entire group.[7] It was on the basis of this mindset the Levitate system operated (Lev.25: 5-9) (Deut.25: 5-10).

In fact the whole nation of Israel, as one house, applying the same exclusive unity provided mutual support to each other (Deut.15: 7-11), and the family structure seems to have resembled this national-social structure.

Within this situation the survival of the family and community depended not only upon family unity but also upon the vitality of fertility and procreation (Deut.28: 1-14), very much like the pre-Mosaicpatriarchal family.[8]

Procreation guarantied first and foremost that the various roles and responsibilities were secured and secondly that the group was able to expand and increase in strength and power.[9] Due to the family system, only internal marriages were permitted, as any sexual relation outside the group reduced its survival. External marriages were perceived as compromising the strict boundary, which initially could jeopardize the security and survival of the whole group.[10]

This explains why the Mosaic Law required marriage within one’s father’s tribal clan so as to retain the family unity, basically to avoid the loss of land (Num.36: 5-9). This was also consistent with Israel’s exclusive policy with other nations, in which cross-cultural marriage were strictly prohibited (Deut.7: 3-4).

All of these reveal that the family structure of ancient Israel emphasised survival rather than individual comfort, which stresses that the ancient structure is not as a whole applicable to a society where the situation differs.

In comparison, the social structure and benefits of the Western World present a very different situation and a different social and personal paradigm. This was caused by the industrial period which divided the extended family by migration and mobility[11] and by the Renaissance which inaugurated the philosophy of individualism.[12] Economy has however proliferated and from a modern Western mindset, where economy and benefits are currently thriving anyway, this historical process is often considered as having proved societal progress and maturity.

Certainly, several of the problems in the group-oriented family, such as the loss of individualism, internal family frictions[13] and mobile inability have been excluded. But has it improved the stability of the family and marriage and has it enhance its survival? And if not, what can we learn from an ancient paradigm?

Marriage and family life made easier

David and Vera Mace confirm that despite some elements of complexity, the combined family structure gives stability, particularly as it excludes loneliness and provides security and economy.[14] Unfortunately this is not always the case with the Western marriage and the nuclear family, despite its attraction and autonomy. The individualism of the West has caused social isolation, from which two unpredicted problems have erupted; firstly, the probability of poverty and secondly, the probability of loneliness and lack of companionship; this is mainly due to enforced necessity upon one of the spouses to work, while the other is pre-occupied with domestic responsibilities.[15]

From this angle the marriage in a nuclear family where privacy is strictly included often turned into a prison where emotional and physical needs were not met.[16] And currently, as economic pressure has forced both parental members to work, exhaustion and tiredness has caused parents to neglect their spouse and children.[17] These have further jeopardized the families ‘quality time’ and turned the home into a place only to eat, rest and sleep, rather than being the social centre of communication and education as it was meant to be. In addition, mobility has merely increased these problems.[18]

The Israelite social structure possessed the means to exclude these elements.

First and most, the family of ancient Israel was probably much larger and mainly locally busy. Hence it provided time and energy to focus on the home and make it into a place of social activity, enjoyment, and education; a place where children were prepared for the life-task ahead, particularly in matters of basing daily conduct and decisions in accordance with the law and standard of God (Deut. 6: 4-9; 11: 18-21; 32:7; Ex.12,24-7; 13:1-14; Deut.4:9; 6:20-5; 11:19; Josh.4:6,21-2; Psalm 78:3-7).[19] In other words incorporating similar values would make it easier and less burdensome to be a spouse or parent.

Secondly in relation to the Law, the Israelite family had a clear understanding about values and consequences, that well-being was only granted if they yielded to the standard of Yahweh (Deut.12: 28) and honoured the parents (Deut.5: 16); basically a strict emphasis on religion and family. Hence stability of a family and society was determined by the effort to accomplish the common goal of a God-centred mindset and practice. Negatively however, an entire family was shamed in case of misconduct (Deut.22: 13-30).

Yet it was probably that shame which laid the ethical boundaries, whereas in a modern society shame and boundaries are virtually excluded, and misconduct and promiscuity are permitted to thrive.

As to the marriage this rendered several practicalities, first and most regulation and order; it provided unity in which parents and children in unity alongside the extended family worked toward a common goal. The shame and consequence factor caused personal concern about the risk of possible sexual promiscuity. Marriage therefore became less exhaustive, more joyful and serious and obedience from children was easier obtained.

The Law, family and economy

Concerning economy David and Vera Mace further point out that in East Asia the focus on family has excluded the need of welfare systems and orphanages.[20] Similarly in the UK it has even been suggested that the Asian family is in less need of benefits than the average British white family;[21] this same effect was evident within the Israelite social-family structure (Lev.25: 23-31, 35-43).

Furthermore, the combined family despite its mobile inadequacy and because of its size is often
far more successful as a settled community than a nuclear family; this might explain why the tribes of Israel were provided with their own territory (Num.33-4) (Deut.3: 12-20). In the West this is particularly observed in its educational opportunities, in which members of group-oriented families are often better supported in terms of education, career and profession than members of a nuclear family.[22]

It has also been suggested that a primary reason for the high divorce rate is the economical burden in a family.[23] If the extended family chose to unite it would lower this threat against the marriage significantly.

