Lifecycle events in ancient Israel were marked, celebrated, and governed by customs and laws that leave few traces in the archaeological record. Therefore, this discussion of lifecycle events will consider the Hebrew Bible as its main source of information with the understanding that biblical descriptions of these events do not always provide a complete or accurate picture of the reality of life in ancient Israel. Extrabiblical sources, including artistic evidence, archaeological material, and ethnographic data, are used to reconstruct and illustrate lifecycle events in biblical times, where available and appropriate. In this article, lifecycle events are considered in relation to the predicted pattern of behavior for nearly all women and men in ancient Israel—puberty in the early teenage years, followed by marriage, sex, and reproduction in early adulthood—along with divorce, which was probably infrequent.

Biblical descriptions of laws and customs marking lifecycle events are largely based in the realities of the Israelite joint-family household (bet ʾab) from the periods of the Judges (Iron Age I) and the Monarchy (Iron Age II). This is especially evident in those biblical laws and customs that determined such things as acceptable marriage partners, inheritance, and more. In addition, Israelite laws and customs governing and celebrating lifecycle events developed in the context of the rural agrarian and pastoral society of the second millennium B.C.E. The biblical emphasis on male children who could provide agricultural labor, perpetuate the family name, and preserve the family land inheritance (nahala), for example, illustrates the agrarian roots of Israelite social norms.


The age at which girls and boys reached puberty is not provided by the biblical writers, although one might imagine that a girl reached physical maturity around her twelfth or thirteenth year and a boy one or more years later. The onset of female and male puberty may have been marked by initiation rites that are only hinted at in the Hebrew Bible; since the onset of female puberty is clearly marked by first menstruation, it seems possible that specific activities celebrated this event. Female puberty was an indication of a girl’s readiness for marriage, and in an ideal situation young women would be married as soon as feasible after the first menstruation, perhaps by age 14, as in ancient Egypt.

Initiation rites.

It has been suggested that the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:30–40 records a ritual act that accompanied female puberty. In this story, Jephthah makes a vow to offer up the first person to come out of his house upon his return home after a victorious battle with the Ammonites. When he reaches his house, Jephthah’s daughter is the first to come out to meet him. Although she agrees to be sacrificed in fulfillment of her father’s vow, she first asks to spend two months in the mountains with her female companions. Judges 11:40 then describes a ritual whereby all young women in Israel go to the mountains to lament Jephthah’s daughter for four days each year. Although there is no corroborating evidence for this practice elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible or in extrabiblical sources, this may refer to an annual female initiation rite that marked a woman’s readiness for marriage.

Male puberty may have been marked or celebrated in other ways, although such customs are not described in the Hebrew Bible. Although the age at which men were expected to marry is not made explicit, the text seems to indicate that a man was at least a few years older than his bride if not in his twenties or even older. Since male puberty was not associated with marriage eligibility or military enlistment, it is possible that it was not marked with special activities as female puberty might have been.

Concept of adulthood.

Both girls and boys were educated by their mothers in domestic chores and other responsibilities through early childhood. The biblical writers specify watering animals (Gen 29:7–8, Exod 2:16), gleaning fields (Ruth 2:8), and tending flocks (Gen 29:9) as activities performed by girls and young women. Girls were also trained by their mothers in food preparation, textile production, caring for young children, and the many other tasks that would be required in their future married lives. Ethnographic sources from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Palestine indicate that young girls acted as their mothers’ assistants in the household, and in this way they became proficient in the tasks that would be required of them in the future. According to these ethnographic accounts, young girls cared for younger siblings, carried water, helped with the harvest, gleaned the fields, herded animals, guarded the groves, gathered wood, and baked bread. For all intents and purposes, girls became adults when they married and moved into their husbands’ households.

Boys also assisted with household tasks under the authority of their mothers while they were young. According to the biblical writers, boys came under the authority of their fathers for training in activities like shepherding (1 Sam 16:11) and farming (2 Kgs 4:18), although girls participated in these activities as well. Boys may have served as apprentices to their fathers in craft activities like metalworking, and they probably developed skills in handling weapons by participating in hunting activities at a young age. The ethnographic sources suggest that boys were expected to work full time in agricultural and other activities at least several years before they reached puberty, although they might not have been considered adults until they were physically capable of performing the work of an adult man. Leviticus 27:3–7, which gives an estimate of the value of a male based on his age, offers some insight into the economic value of boys and men in ancient Israel. From age 5 to 20, a boy’s value is one-third or two-fifths of the value of an adult; between ages 20 and 60, a man’s value is that of an adult. The census in Numbers 1:3 indicates that men could take part in military activities at age 20, further supporting the idea that a male was considered an adult at age 20.


