Quarrelsome … (Month of Proverbs)

A Ketubah in Aramaic, a Jewish marriage-contra...
A Ketubah in Aramaic,
a marriage contract outlining each partner’s duties.
Image via Wikipedia

It is better to dwell in the corner of a housetop
than in a roomy house with a quarrelsome woman.
(Proverbs 21:9)

Quarrelsome wives appear frequently in Proverbs.  While there are also prudent, diligent women,  it certainly seems sexist – until one remembers that the many people referred to as wicked fools who stray from the way of the just were all men.

Still: what is the point of harping on these quarrelsome women? Well, the Proverbs are addressed to a son – so the advice about men focuses on those who are foolish, rash, or lead one astray.  But what is one supposed to do with this advice about the quarrelsome wife?

Rich dowries accompanied wives from wealthy families – and many of the proverbs contrast wealth with the character of the wife.  The secular wisdom of the day encouraged young men to marry into a wealthy family for the large dowry they receive – not realizing that no gift comes without strings attached.  Accepting a rich dowry makes a young man of modest means beholden to the family – subject to all their whims.  The point may well be, “Better to choose a wife for her character than for the wealth of her family.”

What about those who are already married? We tend to read this proverb through the eyes of divorce – better to go somewhere else, to be rid of the quarrelsome wife. The Mosaic law seemingly made it easy to divorce a quarrelsome wife.  (It’s not clear how frequently this was practiced: in a culture with strictly complementary roles, a man needed a wife to survive – and it would be harder to get a second one after lightly discarding the first.)  Proverbs, however, rarely advises someone to turn back from a pledge; even here, it implies that one will stick by his wife.

Perhaps the advice is aimed at mediating the relationship, changing the young man’s behavior so the wife is less quarrelsome.  Rather than wanting things his own way, it would be better to have just “a corner of the housetop” in order to have peace with his wife.   Elsewhere, the proverbs have urged that he guard his words and shun strife – “every fool starts a quarrel.”  As in his actions in the marketplace, so in his home: better to make peace with humility than to get one’s way – and a quarrelsome wife.

It is better to dwell in the wilderness
than with a quarrelsome and vexatious wife.
He who pursues justice and kindness
will find life and honor.

(Proverbs 21:19,21)

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