Women's Rights in Old Testament TimesWomen’s Rights in Old Testament Times
by James R. Baker

on the cover:
“James Baker’s impressive work, Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times, carries forward a method of finding law, not clearly flagged as such, in the narrative accounts of daily events in the lives of leading Old Testament men and women. Baker shows that their dealings with one another were played out according to the settled expectations of the prevailing legal customs and norms in force generally among people of the fertile crescent. The narrative accounts of these events, as Baker demonstrates, portray much more than matters containing only religious significance. Throughout in this informative and fascinating work, the stories of the great women of the Old Testament come alive in a way they never have before.” ——Douglas H. Parker, Professor of Law Emeritus, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times performs two tasks for modern students of the Bible: it unlocks the complex web of ancient laws that governed just about every aspect of a woman’s life, and it reveals the powerful and inspiring actions of women in the biblical texts. Where most commentators treat women mostly as the victims of ancient laws, James Baker shows how they turned restrictions into opportunities. This book throws helpful light on many difficult Old Testament passages and at the same time shows that for the biblical authors women played a much more important role than is usually recognized.” —Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P., Professor of Old Testament, Washington Theological Union

about the author: James Baker is a Salt Lake City attorney and freelance writer who has studied at Brigham Young University, York University, and Hebrew University

title page:
Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times
James R. Baker
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

Dedication: To my father, Al Baker, who, apart from my wife, is my best friend and has been an inspiration to me all my life.

copyright page:
cover design: Julie Easton

© 1992 by Signature Books, Inc. All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books., Inc.
Composed and printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Baker, James R.
Women’s rights in Old Testament times / James R. Baker
p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Women in the Bible. 2. Bible. O.T.—Criticism, interpretation, etc.
3. Jewish law—Sources. 4. Women—Legal status, laws, etc. (Jewish law) I. Title.
BS575.B28 1992
92-4953 CIP
ISBN 1-56085-029-9

Preface [see below]
01 – Twelve Ancient Legal Documents
02 – The Law of the Keeper
03 – Rachel’s Household
04 – Metronymic Marriage
05 – Sarai/Sarah’s Household
06 – Rebekah’s Household
07 – Potiphar’s Wife
08 – David’s Household
09 – The Inheritance Rights of Wives
10 – The Daughters of Zelophehad
 11 – Miscellaneous Cases


[p.ix]People’s lives generally reflect the social norms of their times, some of which find expression in codified law. Deciphering stories of ancient Hebrew women requires cultural sophistication, especially an understanding of their usually murky backdrop. Although women are partly concealed by the patriarchal emphasis of the Bible, they exerted considerable influence in their communities and were often adept at working the law to their advantage.

The study of ancient Israel has long been the province of religious scholars, one of whom observed, “Biblical Law is too important to be left to lawyers.”1 But after looking to the puzzling social and historical context of Hebrew women, I discovered a void and have decided to take on the task myself.

One incidental point of interest to me as a lawyer is the consistency between the Bible and what I can discover of contemporaneous, external legal codes. This affirms for me that the Hebrew Bible was written by scribes who lived at or near the times they were describing, whatever the historicity of any particular story. Historians and theologians continue this debate.

There are several limitations to understanding ancient law, [p.x]not the least of which is linguistic. No one has spoken Akkadian or Sumerian or written in cuneiform or hieroglyphics for centuries. Scholarly debate continues over the accuracy of various translations. For example, who is a muskenum versus an awelum in the Code of Hammurabi? The context makes it clear that these are class distinctions, but their comparative status cannot be determined. Laws and punishments were administered differently for a nobleman than for a commoner, for a temple priestess than for a matron.

I rely heavily on the opinions of Middle Eastern scholars who have made the study of ancient legal texts their lifelong vocation. Not surprisingly, there are significant debates over most major legal theories and principles. What exactly was a concubine? How was the first born chosen? My guiding principle has been to prefer conclusions which most reasonably explain the narratives without textual manipulation.

There are other interpretive difficulties, including chronological contradictions, little surviving information about legal customs in some countries, the borrowing of legal theory from one country by another and from one century to the next,2 the rendering of judgment in the absence of law or in spite of the law due to political realities,3 and the scarcity of nomadic as opposed to urban law. In addition, so little is recorded about some women that next to nothing can be deduced at all. I also omit consideration of Deborah, Esther, and others because their stories do not involve legal issues.

Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible. I have elected to use this translation due to its popularity rather than its interpretive superiority. In quoting translations of legal documents, I used French brackets to add material, allowing translators and editors their standard brackets and parentheses for lacunae and clarifications. Outside of quotations from other authors’ commentaries, I use parentheses.

[p.xi]I should also add that I am not a student of feminist theory, although the potential significance of my work to women’s studies is hopefully apparent. Finally, readers should note what I see as one overall theme of the Bible: the inevitable downfall of the arrogant by those less privileged and more deserving. Implicit here is an acknowledgment that all was not rosy for women of ancient times. But they were protected in some rights and asserted themselves in other areas, sometimes heroically.

Publication of this book is the culmination of a fifteen-year dream. During that time many people assisted me. In particular, I appreciate Doug Parker, my mentor in law school, who aided me in other classes when I persisted in writing papers on ancient legal principles instead of current issues. I am grateful to David Thomas and the library staff of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, as well as to Doug Gould and the staff of the Harold B. Lee library, for research privileges granted me. Assistance provided by Anna and Dick Jacobsen, Joy Rigby, and Margaret Sanders is also appreciated. Lavina Fielding Anderson was very helpful in reviewing, critiquing, and editing the text; and I owe a debt of gratitude to her. Most of all, I cannot begin to express my gratitude for my wife who sacrificed financially and remained cheerful through some very trying times. Lastly, I would like to express appreciation for a Supreme Creator, in whom I have a firm conviction and without whose support I would not have attempted such an undertaking.

The above notwithstanding, I alone am responsible for any errors in this work.


1. Bernard S. Jackson, “The Ceremonial and Judicial: Biblical Law as Sign and Symbol,” Journal of Studies in the Old Testament 30 (1984): 25.

2. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles claim: “When, then, the [p.xii]Old-Accadian Laws are compared on the one hand with the Laws of Hammurabi and on the other hand with the Sumerian and Middle-Assyrian Laws and perhaps also with those of the Hebrews, the conclusion that there was a common customary law throughout the Fertile Crescent seems irresistible; and this common law was to a considerable extent written law” (The Babylonian Laws, 2 vols. [1952; reprt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968], 1:9). E. Neufeld, an expert on ancient Hittite law, states, “With regard to the type of their substance, structure, legal scope, technical presentation and arrangement of subject matter, the collection of Hittite laws shows, on the surface, a remarkable degree of uniformity with the LE [laws of Eshnunna], LH [laws of Hammurabi], the Assyrian law tablets and the legal documents contained in the Old Testament” (The Hittite Laws [London: Luzac & Co., 1951], 101). Of course, even where there are such stark similarities, the contrast with modern Western legal traditions is enormous.

3. Maimonides recorded an irrigation law that recognized the priority of water rights for landowners who were physically stronger. Isaac Klein, trans., The Book of Acquisitions, Book 12 of The Code of Maimonides (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951), 170.