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Betrothal and Marriage in the Bible

In this short essay, I will explore the concepts of marriage as they apply to “biblical principles.” In religious ceremonies today, much emphasis is placed on the vows, as if they are from the bible or have some sort of ancient connotation attached to them. Marriage, in the Bible is not quite that simple; it was a business arrangement plain and simple.

The Betrothal vs. Engagement

There is striking evidence that the term meant much more to the ancient Hebrews than it does today. Yet there are some similarities as well. Saying that one is to be “my betrothed” is referring to the engagement period, but the modern engagement period is not a proper contract as such in most applications. Our engagements allow the couple to date, socialize and even engage in more permissive behaviors. This was not the case with the betrothal, nor was it an indication that the woman was one’s wife or that any sort of permissiveness was condoned. Similarly, there is no evidence that the women had any requirement to perform duties of a wife to her husband to be. The main difference between betrothal and engagement is the binding element or agreement of the father’s and then the consummation achieved by the physical uniting. Marriage “vows” did not exist in biblical times and are a modern invention. There was a celebration indicating a couple could now live together as husband and wife, but in my estimation the betrothal was more important than the actual wedding party, whereas today the wedding party is more important than the engagement. The betrothal was a business deal. And, indeed, as such, it was a very delicate matter for the ancient Hebrews.

The Mohar and Betrothal

Ancient Hebrew marriages were virtually arranged, not for love, but for mohar (dowry), land, power, and offspring–male offspring. Young women would be married off usually by the time they were fourteen or fiteen, perhaps earlier if already past puberty and in child-bearing age. Males no later than nineteen or twenty. The woman did not get to chose to whom she would be betrothed or married; the patriarch of the family would decide even in the case of the lower echelon of families. A woman who was not a virgin on her wedding night could be stoned (Deut 22:16) if not able to demonstrate her virginity, thus there is no scriptural support for the notion that the same “liberties” might be taken before vows as would be in place after the vows. Indeed, Deut. 22:25 proscribes this very act. Yet if a virgin was not yet betrothed and was “taken advantage of” (or raped), the man would have to pay the father fifty shekels of silver and marry the girl (Deut. 22:28).

In the premarriage associations, once a likely wife had been identified, the question would be put to the girl’s father and if no resistance was met, marriage negotiations began. Once the two fathers had agreed to the match, the girl could do nothing but accept; after all, her father had the authority to sell her into slavery or concubinage if he so desired (Exo. 21:7). The negotiations between the two fathers were mainly concerned with the mohar, something of a dowry but with some notable differences. Originally the mohar was that purchase price paid by the father of the young man to the father of the bride. Strangely, (to us perhaps) it was also thought of as a sum for the loss of a daughter’s work and services in her parents’ household, since once she left home it was for good. So, in this case, economically speaking, the groom’s father was the beneficiary. Sometimes, such as the case of Rachel and Leah, when they charged Laban with using up the mohar for them (Gen. 31:14ff.), there seems to have been a generalization about how this practice was indulged. The whole point of the mohar was that it was something like an insurance policy for the girl in case of the death of her husband.

Often, a future bride’s father would keep the mohar intact as a trust for her in case of just that occurrence. There are also several cases of true dowry being held (Jud. 1:12, Job 42:15). The average mohar was about 50 shekels of silver. This amount is not found in any particular passage, but is based upon the penalty, as stated above, the amount to be paid to the father by the man who rapes a virgin. Of course the mohar would be different for different family situations. As stated earlier, children married young and it is hard to determine any specific age at which betrothal would occur, although most scholars would concur that men worked with their fathers several years after puberty, so as to gain experience and to assist in saving for the mohar to the point of making some sort of gift for the bride that would make him more appealing to her. It seems that jewelry was a particularity nice touch even then. For a man, marriage was the only possibility. Bachelorhood is never mentioned in the Bible as an alternative. While old maids were not unheard of, it was extremely rare for a woman not to marry.

As for meeting, it was not uncommon that the two prospective partners would indeed know each other, and even keep company. While girls were kept busy at every household task and had virtually no social life, they were not secluded nor did they wear veils or other coverings at the time. Most of their spare time was spent with their mothers and they would only appear in town due when there were special events celebrations such as the arrival of a dignitary or the celebration of a military victory. However, in their work, whether in the field, husbandry, (Gen. 29:6; Ruth 2:2-3) or in fetching water, young ladies would meet boys engaged in some of the same work. During the harvest season and festivals, there would be encounters wit the entire community, and thus with the young men.

