Provide and Protect: The Role of Husband and Father in Ancient Times

Carol Bradley, “Provide and Protect: The Role of Husband and Father in Ancient Times,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2007 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 160–179.

Provide and Protect: The Role of Husband and Father in Ancient Times

Carol Bradley

“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” introduced by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1995, states: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.”[1] This eternal doctrine teaches that men hold a sacred duty to provide both physically and spiritually for their wives and children and to furnish both physical and spiritual protection. This law can be found not only in the doctrine from prophets in our present gospel dispensation but also in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon. Furthermore, this concept can be found in the law codes and law cases of other ancient Near Eastern societies. This chapter will examine the evidences found in the customs, laws, and writings of these ancient societies two continents and thousands of years, showing that the mandate for the care of women and children within the spiritual and physical safety of a family, and also a community, can be found throughout the world’s history.

Husbands Are to Provide the Necessities of Life

In the law of Moses, a husband was required to provide his wife with the physical items she required—food, clothing, oil, and other necessities of life. When he married, he took on a solemn, sacred duty to work for and to sustain his wife. The concept of caring for a wife and children is found throughout Israel and other ancient Near Eastern societies.

The duty of Israelite husbands can be found in Exodus 21:10, in which a man is commanded to provide food and raiment for his wife. The basic necessities of life to be provided by a husband can be found in the Old Testament in the book of Hosea, in which the prophet’s unfaithful wife spurns her husband, turning to her lovers to provide for her wool, flax, oil, and drink. When her lovers are unsuccessful in providing for her, she decides to return to her husband’s protection and to his oil, corn, wine, wool, and flax (see Hosea 2:5–9).

The Old Testament phrase “to spread a mantle over” is a symbolic term describing the marriage relationship. Ruth lies down at the feet of Boaz on the threshing floor with a request that he spread his skirt over her, a request he would have recognized (see Ruth 3:9). Ezekiel writes of spreading a skirt over a woman and entering into a covenant of marriage with her. He anoints his wife with oil, clothes her with fine linen and silk, bracelets and necklaces, jewels, earrings, and a crown. He gives her fine flour, honey, and oil (see Ezekiel 16:8–13). This phrase is also used in the Bible to describe the act of birds spreading their wings (see Deuteronomy 32:11; Jeremiah 48:40; 49:22). One scholar explains: “The act can then be explained historically as an attempt to imitate the protective behaviour of a bird when it spreads out its wings. . . . When a man then spreads his mantle over the woman, he would be expressing his willingness to provide the woman with protection and shelter.”[2]

Bride-Price and Dowry: Insurance for the Wife

Marriage in ancient times usually involved economic arrangements between the families of the bride and groom. A bride-price was given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family and consisted of money, property, or other goods; a dowry was also given to the groom’s family by the bride’s father at the time of betrothal, or if he was deceased, by the bride’s mother or elder brother. The bride’s family then gave her the bride-price. The dowry was not considered the husband’s property but was to be held in trust by him. These arrangements were for the benefit of the wife; they acted as insurance against her future needs in case of death or divorce. This tradition can be found throughout the laws of Israel and other ancient Near Eastern societies; indeed many of the discovered ancient law codes address family issues, particularly the economic needs of women.

A biblical example of a dowry is found in Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah, in which Isaac gave presents to Rebekah and her family (see Genesis 24:22, 30, 47, 53). This is also found in Jacob’s marriage to the sisters Leah and Rachel. In this case, Jacob paid the bride-price to his father-in-law in the form of seven years’ work. Leah and Rachel later charged their father, Laban, of cheating them out of their rightful dowry and keeping it instead for his own use, thereby treating them with contempt below the status due a daughter: “Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not counted of him strangers?” they asked. “For he hath sold us, and hath quite devoured also our money” (Genesis 31:14–15). They then further declared that their father had taken not only their riches but also their children’s riches (see Genesis 31:16). This accusation is in accordance with ancient law: in the event of the wife’s death, the dowry was not to be used by the husband but was to be used for their children’s inheritance. If no children had been born in the marriage, the dowry still did not go to the husband but was returned to her family.

