The scriptures leave little doubt that the public world of ancient Israel was a man's domain. The texts of the Old Testament are largely concerned with preserving the stories and deeds of great prophets, the dealings of God with men, and the civic and priestly laws by which men were to govern themselves and interact with each other. Of course, stories appear of particularly exceptional women, such as Esther, who saved her people from destruction; Ruth, who showed unusual devotion to her family; and Miriam, a prophetess and the sister of Moses. The Old Testament is more interested in preserving patrilineal genealogies and priesthood lines than it is with the daily functioning of families and households, where women's roles were most significant. Women in scripture were not systematically ignored any more than the majority of men were; they simply wielded their influence in a more intimate, less visible sphere.1
In a similar fashion and often to an even greater degree, the authors of the Book of Mormon mostly recorded the broader dealings of God with men and of men with each other. For example, 1 and 2 Nephi recount in great detail the struggle of Nephi's brothers Laman and Lemuel against the patriarchal and religious authority of God; their father, Lehi; and their righteous brothers as they journey in the wilderness outside of Israel. Only faint images appear in the account of the women who accompanied them: their wife or mother, Sariah, as well as the nameless wives and sisters of the sons of Lehi. Nevertheless, these women played significant roles in the story of this Israelite family. Unfortunately, little is known from the text about their specific contributions, personalities, and lifestyles—who they really were.
Only by piecing together bits of archaeological evidence that remain and by looking comparatively at earlier and later sources, especially from the world of the Old Testament, can we attempt to reconstruct a likely picture of how these women might have lived in the late seventh century BC. Examining and understanding the complexities of marriage, family relationships, and motherhood, as well as household, educational, and religious responsibilities within their society, will give greater insight into who Sariah and her daughters and daughters-in-law were and the critical parts they played in Lehi's family.
As described and documented in several surveys of life in biblical times, the most significant event in the life of a woman in ancient Israel was marriage.2 From birth, a woman was prepared by her parents to become a wife and mother. All of her training and education within the household was focused on the time when she would leave her parents' home and enter her husband's. Generally, a woman was considered to be of marriageable age at twelve to fourteen years. But marriage was not a matter of individual choice, especially for the woman herself. The choosing of a spouse, whether for a son or for a daughter, was a selective process that involved the entire household.3 A marriage was often contracted for the purpose of extending political or economic relations with new families.4 However, although a woman was brought into the house of her husband's family upon marriage,5 she remained somewhat of an outsider for the remainder of her life. It was, therefore, also desirable for her to marry into a household that was close in terms of consanguinity.6 For this reason, cross-cousin marriages were a time-honored Israelite tradition.7
The family patriarch had the final say in the selection process, and he, or the closest living male relative, negotiated with the suitor. The potential groom, who usually initiated these negotiations, might have become acquainted with the bride as a kinswoman or as a neighbor in the village and, with the prior consent of his own father, now sought to make her his wife. Once an agreement had been reached between the groom and the bride's father, either a document would be drafted or witnesses would be called in and informed of the details. The contract of betrothal was considered legally binding upon both parties and often included such specifications as the amount of the mohar, or bride-price, which the groom would pay the bride's family; a bridal dowry (zebed or silluhim), which would be returned to the bride in the case of divorcement; and stipulations, such as whether the groom could take another wife.8 The betrothal generally lasted a year or more before the actual marriage was finalized by a wedding meal and the delivery of the bride to the groom's residence.9
Under ancient law, a man could take more than one wife. Several instances of plural marriage are mentioned early in the Old Testament (for example, Jacob in Genesis 29:15–30; 30:1–9; and Esau in Genesis 26:34; 28:9; 36:1–5). But by the time of the monarchy, monogamy seems to have been the most common practice outside the royal household. Most men were not economically able to support more than one or two spouses, and the Torah contains several discouraging accounts of the domestic strife that occurred within, or as a result of, multiple marriages. As mentioned, the contract of betrothal could—and often did—restrict the husband from taking another wife.10 Therefore, it was unlikely that most men in Lehi's day would marry more than once unless death or divorce occurred.11 Lehi himself restricted his sons to having a single wife and no concubines (Jacob 3:5).
