Hebrew Feudal Relations

I still read a lot of news about mainstream Christian religious activities. There seems to be some confusion about Hebrew feudal relations in the Old Testament household. Most of what we see in Western Christianity is far closer to Germanic or Anglo-Saxon culture, not Biblical Hebrew culture. To be honest, Hebrew feudalism is far more civilized than the Western style of feudalism. In the latter, people are property that come with the real estate, and we treat business the same where employment contracts are regarded as property. In Hebrew feudalism, only slaves were outright property.

The Hebrew feudal lord didn’t own the rest of his household in that sense. He owned the domain, a conceptual realm of influence and power. Hebrews didn’t “own” land in our sense of the word, but held it and occupied it. They could hold title to it, but in effect it was all God’s property. The whole idea was that by his wisdom and influence a householder could draw vassals to his domain.

Even the poorest peasant was considered lord of his limited domain. His household was a scaled-down version of a feudal domain, and his family was held to the same community standards and laws as the rich and powerful. The fundamental customs and law were drawn from the image of those who ranked as petty lords.

Aside from slaves, the lord of the manor could hire servants who were not property; everyone else was a vassal. Thus, there was a three-level relationship with the folks in his domain: vassals, servants and slaves. The whole thing was controlled by a covenant. Vassals were treated as family; if not blood kin, they were considered adopted. It was customary law that natural born family could be disowned for grave sins against the family covenant, but covenant adoption could not be easily revoked by the master of the household. Only the vassal could do that. The vassal’s position was voluntary. If he made such a grievous error as to threaten the whole household, he had to be executed in a solemn public judgment, subject to objections from the wider community. Anything short of that required the lord to work it out with the vassal.

Thus, a covenant wife was the senior vassal. Her husband was her protector and lord, but she was not property as is popularly assumed by Westerners reading English translations of the Bible. She was a living protectorate and her husband owed her a great deal of reverence. She was adopted into the covenant, and the whole household covenant was presumed based on her marriage to the lord. While he had the authority to execute justice for serious violations of the covenant, she was accorded the highest level of indulgence. Her actions had to threaten the integrity of the national covenant itself before anyone discussed execution, and for lesser violations the most he could do was only divorce her so she could return alive to her father’s domain. This was a customary element, a sort of prenuptial assumption in the marriage covenant.

This was unique to the Hebrew culture, as most Ancient Near Eastern neighbors considered wives outright property.

So we can read in the Law of Christ that only for infidelity could a man divorce his wife. Jesus noted that Moses permitted divorce for lesser mistakes, but the arbitrary stuff visible among Jews in Jesus’ day was a long way from the tolerance common among ancient Hebrews. If nothing else, divorce would be a grave insult to the woman’s family, so it had to be a pretty serious problem that made her intolerable. Otherwise, a man could not justify risking peaceful coexistence with another household like that. The intrusion of Greek and Roman imperial conquest greatly weakened the feudal ties among Hebrew households, and the wealthy Jews started getting away with murder, and not just as a figure of speech.

Having a family was the central element in Hebrew human existence. There was no such thing as employment and business that was outside the family structure. Our Western society is very sick in treating marriage as an extracurricular activity not essential to human existence. It’s flat out wrong to divorce love and marriage from business. It’s downright evil to have a business that isn’t a part of someone’s personal domain, in which all the employees are either servants or vassals. In Hebrew society there was no such thing as independent corporations.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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