Though the Old Testament refers only a few times to bride-price and dowry, these few references stand as evidence that this was the prescribed tradition in Israelite society. Much evidence suggests this tradition was the common practice throughout the ancient Near East. Laws regulating marriage, bride-price, and dowry are found in the Code of Hammurabi,[3] in the law code of Lipi-Ishtar,[4] in Hittite Law,[5] in Middle Assyrian Law,[6] in Neo-Babylonian Law,[7] and in the Greek laws of Gortyn.[8] For example, a provision contained in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi stipulated that an unmarried girl whose father had died was to be provided a dowry by her brothers.[9]

Records of Jewish Refugees Dating to the Time of Lehi

The fifth-century-BC Jewish colony of Elephantine in Egypt is of great interest in the study of ancient Israelite traditions surrounding marriage. Some scholars, such as Hugh Nibley, consider these people to be Jewish refugees who left Jerusalem around 600 BC and built a colony and a temple at one of the cataracts of the Nile.[10] The ancient papyri that have been discovered in that area include several detailed marriage contracts. Bride-price and dowry are prominent in the transactions. In two of the three Elephantine marriage contracts, the bride-price was included with the dowry and was to be paid by the groom to the bride’s father and returned by the father to the bride. The contracts dictate that the wife was to be given her dowry if either party divorced the other, so in any event the wife was economically provided for. These documents also provide evidence that the wife, as well as the husband, could initiate divorce in Israelite society.

Lists of items to be brought into the marriage by the bride include cash, clothing, and household items. It is interesting to note that some of the contracts do not list substantial property, including the deeds to houses that had been previously given to the bride by her father. The omission of the property in the list of the bride’s assets has been interpreted by some scholars as an indication that a wife could hold property outside the husband’s stewardship.[11]

The Israelite custom of levirate marriage, in which a widow could marry her deceased husband’s brother or near heir, as in the case of Ruth’s marriage to her dead husband’s kin Boaz, was another custom established to provide for the welfare of women (see Ruth 4; Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Providing a husband for the wife of a deceased son was considered a duty for a family patriarch, as is evident in the biblical story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (see Genesis 38:6).

Another tradition existed anciently to ensure that a woman was provided for. In the Bedouin culture, both anciently and in modern times, the tent belonged to the woman. This is found in the Old Testament in the account of Abraham and Sarah. In the event of a separation, the tent went with the woman, the flocks with the husband.[12]

Care of a Family after Divorce

Of special note is the evidence found in ancient law cases that a man remained bound to provide for his family even after divorce. A Sippar court case found in Old Babylonian court documents censured a husband who had “cut the hem of his wife,” a common euphemism for divorce, but then did not subsequently provide support for her or her children. The ex-husband had also been attempting to “make claims and demands, from chaff to gold” on his former wife, and the judges rejected his claims. This document reveals the apparent obligations that existed in ancient societies for a divorced husband to continue to provide for his former family and also shows the right of a woman to appeal to a court of law for aid.[13]

Another case brought to court in Larsa included the testimony of several witnesses that after a husband had divorced his wife, he had not provided her with a food and clothing allowance.[14] In both of these cases, the rights of the divorced wife were upheld and the husband censured.

One of the earliest law codes found, the laws of Ur-Nammu (circa 2100 BC), enumerates the monetary compensation of sixty shekels to be given by a husband to his wife to legally divorce her; this was a huge amount of money for that time period. The Code of Hammurabi (circa 1750 BC) included several scenarios for a divorced wife to receive sustenance. In one, a woman whose husband was divorcing her was entitled to her dowry, plus half of their joint property, including field and orchard, to care for herself and her children.[15] In the case of a woman who had born no children, the husband owed her the full amount of her marriage price, along with her dowry, or he was not allowed to divorce her.[16] In the event that there was no marriage price, the husband was required to give her sixty shekels of silver as a divorce settlement.[17] A law of Eshnunna (circa 1770 BC) dictated a severe penalty for a man who was divorcing his wife—he was to be driven from his house and all that he owned, the implication being that his wife and children were entitled to remain on the property but he was not.[18]

Women and Children Were to Be Provided for through Inheritance

The oldest son in an Israelite family received a double inheritance share from his father. This was not intended simply to enrich the eldest son but to ensure that he would have the resources needed to provide for his mother and his sisters. He was responsible to furnish a dowry and suitable marriage partner for any unmarried sister. A law code in the Code of Hammurabi deals with this issue.[19]