The biblical writers provide some details about marriage arrangements and wedding customs in ancient Israel, but they do not provide clear guidelines for marriage. What is clear from the text is that a marriage was considered a civil contract, not a religious one. Written marriage contracts may have existed, judging from the biblical references to written divorce contracts. The chief reason for marriage was procreation, and it was desirable that couples have as many children, especially sons, as possible. Having many children was especially important in early Israel because they provided much of the household and field labor required in this agriculture-based society. A male heir was required in order to preserve the ancestral land, the nahala. In general, a man’s property went to his nearest male relative or relatives, usually his sons, upon his death; only in exceptional cases did daughters receive an inheritance from their fathers. Such is the case in the story of Zelophehad and his five daughters (Num 27:1–11). In this story, Zelophehad’s daughters were allowed to inherit his nahala if they agreed to marry men from within their own tribe. Even if women did not typically inherit property, a man could make arrangements to provide for his wife after his death, perhaps by bequeathing her part or all of the dowry she brought to the marriage. This was apparently the case with Abigail, Nabal’s widow, who had five maids (1 Sam 25:42), and Micah’s widowed mother, who owned 1,100 pieces of silver (Judg 17:1–4).

A strong marriage was essential to the well-being of ancient Israelite society, and the ideal marriage was between two people from the same kinship group who were attracted to each another. Marriage was the normal way of life, and it was expected that all Israelite women and men would be married, most within the context of a monogamous relationship. The creation story in Genesis 2:24 seems to support monogamy as the norm: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Women were expected to be virgins at the time of marriage, but men were not; a woman’s sexuality was controlled by her father before marriage and by her husband after. Although young women and men likely had little say in their own marriage arrangements, there are several biblical stories that describe courtships in a way that suggests that the couple cared for each other. Such is the case of Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29:18–20) and Samson and Delilah (Judg 16:4). Men are typically the ones who actively love their wives, however, and the only time a woman is described as loving a man in the Hebrew Bible is when Saul’s daughter Michal loved David (1 Sam 18:20). Leah believed that having sons would make her husband Jacob love her, and with Yahweh’s help she bore him six sons and a daughter (Gen 29:31—30:22).

Endogamy and exogamy.

The ideal marriage was a partnership between two members of the same kinship group. Endogamous marriages (marriages between members of the same clan or tribe) were most common in ancient Israel, especially in the context of the stories in Genesis. This can be seen, for example, in Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister (Gen 20:12) and Isaac’s marriage to his cousin Rebekah (Gen 24:15). In addition to preserving the nahala, endogamous marriage maintains the religious and cultural norms of a group.

The negative consequences of exogamous marriages (marriages between members of different groups) include the “introduction” of the worship of foreign gods into Israel by foreign wives. Such is the case when Solomon’s foreign wives, including a pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kgs 3:1), worship native gods in Jerusalem and when Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, brings the worship of foreign gods to Israel when she marries Ahab (1 Kgs 16:31). But in most cases exogamous marriages are described without judgment. This can be seen when Esau married two Hittite women (Gen 26:34) and one Canaanite woman (Gen 28:6–9), when Moses married a Midianite woman (Exod 2:21), and when Boaz married Ruth, a woman from Moab (Ruth 4:13). In addition, the laws in Deuteronomy 21:10–14 allow Israelite warriors to make wives of foreign prisoners of war. Although men were usually the ones to marry outside the group, women sometimes did this as well: Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11:3) and the Phoenician king Hiram’s mother was an Israelite (1 Kgs 7:13–14).


Although monogamy was the ideal, polygyny (a man having more than one wife) was possible and, indeed, practiced; there are no biblical examples of polyandry (a woman having more than one husband), however. Polygyny seems to have been more common in the stories set in premonarchic times and became less common during the monarchic period. This is seen in the case of Gideon, who had 70 sons and many wives (Judg 8:30), and in the story of Samuel’s father Elkanah, who had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah (1 Sam 1:2). Conflict and disputes that result from polygyny are described by the biblical writers; Deuteronomy 21:15–17 is a law that states that a firstborn son, even if he is born to a man’s least favorite or loved wife, is still guaranteed the rights of a firstborn. This hints at the tensions that may have existed in polygynous households or in other families where more than one adult woman lived. Jealousy between adult women in the same household can be seen in the Genesis narratives, such as in Sarai’s relationship with Hagar (Gen 16:4–6) and Rachel’s jealousy of Leah (Gen 30:1). The kings of Israel and Judah practiced polygyny, and it is possible that other wealthy members of society in the period of the monarchy did as well. David and Solomon had many wives, including wives who were daughters of neighboring kings; the best known of these political marriages is a pharaoh’s daughter who was given in marriage to Solomon (1 Kgs 9:16).