The Law, family and health issues

Yet the Israelite family took further steps than merely separating from evil; there was a certain fanaticism about food (14:1-21) and cleanliness (23: 12-14). The family strictly differentiated between clean and unclean meat, most probably for hygienic reasons; hence a family stressed healthy living.[24] Again how do we apply this to a modern family and its effort to eat and live healthy? How many families are devastated because a spouse is effected by illness, caused either by lack of hygiene or unhealthy food habits.

The Law, family and manhood

Deuteronomy is male-centred, males had to be strong and brave; they were the protectors of their family; hence the male pride might have been essential. Yet again this Deuteronomic aspect also relates to the natural male psychology, which not necessarily proves to be harmful, and which currently is under severe attack by radical feminist forces. Lahaye points out that current research reveals the growing impotence in males is related to the loss of male dominance.[25]

Another research reveals devastating results in the abilities and self-esteem in two thirds of American schoolboys as radical feminist ideas are being imposed upon them through education.[26] Again we see how an ancient paradigm might dissolve current elements that are harmful to family and marriage.

Balanced incorporation

However concerning marriage, current observation indicates that the structure of combined or blended families often jeopardizes or even excludes marriage relationships;[27] often because husbands tend to retain their strong child-mother bond and thus fail to mature; the wife is then neglected in relation to the in-laws.[28] In the Mosaic Law, forced marriages were indeed common (Deut.21: 10-14), and a girl married into a family typically became a daughter (Lev.21: 9) having to subject herself in honouring the new parents (Deut.5: 16), hence similar problems may have abounded. However, married women in ancient Israel would probably be closer associated with the other women in the family than their own husbands; in the same manner the males would mutually go on their own business. Despite its repulsiveness from a modern perspective, then perhaps within the ancient situation in which families were forced to unite, this lack of relationship between husband and wife might have provided great stability as it excluded the friction between wife and mother-in-law.

Christians, who value the principles of Genesis 2: 24, need however to realise that the situation in Deuteronomy is significantly different. Yet comparing the situation of Deuteronomy and the original marriage principle of Genesis two, it might not be entirely wrong to propose a combination.

This is what Goldthorpe suggests and what he defines as the modified extended family.[29] Here the autonomy of the couple and the nuclear family is included as well as a geographic proximity of the extended family. Also the benefits are obvious, the marriage relationship and its responsibilities are less exhaustive, it is retained and autonomous, and grandparents and needy family members are cared for; basically members can help, encourage and support each others.

The Law, Christianity and the hard issues

How about divorcing women in case indecency was discovered? Here the husband could write a bill and send her off (Deut.24: 1-4). It is possible that the Law might have permitted this to protect the women from domesticated oppression, and certainly the bill would later have protected her and enabled her to remarry.[30] Verse four is however a matter of significance, as it prohibits her from marrying her previous husband if she did remarry and divorce a second time. Here the Law might have intended to discourage the misuse of an easy divorce and remarriage which initially could culminate in a trend of promiscuity and fornication,[31] and secondly, the economical aspect, that the women or the third couple might burden the previous families through greed by requiring unnecessary bridal prices mainly to accumulate wealth.[32] In other words despite the outcome of a marriage, whether divorce or remarriage, then any attempts to gain material gain, if the solemn motive is greed, is prohibited.

Obviously the divorce of Deut.24: 1-4 does not apply to New Testament standards (1 Cor.7: 10-1). Yet what applies to a modern Christian setting is that the Law despite of the situation took measures to lay a strong foundation for marriage (Deut.24: 5).

However, if the divorce in Deut.24: 1.4 solved a matter of domicile abuse, we might assume that the passage somehow applies to 1 Cor.7: 10-1, as it recognised that a woman might for some reason have separated from her husband. Here the divine standard does not condemn her; neither does it permit her to remarry or enforce her to return to her husband; however she has a choice whether to remain single or to reconcile.[33]


Yet how easily are all these elements applied in a modern nuclear family? And if they are applied how do they impact each family member?

To summarize it, it should be notable that the Mosaic family retained the unity and was cautious about any external influence, whereas in a Western nuclear family the opposite is true; the influence, the decisions the mindset is decided by external forces!

The emphasis of such a family would be that of unity, separation and involvement. The price of such a paradigm would be a slightly lesser emphasis on individualism, and the mindset would be first and most a focus on God, and secondly mutuality, lifestyle, values and restriction of external influence.

As to marriage, a modified extended family system would exclude many burdens and the exhaustion. Parents would retain their authority and be backed up by the internal family paradigm, not external influence. A couple would gain quality time with each other and as a nuclear family home life would benefit everyone in every direction.

In any case, to incorporate the Mosaic Law with modern Christianity the key is to be selective, both in terms of honouring God and at the same time to include practical and cultural logic.