Modern scholars debate whether a daughter could inherit as the sons did. The Old Testament suggests that women could inherit, although Job’s three daughters being given an inheritance by their father along with their brothers is generally considered to be an exception to the norm of sons inheriting. Whether or not this is the case, women were clearly to be provided for. In Numbers 27 and 36, the appeal of the daughters of Zelophahad to Moses for the right to inherit their dead father’s estate is interesting and sheds light on the issue. In this case, there were no sons to inherit. The daughters appeal to Moses, saying: “Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father” (Numbers 27:4). Moses agreed, and the established statute granted them a landed inheritance, the only stipulation being that they marry within their father’s tribe of Manasseh to keep the inheritance within the same tribe (see Numbers 36). These women’s inheritances were listed among all the others in the book of Joshua and brought the number of portions allotted to the tribe of Manasseh to ten (see Joshua 17:4).

The inheritances allotted within the tribe of Judah were also affected by an inheritance given to a woman, a daughter of Caleb named Ashcah, who was given by her father the upper and lower springs, which are listed among the inheritances of Judah (see Joshua 15:16–19; Judges 1:12–15; Joshua 15:20). In both cases, the women’s inheritances were not lumped in with their husbands’ but kept separate as inheritances under their fathers’ names. This is similar to the marriage documents in Elephantine in which the woman held property deeded to her by her father, kept separate from her husband, but in these cases the property was in the woman’s name.

Other ancient Near Eastern law codes dealt with the issue of inheritances of daughters and also wives. One provision in the law of Lipit-Ishtar granted a daughter an equal share in her father’s estate along with her brothers.[20] The Code of Hammurabi envisioned a wife inheriting her husband’s property, including a field, an orchard, a house and other goods, with her children unable to lay claim to it and take it from her.[21] A law of Gortyn prevented a husband or a son from selling the wife and mother’s possessions.[22] Therefore we see that women can be seen to inherit, own, and maintain property in Hebrew and other ancient Near Eastern laws.

Much of ancient law concerned itself with the economics of marriage and the economic welfare of the wife in particular. This stands as proof that ancient societies looked to the care of women and children and attempted by law to provide for their security.

The Apostle Paul reiterated an ancient law to his generation around AD 55 when he declared the responsibility of husbands and fathers to their families: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).

This doctrine carries into our time as found in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Women have claim on their husbands for their maintenance, until their husbands are taken. . . . All children have claim upon their parents for their maintenance until they are of age” (D&C 83:2, 4).

This sense of care and responsibility of a man for his family is not as evident within modern society. Many men take no responsibility after divorce, refusing to provide further financial assistance. Women and children are then left in poverty, or mothers are forced to seek outside employment to provide for their children, leaving the children in the care of others.

Care of the Widow and the Fatherless: The Responsibility of All

Ancient societies addressed the needs of their most vulnerable members: the widows and the fatherless. When the family system failed, the entire community was enlisted to provide for their needs.

In ancient Israel the tithe of every third year was to go to the widows and the fatherless (see Deuteronomy 14:28–29). The excess harvest of a field or orchard was to be allotted for this group (see Deuteronomy 24:19). A widow’s raiment was never to be taken as a pledge to repay a debt (see Deuteronomy 24:17).

The care of widows and their children is also found throughout the Book of Mormon record. King Limhi decreed that every man of the people of Limhi was to provide a part of his goods to help support the large number of widows and their children who lost their husbands and fathers in a battle with the Lamanites (see Mosiah 21:17). The plight of widows due to war was a recurring theme throughout the Book of Mormon record. The prophet Mormon wrote of many widows and their daughters who were left without sustenance and were starving (see Moroni 9:16). The Book of Mormon societies condemned the neglect of these people. Mistreatment of the vulnerable was considered by the prophets to be a sign of a wicked society. Isaiah condemned those men who “decree unrighteous decrees . . . to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!” (Isaiah 10:1–2). This condemnation is also found in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 20:1–2).

Malachi spoke against those who oppress the widow and fatherless (see Malachi 3:5). This is also found in the Book of Mormon record in 3 Nephi 24:5. Mormon prophesied of those in our day who “build up . . . secret combinations to get gain, and cause that widows . . . and also orphans to mourn before the Lord, and also the blood of their fathers and their husbands to cry unto the Lord from the ground, for vengeance” (Mormon 8:40).