Marriage arrangements and betrothal.

Marriage was more than a contract between two individuals: it created relationships between kin groups and could be used as a tool to cement those relationships. This is seen in the exchange of gifts, a bride price and a dowry, between the two families. Engagement or betrothal could last for months, and it was a promise of marriage that was as binding as marriage itself; some biblical passages treat betrothal and marriage as almost the same (Deut 28:30, 2 Sam 3:14). The concept of engagement may be seen in the story of Lot in Genesis 19:14, when the text states that Lot’s sons-in-law were pledged to marry his daughters. A man might show intent for a woman by covering her with the corner of his mantle (Ruth 3:9, Ezek 16:8), which may be the expression of a man’s oath or covenant. Gifts might also show a man’s intent, as when Rebekah is given a gold nose ring and two gold bracelets by Abraham’s servant (Gen 24:22).

Marriage arrangements were usually initiated by the fathers of the bride and the groom (Gen 24:4, 34:1–4; Exod 2:21). Several passages describe women directly involved in matchmaking (Gen 24:28, 55; 1 Kgs 2:17–18), showing that mothers had authority in this matter; the first parentally arranged marriage to appear in the Hebrew Bible is when Hagar finds a wife for her son Ishmael in Egypt (Gen 21:21). Sometimes men were directly involved in their own marriage negotiations; Samson, for example, demanded that his parents arrange for him to marry a Philistine woman (Judg 14:1–4), and Esau chose his own wife (Gen 28:6–9). Women could also have a say in their marriage arrangements or at least were not totally passive. Rebekah, for example, is asked by her mother and brother if she would go to Canaan willingly to marry Isaac, and she consents (Gen 24:57–58). 1 Samuel 18:20–21 relates that Saul made arrangements to offer his daughter Michal to David as a wife after Michal fell in love with him; this seems to have been a special case as Michal was a king’s daughter. Marriages were sometimes arranged directly between a man and a widow, such as in the story of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4:10) and when David sends Abigail an offer of marriage after her husband, Nabal, dies (1 Sam 25:40). Even though women could be involved in marriage negotiations as either mother or potential bride, the language used in the arrangements is from the male vantage: a woman is given, taken, sent for, captured, or purchased in the case of a slave wife.

Bride price.

A young woman’s family received a bride price (mohar) to compensate for the loss of the daughter and of her economic contributions to her father’s household. The specific details about the bride price are unknown, but it was probably a standard amount. In the case where a virgin is violated and her father will not allow the rapist to marry his daughter, the rapist must pay a sum equivalent to the bride price of a virgin, according to Exodus 22:16. Shechem offers Jacob anything he wants in exchange for his daughter Dinah after Shechem rapes and presumably falls in love with her (Gen 34:12); although Shechem did wish to marry Dinah, he along with all of the men of his city (also called Shechem) are killed by Dinah’s brothers after Shechem was led to believe that the marriage would take place after he and the Shechemites were circumcised (Gen 34:13–29). In Genesis 29:20, 30, Jacob labored seven years for his father-in-law, Laban, in order to acquire his two wives, Leah and Rachel. After the payment of the mohar, sex between the woman and any other man was seen as adultery, showing how the betrothal was practically equivalent to marriage.

The bride’s father may make a gift of a dowry consisting of money or land (shiluchim) to the family of his daughter’s new husband. The pharaoh of Egypt gave the city of Gezer as a gift to Solomon upon his marriage to pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kgs 9:16), but gifts of land were probably reserved for the royalty and wealthy. Laban gave both his daughters maids, named Zilpah and Bilhah, when Leah and Rachel married Jacob (Gen 29:24, 29); and it is likely that a female servant acquired by a woman as her dowry remained with the woman as long as the slave lived. Saul’s demand that David bring him 100 Philistine foreskins for the hand of his daughter Michal is unique in the Hebrew Bible (1 Sam 18:25). It is more likely that gifts of jewelry were exchanged between families, such as in Rebekah’s betrothal (Gen 24:53). Exchanging gifts helped to create or maintain the relationship between the two families that would foster mutual obligations in case one family needed assistance from the other in the future.

Levirate marriage.

Special arrangements like levirate marriage are also described by the biblical writers. The practice of levirate marriage is defined in Deuteronomy 25:5–6:

"When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel."

The practice served several purposes: it prevented the widow from marrying an outsider, perpetuated the name of the dead man, and preserved the man’s inherited land. Levirate marriage was seen as a widow’s right, and it was the only chance a widowed woman might have for security after the death of her husband.

Levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5–10, Genesis 38 (the story of Tamar and Judah), and perhaps in the book of Ruth (the story of Ruth and Boaz). The story of Tamar and her father-in-law Judah is the most descriptive, and it shows the lengths to which a woman would go in order to preserve her dead husband’s inheritance. In this story, Tamar’s husband dies before they conceive a child, and her father-in-law, Judah, is required to arrange a marriage between Tamar and one of his other sons. When Judah’s son Onan is unwilling and the other son is seen as too young, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house. Some years later, Tamar tricks a now-widowed Judah into having sex with her by pretending to be a prostitute (Gen 38:6–19) in order to preserve her dead husband’s patrimony. It appears from these biblical passages that levirate marriage was to be taken very seriously in ancient Israel, further underscoring the importance of the nahala in Israelite society.

Wedding customs.

The biblical writers do not describe the wedding ceremony specifically, but events that accompanied marriage are mentioned in the text. Psalm 45 gives some insight into a royal wedding. In the psalm, both the king and queen are individually praised: the king for his physical appearance, military prowess, and virtue and the queen for her beauty and wedding attire. The Song of Songs (3:6–11) also seems to describe wedding customs; one passage describes the groom and his friends approaching the bride’s house, and the bride is dressed in special garments, jewelry, and a veil before being escorted away. Other references to special, perhaps ceremonial, clothing and jewelry might be seen in Isaiah 49:18 and 61:10, which refer to a bride’s jewels; Jeremiah 2:32, which mentions a piece of bridal attire; and Ezekiel 16:12–13, which describes a bride dressed in embroidered cloth and leather sandals, bracelets, a necklace, a nose ring, earrings, and a crown. The bride’s entrance into her husband’s house, in accordance with the customary patrilocal pattern, signaled that the couple was now husband and wife.

A canopy was sometimes used in wedding activities, as seen in Joel 2:16 and Psalm 19:4–5, and it is possible that a marriage formula was declared by both husband and wife under the huppa, as in later tradition. A vow that might have been recited at a wedding ceremony may be found in Hosea 2:19–20: “And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” This event may have been accompanied by a meal and festivities that could last as long as a week, as in the case of Samson’s wedding feast (Judg 14:10–12). Other passages describe the drinking, singing, dancing, and other activities that took place during this joyous time. The groom and bride also received special blessings from family and guests. This can be seen in the story of Rebekah in Genesis 24:60, when Rebekah’s family says “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” before she and her maids are led away to Canaan by Abraham’s servant. A blessing was also given in the story of Ruth and Boaz. As Boaz declares that Ruth is to become his wife at the town gate, the elders of Bethlehem say “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem” (Ruth 4:11).


The importance of sex for the purpose of procreation in ancient Israel can be seen in the first commandment in Genesis (1:28): after Yahweh creates men and women and blesses both, he commands them to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Having children was essential for the survival of the agrarian household and for the Israelites as a whole, but sex was also associated with love and affection, especially within the context of marriage. Sex within the context of a monogamous marriage was the ideal, and sexual satisfaction within a marriage was important. This can be seen in the law in Deuteronomy 24:5 that states that bridegrooms are exempt from military service and other obligations for a year after getting married “to be happy with the wife whom he has married.” The ideal of sexual infatuation between a man and his wife is also expressed in Proverbs 5:18–20: “rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?”

Although a man was urged to find joy in his wife’s embrace, men were not restricted from having sexual relations with women outside of the context of a monogamous marriage. Men could have multiple wives and concubines in the household, and men were not forbidden from having sex with prostitutes. Men could also have sex with other unmarried women, consensual as well as by force, although they could face fines as well as much harsher penalties. Female sexuality, on the other hand, was controlled by men: if an unmarried girl had sex before marriage, it was considered a crime against her father; if a married woman committed adultery, it was a crime against her husband. Unless she was a prostitute, a woman could only have sex with her husband. Despite these regulations, a woman’s enjoyment of sex can be seen in biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 24:5 and in Song of Songs (1:2), which begins: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.” Female sexual fulfillment would strengthen the family bond just as the outcome of sex—progeny—would strengthen the family and community.


The concept of privacy in ancient Israel was likely very different from our contemporary understanding, and the locus of acceptable sexual activity is hard to identify since it is not specified in biblical passages. Private sleeping rooms were rare, if not nonexistent, in the four-room houses typical of ancient Israelite villages and towns. 1 Samuel 9:25 suggests that people slept on roofs, which would have been more pleasant in the hot summer months; and ethnographic sources indicate that families slept in closely packed conditions inside the house during the cold months. Therefore, there was probably an awareness of sexual activity among family members and even members of the community, just as there seems to have been an awareness of other matters of a personal nature among family members. This is suggested when Rachel steals and sits on her father Laban’s teraphim—household gods—to hide them and explains to her father that she was in “the way of women” (Gen 31:35). In short, everyone was aware of everything in the close-knit extended families of the Iron Age, and this made it more difficult to engage in illicit activities. This reality may have also made these activities easier to control.

