My kids sometimes object to some of my more obtuse observations about life. They respect my intellectual pursuits and insights, but sometimes they think I go too far. And so they protested my proverb that sexual relations always include economic considerations.
I did not press my point with them. They are at that time in their life where they intensely consider what a long-‐term, intimate and loving relationship would look like for them. Of course they want to think in terms of romance and love, not supply and demand. Marriage is about an enduring and loving partnership, and I don’t want to discourage them from that. And they especially don’t want it compared to money for sex.
Nonetheless, I still stand by my statement. Marriage and sex have always been about economic arrangements. There is hardly anything human that is outside of economy. Even if just two people were stranded on an island, they would still have to exchange and arrange (economy) in order to survive and thrive.
In my recent studies, I have come across a couple of scholars providing fresh insights about economics from the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world as it pertains to sex and reproduction. Both of the scholars make interesting connections between marriage and the economic milieu in post-‐exilic Yehud (the small region surrounding Jerusalem in the Persian period). Their observations remind me once again of the complete integration of politics, economics, and religion into the daily life of ANE cultures. In the Ancient Near Eastern world there is really no formal category or word even for religion, economics, or politics. As one scholar succinctly puts it: “There are just deities and humans.”
The first observation comes from Phillipe Guillaume’s article “Economic Recovery of Depopulated Yehud.” The injunction of Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28, 9:7) was especially invoked during the post-‐exilic period in Yehud because the region was devastated by the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Yehud was sparsely populated and most of the farmland had returned to wilderness. This situation compares to the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century where there was a serious shortage of labor amidst a plethora of ‘exploitable’ resources. In both cases, the most reliable labor pool came from large families. (The other option was of course to have slaves.) The command to get reproducing came from a beleaguered temple complex in Jerusalem in conjunction with an aristocracy that was hoping to revitalize the region. The labor shortage was acute, and they understood well in an agriculturally based economy that without reproduction there would be no production.
Guillaume suggests a surprising corollary to this post-‐exilic push to “be fruitful and multiply” and “subdue the land,” (Gen 1:22) which nature had reclaimed. This injunction was an exception to a millennia-‐long norm where temples usually regulated reproduction for fear of over-‐population with its familiar consequences of depleted resources, famine, plague and social unrest. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh aptly expresses this common concern when he seeks to regulate the population of the Hebrews because “they are more numerous and more powerful than we” (Exod 1:9). The bottom line was that Pharaoh would lose his labor force. Guillaume postulates that the ubiquitous practice of fertility cults correlates precisely to the beginning of civilization. Temples, which are nearly always present in ancient villages and cities, functioned as economic regulators of the production and distribution of goods. Guillaume argues that ANE fertility cults functioned more as contraceptives than aphrodisiacs and always within the purview of supply and demand. The practice of celibacy among women originated in fertility cults. By dedicating some women to the cult, they could reduce the amount of childbearing women.
The Biblical injunction to “get some more children pronto” aligns with the accepted norm that city temples regulate reproduction in conjunction with production. The temple administration in Jerusalem simply regulated it contrary to the usual concern for over-‐population. They needed hands in the field. The more the merrier. This may partially explain the aversion to fertility cults in the Bible since their typical function was to restrain fertility.
The second observation comes from Anne Fitzpatrick-‐Mckinley’s book, Empire, Power and Indigenous Elites. Fitzpatrick-‐Mckinley makes the case that Nehemiah’s inter-‐marriage ban is more motivated by political and economic considerations than by specific appeals to biblical injunctions. The marriage ban is but one of many actions taken by Nehemiah to accomplish his primary mission. Nehemiah, Fitzpatrick-‐Mckinley asserts, was sent by the Persian Empire to establish more of an imperial presence in the region. The main strategy entailed establishing a “new elite” to counter-‐balance dynastic families who had become so strong that they could easily work against or with disregard for imperial agendas in the region.
Similarly to Guillaume, Fitzpatrick-‐Mckinley makes a good case that Nehemiah’s marriage ban was a “radical and unprecedented” departure from accepted ANE marriage norms as even reflected in biblical texts. Although there are some texts that reflect marriage limitations, there are plenty of other biblical figures who married foreign wives without criticism: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David’s grandmother, and David. Fitzpatrick-‐Mckinley’s extensive investigation into both biblical text and archeological evidence leads her to conclude: “They [Judeans throughout the Persian Empire] used the law of the environment where they lived when it came to marriage and divorce, with no evidence as yet that they used biblical law in either of these settings.”
Fitzpatrick-‐Mckinley asserts that marriage regulation in the ANE world was mainly the preoccupation of dynastic families precisely to procure and secure wealth. This may also explain the biblical aversion to fertility cults. They were controlled by wealthy elites who used the fertility cults to control wealth distribution. There is little evidence that common folk were overly concerned about it. Nehemiah strategized to breakup a network of powerful elites who secured their wealth and influence through inter-‐marriages. By limiting who could marry who, the economic power of certain elites could be rent from their hands.
From these two examples from the Ancient Near Eastern setting, we can conclude that marriage and reproduction was a critical way to regulate ancient economies. A balance of the available labor pool could be maintained through the temple administration, and wealth could be obtained and retained through strategic economic alliances among dynastic families. Conspicuously absent from nearly all ANE texts including the Bible is a case made for any kind of marriage strictly on moral principles and devoid of economic ramifications.
At least from an Ancient Near Eastern point of view, sexual relations were universally understood to encompass economics. They who control reproduction control production and they who control production want to control reproduction.
Does this have any bearing on our lives today? After all we have more distinct categories of religion, ethics, economics, and politics. We are able to keep these social constructs from bleeding into each other. Or are we? Perhaps our social categories blind us. Are our current issues around gay marriage, celibate clergy, contraception, and abortion being cloaked in religious/moral arguments in order to mask the issues of economic control? Perhaps we would do well to accept more readily the economic dynamics undergirding our current debates over the social consequences of sexual arrangements. Somebody’s investment may be at stake.
Abstract print by Gayla Ruckhaus