Marriage as always been a strange institution.
The default marriage in the west today is an exclusive covenant between two people who care for one another and restrict their sexual activity to one another. This arrangement is feasible and rewarding for many couples, but not for everyone. So some people try polyamory or “open marriage”, some cheat on their covenant by secretly having sex with others, and some opt for divorce.
The default marriage in the Torah is a different kind of contract. A man with sufficient wealth can take multiple wives, concubines, and female slaves. Another option is to pay prostitutes. A woman who is not a prostitute is expected to restrict her sexual activity to the man who owns her. A girl or unmarried women is supposed to remain a virgin and live with her father until he either sells her as a slave,1 or accepts a bride-price for her.
In this unequal kind of marriage, one wife might feel jealous of her husband’s other wife because she has some advantage: more children, or more affection from their husband. 2 But a wife does not complain that her husband is unfaithful to her when he takes another woman.
A husband, however, considers it a serious breach of contract if one of his wives has sex with another man. In the Torah, if a married woman is witnessed committing adultery, both she and her lover get the death penalty.3 A man expects exclusive possession of any woman he purchases, as a wife or as a slave. If he merely suspects his wife has been unfaithful, but there are no witnesses to prove it, he can divorce her; a man can divorce a wife for any reason.4
What if she has been in an apparently compromising position, but there are no witnesses, and he does not want to divorce her? The question arises both in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”) in the book of Numbers, and in the book I am writing on moral psychology in the book of Genesis.
Naso in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar
A spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she defiled herself, or a spirit of kinah passes over him and he is kinei of his wife and she did not defile herself. Then the man shall bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring an offering over her, one-tenth of an eifah of barley flour. He shall not pour oil over it and he shall not place frankincense on it, because it is a grain-offering of kena-ot, a grain-offering of an acknowledging reminder of a bad deed. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)
kinah (קִנְאָה) = jealousy, envy; passion, fury, zeal.5 (Plural: kena-ot, קְנָאֺת. In all cases kinah is a powerful feeling that may overwhelm reason.)
kinei (קִנֵּא) = he is jealous, envious, zealous.
The priest pronounces a curse on the woman, asking God to inflict a particular physical calamity on her if she did lie down with a man other than her husband. (Biblical scholars do not agree on the exact nature of the calamity, which involves her belly and her crotch; it may be a miscarriage.) The woman must say “Amen, amen!” The priest writes down the curse, then rubs the lettering off into water mixed with dirt from the floor of the sanctuary and makes the woman drink it then and there.
After this impressive ordeal, the verdict is up to God.
When he has made her drink the water, it happens: if she defiled herself and she was unfaithful with unfaithfulness to her man, then the water will enter her, inflicting a curse for bitterness, and her belly will swell and her crotch will fall, and the woman will become am object of cursing among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and she is pure, she is cleared and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)
Her husband no longer has any reason for jealousy, and becomes able to trust his wife again. The rest of the community also accepts that she is innocent.
Vayeira in the book of Genesis/Bereishit
In the book of Genesis, Abraham puts his wife, Sarah, in a compromising position twice by telling a king that she is his sister, accepting the king’s bride-price, and cheerfully sending her off to the king’s harem. Is he incapable of jealousy?
On the first occasion, in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha, Abraham, Sarah, and the rest of his household travel to Egypt to escape a famine. Abraham asks his wife to lie when they reach the border of Egypt.
“Hey, please, I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. And if the Egyptians see you and say, ‘This is his wife’, then they will kill me and let you live. Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will be good for me because of you, and I will remain alive on account of you.” (Genesis 12:11-13)
Abraham’s extraordinary request assumes that Egyptians abhor adultery, but have no qualms about killing a man in order to marry his wife. The pharaoh himself makes Sarah his concubine and pays Abraham a lavish bride-price. Then God afflicts the pharaoh and his household with a disease. The pharaoh scolds Abraham and has him and Sarah escorted out of Egypt, but they get to keep the bride-price.
So Abraham tries it again with King Avimelekh of Gerar in the Torah portion Vayeira. This time God speaks to the king in a dream after he has paid the bride-price and welcomed Sarah into his house. God threatens to kill Avimelekh, who protests his innocence due to ignorance.
And God said to him in the dream: “Also I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and I, even I, restrained you from erring against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. And now, restore the man’s wife. Since he is a prophet, he will pray for your benefit and life.” (Genesis 20:6-7)
The early commentary assumes that the king of Gerar also executes husbands in order to marry their wives, so Abraham’s deception is once again justified. Furthermore, since God calls Abraham a prophet, both the Talmud and Bereishit Rabbah conclude that Abraham knows ahead of time that God will protect Sarah.6 Therefore he is not guilty of pimping his wife.
I disagree. After traveling toward Egypt for weeks, does Abraham suddenly remember the bizarre ethics of Egyptians? It is more likely that he gets a brilliant idea for acquiring a lot more wealth in livestock and slaves—if his scam comes off. That would also explain why he does not return the bride-price after the pharaoh discovers his scam.
He destroys his wife’s honor by putting her in a position where she, too, is exposed as a liar, and where she stays in Pharaoh’s harem long enough for her chastity to be in question. He is careless about her reputation and does not even consider her self-esteem.
Years later, Abraham uses the same scam to swindle Avimelekh of Gerar—apparently for no reason except that he can get away with it and make a profit. No sense of honor stops him, nor does any consideration for either his wife or the afflicted king.
Abraham is an amusing trickster, and nobody is killed on his account. He happily prays for healing for Avimelekh—once he has received the king’s gifts. But he fails to meet his moral obligations either to his wife or to the kings of the countries where he is a guest.
Abraham does, in effect, pimp his wife. Why does he feel no jealousy? If marrying the two kings were Sarah’s idea, then he might be granting her the freedom he enjoys as a man. But Abraham, not Sarah, is the one who initiates the scam both times.
If he knows ahead of time that God will prevent both kings from touching Sarah, then he is spared from jealousy over his property, i.e. his wife.
Or perhaps Abraham does not really care what happens to Sarah. The Torah says Isaac loves his wife, Rebecca,7 and Jacob loves one of his wives, Rachel,8 but it does not say Abraham loves any of the three women he has children with.9
There is more than one way to avoid jealousy in a marriage.
- In Exodus 21:7-11, sexual duties are part of the job description of a daughter sold as a slave.
- For example, in Genesis 29:31-30:24, Leah envies Rachel because their mutual husband, Jacob, loves Rachel more. Rachel envies Leah because Leah regularly bears Jacob children. In 1 Samuel 1:1-8, Hannah is jealous of her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, because Peninah has children.2
- Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22. The Talmud later added so many extra requirements for conviction of adultery that the death penalty was no longer practiced. A man is free to have sexual intercourse with an unbetrothed virgin as long as he then pays her father a bride-price and marries her (Deuteronomy 22:28).
- Deuteronomy 24:1.
- Kinah for God is usually translated as “zeal”, and kinah of one human over another human is usually translated as “jealousy”. God’s kinah regarding humans is often translated as “fury”, though Isaiah and Zecharaiah refer to God’s kinah meaning God’s zeal to ensure a good future for the Israelites (Isaiah 9:6, 11:11, 37:32; Zechariah 1:14, 8:2).
- Talmud Makkot 9b, Bereishit Rabbah.
- When God tells him to obey Sarah and send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, he is only troubled about Ishmael (Genesis 21:9-12).
- Genesis 24:67.
- Genesis 29:18.
- Sarah (Genesis 21:2), Hagar (Genesis 16:15), and Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2).