An attempt to regulate the interaction of family members in certain circumstances may be seen in the layout of the so-called four-room, or pillar, house known from Iron Age–I villages and Iron Age–II urban contexts. Unlike in the preceding Bronze Age, when access to certain rooms was restricted by their position within the building, all rooms on the ground floor of the four-room house could be accessed directly from a central courtyard. This might reflect Israelite ideas about purity as family members experiencing a period of impurity could pass through the rooms of their house unhindered by worries of polluting others. It may have especially facilitated women’s privacy as access to any room could be restricted without interfering with domestic activities. The laws in Leviticus 18 and 20 may have been intended to control the activities of those living in such close confines as in the four-room house, and it is unsurprising that these lengthy lists were intended to control sexual behaviors in particular.


Prostitution was apparently a fact of life in Israel, as it was in other ancient cultures; and according to the Hebrew Bible, it was generally tolerated. Both female and male prostitutes are mentioned, and prostitutes had sexual intercourse for payment or perhaps for cultic purposes. Several stories inform us about cultural aspects of prostitution in ancient Israel. We learn from Genesis 38:15 that prostitutes wore distinctive dress, most specifically a veil, that may have signaled their profession; Jeremiah 3:3 might suggest an ornament worn on the prostitute’s forehead. Prostitutes could be seen on highways, in squares, and around gates and entrances to towns; this is seen in the story of Tamar and Judah as Tamar sat down at the entrance of Enaim as she attempted to trick Judah into having sex with her. Apparently, she left on her veil for the extent of her encounter with Judah as he did not recognize her (Gen 38:13–19). Prostitutes might sing and play the harp (Isa 23:16) and could be seen bathing in public pools, such as the pool of Samaria mentioned in 1 Kings 22:38.

Prostitutes are not explicitly condemned by the biblical writers. The Canaanite prostitute Rahab of Jericho is credited with hosting and hiding the Israelite spies in her house and on her roof, and she and her family were saved as promised when Joshua and his men massacred the inhabitants of Jericho (Josh 2, 6). Hosea’s wife Gomer was apparently a prostitute as well as an adulteress (Hos 2:2, 3:1–3), but Hosea loved and accepted her. Prostitutes were compensated in various ways for their services, and such wages could not be used for sacrificial purposes (Deut 23:18). In the case of Judah and Tamar, Judah pledged a kid from the flock as compensation (Gen 38:17), which seems a high price; Proverbs 6:26 states that a prostitute could be bought for the low price of a loaf of bread, and Hosea 2:5 suggests that a prostitute might be compensated with bread and drink as well as with wool and flax.

However, prostitution was considered shameful. Men were warned not to prostitute their daughters (Lev 19:29), and priests could not marry prostitutes (Lev 21:7). Jacob’s sons killed all the men of the city of Shechem after the king’s son raped their sister Dinah; their reason for the slaughter is explained: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen 34:31). The prostitution of one’s wife was a situation equal to the loss of children or of one’s patrimony according to Amos 7:17. The central problem with prostitution in ancient Israel was that the paternity of prostitutes’ children was unknown. It seems that prostitutes’ children could be discriminated against even when their paternity was known, as in the case of Jephthah, son of Gilead. According to Judges 11:1–2, Jephthah was driven away by the sons of Gilead’s wife so that Jephthah could not claim his patrimony. One might imagine that a prostitute’s children would have been discriminated against in other ways as well.


According to Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, the penalty for an adulterous affair between a married man and a married woman was death for both parties. Judah initially ordered that the widowed Tamar be burned alive when she was discovered to be pregnant; when Judah realized that he was, in fact, the father, he admitted wrongdoing and did not have sex with her again (Gen 38:24–26). In practice, adultery was a crime only when it was committed by a married woman. According to Leviticus 19:20–22, a man who has sex with a betrothed slave girl must make only a guilt offering, showing that adultery laws depended on class as well as gender. This passage makes it clear that in no case was a married woman permitted to have sex with a man who was not her husband; married men, on the other hand, could have sex with other women.

Other forbidden sexual acts.

Since the main reason for sex was procreation, sexual acts that did not lead to procreation were condemned by the biblical writers. Bestiality was forbidden for both males and females because it was an instance of improper mixing (Lev 18:23); in both cases the guilty party and the animal should be killed (Lev 20:15–16). Homosexual acts between men are also condemned (Lev 18:22), and both parties were to be put to death (Lev 20:13); female homosexuality is not described by the biblical writers. Onanism, or coitus interruptus, apparently garnered divine punishment on at least some occasions; Onan, son of Judah, was killed by Yahweh when he “spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went into his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother” (Gen 38:9) in the context of a levirate marriage.

