The first head-count of Hebrews in the Sinai shows 603,550 males older than twenty. Empirical demography suggests that at least one-third of the population was younger than twenty. The total number of Hebrew males (excluding Levites) was close to one million. On that background, the firstborns were only 22,273. How come?

The average family, it follows, had about fifty male children, a hundred children total. The number of children who survived past the age of twenty couldn’t be higher than five to seven for an average woman. Each family, accordingly, included something like fifteen wives.

Now, the options are two. Firstborns could be defined not through a nuclear family but an extended one. In our time, Bedouin don’t think in terms of nuclear families (a pair). Their family is a mini-clan, which includes up to four generations (living great-grandparents) and second-degree kin (cousins). Such an extended family can easily count fifteen wives.

Exodus 11:5 speaks of a slave-woman’s firstborn. That should not be taken for an indication that firstborns were defined on per-mother basis. Slave children did not count to their master’s family, but his property and their mother’s family. Jewish patriarchs had several wives and concubines, but only one firstborn.

marital habits of Jewish forefathers: polygamy, child betrothal and prostitution in Judaism

The phenomenon of extended families explains Levirate marriage. The surviving brother did not establish a new family with his brother’s widow, but minimally rearranged the existing relationships inside the extended family. In a sense, the Levirate wife did not change her family, but continued belonging to the same mini-clan.

Isaac brought his wife to “his mother’s tent.” There was no concept of a nuclear family: all the clan’s females, wives of various husbands, lived in one tent.

Sarah gave Abraham her slave girl to beget a child in her stead. The Torah doesn’t envisage the modern romantic family.

Modern men-and-wife families are a romantic invention with no basis in Judaism. Patriarchs were polygamous. Prophet Shmuel lashed against kings for greatly multiplying their wives; presumably, a few wives were okay.
Romanticism is counterproductive. It is responsible for the decreasing size of families as people think they need to provide every child with love and affection and live to his benefit. Not at all. Parents’ obligations to their children are limited to food, clothes, and education; there is no need to mend our ways to suit the little ones’ preferences. We can go on with our habits and still be good parents. Children must be happy to receive the gift of life and cannot claim our lives, to sacrifice our pleasant habits for them.
Romanticism worsens the wife’s situation. In polygamous families tolerant to concubinage and prostitution (Judah and Tamar), wives were assured of their status. As they grew old, they were still entitled to support and respect. Their husband’s other women did not compete with them, and there was little room for jealousy. Also, the husband had little incentive to divorce, as he could legally enjoy the best of two worlds: his old, trusted, and respected wife and a younger mistress.

Polygamy held great advantages for a woman compared to monogamy. In typical leftist fashion, rabbis tried improving on divine legislation, only to worsen a finely tuned system. Eventually a wife becomes unattractive to her husband, who remains a potent male. According to the Torah, he can choose between side relations, taking in a younger wife, and unhappy relations with his old one. Rabbis closed the first option with a ban on prostitution and the second one with monogamy. Now a man who loathes unhappy living has to divorce his old wife for a new one. The rabbis made the wife’s position less secure. Polygamy, on other hand, provided an acceptable solution: as the man brought in a younger wife, the older one remained in the household and could actually increase her social status by becoming the head of the clan’s female part. The husband had no reason to evict her: she was a respected woman, the mother of his children, and she accepted her lost attractiveness as a fact of nature. The Torah’s attitude to polygamy is revealed in its prohibition of marrying two sisters: they would compete and quarrel, while presumably no such competition would arise between unrelated wives, especially when their age and status is clearly different.

The Jews married very early, almost in childhood. This explains the biblical prohibition of pre-marital sex. Not so in our day, when religious Jewish girls marry at twenty, twenty-two, or even later, well past their biological need for sexual relations. Even in antiquity, pre-marital sex was not punishable as long as it led to marriage. The Torah provides a wonderfully balanced legal system; when Jews changed a single contextual component (marital age), the concept of premarital chastity could not stand.

Patriarchs were unconcerned about the age of their brides. Rachel was so young when Jacob met her that he felt free to kiss the girl. Immediately, Jacob asked Rachel’s father for her hand, a clear case of child betrothal. Since she was sufficiently attractive even 14 years later when Jacob married her, Rachel was probably less than ten years old when betrothed. Their marriage was a happy one.

The forefathers were setting an example for us, but nevertheless their marriages were odd, with numerous wives and concubines. Joseph, an assimilated court Jew, married an Egyptian priest’s daughter. At best, the priest in question belonged to the monotheist cult of Ra, incorporated into Judaism during the Exodus events.

Moses’ marriage is the most enigmatic of all: he married a daughter of the Midian high priest. The problem is the Midians were notorious idol-worshipers who engaged in ritual sex and orgies. Jews copulated with Midian women, and incurred divine wrath on themselves and extermination on the Midians. Moses was commanded to annihilate the Midians—his dear relatives—as the last divine commission before death. Moses’ wife was no exception from her tribe’s worship: their child Gershom was initially uncircumcised, and his later circumcision smacks of a pagan rite: the Midian wife (rather than Moses) performed the ritual to establish a “blood covenant” with divine forces. Moses did not take the wife seriously, and at one point sent her away. There is no chance she would have passed Orthodox conversion in our time.