Nephi's account in the Book of Mormon refers only vaguely to the marriage of his brothers and himself to Ishmael's daughters: "And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife" (1 Nephi 16:7).12 It is not unimaginable that Nephi, his brothers, and Zoram were married in a simplified version of the traditional fashion that would have included an oral agreement with Ishmael, a wedding meal, and the deliverance of the bride to the bridegroom's tent. However, it is likely that Sariah had become Lehi's wife in a more elaborate and formalized manner, as Lehi was a man of significant wealth, had connections with political power and prestige, and dwelt in or near the city. Her marriage contract, perhaps both written out and witnessed by significant family members and friends, was probably concluded with the immediate payment of the bride price by the bridegroom and with the giving of rich gifts to both the bride herself and her family. Sariah's father might also have bestowed an elaborate dowry upon her, such as a piece of land, if he were prosperous. The nuptials would have been celebrated with many guests, feasting, and an elaborate procession, such as that which became more common in New Testament times.13
The daughters of Ishmael were patriarchally descended from Ephraim,14 while Lehi's family was of the tribe of Manasseh (see 1 Nephi 5:14; Alma 10:3). However, it is not known whether some sort of blood relationship existed between the two families through Sariah or the wife of Ishmael. The Israelite tradition of cross-cousin marriage makes this kinship both possible and likely. But whether the two families shared a blood relationship or not, consanguinity was technically achieved in both physical and spiritual senses because they both claimed Israel (Jacob) as a common ancestor and held his God as their own. It is also possible that Lehi and Sariah were closely related.15
For an Israelite woman, marriage meant the transfer of her guardianship from her father (or the male relative who was the head of the house) to her husband.16 In ancient Israel, as a son was subject to the authority of his father for the duration of the father's life, so a woman also came to be just as much under the guardianship of her father-in-law as of her husband, if not more. Often a newly espoused couple resided in the house of the groom's father, either in the same building or in another part of a larger complex. Sometimes a married couple would live in a new residence away from the father's property, but he continued to have absolute authority over them until his death.17
Cultural and archaeological evidences show that during the First Temple period, the average bet ab—the "house of the father," or ancestral household—consisted fundamentally of two parents and between two and four children. In addition to her father- and mother-in-law, a new bride could often expect to find within her husband's larger household his grandparents; his brothers and their wives and children; his unmarried, divorced, or widowed sisters; one or more adopted children; household servants and slaves; or other dependents, such as resident aliens.18 Her greatest challenge as a new wife was to find her place within this household hierarchy.
The most effective and long-lasting way for a woman to establish status and a sense of belonging within her husband's family was to bear children. In an era when both infant and maternal mortality rates were extremely high, child bearers had "an importance . . . nearly inconceivable to those of us living in an age facing overpopulation."19 Children were not only critical to the continuation of the family bloodline but were also economically important for a society based on subsistence agriculture. Motherhood was expected of every wife and was rewarded with great honor, insomuch that children, especially sons, were associated with great prestige. Conversely, barrenness was considered the greatest curse upon a woman, and ancient biblical laws generally provided for the divorce or expulsion of a wife who bore no children.20
Sariah seems to have been fortunate in her marriage to Lehi. Lehi's house was located on his inherited lands, but by the time that he and his family left Jerusalem, it is clear that they were living separately from any other relatives (see 1 Nephi 2:4–5). Perhaps all his relations had already passed away. But it seems more likely that this piece of land was his by inheritance. In any case, since Lehi and Sariah lived there at least from the time of Lehi's father's death and perhaps earlier, Sariah would have been spared the politics of her father-in-law's household for at least some of her marriage. The pressure and prestige of childbearing, though still a big factor in her life, would not have been as severe as it must have been in a larger household. The fact that Lehi's land was in or near the city also eased the pressure that would have existed for her to bear children to become agricultural laborers. It was perhaps due in part to these favorable circumstances that the family that Sariah and Lehi brought into the desert—namely, a nuclear family dwelling separately, consisting of two parents, four sons, and at least two daughters—though small in comparison to those of earlier generations, seems to have exceeded the average family size for the time period.21
It is difficult to assess the effect that the interfamilial marriages had upon the status of Ishmael, his wife, and his children. However, it does seem that Ishmael's family as a whole was brought into a type of wilderness bet ab and became subordinate to the will and inspiration of Lehi as patriarchal head, even though rebellions against this authority periodically occurred. Without knowing the prior relationship between Lehi and Ishmael, it is reasonable to assume that Ishmael accepted Lehi's leadership due to his prophetic call rather than any familial precedence. Because Ishmael himself is never said to have rebelled against this order of things, presumably he felt comfortable with his own place in the hierarchy. This extended family-tribe consisted, then, of a patriarchal head, his wife, their sons and their wives and children, their daughters (who were presumably unmarried, or they would have been mentioned in terms of their husbands rather than themselves), and several other dependents. The latter included the two sons of Ishmael and their wives and families (1 Nephi 7:6); Zoram, who had served as an important administrator in the house of Laban and who became like an adopted son in the house of Lehi; and Ishmael and his wife, who, due to their age, probably held status comparable to that of grandparents in the house of Lehi. This type of tribal organization clearly resembled earlier models in ancient Israel and would not have seemed more than slightly unusual to those within it.