In addition to these forbidden acts, there are many specific sexual restrictions between family members that were meant to deal with the “tensions and temptations present when closely related persons lived in close quarters” (Meyers, 1997, p. 18). According to Leviticus 18, it was forbidden to have sex with one’s parents, stepmother, sister, grandchildren, stepsister, paternal uncle and wife, both maternal and paternal aunts, and a brother’s wife. The incestuous relationships punishable by the death penalty were sex with a stepmother (Lev 20:11), mother-in-law (Lev 20:14), and the daughter of one’s own father or mother (Lev 20:17); David’s son Amnon was killed for raping his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:14, 28–29). Sex with a daughter-in-law was also punishable by death (Lev 20:12), although Judah is not punished for having sex with his daughter-in-law Tamar, apparently because he was unaware that he was doing so (Gen 38:16–18). Jacob’s marriage to sisters Rachel and Leah (Gen 29:21–30) was apparently acceptable.

Interestingly, one’s own daughter is not included on the list of forbidden women. An example of incest of this type, Lot’s sexual relations with his daughters, did not result in punishment for the drunken Lot or his daughters; on the contrary, the elder daughter gave birth to the ancestor of the Moabites by her father, and the younger daughter gave birth to the ancestor of the Ammonites (Gen 19:31–38).


It appears that an unmarried woman had little recourse in the event that she was raped; if a married woman was raped, it seems that the penalty was death for both parties. If a man raped a girl who was not betrothed and was caught in the act, he had to pay the girl’s father 50 silver shekels and marry the girl with no possibility for divorce (Deut 22:28–29). In the story of Dinah and Shechem, Dinah’s brothers avenge Shechem’s rape of their sister by killing the perpetrator and all of the men in his city (Gen 34). Deuteronomy 22:25 describes a situation where a man rapes a betrothed girl in the open country (where her screams cannot be heard); according to this passage, the rapist is to be killed, but the girl is to be spared.

Sexual purity.

The sexual purity laws in Leviticus suggest that sex was considered a polluting activity. Men and women who have had sex were to wash after intercourse and were considered ritually unclean until evening (Lev 15:18); other seminal emissions resulted in the same consequence (Lev 15:16). Sex with a menstruating woman was considered especially polluting: Leviticus 18:19 forbids a man from having sex with a menstruating woman, and Leviticus 15:24 states that a man will contract sexual pollution if he does so and that he and any bed on which he lies on will be unclean for seven days. A harsher punishment for having sex with a menstruating woman is found in Leviticus 20:18, which states “If a man lies with a woman having her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has laid bare her flow of blood; both of them shall be cut off from their people.” It is impossible to know if these purity laws were actually enforced in ancient Israel.


Children were considered to be Yahweh’s greatest gift to ancient Israel, and successful conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy was a major focus of nearly every woman’s life. Motherhood is an honorable position in the Hebrew Bible; the prophet Deborah is called “a mother in Israel” in Judges 5:7. Women began having children soon after puberty, and the physical processes of motherhood—pregnancy, breast-feeding, caring for young children—could take up as much as one-half of a female’s life span. A large family, especially a family with many sons, was ideal; and it was absolutely essential in the agrarian households of the Iron Age.

Conception, contraception, and abortion.

It was apparently important for a newlywed woman to conceive as soon as possible; Deuteronomy 24:5 exempts a newlywed man from military obligations for one year so that the couple can be together and, presumably, the wife can conceive. The quick consummation of marriage is suggested in biblical passages such as Ruth 4:13; it likely occurred on the day or evening of the wedding after a woman entered her new husband’s house.

Specific forms of contraception are not mentioned by the biblical writers; neighboring cultures like the Egyptians employed various contraceptive methods, and it is certainly possible that women in ancient Israel used some of these methods. Onan’s use of coitus interruptus in the story of Tamar and Judah shows that, at least in the context of a levirate marriage, this particular contraceptive method was met with Yahweh’s wrath (Gen 38:8–10). Abortion is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The one reference to miscarriage in the Bible suggests the value of an unborn child: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine” (Exod 21:22). The fact that the punishment was only a fine implies that the value of an unborn child was not equal to that of an adult, especially when one contrasts it with the next verse: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod 21:23–25).

Pregnancy and childbirth.

