Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why Hebrew Rulers Denied Marriage to Royal women

Denying Marriage: A cunning royal strategy
Agata Agnieszka Pasieczna and Alice C. Linsley

Cultural anthropology assists in gaining a clearer understanding of the marriage patterns of the biblical rulers known as Hebrew (Habiru, ‘Apiru). This paper explores the various reasons why a biblical ruler might deny marriage to royal women of his household and clan. As with rulers throughout the ages, royal marriages required consideration of the lines of descent, the ancestral marriage and ascendancy pattern, rights of inheritance, rights of ascension, political alliances, and avoidance of war and potential bloodshed.

The denial of marriage to daughters and nieces in the Bible is cited by feminists as an example of patriarchal oppression of women, but there is more to the story. The biblical accounts of marriage being denied to a woman reveal a great deal about the political, social, and religious concerns of biblical rulers. Some Bible scholars believe that Jephthah dedicated his daughter to the service of God to avoid having to give her in marriage to the son of one of his brothers. Jephthah does not seem to be impulsive, but rather a rational person and a capable leader; not the kind of person to make a foolish vow. This vow to dedicate the first living thing that he saw to God helped him avoid giving his daughter's hand in marriage. We do not know the exact reasons, but as the clan ruler, Jephthah had social and political reasons to deny her marriage. Possibly, the daughter was privy to the plan and played her part perfectly.

In the story of Ruth, the proper levir refused to redeem Ruth because marrying her compromised his son’s inheritance. Ruth’s adviser, Naomi, may have anticipated this when she advised her daughter-in-law to seek Boaz are her levir. As with Jephthah’s daughter, Naomi understood the rules of marriage and was aware of the options.

It is clear that in some cases inheritance concerns motivated the denial of marriage. In Greek accounts, the Delphic oracle warned Aleus of Tegea that if his daughter Auge had a son, the grandson would kill Aleus' sons. To prevent this, Aleus made Auge a priestess of Athena, requiring her to remain a virgin.

A Roman narrative tells of how the daughter of Numitor Silvius was forced to become a Vestal Virgin after Numitor's younger brother Amulius seized the throne and killed Numitor's son. Amulius then forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin who was sworn to celibacy, thus ensuring that the line of Numitor had no heirs.

Royal virgins posed both potential trouble and opportunity for rulers. In some cases the virgins themselves appear to have sought the ruler’s protection from marriages they found displeasing. C.S. Lewis presents a fictional example involving Queen Susan who is pursued by the despicable Prince Rabadash in The Horse and His Boy. The marriage would have put Narnia at a great political disadvantage, and Susan would have been treated as a hostage and slave in Rabadash’s household.

Rulers were wary of fortune seeking men who sought marriage with a royal daughter to advance their careers and raise their social status. These ambition suitors posed a threat to royal stability. For the sake of stability, some women were released from the monastery to marry. Matilda, the sister of Otto III, was permitted to marry Ezzo. The huge territorial concessions made to Ezzo after his marriage made him one of the most powerful princes in the Ottonian Empire.

At a young age, Matilda had been sent to Essen Abbey, where her older cousin Mathilde was abbess. It was presumed that Matilda would remain in the Abbey, but she was married to Ezzo, Count Palatine of Lotharingia, against the wishes of the Abbess Mathilde.

The first Polish king, Boleslaw I, called “the Brave,” won the crown thanks to the fact that his son, Mieszko II Lambert, married the emperor’s niece, Richeza of Lotharingia. She was the daughter of Matilda, Emperor Otto III’s sister. After her husband was deposed, Richeza entered the monastery in 1031 AD.

The aspiring men who managed to connect themselves with the ruling house, made every effort to see that the marriages of their daughters insured advantageous alliances. If this were not possible, daughters could influence others by placement in one of the prestigious royal nunneries. Many of these royal women attained high rank as abbesses in charge of monastic communities.

