BMCR 2010.12.37

Marriage Gifts and Social Change in Ancient Palestine: 1200 BCE to 200 CE

, Marriage Gifts and Social Change in Ancient Palestine: 1200 BCE to 200 CE. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii, 296. ISBN 9780521113496. $80.00.

This book presents a closely argued case for revising the way we understand how bridewealth, dowry and other marriage gifts functioned within Israelite and Palestinian society from the Iron Age to the Roman period. Lemos effectively shows that a shift in marriage gift-giving from bridewealth to dowry was not the product of foreign influence but reflected increased socio-economic stratification within Israelite society. Lemos positions her book within the field of Biblical studies, yet its historical and thematic scope makes it a useful resource for Iron Age, Hellenistic or Roman-era researchers of marriage, kinship and women’s history. She organises her argument into three strands: the textual evidence for marriage gifts (chapters 1 and 2), anthropological theory on marriage (chapter 3), and the material evidence for Israelite and Palestinian social change (chapters 4 and 5). Each section contains dense, thorough and inward-focused analysis of its respective area. Working together, the sections demonstrate how Lemos’ more “nuanced conception of culture” (p. 2) and cultural change may better explain developing practices of marriage gift-giving, and offer much for further comparisons with other societies.

As preface to her larger argument Lemos contests the way that she sees Biblicists continuing to hold cultural diffusionism as their default explanation for any changes in Israelite and Jewish social life. Though applied to Biblical studies, this point could be well-observed by historians of other societies that have undergone migration, exile, colonisation or foreign occupation, who have the challenge of assessing how social change might be an internal longue durée process when the historiography for a discipline tends to stress external influences as impetus for it.

Given that she aims to change scholarly assumptions about how Israelite society should be interpreted, and with fellow Biblicists as the main audience, Lemos begins by focusing on the core of evidence for Israelite and Jewish history, the Biblical texts. Chapter one examines the Biblical evidence for marriage gift-giving, beginning with a detailed assessment of the different datings of Biblical texts and their various theoretical justifications and shortcomings. Lemos views a relative chronology for the creation of the Biblical texts as sufficient to show the process of changes in the terminology for marriage gifts, rather than pinpointing absolute dates of writing. In this she points out that mohar, the Hebrew word for bridewealth used in pre-exilic law codes (Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and narratives (1 Samuel 18:25, Genesis 34, Genesis 29), appears to denote one of the major ritual components for “actualizing” a marriage (p. 40). Lemos orders these examples not canonically or chronologically but according to the description of the bridewealth as paid in kind, money or labour to the father or male guardian of the woman to establish a betrothal. Other bridewealth-type gifts not called mohar could also accomplish the same change in a woman’s marital status, as in Genesis 24:53, Genesis 12:10-20 and Hosea 3:1-2. Lemos also discusses other gifts, zebed (Genesis 30:20) and silluhim (Exodus 18:2, 1 Kings 9:16, Micah 1:14), which have been interpreted as dowry. She argues that these four passages are not cases of dowry since they do not relate to the creation of a marriage bond but to gifts given after marriage, and so are not clear enough evidence that dowry existed within Israel at their supposed times of writing. Lemos identifies two Biblical cases of dowry at Genesis 29:24, 29 and Joshua 15:13-19, where, respectively, maidservants and property were given by fathers to their daughters on the occasion of their marriages. She concludes that bridewealth is predominant in the Biblical evidence, but also that other types of marriage gift were given alongside it or separately. The dating for the dowry passages is so disputed that rather than date them late because they mention dowry (perceived by others as a post-exilic gift-type), a methodologically unwise approach, she argues that dowry was also present with early Israelite society, though given less often.

Chapter two presents the textual evidence for marriage gifts in the post-exilic period, including Elephantine marriage contracts and the Babatha and Salome Komaise papyri and literary sources such as Tobit, Ben Sira, Josephus and Philo. These all favour dowry as the gift effecting a legal marriage, and even though mohar appears in some Elephantine texts it no longer denotes bridewealth. With this period come a number of new phrases and loanwords to describe dowry or indirect dowry depending on their specific usages. The earlier Elephantine contracts tend to use the phrase ‘she brought into me’ before a list of dowry items; the later papyri introduce the term kethubba and transliterations of the Greek terms pherne, proix and gamika, words which are also used in Greek language contracts from the same archives. Lemos does not explicate how these Greek terms came to be used in Jewish contracts, for example whether they indicate bilingualism or the hellanization of legal matters, but she concludes overall that dowry dominated in both Aramaic and Greek marriage agreements. Tannaitic texts are given some attention, with the same conclusion that while gift terminology may be contested, the idea of bridewealth itself had dropped out of marriage proceedings.

In chapter three, on anthropological theories of marriage gift-giving, Lemos gives a lengthy critique of the major literature on marriage practices and their connection to legality in kinship and inheritance. Jack Goody’s work is the preferred model for understanding how bridewealth and dowry function in society. Bridewealth works where pastoralism or extensive agriculture prevails, land ownership is corporate, marriage is the alliance of lineages and paternal rights over offspring are a matter of importance to the larger kinship group. Dowry fits a system of complex agriculture with restricted land ownership where inheritance and marriage are focused upon maintaining or elevating familial status. Lemos gives three comparative case studies on the Nuer/Tallensi/Gonja/Lovedu tribes of Africa, north India and ancient Babylonia. The first two follow Goody’s own research, and the third is included as an ancient example. Curiously, yet without any reflection by Lemos upon it, the Babylonian case verges on the old stomping ground of the cultural diffusionists, who would cite the Jewish exile and exposure to Babylonian practices as one of the reasons for the change to dowry.