Other ancient Near Eastern laws dealt with the needs of women whose husbands were missing or taken captive. In these situations, a woman in need could appeal to the community or palace for aid.[23] An account such as this of a widow appealing to the king for assistance is found in the Old Testament record of 2 Kings. A widowed Shunammite woman appealed to the king for the return of her house and land after she spent seven years in the land of the Philistines. Her request was granted (see 2 Kings 8).

The mandate to both family and community to care for women and children was carried down to New Testament times and is found in James 1:27: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” The same charge exists in this present gospel dispensation. Widows are to be provided for by their families or by the Church. In Doctrine and Covenants 83:6, the Lord commands that “by the consecration of the church . . . widows and orphans shall be provided for.” The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote from Liberty Jail concerning the care of widows and orphans: “Therefore it is an imperative duty that we owe, not only to our own wives and children, but to the widows and fatherless, whose husbands and fathers have been murdered” (D&C 123:9). Through President Brigham Young, the Lord dictated that every company traveling west was to “bear an equal proportion, according to dividend of their property, in taking the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the families of those who have gone into the army, that the cries of the widow and the fatherless come not up into the ears of the Lord against this people” (D&C 136:8).

Physical Protection: The Sacred Support Owed to Wives and Children

In ancient times every man was to provide both spiritual and physical protection for his family. This concept is found throughout the Old Testament and Book of Mormon, most particularly in the account of Captain Moroni. Mormon repeatedly stated the reasons the Nephites were fighting the Lamanites in a conflict around 70 BC. They were not fighting “for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church.” In quoting the Lord’s law, Mormon said, “Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed” (Alma 43:45, 47). Captain Moroni rallied the people, reminding them of “the sacred support which we owe to our wives and our children” (Alma 44:5). He inscribed it on the title of liberty that he carried throughout the land: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children” (Alma 46:12; emphasis added). This was the watchcry to embolden his people to action against their oppressors, a belief they would have been intimately acquainted with (see also Alma 48:10, 24; 58:12).

Approximately fifty years earlier in Nephite history, when the people of Limhi were attempting to drive the Lamanites out of their land, they fought “like dragons” because “they fought for their lives, and for their wives, and for their children” (Mosiah 20:11). This concept is also found in the Old Testament record when the Jews were rebuilding Jerusalem in the fifth century BC. The prophet Nehemiah encouraged his people to “fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (Nehemiah 4:14). The Jaredite civilization on the American continent many years earlier also lived by this precept, as found in their record of each Jaredite man standing in defence “of his property and his own life and of his wives and children” (Ether 14:2).

Early in the history of the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s sons Laman and Lemuel, in their complaints against Lehi and Nephi, dwelt on the great suffering of their wives and children as they traveled through the wilderness: “Our father hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions” (1 Nephi 17:20). They seem to have been trying to hold their father and younger brother responsible for the suffering of the women and children. This mode of argument seems to be directly aimed at impugning the integrity of Lehi and Nephi, accusing them of neglect in the divine mandate of care to be given to their families.

Nephi previously addressed his concern for the welfare of their women and children a few pages earlier in his record: “We did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness. And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings” (1 Nephi 17:1–2). He spoke here of the goodness of the Lord in strengthening them and in providing for them the things they needed.

In AD 360 the prophet Mormon tried to rally his people with the same cry as Captain Moroni and others, urging them to “stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes,” recording that this tactic “did arouse them somewhat to vigor” (Mormon 2:23–24).

King Noah in the Book of Mormon is an example of a leader whose actions violated this sacred principle to protect women and children. When their land was overrun by Lamanites, Noah urged his people to flee along with their women and children. When they were overtaken, the king commanded the men to leave their wives and children and flee with him. Many would not leave their families, preferring to stay “and perish with them,” while the rest fled, leaving their wives and children in danger. These same men were stricken with guilt and desired to return to see if their families had survived; they had “sworn in their hearts” to do so. When King Noah forbade them to return, they rebelled and burned their king by fire (Mosiah 19:9–12, 19–20). In this case, their oath to protect their families meant more than a king’s mandate.

In his history, Mormon carefully recorded the suffering of both Nephite and Lamanite women and children in the wars that resulted in the destruction of his people: “O the depravity of my people! They are without order and without mercy. . . . And the suffering of our women and our children upon all the face of this land doth exceed everything; yea, tongue cannot tell, neither can it be written” (Moroni 9:18–19). He recorded scenes of Lamanite women raped and murdered, their flesh eaten by their Nephite captors, and of Lamanite soldiers feeding women and children prisoners on the flesh of their husbands and fathers (see Moroni 9:8–10). These accounts clearly demonstrate that when the people became wicked, the mandate to protect women and children was no longer followed.