Political, social, and religious concerns led the German emperors to place their daughters, granddaughters, and nieces in convents. In the 10th century, over thirty convents were built in Germany for imperial kinswomen. These women would remain unmarried. Doubtless, this was the choice of some of the women. The convents provided opportunities they would not have as wives and mothers. Hildegard of Bingen became known as the “Sibyl of the Rhine” because of her accomplishments in the monastic life. In Germany, she is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history.

Barbara Yorke (King Alfred’s College, Winchester) has written, “All the Anglo-Saxon nunneries in southern England for which we have the relevant evidence were founded by members of a royal house, usually by either the reigning monarch or one of his close female relatives; it is not always clear which should be described as the founder. Not only were the nunneries founded by one of the ruling house, but they continued to be regarded as possessions of the royal house throughout their existence.”

In the Middle Ages, many royal daughters were destined for the monastic life. Only in circumstances of political advantage were their marriages allowed. Not surprisingly, female convents sprung up in all the regions were monarchs had residences. Some royal women lived saintly lives in the monasteries and others lived much as they had in their father’s palaces. The rich and powerful royal abbeys of Europe provided a luxurious lifestyle for the women who resided there.

However, this custom has a much more ancient tradition. Sargon (reigned from c. 2334–2284 BC) appointed his daughter Heduanna as the En of the shrine at Ur. This was a shrewd political move to secure power in the south of his kingdom. The Akkadian term En means lord, master, royal official, and priest or priestess. The Creator’s son was called En-ki, meaning “Lord of the Earth.” En-Heduanna served the Creator God Anu, at the House (pr) of Anu (Iannu). As with Roman Catholic nuns, she would have been considered “married” to the deity she served. En-Heduanna is credited with a large body of cuneiform poetry.

In ancient Egypt, some royal daughters were appointed to the two highest ranks a woman could hold: the positions of the God’s Wife (Hemet Netjer) and the Divine Adoratrice (Duat Netjer). These offices were held by women of high status, like the queen’s mother, or the wife of the high priest of the most favored royal temple. Pharaoh Ahmose I married his (half?) sister, Ahmose-Nefertiri, who became the God's Wife of Amun.

Ahmose I (reigned from c. 1550-1525 BC) controlled access to the throne by prohibiting princesses from marrying anyone except their royal brothers. This custom did not begin with him, however. Royal priests of the Nile had been marrying their half-sisters for at least 1000 years before the time of Ahmose I.

Ahmose’s principal wife was appointed to the office of the God’s Wife of Amun, and Ahmose endowed the office with more than adequate means, providing financial income, servants, real estate, and her own royal retinue. Many royal women attained high rank as priestesses in charge of Hathor shrines.

The celibacy requirement for royal daughters dedicated to the temples and shrines certainly had religious significance, but it also served the ruler’s political purposes. Were some political advantage to be gained, the holders of the offices might be granted permission to marry.

Daughters dedicated to the temple

Royal daughters presented a challenge to their ruling fathers. Rarely did more than one daughter find a suitable royal spouse. Many without marriage opportunities were dedicated to a religious establishment. Some women may have chosen this option over marrying a man to whom they had been promised as a child. Being dedicated to the temple or entering the monastery provided an escape from an unwelcome marriage and allowed them to stay closer to home, rather than being sent to a distant kingdom. Not all noble women wished to marry.

The story of Jephthah’s daughter is an example. This story is usually cited as an example of child sacrifice, yet the biblical text implies that she was dedicated to God’s service. Jephthah was a ruler who led his men in a successful battle against the Ammonites (the descendants of Lot). Jephthah vowed to offer to God “whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me” (Judges 11:30). He does not appear to be an impulsive leader, but rather a capable and rational person. Had he seen a sheep, goat, or a cow, he would have sacrificed that to God. Strangely, no livestock were in sight upon his return. Instead, his daughter of marriage age came running out of the door to meet him, just as Jephthah had described. By dedicating her to God Jephthah saved face among this men and avoided open refusal of his daughter's hand to the son of one of his brothers.

