Hebrew Social Organization: Marriage

Marriage regulations and arrangement portrayed in the Old Testament are significant both in the context of the society in which they were embedded and of social orders which later attempted to build moral systems upon biblical models. While ancient Israelites were faced with a formidable body of incest taboos in their choice of marriage partners, they also had to contend with a set of rules that specified who they wre supposed to marry, including two important institutions: the levirate and parallel cousin marriage. These institutions can be understood in the context of the dynamics of the patrilineal segmentary system, which played a central role in ancient Hebrew society.

Incest Prohibitions

The biblical definitions of incest and resulting rules of incest prohibition and exogamy have exercised a very important influence on European social institutions and have been subject to varying interpretations. Different understandings of which relatives are forbidden to marry have played a critical role in separation of the Protestant movements and the Church of England from established Catholic doctrine, none of which strictly conformed to the original Hebrew structure.

The incest prohibitions listed in Leviticus 18 forbid marriage with "any one near of kin", a vague category with no intrinsic definition. The chapter continues to list restrictions applied to the marriage between people in specific kinship categories. Catholic canon law has historically been based on the premise that the ennumerated listing is not exclusive and that all identifiable consanguineous and affinal kin are subject to "impediments to marriage". Anglicans and Protestants, however, have focused on the detailed listing and have relaxed restrictions on marriages between cousins and other relatives not explicitly precluded, although they have not actually followed the biblical injunctions to the letter.

The actual text prohibits sexual relations and thereby marriage between a male ego and the following female relatives:

  • Mother
  • Father's Wife (other than own mother)
  • Father's Sister
  • Father's Brother's Wife
  • Mother's Sister
  • Wife's Mother
  • Sister
  • Half Sister
  • Brother's Wife
  • Wife's Sister
  • Wife's Daughter
  • Daughter in Law

Incest Prohibitions from Leviticus 18
incest prohibitions
Patrilineally related men are indicated in blue
Excluded marriage partners are indicated in red
Partners not explicitly excluded are indicated in green

Notably, marriages were not explicitly prohibited with a cousin of any type or degree, with a brother's or sister's daughter, or with a mother's brother's wife. In fact marriages between uncles and nieces are permissible in Jewish canon law and a specific form of cousin marriage between the children of brothers is advocated as a preferred form in certain circumstances. (See parallel cousin marriage below).

While the restrictions on relations between biological kin were much less extensive than those of contemporary Western societies, affinal prohibitions were more comprehensive. Above and beyond the drastic penalties for adultery, condemnations of incest were applied to relations between a man and his stepmother, father's brother's wife, wife's mother, brother's wife, wife's sister, son's wife or wife's daughter. In these cases, the rules were in force only during the lifetime of the connecting relative, to the extent that a man was not only allowed to marry a brother's widow but was expected to on certain occasions. (See discussion of levirate marriage below).

While the interpretation and understanding of the Bible's incest avoidance patterns are subject to debate, a clear connection to the dynamics of a patrilineal system is apparent, especially in the extensive regulations concerning in-laws. Males in the same lineage are strictly forbidden sexual access to each other's wives and in the process a possible cause for internal group friction is eliminated. It is notable that references to Leviticus in the formulation Western marriage regulations carry over only part of the body of original restrictions and never encorporate the patrilineal emphasis, thus revealing the very different logics of the Western and Hebrew models.


The levirate is a widespread institution, which requires that a man becomes the husband of a deceased brother's widow. In the biblical text this imposition is seemingly restricted to a situation in which both brothers reside in the same household and where the deceased has no son to succeed him. It is justified in terms of the need for him to have an heir so that "his name may not be blotted out of Israel(Deuteronomy 25:5)". In this regard, the dead brother rather than the living biological parent becomes the acknowledged or "sociological father" of the child, especially in regard to the establishment of an official genealogical line. (See the story of Judah and Tamara (Genesis 38).

Parallel Cousin Marriage and Lineage Endogamy

The second substantial prescription is also related to the manipulation of marriage ties in order to ensure continuity within the lineage on occasions in which a man has only daughters. In this case, the daughters inherit his property but are married off to their patrilateral parallel cousins (their father's brother's sons)( Numbers 36). This mechanism allows the property and line of descent to remain within the patrilineage since a daughter's husband belongs to the same lineage as his wife and the children are placed within the patriline through both parents. Accordingly this form of marriage is also referred to as lineage endogamy, i.e., marriage within the lineage.(See Sagas of the Hebrew Patriarchs for a detailed illustration of endogamous lineage development the Hebrew origin myth.)

The following diagram demonstrates the structural similarity between the variant marriage forms that were developed to correct for discontinuities in patrilineal descent patterns.

Normal Primogeniture Levirate Parallel Cousin Marriage Slave Marriage
normal succession



slave marriage
Blue lines indicate succession
Red lines indicate biological paternity

Marriage Exchanges

The marital arrangements already discussed functioned primarily to concentrate property and personnel within narrowly delimited descent groupings and reflected a social order marked by considerable political and economic inequalities. Other institutions receive only sketchy treatment, but indicate that marriage patterns also involved interfamilial exchanges and transactions.

Exogamy, or outmarriage, is mentioned as an important process is several biblical passages, but in fewer contexts and with more ambivalence than endogamy. Ruth, a foreigner from Moab is exemplary for her faithfulness to her Hebrew in-laws, even after the death of her husband. However, Solomon marries hundreds of wives from many nations for the purposes of political expediency and ultimately falls from grace by engaging in pagan forms of worship which they have introduced ( 1 Kings 11). A subsequent king of Judah, Jehoram marries Athalia, the daughter of the Israelite king Ahab, and is thereby infected by the evil ways of his father-in-law (2 Kings 8). The queen later usurps the throne of Judah and unsuccessfully attempts to maintain her hold on power by murdering the potential successors.

Among other inconveniences, outmarriages also involved property exchanges of various sorts, the best document of which is the bride price, or payment from the husband to his in-laws as part of the marriage contract. The need for the payment of "the marriage gift" in the case of the seduction of a virgin is explicitly mentioned in a two legal texts ( Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:29), the second of which mentions a payment of 50 shekles of silver. Similar payment are revealed in the course of Isaac's courtship of Rebekah (Genesis 24:53), Shechem's pursuit of Dinah (Genesis 34:12), and David's marriage to Saul's daughter(1 Samuel 18:25). Other transfers in the form of bride service and dowry are suggested, but the biblical text provides insufficient detail to document them as established institutions. The presence of substantial bride payments helped to support the institution of polygyny, which was closely connected to the expression of wealth at status as depicted in numerous biblical passages. The most notable of course is that of Solomon's entourage, composed of 700 wives and 300 concubines ( 1 Kings 11:3).

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995