Echoes of the same feelings expressed by Mormon are also found in the words of Old Testament prophets who witnessed the destruction of their people. Jeremiah, a contemporary of Lehi, whose prophecies were found on the plates of brass, wrote: “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt” (Jeremiah 8:21), and again, “For the virgin daughter of my people is broken with a great breach, with a very grievous blow” (Jeremiah 14:17). In Lamentations he wrote: “The virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground. . . . For thy breach is great like the sea: who can heal thee?” (Lamentations 2:10–13). These accounts provide vivid evidence of how deeply ingrained in the ancient mind was the belief of the physical care and protection men owed to their wives and children.

Spiritual Protection: Service and Obedience

Husbands and fathers were to provide not only physical protection but also spiritual safety. Positive and negative examples of this are found in Israelite and Nephite records. This principle permeated ancient society, an understanding of which sheds much light on passages in the Old Testament that can be difficult to understand, such as the taking of vows (see Numbers 30) and the duty of a man to guard the virtue of his wife and children.

Fathers to Teach Children

A father was to teach his children the commandments of God with all diligence. Nephi recorded that his father Lehi pleaded often with his rebellious sons Laman and Lemuel and spoke “with power, being filled with the Spirit, until their frames did shake before him. And he did confound them, that they durst not utter against him; wherefore, they did as he commanded them” (1 Nephi 2:14). The record is filled with his pleadings to his family members to follow the commandments of God. At the end of his life, Lehi pronounced a blessing upon each of his children, telling them that “I have none other object save it be the everlasting welfare of your souls” (2 Nephi 2:30). The Book of Mormon is filled with the teachings of fathers to their children.

Fathers to Practice and Teach Moral Cleanliness

Husbands and fathers were responsible for the morality of their families. To provide their families with spiritual protection, an Israelite husband and father was required to be virtuous himself. This idea is very clear in the Book of Mormon record, more so than in the Old Testament, but there are many evidences within the Old Testament record of the mandate for men, as well as women, to be moral. Some modern scholars argue that only the woman was responsible for sexual fidelity, but other scholars such as Gordon P. Hugenberger hold that a man was as responsible as the woman.[24]

For example, in Proverbs 5 we find advice to “rejoice with the wife of thy youth” and to “drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well” (Proverbs 5:18, 15). Cisterns and wells were privately owned in ancient times; the metaphor indicates confining sexual satisfaction to one’s wife. Proverbs 6 warns: “But whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul. A wound and a dishonour shall he get; and his reproach shall not be wiped away” (Proverbs 6:32–33). The writer of Job wrote that adultery “is an heinous crime; yea, it is an iniquity to be punished by the judges. For it is a fire that consumeth to destruction” (Job 31:11–12). These biblical passages give clear indication that sexual purity was a mandate for both men and women in Israelite law.

In Hebrew law a violation of the law of chastity was considered a violation against God. This does not appear to be the case in other ancient Near Eastern laws. But all ancient law declared the violation of chastity to be a serious offense for either married or unmarried men or women. The law held men as well as women accountable. For example, rape was placed on a par with murder in Hebrew law, as found in Deuteronomy 22:25–26: “For as when a man riseth against his neighbor, and slayeth him, even so is this matter.” Hebrew law, as well as other ancient Near Eastern laws, attempted to distinguish between rape and consent, adjusting the severity of the punishment accordingly. It is interesting to note that in the law found in Deuteronomy 22, a man was condemned to die in every case, except if the woman with whom he had sexual relations was not betrothed. In that case, the man was required to make the woman his wife and provide for her, and he was forbidden to ever divorce her (see Deuteronomy 22:28–29). A married or betrothed woman who was a willing participant in adultery warranted the death penalty along with the man; however, if the woman did not consent, she lived and the man was to die.

Other ancient Near Eastern laws (Law of Eshnunna, Code of Hammurabi) were similar to Hebrew law and called for capital punishment for the man in the event of an abduction and rape, but not for the woman; she was to go free. Also, Hebrew law did not distinguish between classes in the punishment of a man or woman for a violation of chastity. However, class did play a role in other laws, especially in Middle Assyria, where a free married woman was protected under the law more than women of the lower classes.

