Word Study: Abusive Husband




John 4:18: “For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.”

We have all heard the story of the woman at the well who had five husbands and the one she was living with was not her husband. This poor gal has been depicted as a loose woman chasing after every other woman’s husband, a home wrecker, a prostitute and everything but what she culturally really was.

We so easily forget that the Bible was written in a different culture than our 21st Century Western modern culture. Let’s step back two thousand years to the land of Palestine and the Northern area that was ruled by the Samaritans. You shake the family tree of the average Samaritan and you will have a few Amorites, Moabites, Egyptians and Jews fall out. They were the melting pot of their day. They followed some Jewish law but certainly not enough to satisfy the Jews of Judea. Thus, they were not liked by their neighbors in Judea. More than that they brought in many of the pagan practices of other nations which included the subservient status of women.

If the enemy was to have a top ten list of things that strike terror in his heart right on top of that list would be a husband who loves his wife. Worse yet would be a wife in love with her husband and living together in complete fidelity. Such a relationship gives an inside view as to the love of God and of course the enemy can’t have that. So if the enemy wants to draw a nation away from God the first place to attack is the home, the marriage relationship, flood the market with pornography to distort the intimacy between a man and woman and then destroy the sanctity of marriage by making it a mockery.

In the Samarian culture a woman had probably three options to be financially secure, marriage, begging or just go into prostitution. If a woman’s husband just decided he did not want to be married to her he could just divorce her for no reason other than he was tired of her and a male relative was obligated to marry her. If no relative would then some man in the community. Of course too, it was possible this woman was widowed five times, but most likely she married jerks who just tired of her and passed her off to some other man who needed another female servant. Eventually no man wanted to marry her so she was forced to become a concubine. At least as a wife some rights, but as a concubine she had none and was a virtual slave.

The word husband in the Greek is andras from the root word aner which simply means a man. In the Jewish culture a man is not considered a man until he is married, otherwise he is still a boy. That would make James Bond just a boy. Hence in the Jewish sense andras or could also be a word for a married man or a husband. It is odd that this passage uses a word that in the majority of cases means just a man and not a husband.

I belive the Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, explains this. The word rendered as husband in the Aramaic in these verses is curious. It is the word bala which is the same root where we get the word Baal. The Aramaic word for husband, the loving caring romantic Grace Livingstone Hill type husband is isha. That word is not used in this story. The word bala is used only in the context of a husband as a man who is abusive, destructive, unloving, self absorbed, in short a jerk. He is the pot bellied, dirty tee shirt, slob who sits in front of the TV and demands that his harried wife juggling a full time job and three children bring him a beer. A bala is a husband who has no love for his wife. This woman had five balas’ and not an isha among them. She was most likely barren which made her very undesirable to begin with and gave her no children to meet her need to love and be loved. She was most likely a strong willed woman and stood up to her balas’ and ended up being put out. Needless to say, culturally she needed a husband to survive and five men were willing to give it a chance, all five ended up being balas’ and not one an isha and now no man wanted her and she was forced to live with a man who was neither a bala or isha. At least as a wife she had some rights but now she was nothing more than a concubine with no rights nor any children. She was literally a slave. Drawing water was the lowest duty a woman could perform and she most likely lived in constant fear of this man who could beat her and even kill her and not have to answer for it. At least if she were a submissive obedient woman to her bala’s and accepted her loveless life she would still have the status of a wife. But because she refused to accept the abuse she was now a virtual slave to a man.

So it is curious and must have shocked this woman when Jesus said: “Bring me you bala.” How did this man know that she was abused? Not only that when she answered she had no abusive husband Jesus said: “I know, you’ve had five men who did not love you and abused you and now you are forced to be a virtual slave to a man to just survive.” What shocked this woman was not the fact that Jesus knew she had five husbands, but that He knew they were all loveless and abusive and that she likely ran away from them all.

Here was a man who understood her need to be loved and cherished, who did not defend these men by calling them isha(s) but what they really were – jerks. Surely, only the Messiah could discern such things.

This Samaritan woman has really gotten a bad rap by preacher and as a result we do not see the really loving nature of Jesus expressed to this lonely, loveless, rejected woman who craved to just be loved. She was not a prostitute or a beggar, she was a proud woman who would not stand to be disrespected and abused by the men in her life only to end up as a concubine or slave to a man when all she wanted was just to be loved. Like us all we have that deep inner need to be filled with living water and here was the Messiah who understood her need.

2 thoughts on “Word Study: Abusive Husband

  1. This is a very different approach to the usual one, that’s for sure! I appreciate the perspective, even as I say we should be careful not to bring our own cultural suppositions into an attempt to understand what things may have been like, then. I keep catching hints of more current victim culture. . . .

    I love the different perspective the Hebrew/Aramaic word choices could bring to this. Is there an Aramaic account of this exchange, or is this something you are proposing? I was also a little confused: doesn’t “isha” mean woman/wife? I thought it was “ish” that was man/husband. . . . Of course, it’s also rather interesting that in the New Testament, women are told to submit to their husbands as to the Lord – words that seem to bring up the same ish/ba’al relationship, insofar as ba’al can mean ‘master’ or ‘lord’ and even ‘husband’. . . .

    An interesting post – many thanks!

  2. I truly appreciate your perspective, as am a concubine’s granddaughter, from an Asian culture. It really helps to know the setting of the situations we encounter in the Word. I have a small question. You used the word, isha in the post. Didn’t you mean ish for spiritual man? Thank you, again.

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