His daughter was privy to the scheme because it is she who insisted that he fulfill his vow to God (Judges 11:36). Jephthah’s daughter may have wished to follow the career of her paternal grandmother who served at a shrine and is described (misleadingly) as a “prostitute” in Judges 11:1. Perhaps Jephthah’s daughter hoped that by giving up worldly aspirations to become the mother of kings, she might be chosen to bring forth the promised Messiah. It was long believed that the mother of the Messiah would be a temple or shrine woman who would conceive by divine overshadowing. This is why Sargon claimed that he did not have an earthly father and that his mother conceived him while in the temple at Azu-pir-Anu. It should be noted that the Virgin Mary was the daughter of the priest Joachim and she was said to conceive Jesus by the “overshadowing of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1).

In parts of Africa, virgins are dedicated to the shrines even today. Often these are girls whose mothers were not able to conceive. The barren women came to the water shrines to pray and if they conceived a female child, the girl was pledged to the shrine as a “trokosi.” This is similar to the story of Hannah, who pledged Samuel to service in the Temple in return for blessing her with a child (1 Samuel 1:21-28).

The Ghanaian apologist for Traditional African Religion, Ofoso Kofitse Ahadzi, says that a man may not marry a trokosi without permission from the shrine because the girl is regarded as the wife of the shrine deity. He believes that marrying a trokosi without going through the proper procedure leads to supernatural punishment.

He explains, “When you go against any of the regulations, it is not human beings that will punish you. The deity will punish you because all the girls who go in there for training are the daughters and princesses of the divinity. So if you take liberties with them you will be punished.”

Temple virgins are described in the Old Testament as women who "watch [or wait] (צָבָא) at the door of the tabernacle.” In Exodus 38:8, we read that the laver of copper and its stand of copper were made “from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Hebrew Study Bible, p. 197). These women were consecrated to God, but this did not stop corrupt men of the temple from taking advantage of them.

“Now Heli was very old, and he heard all that his sons did to all Israel: and how they lay with the women that waited (צָבָא) at the door of the tabernacle:” (1 Samuel 2:22)

In this context, the sexual "spoiling" of temple virgins by the sons of Heli is a very grave and heinous violation which would bring divine judgement upon the offenders.

Dancing Virgins

In India, girls as young 8 years were given to the service of the temples. A devadasi or jogini girl was dedicated to worship and serve the temple deity for the rest of her life. The dedication is similar to a Hindu marriage ceremony.

The devadasi was trained to dance and sing, and in some temples she was initiated into tantric sex. In Tantric ritual, wine is called shakti or sakti. This is consumed at the time of the Hindu harvest moon festival. The word sakti is related to the Falasha word sarki, which also refers to the harvest moon festival overseen by the priests.

The role of devadasi was passed from mother to daughter. Temple women inherited gold, jewelry, and status from their mothers who also had been dedicated to the temple. The princes of India devoted some of their daughters to the service of the temples. The daughters were given with royal endowments to the temple.

It is likely that Miriam was among the women who held sacred duties in the Nilotic temples and at the Tent of Meeting. She led the people in singing and dancing. Being of Kushite extraction, Miriam likely represents the older custom of Nubian dancing girls. They were dancers at the Nile River inns. That suggests that Rahab of Jericho was an inn keeper, not a prostitute.

Widows also found refuge in the temples, shrines and monasteries. Anna, a prophetess of the clan of Asher, lived most of her adult life in the Temple precincts. According to Luke 2, she “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”

Preserving royal bloodlines

Another motive for denying marriage to a female relative was the concern to preserve the royal bloodline. Royal intermarriage among ruling families went beyond strategic diplomacy and national interests. Persons of royal birth were expected to honor the traditions of their ancestors. The marriage and ascendancy traditions of their royal ancestors, their wealth, and their personal attributes, especially bravery on the battlefield, strengthened their right to rule, but most important was proof of royal blood.

As Kamil Janicki explains in “History, Genealogy and Heraldry” (1994), “Among German elites there was a conviction that a king can only be a person in which veins runs the emperor’s blood. And this in a very narrow sense: the emperor’s blood meant - the blood of Charlemagne.”