The Book of Mormon clearly reveals the idea that a man was held accountable for virtue. The prophet Alma taught his son Corianton that sexual sin was an offense against God: “These things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost” (Alma 39:5). Adultery and other sexual sins were a punishable offense according to the laws of the land in Book of Mormon society (see Mosiah 26:6–12, 34–36; Alma 1:31–33; Alma 30:17–18; Helaman 6:22–23).

The Old Testament prophet Malachi condemned men who violated their obligations to their wives: “The Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of the covenant. And did not he make one? . . . . Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of thy youth” (Malachi 2:14–15).

In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Jacob taught the responsibility of a husband and father to his family. In an address to his people given at the temple before men, women, and children, Jacob soundly condemned the ill treatment of the men to their families, invoking God’s wrath on their heads:

For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me. . . .

For behold, I the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.

And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people. . . .

For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts. (Jacob 2:28, 31–33)

Jacob accused the men of breaking the hearts of their wives and losing the confidence of their children, “because of your bad examples before them” (Jacob 2:35).

The mandate is clear in these passages. Husbands and fathers were responsible not only for the purity of their wives and children, but also for their own actions. They were held accountable both to God and to their families and were under a sacred charge to live a moral life.

Vows: Fathers to Help Families Keep the Commandments

Numbers 30 describes the Israelite tradition of the taking of vows by men or women. This was a sacred action before God, usually at the temple or tabernacle, with the involvement of a priest. According to the law given in Numbers 30, the vows of wives and unmarried daughters could be disallowed by a husband or father when he became aware of the vow. He did not dictate what vows were made or when, nor would he always be informed of the vows. However, the law dictated that should he become aware, he could either allow it by his silence or disallow it on the same day that he heard of it. The man’s subsequent responsibility is stated clearly in verse 15: “But if he shall any ways make them void after that he hath heard them; then he shall bear her iniquity.”

An example of the taking of vows is found in 1 Samuel. Hannah made a vow at the temple before God that if the Lord granted her a son, she would dedicate him to God’s service. Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, was not present when she uttered her vow but was told of it later, apparently after the birth of Samuel, and then affirmed it, “Do what seemeth thee good” (1 Samuel 1:23).

The responsibility given to a husband and father to be involved in the religious actions of his wife or daughters was to be done in righteousness. This is seen more clearly in the Dead Sea Scrolls than in the Old Testament. A passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls refers to “any binding oath by which a person takes upon himself to keep a commandment of the Torah.” In other words, a vow was to be made in righteousness, and it was only valid if it was in accordance with God’s commandments. The man’s responsibility for the oath of his wife or daughter was then further clarified: “If (the oath) is to transgress the covenant, let him annul [it and not allow it to stand. . . .]” The oath was only within his bounds to annul if it transgressed the commandments.[25] This helps clarify the statement in Numbers 30:15 that a man was to bear the iniquity of his wife or daughter.

This sheds light on an interesting reference to vows found in Jeremiah 44, in which the wives had taken vows connected with idolatry. The prophet Jeremiah confronted the women and their husbands; those men who knew that their wives burned incense to other gods refused to give credence to Jeremiah’s words. The women replied that they would continue to burn the incense and that their men knew of it: “And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her . . . without our men?” (Jeremiah 44:19). Jeremiah’s response was directed toward the husbands, “Ye and your wives have both spoken with your mouths” (Jeremiah 44:25). Both were to be held accountable. The punishment appears to be directed to the men, who were responsible for the vows of their wives: “All the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine” (Jeremiah 44:27).

An understanding of the spiritual protection that a man was to provide for his family sheds much light on the taking of vows and a man’s responsibility for the vows of his wife and dependent daughters.

A Father’s Care Symbolizes God’s Love

The duty of every man to provide for and protect his family is symbolic of the care of God for all His children. God’s guidance and protection of His family can be seen throughout the Old Testament and Book of Mormon record. He is described as a shield (see Genesis 15:1), a fortress, a deliverer, a high tower (see Psalm 18:2). He is seen in Exodus as going before His people in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to protect them (see Exodus 13:21). He causes the destroying angel to pass by the faithful (see Exodus 11). Moses reminded his people that God was their defender, “The Lord your God which goeth before you, he shall fight for you” (Deuteronomy 1:30), as was also expressed by Nehemiah, “Our God shall fight for us” (Nehemiah 4:20).

