Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Marriage—an “Unhappy” State?

“When a man hath taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken” (King James Version).

“When a man takes a new wife, he shall not go out with the army nor be charged with any duty; he shall be free at home one year and shall give happiness to his wife whom he has taken” (New American Standard Bible).

“If a man has recently married, he must not be sent to war or have any other duty laid on him. For one year he is to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married” (New International Version).

“When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken” (English Standard Version).

The above translations of Deuteronomy 24:5 may suggest that marriage generates unhappiness for the bride as seen in the bold font. The English Standard Version appears to be an exception. Further clarification appears needed.

Recently the Hebrew verb system has undergone a “revolution” of sorts (Waltke & O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 352-61 and 398-400). The key to this new understanding is the Piel verb stem. Previously the Piel was thought to intensify the verb meaning; now the Piel is understood to emphasize an activity that brings about a state of being. This redefined model of the Piel stem may solve the possible negative implication of Deuteronomy 24:5 and open up a completely different avenue of interpretation for the verse.

According to this recent reinterpretation of the grammar, if the Piel verb (שִׂמַּח) in this verse means that the husband is to put his wife in a rejoicing or happy state, what does that mean? What brings joy to the wife?

The wife’s status in the ancient world derives in part from her ability to have children and form a household. Roland de Vaux writes (Ancient Israel, I, 39), “Within the family, respect for the wife increased on the birth of her first child.” Numerous examples occur in Scripture of barren women and their emotional depression followed by great joy at the birth of their first child. Psalm 113:9 illustrates this point pointedly, “He [God] settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children” (New International Version). The husband of Deuteronomy 24:5 is to stay home for one year to produce a family. The literally translated clause preceding the words in bold confirms this, “He shall be free in the interests of his household . . . .”

The husband is not simply to “stay home.” Rather the word translated above as home (בַּיִת) also refers to a household or family (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 108-110). He is given the right to carry on the family name by producing children before that opportunity is lost for him in warfare, and bringing his new wife into a state of happiness is a by-product of bringing children into the world. Thus, there is no “unhappy” state of marriage implied in Deuteronomy 24:5.

The translation of the English Standard Version in this verse eliminates the possible confusion about marriage as a reason for a negative emotional state of the wife, but it does create another interpretive diversion. The emphasis is placed on the husband’s happiness, on his emotional state instead of hers. Grammatically, the translators took the sign of the definite direct object (אֶת) to be a preposition, possible but highly improbable here (see Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 970), thereby throwing the issue of happiness back on the husband. This distorts the grammar of the text and quite possibly the sociological underpinnings of the verse. In this instance, the better direction for translators of all versions may be to translate the text literally and footnote the interpretive issues rather than simply accepting the possibilities of confusion by the readers or restructuring the grammar or paraphrasing the text.