Posterity was clearly of great importance to Lehi's family. His sons returned to Jerusalem to get Ishmael and his daughters so that they could "take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise" (1 Nephi 7:1). The birth of children to the family both ensured the perpetuation of the bloodline and provided additional laborers to till, plant, hunt, and build upon their arrival in the New World, thus making it economically advantageous as well. Because this type of frontier subsistence relied so heavily upon the reproductive abilities of its women for success, motherhood would have afforded women within Lehi's family as much status as it did in Israel at that time period, if not more (see Genesis 30:22–24; 1 Samuel 1:10–20). Sariah apparently bore at least six sons and two daughters under the pressures of agrarian and nomadic living, perhaps even while accompanying her husband to Egypt or other lands. In her world, children were important to the survival of the household and the economy (see 1 Nephi 18:7).
Considering the high infant and maternal mortality rates within the cities during ancient times, Nephi's account of childbirth in the wilderness becomes even more significant:
And 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 murmuring. (1 Nephi 17:1–2)
The increased risk for these women, who were living under the harshest nomadic conditions and even subsisting on raw meat, added greatly to the prestige and respect they received within the household—even so much that Nephi, with sincere admiration, thought that their physical abilities almost equaled those of men (1 Nephi 17:2). And Lehi, in blessing his two youngest sons before his death, referred to their births in the wilderness in terms calculated to remind them of their mother's hardship and risk on their behalf (2 Nephi 3:1, 3; see also 2:1–2).
The household was the center of a woman's life in Israel and the place in which she held the most power.22 Even though a child was born into "the house of the father," the mother was the first and most abiding influence upon the child's life from the day of birth, instilling the most basic sociocultural values, modes of behavior, and religious beliefs. In Proverbs, the mother is seen as both a nurturer and educator whose teachings are complementary to those of the father (see Proverbs 1:8; 6:20). Since there is no evidence concerning formal schooling in Israel before the Hellenistic period,23 it is most likely that children were taught to read and write at home.24 In a family setting, both girls and boys would have been taught the rudimentary skills of literacy, probably by both parents.25
Children would also have learned to perform primary chores at the side of their mother. Early on, both girls and boys would have been taught to contribute to the functioning of the family household, perhaps by performing such small labors as caring for the younger children, gathering fuel, or helping to prepare food.26
As the children matured, work diverged according to gender. At a certain point, a boy was taken out of the household and into his father's workplace, whether it was in the field or in a trade. A girl, however, remained at home under the tutelage of her mother, where she was taught to perform the domestic labors associated with running a household. Not only were women responsible for the care and the discipline of the children, but also for the feeding and clothing of the entire household. Food preparation alone was exceedingly time-consuming. Six days a week, women sorted, cleaned, parched, and ground grain, kneaded and baked bread, drew water, collected fuel for cooking, butchered and cleaned small animals, milked, churned butter, made cheese and yogurt, tended vegetable gardens and fruit trees, and preserved meat and fruits for storage. The women prepared raw wool and flax fibers, which were then spun, woven, sewn, and tailored into clothing for their families. They often produced many of the common household tools, such as cooking and cleaning implements, lamps, and candles. The burden of daily cleaning and washing also fell on the shoulders of the women in the household (see Proverbs 31:10–31).27
Women not only taught their children literacy and labor skills but were also a critical part of their religious education.28 Children learned the proper observance of important features of ancient Israelite religion by watching their mother's daily ritual of washing herself, offering sacrifice with her husband, and praying.29 A good deal of this religious teaching would also have taken place on the Sabbath, when both women and men laid aside their daily chores to worship. The Sabbath was a day of rejoicing and rest, particularly for the labor-weary woman. Both she and her husband spent the day reading from the Torah, singing hymns of praise, and teaching their children the beliefs and rituals of their religion.30 Children living in Jerusalem around 600 BC probably would have observed their mother attending local assemblies or gatherings to worship alongside their father. Women actively participated in religious festivals and national celebrations (Deuteronomy 31:12)—singing and dancing—and brought sacrifices of thanksgiving to the temple, teaching their children through their example.