Continuing with his enigmatic marital habits, Moses took an Ethiopian wife, at which point his relatives revolted. Classical commentators have labored to explain what was so irritating about an extra wife, but the answer seems to lie in the fact that Moses was tongue-tied. He was fluent in Ethiopian rather than Hebrew. According to midrashic and haggadic sources, Moses spent considerable time in Ethiopia. So a Kushite wife was a return to his old habits and allegiances. Emboldened by the direct contact with God, Moses came to believe that everything was permissible to him—which raised sharp objections from his brother and sister.

Patriarch Judah walks on the road, and sees a lonely woman named Tamar. Casually, he approaches her and offers a goat for sex. The Bible contains not a hint of condemnation. Moreover, the thing was common among Judah’s compatriots: he insisted on paying the woman properly lest he be dishonored. There was a certain honor code concerning relations with prostitutes. Indeed, the very sight of a road prostitute was common to Judah, and he did not hesitate to approach the woman.
The Torah imposes a ban on Jewish prostitution (“don’t give your daughters”), but tellingly avoids any restrictions on visiting foreign prostitutes. Jewish men are forbidden from associating with foreign women lest they drive Jews away from Judaism: “he follows her as an ox goes to the slaughter.” No comparable situation arises with prostitutes. They need not be courted, association with them is very short, and their influence on Jewish men is negligible. In a sense, Torah treats prostitutes as we would treat doctors: there is no shame in visiting a doctor of the opposite sex; it’s all strictly professional.
The Torah’s extensive regulations about men with genital discharges confirm that marital chastity was not widespread among Jews and the legist did not imagine it to take root.
The Torah bans Jewish prostitution as defilement. Thus, it relates to purity rather than morality. Since other nations are only obligated in terms of morality, nothing bars them from engaging in prostitution. The Torah does not describe engaging a prostitute as defilement, thus Jews can do so freely.

Sages concurred. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai commented that “King Solomon loved foreign women” (1 Kings 11:1): “He committed adultery with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2:6). Rabbi Bar Yohai’s point is, King Solomon refrained from marrying foreign women, and thus did not violate the Torah prohibition, “You shall not marry them.” For immensely authoritative Rabbi Bar Yohai, King Solomon’s adultery did not violate the commandments. Enjoy the racism here: Jewish males are only entitled to adultery with foreign women.
The Song of Songs must shock a modern-day moralist: a king pursues a poor girl, a clear case of sexual harassment. He is a polygamist, she is teenager with no regard for premarital chastity.

There is no similar outlet for married Jewish women, who are forbidden from any type of out-of-wedlock sex. The reason is obvious: Torah guards the family from strangers’ children.

Divorced women had no restrictions on their sexual life. Arguably, they could even engage in prostitution because the Torah only forbids giving “your daughter” into prostitution rather than joining it voluntarily.

The prohibition on sexual relations for unmarried Jewish girls is very weak. They only have to marry the guy they have sex with. Formally, the law would be satisfied if they married each guy they had sex with, and divorced him after their short-lived relations were over. The Torah does not demand lifelong marriages. Solomon’s “wife of your youth” is a metaphor for Judaism, as opposed to foreign religions. The rabbinical “When a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar of God sheds tears,” is based on an unwarrantedly literal reading of Malachi 2:13, which clearly speaks of the Torah as “the wife of his youth,” as opposed to later pagan accretions. Rabbi Akiva held that divorce is justified if the man finds a woman more beautiful than his wife (Gittin 90a on “if she finds no favor in his eyes.” If the relations deteriorated to the point where the husband salivates after other women, then divorce is a preferable option.)
Perhaps extramarital relations violate an implicit marital contract? Not in the Torah’s eyes. Exodus, Mishpatim: a husband’s obligations to his wife are food, raiment, and conjugal rights; there is nothing else in the marital contract. For this reason, the medieval rabbinical ban on polygamy was conditioned on conjugal limitation; if one’s conjugal abilities permit him to satisfy several wives, the ban doesn’t hold. Rabbi Gershom, himself an unhappy owner of two wives, banned polygamy for one thousand years—which term has expired. Recently, a rabbinical court in Haifa allowed a Jewish man to take a second wife because his first one was dragging out their divorce and preventing him from re-marrying.

Jewish marriage implied no exclusivity on the husband’s part. He was free to take additional wives and concubines. Such an arrangement is standard cross-culturally. Concubinage is an accepted practice in China, as polygamy is in the Muslim world. Christians make do with cheating and divorces. All forms of extramarital relations, from prostitution to concubine-cum-lover, have been common in Europe from time immemorial.

In traditional extended families, divorce was unnecessary. Once a family member, the wife always remained a family member. Tamar was a widow who lived in her father’s house. Though technically betrothed to Judah’s son, she was a free woman as Judah refused to give her his son in Levirate marriage. As a free woman past virginity, she lacked legal restraint on sexual relations. When she was found pregnant, however, Judah decided to have her burned. That was only possible if she was still recognized as a member of Judah’s family, with appropriate rights and obligations. Old wives received their material allowances and were expected not to interfere with their husband’s marital choices.

Moderate polygamy is a powerful evolutionary device. It ends the lines of inefficient males who fail in the competition for wives. If they are neither smart, nor rich, nor good-looking, perhaps the evolutionary choice makes sense.