The concern for preserving the royal bloodline is especially evident among the Ottonian dynasty of monarchs (AD 919–1024), beginning with Emperor Otto I, who made the city of Aachen, in North Rhine-Westphalia, the site of future coronations.

The Ottonian rulers were Saxon or Sacae. Their royal lines can be traced to the ancient Saka. It is likely, though still unproven, that they are related to the Sacae ruler Constantine. Constantine who was born in Niš on 27 February 273 AD. Nis is a very ancient city in southern Serbia that was populated by Saka in ancient times. The Hindu text Matsya Purana claims that the Saka (called “Scythians” by the Greeks) ruled the ancient world for 7000 years. Another text, the Mahabharata, designates “Sakadvipa” as the “land of the Sakas” in northern India. Assyrian documents speak of the Saka presence between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in the time of Sargon (BC 722-705).

Avoiding bloodshed

For the royal elite of Medieval Europe real and alleged connections to the royals of Charlemagne’s court led to marriage alliances between ruling families. However, marriage was not the best option to prevent political chaos. It often posed threats to the established royal order. Rulers had good reasons to try to prevent the shedding of royal blood.

Ruling fathers dedicated their daughters to the shrine/temple to prevent marriage in cases that compromised inheritance, threatened the right of ascension, or presented the potential for bloodshed. In the ancient world royal wedding feasts sometimes became places of slaughter or assassination.

In BC 336, Philip II of Macedonia threw a lavish wedding for one of his daughters and invited members other royals to attend the occasion. As part of the festivities, Philip staged public games at the theater at Aigai. He strode into the stadium, with Alexander on one side and his new son-in-law on the other. Philip stood at the center of the theater, the large crowd began to roar with approval. Then an assassin rushed at Philip and stabbed him to death as the wedding guests watched in disbelief.

In 1572, the wedding of Margaret, the daughter of King Henry II, to Henry III of Navarre, became the occasion of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. It is thought that Margaret’s mother, Catherine de' Medici, was partially responsible for the killings of thousands of French Protestants.

The anthropologist, Goran Pavlovic, reports, “In Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia, there are many places, usually with ancient stone slabs or standing stones, which local population calls svatovska groblja or wedding party graveyards." These places are found in remote areas with ancient necropolises dating from the beginning of the fourth millennium BC. Many ancient necropolises were royal burial grounds where ancestors were called upon to witness the marriage bond.

On the other hand, should a ruler seek to incite war with an enemy, he could deny marriage or take back a daughter who had been given in marriage. This may be what motivated King Saul to take back Michal who he had given as a wife to David. Saul sought provocation to eliminate David who, by that time, had been anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king.

When Shechem fell in love with Jacob’s daughter, his father Hamor met with Jacob to arrange for his son to marry Dinah. Apparently, this marriage was approved by Jacob. However, Jacob’s sons, Levi and Simeon, did not approve of the marriage and used this as an excuse to massacre Hamor’s men and loot the city. In Genesis 34:13, there is an admission that the sons of Jacob “answered Shechem and his father Hamor in a deceitful way.” The violence against the Shechemite community put Jacob’s clan in jeopardy by making subsequent peaceful coexistence and marriage alliances in that region impossible. That is why Jacob reprimanded his sons for the bloodshed.

Preserving the ancestral marriage pattern

The biblical Hebrew rulers maintained a marriage and ascendancy pattern that they received from their archaic ancestors. Using kinship analysis, this pattern has been identified and traced from the rulers of Genesis 4, 5, 10, 11, 25 and 36 to the Jerusalem elite of the New Testament. Obviously, the preservation of the marriage and ascendancy pattern was important to the biblical rulers, and would have been a reason to deny marriage arrangements that were not consistent with the ancestral pattern.