The whole idea of betrothal is just one of the several steps toward marriage. Once negotiations were concluded by the fathers, and the acquiring of a wife was agreed upon, the betrothal and wedding concluded the transaction. Of these two acts, the betrothal was the one more legally important. While there is little information about the equivalent of the modern day engagement period, the betrothal was more like closing a deal, or exercising a gentleman’s agreement. It was not a religious contract but more like a civil contract executed privately. The father and son would appear and make the mohar of the agreed amount, and the father of the girl would make or break the deal. There is evidence that some sort of pronouncement, such as “you will be my son-in-law” (1 Sam18:21), was made by the girl’s father. This completed, the future groom thus took “legal” possession of the girl, but be it far from consecrated, physically speaking, that is. Thus, this was business, with a buyer making a purchase. Indeed an often used Hebrew word for husband is “owner.” However, like other cultures, marriage became more than a purchase; it was an agreement between honorable men, and in this respect it took on special significance.

The ceremony of betrothal was like having an assembly waiting for good news. Guests would add their good wishes and there was a feast. Yet, the young man and his parents would return home until the wedding, which could be weeks or even months away. With the betrothal done, as with today’s engagements, it was difficult for the future bride, groom, and bride’s father to cope with each other. Interestingly enough, at this point the future groom was excused from military service until after marriage (Deut. 20:76), which may explain why some time existed between the betrothal and wedding–especially if there was a battle brewing or war going on. And now, the future bride would be required to wear a veil when outside the home and in the company of other men–even when meeting her future husband (Gen. 24:65)

The Wedding

Most weddings took place in the spring, but it was not unusual for a wedding to occur before the harvest in the fall. The reason seems to be because of the outdoor activities involved with the wedding party. And it was one big party. Once the two families were agreed and the negotiations were completed, the transaction would be consummated at the wedding celebration. Here the bride would be taken from her father’s house to the house of her future husband, and the celebration would begin. 1 Maccabees has an excellent description of a wedding precession. There were large escorts, increasing as the brides precession made its way to a central meeting place. Ditto with the grooms procession. While this was typical, there were exceptions; sometimes the groom arrived at the house of the father of the bride and both then went in procession to the meeting place. The bride and groom were the center of attention but all attendees engaged in the singing, dancing, music, and the reading of poetry such as the love poems found in the Song of Solomon.

The bride would be veiled and would remain so until the marriage had been consummated. The groom and the bride were treated as a king and queen and, within their means, were dressed as such, with jewels and crowns, wreaths and diadems, even if made only from flowers and such. Their every wish was granted, and all sang praises to his manhood and her beauty. There is a significance, even if unspoken, about the procession to the groom’s house: The bride has now been passed from the authority of her father to that of her new husband. The process that began with negotiations and betrothal, thus completed, the husband is now her owner. The wedding feast followed the procession from the meeting place to the groom’s house, (which might be his father’s house or a private tent) in which the wine flowed freely and no expense was spared. There was more dancing, singing, music, and other amusement enjoyed by the company.

Eventually, the couple would retire to a place reserved for them and the wedding was consummated by physical means in the “wedding chamber.” At most, the physical consummation constituted the vows. Most wedding celebrations lasted a week, reviving themselves every evening. While most of the uninvited revelers would return to their usual chores before the end of the week-long celebration, at the end of the week, those “invited guest” returned to their humdrum lives once more. The week or seven day period is most likely due to the importance that the Hebrews attached to the number seven as being sacred or the “right number” for important things.

There is no evidence that the temple priest(s), (who were also married) were an important or necessary part of the ceremony, or that the couple “appeared before God” with any formal vows. Betrothal and Marriage were not religious events in the way that our modern culture would perceive them. Yet, to be sure, religion was not totally excluded since religious edicts guided the rules or behaviors concerning fidelity and the mores before and after marriage. In marriage, the wife was expected to provide male offspring. If not, or if she displeased her husband, she could be “put away” by a writ of divorce (Deut. 24:1). Unfaithfulness was frowned upon, as the description of a test of fidelity in Numbers 5:13ff will attest. A cursory reading of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers will give a keen insight with regard to role of the temple in Hebrew family life. It was the underpinning of virtually every aspect of life in most all ancient near east cultures.

Once married, the couple would begin their life together, producing offspring, working (the son often with or in his father’s trade), the woman home with the children and just trying to survive the harsh realities of ancient life.

Sources used in composing this paper:

  • The family in the Ancient Near East, Mendelsohn
  • Ancient Near East Cultures, Larson
  • The Lifetime of a Jew, Schauss
  • Family Institutions, part 1, Ancient Israel, de Vaux
  • The Desert Bible: Nomadic Tribal Culture and Old Testament Interpretation, Seale