Given the biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply, the necessity of a large family in an agrarian contest, and the short life span of an average Israelite woman, it is likely that many women in ancient Israel were pregnant at any given time; the biblical writers, however, have little to say about pregnant women. The only instance in which a pregnant woman who is not yet in labor is described is in the story of Rebekah; in this passage, Rebekah asks Yahweh questions about her apparently difficult pregnancy (Gen 25:22–23). Images of pregnant women were found at Akhziv, a Phoenician site on the northern cost of Israel, and at other Persian period sites. These clay figurines, which depict a pregnant woman sitting on a chair with her feet propped up on a stool and a hand resting on her stomach, probably functioned as an amulet intended to promote fertility and successful childbirth. Amulets known from Iron-Age Israel may have functioned the same way.

There are few detailed descriptions of childbirth in the Hebrew Bible, although the image of a woman in childbirth appears frequently. Childbirth is compared to the experiences of a man in battle (Jer 30:6), and birth pangs were considered the greatest anguish known. Isaiah 13:8 and 21:3 as well as Jeremiah 4:31 refer to the pain, agony, and anguish of a woman in labor; and Jeremiah 48:41 compares the terror in the hearts of the people of Moab to the terror in the heart of a woman in labor. The biblical writers knew that childbirth was dangerous. It has been estimated that in the eastern Mediterranean world during the Iron Age only 1.9 children survived out of an average 4.1 births per female; in addition, many women must have died in childbirth as the average life expectancy of a woman in ancient Israel was approximately 30, while men, royalty, and those who lived in better than average conditions might have lived to age 40.

Men probably did not witness births, which may be why childbirth is not described in detail in the Hebrew Bible. This is suggested in Jeremiah 20:15, where the news of the birth of a son was brought to the father: “Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad.” In addition, male health-care practitioners do not appear to have assisted deliveries; instead, midwives and other women in the family and community assisted during the childbirth process. The usual location for childbirth was at home, although childbirth in unusual circumstances, such as when Rachel gave birth on the road to Ephrath/Bethlehem, is described (Gen 35:16).

Specialized equipment seems to have been employed during childbirth in the form of a birth stool or birth bricks. Exodus 1:16 mentions the birth stool or bricks (ʾobnayim) as the surface on which a newborn was placed after birth. Near Eastern and Egyptian textual and iconographic sources indicate that birth bricks were commonly used as a squatting place during childbirth, and an archaeological example of a birth brick decorated with a birth scene was unearthed at Abydos, Egypt. There are two biblical passages, Genesis 30:3 and 50:23, that describe babies being born “on the knees.” In the story of Rachel (Gen 30:3) this act represented Rachel’s adoption or acceptance of the baby, who was the son of her husband Jacob and her maid Bilhah, while in the story of Joseph (Gen 50:23) the birth of the third generation of his sons “on Joseph’s knees” may be part of an adoption ceremony or otherwise hold legal meaning related to land tenure.

Midwives and birth rituals.

Childbirth was a unique activity in ancient Israel in that it was experienced only by women, who had full control over the process. Midwifery was one of the only female professions that allowed women to meet others, teach novices, and gain respect for their specialized skills. Births were also attended by female family members and other experienced women; ethnographic sources from the early twentieth century show that midwives were older women who had already gained respect in their communities as mothers. Childbirth thus was almost assuredly outside the realm of most men’s experience and not an event that required the intervention of male medical practitioners.

Midwives are mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible. Midwives attend the births of Ben-Oni/Benjamin to Rachel (Gen 35:17) and the birth of twins Zerah and Perez to Tamar (Gen 38:28), while Exodus 1 tells the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the only midwives named in the Hebrew Bible. In this story, Shiphrah and Puah are commanded by Pharaoh to kill all of the Israelite boys they deliver. When they disobey Pharaoh’s order and allow all male and female children born of the Israelite women to live, Yahweh is so pleased that he not only increases the number of the Israelites but also gave the midwives families of their own (Exod 1:15–21). This is interesting as it suggests that Shiphrah and Puah were previously barren and still young enough to bear children; ethnographic evidence demonstrates that midwives tended to be older women with children of their own.

In addition to serving as health-care practitioners, midwives served as a source of emotional support during labor and as ritual experts. This can be seen when Rachel apparently expresses fear during labor and the midwife comforts her by saying, “Do not be afraid, for now you will have another son” (Gen 35:17). The ritual function of midwives can be seen when Tamar gives birth to twin boys by her father-in-law Judah (Gen 38:28). When the hand of the first twin, Zerah, emerges, Tamar’s midwife ties a red thread around the baby’s wrist to identify the firstborn son. The red thread may have had a protective function as well as other pieces of jewelry which had amuletic power in the ancient Near East, protecting infants and new mothers.

