Weddings and Marriage in the Old Testament—Genesis 24:66

As with most societies, ancient and modern, marriage was the foundation of social organization for the Hebrew people. Patriarchal society centered itself on the “covenant” made between God and Abraham (Gen. 12:2, 3; 15:18). The study of marriage in Scripture helps us to understand the essence of human-divine communion as expressed in the imagery of “covenant.”

Polygamy became regulated under strict conditions within the Law of Moses (Deut. 21:15-17). On the whole, the people of Israel practiced the custom of endogamy, preferring marital unions between persons of the same family, clan, or tribe. (This also kept land and other resources within the particular kinship unit.)

A major aspect of Old Testament marriage was its economic character. Marriage contracts found in the ruins of the ancient city of Nuzi confirm that the fundamental interest of the institution was the woman’s value to the new household. We see this in the steps involved in a wedding: the choice of the wife, the negotiation of a marriage contract between the families of the groom and bride, the bride price, the dowry, and the celebration of the marriage.

Parents generally selected whom their sons and daughters would marry, as illustrated by choice of a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:37, 38). The marriage contract negotiation is the time when the two sets of parents agree to the marriage and work out such details, such as what would happen in case of divorce. It also involves negotiation of the settlement of possible debts, and what the groom or his family would pay to the bride’s parents. The “bride price” or mohar, consists of payment by the groom for the economic loss caused by the bride leaving the family. Within the Mesopotamian societies during the patriarchal period, the mohar (in Akkadian terhatu) undoubtedly represented the “bride price.” However, in Israelite society, mohar has a more social significance than strictly commercial. The amount corresponding to mohar was fixed by the bride’s father (Gen. 34:11) and paid in jewelry or “shekels” of silver.

A basic value for the mohar would be 50 “shekels” of silver (Deut. 22:29). We find a similar value recorded in an archaeological document left by Pharaoh Amenhotep III, in which the ruler agreed to pay 50 “shekels” of silver for a Gezer woman. However, several Nuzi documents assert that the average value of terhatu was 40 pieces of silver. Sometimes labor could substitute for the stipulated amount, as demonstrated by the experience of Jacob (Gen. 29:18).

The “dowry” or contribution from the bride’s family, particularly by the father, was regarded as her share of her family inheritance, one acquired before the father’s actual death. Rebecca received some servants as a part of her wedding “dowry” (Gen. 24:61), and the two daughters of Laban received the same (Gen. 29:24, 29). On another occasion, the “dowry” consisted of a piece of land, as happened in the case of Caleb’s daughter at the time of her marriage (Josh. 15:18, 19).