Lemos then turns to her third focus: the material conditions for Israelite and Jewish life in Palestine and the way that the early pastoralism and later social stratification map onto Goody’s schema for bridewealth and dowry-giving societies. Chapter four discusses the archaeology of the Iron I and II periods. Like the textual evidence, the material remains have been the subject of many opposing theorizations on the identification and location of ‘Proto-Israel’ in the archaeological record, and much space is allotted here to summarising and critiquing earlier interpretations. Iron I is the more contested period, falling as it does from 1200 to 1000 BCE, the period of the Monarchy when unification of Israel and increases in material wealth are described in the Biblical narrative. Archaeology of Iron I sites, however, reveals a lack of fortified or monumental structures or the sort of luxury goods one would associate with the social elitism attendant upon the advent of monarchic institutions. Instead, the archaeology shows many small settlements with small populations; two to four room ‘pillared houses’, where animals and storage were on the bottom storey and family living quarters above; many objects relating to food preparation, such as sickles, mortars and pestles; and the faunal remains from agricultural production. Pit silos for grain storage are the only element in the material record which hints at social stratification, based on the differences in silo size and number and therefore the sizes of grain surpluses being produced at different settlements. Yet without knowing whether the silos were ever filled to capacity, or how many were filled at one time, it is difficult to measure wealth and status by them with much confidence. The relative lack of Iron I burials and the simplicity of what burials do survive are also addressed. Other interpretations of this material record have attributed to Proto-Israel an egalitarian and ‘puritan’ ideal, as though the simple lifestyle shown in the remains was an ideological, or rather a theological, choice. Lemos firmly counters this, concluding that the archaeology shows an “unstratified” (p. 179) and relatively poor society in which the rural lifestyle prevailed out of economic necessity.

The archaeological record for Iron II is characterised by increased monumental building, fortifications and population density at many sites, and by the appearance of imported pottery, luxury items, funerary goods and more elaborate burials, and bullae and stamp seals pertaining to a centralised administration. In relating this shift in material culture to the social context for marriage gifts, Lemos argues that the minimal stratification and the likely prevalence of pastoralism in Iron I suit the giving of bridewealth as a means for managing corporate landownership through kinship marriage alliances. Identifying a transition through Iron II to a more stratified society in which resources were no longer distributed evenly across groups, but were being amassed and controlled by state structures and elites, is the lynchpin for Lemos’ argument that dowry-giving resulted from ongoing changes in Israelite society, irrespective of the exile and exposure to other cultures or ideologies of wealth and marriage.

The economic and social stratification begun during Iron II continued in Palestine during the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman occupations, and chapter 5 discusses highlights from the archaeology for these periods. While many sites were destroyed by the Babylonians and population numbers reduced in the Persian period (except for Samaria, p. 205), overall the same social stratification under Iron II continued, with a number of palaces and large houses being built and a growing state administration. Debt bondage and slavery also appear in the economic records, signifying to Lemos that rank now also contributed to stratification in addition to uneven distribution of wealth. The process continued under Hellenistic rule, which also brought an increased urbanization (p. 213). The Hasmonean period contributed a number of very large palatial complexes, and much more elaborate funerary monuments left by elite ruling families. The administration now also institutionalised the differences of rank in terms of legal rights and access to wealth. All this continued through the Roman period, and Lemos notes the appearance of bilateralism, giving daughters dowries of property as a premortem inheritance, which in her view in the final practice confirming dowry as the primary marriage gift strategy within a highly stratified society (p. 227-8).

As an appendix, Lemos discusses several cuneiform marriage contracts from exilic communities in Babylonia. Striking about these is their conformity to Babylonian legal conventions. Bridewealth, dowry and a ‘divorce penalty’ are the typical exchanges described, and Lemos sees in the contracts a high premium laid on social status and gift-giving, so that poor families will attempt to provide some type of indirect gift to the bride when they cannot afford a dowry. This discussion could be related back to the Babylonian case study for the anthropology of marriage, likewise it also could be more directly compared to the other marriage contracts in chapter two.

Lemos makes her conclusions on marriage gift-giving clear from the book’s outset, and so the final conclusion simply collates her main points and the evidence behind them. She comments that her argument requires ‘a measure of reconstruction’ (p. 235), based upon anthropological theory, in order to correctly view and interpret the evidence for marriage gifts. To this end a return to the textual evidence of the first two chapters is highly desirable at the book’s close. Lemos’ avoidance of cultural diffusionism creates a near lack of any cross-cultural comparisons, but at the least a final discussion recontextualising the textual evidence within the material and social picture is needed. It would afford greater immediacy to the anthropological reconstruction and a sounder basis for the argument against cultural diffusionism. However, with such a broad historical scope for a subject pervading most familial and kinship connections, Lemos admirably depicts the longue durée shift from a bridewealth to a dowry-giving society, and convincingly points us to the social circumstances and priorities of Israelite life as the basis for this change in marriage gifts.