In addition to the use of red string, several other ritual activities that accompanied childbirth are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. According to Ezekiel 16:4, a newborn baby was bathed, rubbed with salt, and swaddled in cloth strips immediately after the cord was cut. It has been suggested that rubbing the baby with salt was a purification rite in response to the blood of childbirth and possibly a parallel to male circumcision for female babies. Naming the baby also may have had a ritual meaning as names signified a person’s essence. More often than not in the Hebrew Bible, naming the baby is a female prerogative: women name their children 27 times, while fathers name their children 17 times.

Women could also be assisted in childbirth by women in the community, as described in the book of Ruth. In this passage the women of the neighborhood gather to assist Ruth as she gives birth to her son Obed, and, uniquely, they also name the child (Ruth 4:13–17). This group of women comes together in solidarity around the new mother, which would have been extremely important in a situation where a woman has only recently moved, alone, to her husband’s village. Female family members probably attended births as well. In early twentieth-century Palestine, a woman’s mother, mother-in-law, sisters, and sisters-in-law should attend the birth of the first child at least; with the second and third children, their attendance was not so important. One can imagine that female family members in ancient Israel attended births to provide support and assistance even when a midwife was available.


A barren woman was deprived of the honor attached to motherhood, which in ancient Israel was the only position of honor available to most women and the highest status a typical woman could achieve. Barrenness threatened a woman’s status as a wife, as can be seen when Rachel envied her sister Leah, who had successfully conceived with their husband Jacob (Gen 30:1–2, 15). Her pain at having no children can be seen in Genesis 30:1: “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’” Biblical passages suggest that a woman’s status increased upon the birth of a son especially; this is seen in the ethnographic sources as well, while barrenness was viewed as a sign of divine punishment or displeasure (Gen 16:2, 20:18; 1 Sam 1:5; 2 Sam 6:23).


Although the ideal of monogamous marriage is referred to in many biblical passages, divorce was acceptable in ancient Israel, as it was in other ancient cultures. Deuteronomy 24:1–4 permits a husband to divorce his wife at any time and for any reason; a woman, on the other hand, could not divorce her husband for any reason. There are few biblical references to women abandoning their husbands in situations presumed unbearable (Judg 19:1–3, Jer 3:20), demonstrating how dependent most women were on their husbands.

Because of the fundamental importance of having children in ancient Israelite society, as in all societies, barrenness was probably grounds for divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1–2 provides that a man can seek divorce from a woman who has not pleased him; the same passages state that impropriety, probably adultery, was also grounds for divorce. The man must prove his wife’s guilt, however, as unsubstantiated accusations of adultery were harshly punished. Unless a married woman was caught in the act with a man other than her husband, the only way to prove that she had committed such a crime was when a newlywed man found no evidence of his wife’s virginity. According to Deuteronomy 22:13–19, if a man finds no evidence of his new wife’s virginity (most probably a bloody sheet, as known from ethnographic accounts) but the evidence is displayed by her parents, the man is to be arrested, flogged, and fined 100 silver shekels, which he must give to his father-in-law. The man was then to remain married to the young woman with no possibility of divorce (Deut 22:13–19).

Since marriage was a civil contract, a man was required to give his wife a written document of divorce so that the public would know and so that she could not be accused of adultery upon remarriage. The document is referred to in several passages (Deut 24:1, Isa 50:1, Jer 3:8), but the actual contents of such documents are unknown. The divorced woman would then be sent from her husband’s house to her birth family (as was Samson’s wife from Timnah in Judg 15:1–2), most likely leaving her children behind. The divorcing husband was not required to grant any financial provisions to his former wife, and he could never remarry his former wife after she herself remarried (Deut 24:4, Jer 3:1). The only other restrictions on a man’s ability to divorce his wife are found in Deuteronomy 22:28–29, in which a man who has raped a young woman who is not betrothed is forced to marry her with no possibility of divorce, and Deuteronomy 22:13–19.

A divorced man would be able to satisfy his sexual urges and reproductive expectations with little problem through remarriage, secondary wives, and prostitutes; there does not seem to be a stigma attached to the divorced man. Divorced women, however, were in a more precarious situation. Forced to leave their children behind and not entitled to a divorce settlement, women might not have been easily accepted back into their birth homes. Since a woman usually owned no property, she was reliant on her father before marriage and on her husband after; a divorced woman who returned to her birth home might be welcomed back, but she may have been considered a burden on the household. A divorced woman was able to remarry, although not to a priest, indicating a stigma that existed for divorced women that apparently did not exist for divorced men (Lev 21:7).


Much remains unknown of the laws and customs that governed lifecycle events in ancient Israel because of a lack of detailed information about them in the Hebrew Bible and the near absence of information in Iron-Age material culture. Despite this, there is a sense of some of the cultural norms of the time—at least as they are presented by the biblical writers—and these traditions can be placed within the larger ancient Near Eastern context.



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Jennie Ebeling