One of the reasons a married woman could maintain her independence was her dowry, since it was her uncontested property with no strings attached. If a divorce occurred, the dowry was hers to take back to her father's house, or to buy her own home or business. But that did not leave the poorer woman at the mercy of her husband, either. In most cases, even if the bride did not bring a sizable dowry, a clause in the marriage contract required the husband to pay a specific sum of money in case of a divorce. An interesting marriage contract from the days of King Nebuchadnezzar specifies that if the husband married a second wife, it would be considered the equivalent of a divorce from the first wife. The first wife would get her full dowry back, with an additional sum of money to compensate her for the loss of her married state. This document is not unique; polygamy was discouraged and penalized financially.
A dowry did not have to consist of strictly money. It could include slaves, domestic animals, furniture, and household goods. In such cases, the value of the people, animals, and objects was carefully calculated and stated clearly in the contract. If the father of the bride was dead, or her mother was a well-to-do divorced woman, the mother would supply the dowry. If both parents were dead, another member of the family would do so. And there were many nuances to family relationships and responsibilities. For example, another document from the time of Nebuchadnezzar states that the father of the bride says that the creditors of the groom’s father should never have a claim on the bride’s dowry, or anything else that she personally possesses. It is amusing to think that the bride’s father suspected his new in-law of not being entirely solvent. Why did he allow his daughter to marry into a family he suspected of financial trouble remains shrouded in the mists of time, but it’s entirely possible that the girl was in love and determined to marry this young man. There is nothing new under the sun…
The groom benefitted from this system as well as the bride. He was seen as acquiring nothing but good – a wife, future children, an estate, and the right to enjoy the rewards of all these new assets. So he had to accept the conditions, and he could not change them. Very often the dowry was used to buy the young couple’s new home, or set them in business, and the realization that the money would have to be returned in case of a divorce helped the young man to understand his responsibilities toward his wife and treat her with respect. Sometimes, if the husband was already established in business, the new wife would start her own business with the dowry, and that would help the young family thrive as well. In Babylonia, which was all about business and commerce, money represented freedom and independence.
This system was in complete opposite of the customs of Judea, where the dowry was paid by the groom, not the father of the bride. If a groom in Babylon paid the dowry, it would be considered buying a woman, not contracting a marriage. It did happen, of course, but in those cases it was acknowledged that this was not an entirely equal marriage, but a civilized way of purchasing a high level slave. The husband/owner had the rights to all the wife/slave’s possessions. When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, they had to submit to the new laws. It must have been a shock to the Jewish men to realize they had to entirely change their customs, but most likely pleased the women. Evidence in documents shows that the Jews adjusted to it and their views of marriage and divorce quickly began to match those of the Babylonians around them. It is amazing how quickly the Jews adapted and even thrived in the Babylonian Diaspora –which cannot fail to remind one of what happened two thousand years later when the Jews started arriving in America from Eastern Europe, changed many of their customs, and adapted perfectly to the new country.
The one area of inequality was the issue of adultery. As mentioned above, polygamy was not practiced, but a man was not physically punished for visiting a prostitute and there were no rules against having as many concubines as he could afford. A wife, on the other hand, would be put to death if her adultery was discovered, usually by drowning or by the sword. The reasons for such blatant inequality is the issue of the children. Adultery by the husband would result in a child that was his. Adultery by the wife could result in a child that was another man’s, and paternity was the most important thing in the world during these times. The concubines were usually former slaves that were bought by the husband, or sometimes given to the husband by his wife, if she thought she was past the age of bearing children and felt the need for increasing the family. The wife maintained her important position in the household no matter how many concubines were added to it.
As mentioned in a previous segment, the story about regular women working as prostitutes is a myth invented by Herodotus. However, there were plenty of prostitutes in Babylonia, and usually they were either protected by the laws of the country or in service of a temple. There is evidence that prostitutes were connected to the temple of Ishtar. They probably were not the same women who functioned as Ishtar’s prophetesses, but the distinction is not too clear and would require more research. It is possible that their services were considered sacred, since the Hebrew word Kedeshah, (קדשה) which is what they called the temple prostitutes, is derived from the root k-d-sh, (קדש) meaning “sacred.” Other prostitutes were connected with the service of the demons Lil and Lilat (the predecessor of Lilith) since these demons were thought to be active at night, when most prostitutes worked.
Clearly, being a woman in Babylonia was not paradise, but by comparison to other cultures of the time, or even some modern cultures, it was not a bad life. Active, free, educated and business-like, she was not hidden behind a veil or afraid to leave her house. She was engaged in the bustling and sophisticated world around her during her entire life.