God is shown in scripture providing for His people. He sent down manna from heaven, caused water to flow from rock for the thirsty Israelites, and continually refilled the cruse of oil and flour for a widow and her young son. King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon spoke of a God who created mankind and keeps and preserves him day to day by lending him breath and supporting him “from one moment to another” (Mosiah 2:21). He taught his people that all people depend on God “for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind” (Mosiah 4:19).

God is portrayed by His prophets as anxious to provide spiritually for His children. Joseph Smith wrote that nothing could hinder the Lord from “pouring down knowledge from heaven” upon His Saints (D&C 121:33). Moses quoted God’s determination to shower His children with spiritual knowledge: “Righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, . . . to sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out mine elect from the four quarters of the earth” (Moses 7:62). He gives commandments to His children because of His great love for them and concern for their welfare.


An examination of ancient written records, both sacred and secular, reveals that the stewardship held by a husband and father to provide for and protect his family permeates the world’s history, many centuries and civilizations, down to the present. Much of ancient law was concerned with the economic welfare of women and children and the responsibility of a husband and father to provide for his family. Significant monetary penalties were imposed in the event of divorce, and continued support was expected from a former husband. Bride-price and dowry were regulated by law to provide for the needs of women and children. The double inheritance of an oldest son was intended for the care of his mother and sisters. Heads of families were held accountable for the care of women and children; this responsibility also extended to the entire community. The care of widows and orphans was an integral part of the law of Moses continuing down through New Testament times.

Prophets on both continents decried the failure to provide protection for women and children; this was shown to be a sign of an immoral, declining society. A man was responsible to provide not only physical but also spiritual safety for his family, by living a moral life and encouraging his family to do the same.

Man standing at the head as patriarch of a family was and is a sacred stewardship involving responsibility and accountability of the husband and father, not only to his wife and children but also to God. Patriarchy is not merely an unrestrained prerogative to control or dominate. Within this frame of reference, patriarchy can no longer be viewed as universally oppressive or degrading to women but instead reveals the patriarch’s great value and central position in both family and society. In this context, women are not inferior or subordinate, but they are equal, valued, and cherished.


[1] First Presidency, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995, 102.

[2] Ake Viberg, Symbols of Law: A Contextual Analysis of Legal Symbolic Acts in the Old Testament (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1992), 143.

[3] See Code of Hammurabi 162, 163, 173, 174, 176A, as quoted in John Welch, Drew Briney, and James B. Garrison, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws” course packet ANES 430R, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT: J. Reuben Clark Law School, 2001.

[4] See Laws of Lipit-Ishtar 29, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[5] See Hittite Laws 28, 29, 30, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[6] See Middle Assyrian Laws A27, A29, A30, A31, A42, A43, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[7] See Neo-Babylonian Laws 9–13, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[8] See Laws of Gortyn 9, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[9] See Code of Hammurabi 184, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[10] See Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 285, 293.

[11] See Reuven Yaron, The Law of the Aramaic Papyri (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 42–43.

[12] See John A. Tvedtnes, “Bedouin Culture and Bible Customs,” Meridian Magazine; bible print.html (accessed November 2, 2006).

[13] Raymond Westbrook, Old Babylonian Marriage Law (Horn, Austria: Ferdinand Berger and Sohne, 1988), 134.

[14] See Westbrook, Old Babylonian Marriage Law, 135.

[15] See Code of Hammurabi 137, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[16] See Code of Hammurabi 138, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[17] See Code of Hammurabi 139, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[18] See Laws of Eshnunna 59, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[19] See Code of Hammurabi 184, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[20] See Laws of Lipit-Ishtar 22, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[21] See Code of Hammurabi 150, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[22] See Laws of Gortyn 22, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[23] See Laws of Eshnunna 29, 30; Code of Hammurabi 133A, 133B, 134, 135, 136; and Middle Assyrian Laws A36, as quoted in Welch, “Ancient Near Eastern & Eastern Mediterranean Laws.”

[24] See Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998).

[25] Joseph M. Baumgarten, “Qumran Cave 4, XIII: The Damascus Document,” Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XVIII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 156–57, 178–79.