Published: 9 May 2022

Buying A Wife?

Buying A Wife

When a modern Westerner reads about an arranged marriage in the Bible it looks to us like a man was buying a wife. For example, consider the story in Genesis 24 where Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. To us, this looks more like a business transaction than a proposal.

After Abraham’s servant encountered Rebekah at the well, her family welcomed him into their home. No doubt the golden jewelry he gave her helped pave the way for him (Gen 24:22, 47). Abraham’s servant then explained how his master had made him swear to go back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac. After Rebekah’s family agreed for her to become Isaac’s bride, the servant gave gifts of gold and other costly items. These “presents” were given to Rebekah, her brother, and her mother (Gen 24:50-53).

How is this not buying a wife?

In spite of how it looks to us, this was not about buying a wife. The exchange of valuables between families related to betrothal and marriage was a normal and expected custom in the ancient Near East. What’s more, this is not just an ancient practice. There are places in the world where this custom is still alive. We call this a bride price, bridewealth, or bride token. If this isn’t buying a wife, what is going on? 

When a woman’s family “lost” her to marriage, they forfeited a contributing member of the household. Thanks to our modern conveniences, most of us in the west have never had to engage in intense manual labor to prepare a meal or perform other labor intensive household chores on a daily basis. Everyone in the family pitched in and did their part to ensure the survival and well-being of the clan. When a young woman married and left her family for her husband’s family, her loss would be keenly felt. This was not only a loss in an emotional sense. Whatever labor she contributed now fell to the family who she left behind.

“Bride Price”

When the groom and/or his family paid a bride price to the bride’s family, this was to compensate them for their loss.

“The engagement of a man and a woman was sealed when the prospective bridegroom gave a gift to the bride’s father. To describe this as a “bride price” may be confusing, since the wife was not purchased as a slave was, but it could well be considered some compensation to the bride’s father for the loss of her services to his household.”[1]R. K. BOWER, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “M,” 3:262.

“A special type of gift in the OT was the mōhar (RSV “marriage present”; AV “dowry”; NEB “bride price”). The term represents the sum of money paid to the bride’s family, not as a purchase price but as compensation for the loss of a family member.”[2]G. L. KNAPP, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “P,” 3:958.

We’ve already seen this bride price being paid a couple of times in Genesis. When Abraham lied to Pharaoh saying that Sarah was his sister, Pharaoh paid Abraham a bride price for her (Gen 12:16). Abraham pulled the same stunt again in Genesis 20, this time with Abimelech. When Abimelech found out what Abraham had done, he also paid a bride price for Sarah (Gen 20:14-16). Abraham had deceived Abimelech. Regardless, he compensated Abraham anyway presumably to vindicate himself so that he could be beyond reproach in the matter.

The exchange of wealth was in both directions

While the groom paid the bride price, the young woman’s family usually provided her with a dowry. The money or valuables that were part of the dowry was a gift from the bride’s father to his daughter.

“The dowry was given by the bride’s family to the bride (a transaction from the father to daughter, not between families per se) and represented her inheritance from the family since she typically did not inherit land. Movable property and valuables were common dowry items. Its function was to provide for the support of the woman should the husband die, desert her, or divorce her. At times, part of the dowry remained the personal property of the wife, but whatever its disposition, it could not be sold without her consent. In like manner, however, she was not free to dispose of it. If it were not used to support her at some stage in life, it would become part of the inheritance of her children. The dowry of Rebekah is not detailed, though her nurse (Gen. 24:59) may have been part of it.”[3]Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009. 102.

It was sometimes the case that the bride price became the dowry. If the bride’s family was poor, they may have simply taken the bride price paid by the groom and given it to their daughter as the dowry. Even then, as the quote above explains, the valuables did not become her new husband’s property, but hers.

Different needs produce different customs

The hardships of less affluent cultures made the bride price and dowry a practical matter in the ancient Near East. These marriage practices are a prime example of why we cannot rush to judge the customs of an ancient society. These are cultures that most of us barely understand. What at first glance appears to be a groom buying a wife was actually a normal part of everyday life in Bible times. In this case, a part of life which sought to compensate a family for their “loss.”

We are foolish to pass judgment before understanding the reasons behind the ancient customs. Let us not be quick to label a practice barbaric without first taking the time to understand the reasons behind it.

References

References
1 R. K. BOWER, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “M,” 3:262.
2 G. L. KNAPP, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “P,” 3:958.
3 Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009. 102.