Marriage and Betrothal in Bible Times

While there appears to be some disagreement over lessor details by some scholars, we have endeavored to provide an overview of a Hebrew wedding at the time of Christ by drawing on a host of varied sources...

The parents, or a confidential friend, of the bridegroom chose the bride (Genesis 24; 21:21; 38:6). The parents' consent was asked first, then that of the bride (Genesis 24:58). The presents (dowry) to the bride and/or her parents are called "mohar", those to the relatives "mattan." The dowry could take the form of service (Genesis 29; 1 Samuel 18:25). Between betrothal (engagement) and marriage all communication between the couple was carried on through "the friend of the bridegroom" (John 3:29). They were considered to be married to a degree, so that being unfaithful was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) — as it was for any marital unfaithfulness. If the bridegroom did not want to go through with the marriage, he could divorce her ("put her away") by a bill of divorcement (Deuteronomy 24:1; Matthew 1:19). No formal religious ceremony attended the wedding; but a blessing was pronounced, and a "covenant of God" entered into (Ezekiel 16:8; Malachi 2:14; Proverbs 2:17; Genesis 24:60; Ruth 4:11-12). The essential and distinguishing part of the ceremony was the taking of the bride from her father's house to that of the bridegroom or his father.

It's important to note that betrothal was of a much more formal and far more binding nature than the "engagement" is with our culture. Indeed, it was held to be a part of the transaction of marriage, and as being the most binding part. The ceremony of betrothal consisted in the acceptance before witnesses of the terms of the marriage as contracted for. God's blessing is then solemnly asked on the union now provided for, which will probably take place only after some months, or perhaps even some years. No further financial negotiations were allowed after the betrothal is placed into effect. This engagement was considered so binding that if for any reason the marriage could not take place, the woman could not marry another unless a proper procedure was followed and a paper of divorce was written. While the marriage may have been intended by the parents from the infancy of both parties, the formality of betrothal is not entered into until the marriage is considered reasonably certain. A prolonged interval between betrothal and marriage was considered undesirable on many accounts, though often an interval was needed for the groom to render the agreed upon service or to pay the price. Even in these situations the time interval was usually no more than a year or two (though in the case of Jacob, it was seven years!). Again, the betrothed couple were legally in the position of a married couple, and any unfaithfulness was "adultery" (Deuteronomy 22:23; Matthew 1:19).

The betrothal time is completed with a ceremony (consider Deuteronomy 20:7) — the wedding procession. The bridegroom's "friends" went out, normally by night, to bring the bride and her attendants to the home of the groom (Matt. 9:15; John 3:29). It was a time of great joy. The procession was preferably at night so that those busy in the day might attend, plus it allowed for a more spectacular display of lights and torches. A marriage supper then followed, generally in the home of the groom. This celebrated the bringing home of an already accredited bride to her covenanted husband.

Regarding the Bride's procession. She was escorted by a group of female attendants and by male relatives and friends who brought on mules, or by porters, articles of furniture and decorations for the new home. The groom was usually now at the house of a relative or friend, where the men congregated for the evening with a purpose of escorting him home later. When the groom indicated that it was time to go, all got up, and candles and torches were supplied to those who were to form the procession. At the sight of the groom's procession crowds looked down from roof-tops (Song of Solomon 3:11), and the women took up a peculiar cry of wedding joy that told those farther along that the pageant had started. This cry was continued all along the route, and gave warning to those who were waiting with the bride that it was time to arise and light up the approach, and welcome the bridegroom with honor. It is often near midnight when this procession began. Meanwhile, as the night wore on, the duties of robing the bride and decorating the marital house were completed, and a time of relaxing and drowsy waiting set in.

Arriving at the house, the bridegroom would enter with invited friends and family (Genesis 29:22; Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:8; John 2:2) and the door would be shut. Etiquette said that none could enter after this point. To decline an invitation to a marriage was consider a major insult. Having arrived, the bridegroom now entered into direct communication with his bride for the first time.

It was unusual in Galilee to have a "ruler of the feast" as it was in Judaea (John 2). There was no formal religious ceremony connected with the marriage, unlike our officiated ceremonies of today. The feast could last for a number of days — usually seven. The only aspect of this time that signified the "I do's," or the completion of the marriage, was the entrance into the "chamber," in which stood the bridal bed with a canopy (chuppah), a reminder of what was originally the wife's tent (Genesis 24:67; Judges 4:17). This was called "going in" to the bride. The bride was still completely veiled, explaining the deception practiced on Jacob (Genesis 29:23,25). In summary, the essence of the ceremony consisted in the removal of the bride from her father's house to that of the bridegroom or his father. It appears that there is a literal truth in the Hebrew expression "to take" a wife (Genesis 21:21; 24:3,38; 26:34), for the ceremony appears to have mainly consisted in the taking.