Proper marriage arrangements were especially important in the cases of the ruler’s first born son. This was the first born son of the ruler’s half-sister wife, the bride of the man’s youth. This son was the heir to the throne. The first born son of the second wife became a high official in the territory of his maternal grandfather. In the Genesis king lists, the son of the cousin bride is usually named after his material grandfather. Thus there are two persons named Enoch, two named Lamech, two named Joktan, two named Esau, etc.

©1988 Alice C. Linsley

The identical marriage pattern was preserved by Amram, the father of Moses, Aaron, Korah and the dancing daughter Miriam. The diagram below shows that the cousin bride’s naming prerogative. Ishar, the daughter of Korah, called her first born son Korah. These are the descendant of Seir the Horite Hebrew ruler of Edom (Genesis 36).

Denial of marriage by maternal uncles

The Hebrew rulers practice avunculocal residence, in which young men left their natal homes and joined the household of a maternal uncle. In the cases of avunculocal residence, royal uncles sometimes denied marriage to their nieces. This happened when the niece and her brother came under the care of a maternal uncle.

Examples of avunculocal residence are found in the stories of Abraham and Jacob. When the patriarch Terah died, Abraham's older brother Nahor ruled over Terah's holdings in Mesopotamia. Abraham went to live near Sarah’s maternal uncle in the land of Canaan. According to the Talmud, Sarah was the daughter of a ruler named Karnevo. Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister. They had the same father, but different mothers (Genesis 20:12). So Sarah’s father was Terah, not Karnevo. However, Kar-nevo/nebo is also a place name. Kar-Nebo refers to Mount Nebo, near Jericho. This appears to be where Sarah’s maternal uncle ruled.

Likewise, Jacob was sent to live with his maternal uncle Laban. There he gained the wealth, herds, and wives needed to establish himself in another place (neolocal residence). He set out for his natal home in Edom, and after making peace with his estranged brother Esau, he settled in the area of Shechem. Shechem later became the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Laban is another example of a father who used the marriages of his daughters for personal gain. He forced Jacob to work for him for an additional seven years by promising him Rachel’s hand in marriage. When Jacob left, the daughters’ marriages to Jacob led Laban to formalize a treaty (Genesis 31:43-55) that required Jacob not to marry other women.

Selected bibliography

Eckenstein, Lina, Woman under Monasticism. Chapters on Saint-Lore and Convent Life between AD 500 and AD 1500, Cambridge (1896).

Jasiński K., Rycheza, żona króla polskiego Mieszka II, “Herald. Historia, Genealogia, Heraldyka”, nr 8 (1994).

Leyser K., Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society. Ottonian Saxony, London (1979).

Linsley, Alice, “The Marriage and Ascendancy Pattern of the Hebrew Rulers”

Linsley, Alice, “The Social Structure of the Biblical Hebrew” (Part 5)

Magonet, Jonathan, “Did Jephthah Actually Kill his Daughter?

Parson, Marie, “Women in Ancient Egyptian Religion, Part II”, The Divine Adoratrice and God's Wife of Amun in the Third Intermediate Period.

Pavlovic, Goran, “Svatovsko groblje - Wedding party graveyard”

Orr, Leslie C., Donors, Devotees, Daughters of God: Temple Women in Medieval Tamilnadu, Oxford University Press (2000).

Teeter, Emily, “Celibacy and Adoption Among God’s Wives of Amun and Singers in theTemple of Amun: A Re-Examination of the Evidence,” in Gold of Praise: Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward F. Wente, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1999).

Yorke, Barbara, “Sisters Under the Skin?” Anglo Saxon Nuns and Nunneries in Southern England,” p. 99 (1989).


  1. I'm just thinking that in the case of "Rahab of Jericho", James 2:25 reiterates her as being a "harlot". I'm guessing the extent of what went on in that profession varied from country and culture and since Jericho was on the hit list, they must have been a morally debased city.

    1. Rahab may have been an inn keeper. There was an ancient custom of women who worked at inns to be dancers. Dancers were considered by the Jews to be loose women because they wore their hair long and flowing and they danced with exposed arms adorned with many gold bracelets. In my view, Rahab's reputation as a harlot is not substantiated by the biblical data.


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