The women within Lehi's household would have been occupied from daybreak to sundown performing such daily tasks as these and perhaps more, depending on where they lived and what the circumstances of the family were. It is likely that Sariah's specific responsibilities changed once she came into the desert; in the city, she had been a rich man's wife, probably with several servants and some leisure time. In the desert, she would have carried more responsibilities, and her tasks might have varied. It is likely that the women also contributed to many uncommon tasks that Nephi and his brothers undertook in the desert. Perhaps the women and children gathered fuel for the fire or brought water to aid Nephi as he made tools to build the ship. Women would have been instrumental in the gathering of seeds, fruit, meat, and other provisions for the journey to the promised land, and they would have helped to till, plant, and harvest crops or tend flocks, especially during their first years in the promised land.
Nephi makes it clear from the first verse of his account that he was grateful to both of his parents for his upbringing. "I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father" (1 Nephi 1:1). Apparently his education was given to him by these "goodly parents," righteous and devoted people who had taken the time to teach him reading, writing, the language of the scriptures, and the learning of his father. But the implication of Nephi's statement is even deeper than that. He also refers to an inherited spiritual knowledge and a familiarity with religion and the God whom his parents worshipped. In his account of her sons' return from Jerusalem with the brass plates, Nephi recalls the powerful words of Sariah, who had been extremely troubled and anxious for their safety during their absence:
Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them. (1 Nephi 5:8)
Against all odds, her sons had succeeded, which built Sariah's testimony into a sure knowledge that God's hand was directing Lehi and the family's course. Sariah and Lehi then offered sacrifice and burnt offerings in thanks for the safety of their sons. Her fervent statement of belief obviously made an impression on Nephi, who painstakingly inscribed the account in considerable detail. This manifestation of Sariah's faith was probably only one example of many that served as religious teaching devices to her children and influenced their own belief systems.
We have examined the Israelite woman in her most important roles within the ancient world: wife, mother, housekeeper, and educator. Each of these roles was critical to the success of the family, in terms of both perpetuation and economic viability. Thus the tremendous importance of women in the ancient world can be better understood.
In particular, the nature and significance of the lives of the women in Lehi's family are clarified, and new dimensions are added to the characters of Sariah, her daughters, and her daughters-in-law. What is so often forgotten about the realities of the social context of the Israelite family is that it was an interdependent unit, despite the decidedly male orientation of the written record. These women who toiled beside their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons through the wilderness, over the ocean, and in the promised land were not mere, passive shadows in the context of men's lives. On the contrary, Sariah and her faithful daughters and daughters-in-law became women of quiet but powerful conviction, hand-chosen by the Lord to help found a new and fruitful branch of Israel. It is interesting that Nephi's detailed accounts of murmurings and rebellions rarely include the women. This is negative evidence, certainly, but coupled with it are Sariah's testimony (1 Nephi 5:8), at least two of her daughters' decision to follow Nephi (2 Nephi 5:6), Ishmael's wife's and daughter's defense of Nephi in a moment of violent crisis (1 Nephi 7:19), and Nephi's admiration of the women's strength in the wilderness (1 Nephi 17:2). They were active and contributing members of a family unit that was as dependent on them for survival as it was on its male members.