Barret, Michèle & Mcintosh, Mary, The Anti-Social Family, London: Verso Editions, 1982

Blood, Peter R (ed.), Afghanistan-Family, U.S. Library Congress, (, 1997

Clements, R.E (ed.), The World of ancient Israel, Cambridge: University Press, 1991

Closson, Don, The Feminization of American Schools, Probe Ministries 14 July 2002

Craigie, P.C, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Deuteronomy, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976

Mace, David and Vera, Marriage East and West, London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1990

Fee, Gordon D, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

Goldthorpe, J.E, Family Life in Western Societies: A Historical Sociology of Family Relationships in Britain and North America, Cambridge: University Press, 1987

Hafizur Rahman, Go Out Young Man, The International News, Internet Edition, May 14, 2005

Jagger Gill & Wright Caroline (ed.), Changing Family Values, London and New York: Routledge, 1999

Kaiser, Walter C, Toward Old Testament Ethics, Academic Books, USA, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983

King, Philip J & Stager, Lawrence E, Life in Biblical Israel, UK, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001

Knight, Barry, Gibson, Miriam, Grant, Simone, Family Groups in the Community, London: London Voluntary Service Council, 1979

Lahaye, Tim & Beverly, The Act of Marriage, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1998

Mace, David R, Hebrew Marriage, London: the Epworth Press, 1953

Macquarrie, John, Issues in Ethics, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1970

Mayes, A.D.H, The New Century Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co, 1987

Matthews, Victor H, Manners and Customs in the Bible, USA, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991

Rogerson, W (ed.), The Pentateuch, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996

Traditional Kinship Patterns, allfer – Reference – Country Study and Country Guide – Pakistan (no author mentioned), 1994

Vaux, Roland De, Ancient Israel Its Life and Institutions, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976 (no date or author mentioned)



[1] Philip J. King & Stager E. Lawrence, Life in Biblical Israel, UK, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001: 4-5
[2] Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel Its Life and Institutions, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976:3-8
[3] King & Lawrence, 2001:4-5
[4] Vaux, 1976:22-3
[5] Victor H. Matthew, Manners and Customs in the Bible, USA, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991:68
(see also King & Lawrence, 13-5)
[6] King and Lawrence, 2001:4-5
[7] John W. Rogerson, W (ed.), The Pentateuch, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996:265
[8] David R. Mace, Hebrew Marriage, London: the Epworth Press, 1953:201
[9] King and Lawrence, 2001:17
[10] Rogerson, 1996:266-7
[11] J.E. Goldthorpe, Family Life in Western Societies: A Historical Sociology of Family Relationships in Britain and
North America, Cambridge: University Press, 1987: 9, 17, 19
[12] John Macguarrie, Issues in Ethics, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1970:60-7
[13] Peter R. Blood (ed.), 1997,Afghanistan-Family, U.S. Library Congress, (
[14] Mace, 1953:39
[15] Barry, Knight, Miriam, Gibson, Simone, Grant, Family Groups in the Community, London: London Voluntary
Service Council, 1979:5-8
[16] Michèle, Barret & Mary Mcintosh, Mary, The Anti-Social Family, London: Verso Editions, 1982: 56
[17] Barret & Mcintosh, 1982:62
[18] Mace, 1953:48-9
[19] Mace, 1953:215
[20] David & Vera Mace, Marriage East and West, London: Macgibbon & Kee, 1990: 34
[21] Caroline Wright and Gill Jagger (ed.), End of Century, end of Family?: Shifting discourses of family in crises, in
Changing Family Values, London and New York: Routledge, 1999:27
[22] Goldhtorpe, 1987:74
[23] (no authorship mentioned)
[24] Craigie, 1976:230-2
[25] Tim & Beverly Lahaye, The Act of Marriage, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998: 242
[26] Don Closson, The Feminization of American Schools, Probe Ministries 14 July 2002
[27] Traditional Kinship Patterns, 1994, allfer – Reference – Country Study and Country Guide – Pakistan (no author)
[28] Hafizur Rahman, Go Out Young Man, The International News, Internet Edition, May 14, 2005
[29] Goldthorpe, 1987:74
[30] P.C. Craigie, P.C, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Deuteronomy, London:
Hodder and Stoughton, 1976:304-5
[31] Craigie, 1976:304-5
[32] A.D.H. Mayes, The New Century Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co,
[33] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987

1 comment:

Angela Sexen said...

We are like the TV host interviewing Richard Feynman and asking for a brief explanation in a couple of minutes of QED for the audience to which Feynman replied "If I could do that I wouldn't have won a Nobel Prize" It's apocryphal but it sure sounds like Feynman could have said it. And he could give you an understandable explanation but it would take longer than a TV spot has available.

At some point we all have to say "I don't know". I can live with that. Some people can't and either make something up to fill in the gap or being smarter than me they go looking. Personally I'll always listen to the second guy who says "I don't know either but look at what I found" than the first guy who says "I know, you can stop looking now and I'll tell you what to believe". Read more

A response and challenge to those who oppose the Christian faith.