Paper: Marriage Customs in the Old Testament (PDF)
MARRIAGE CUSTOMS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 1
Marriage Customs in the Old Testament
Elizabeth M. Cole
Big Sandy Community and Technical College
MARRIAGE CUSTOMS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT 2
Marriage customs in the Old Testament are very different from our contemporary understanding
of marriage, and it is important to understand these customs because marriage forms the book-
ends of the Bible (in Genesis and Revelation). Without this background knowledge, the
marriage customs and laws depicted in the Old Testament are strange and horrifying. This paper
discusses the culture of marriage in Old Testament Israel, including endogamy, the importance
of virginity and marital fidelity in women, the social organization of the family, polygyny,
levirate marriage, the use of marriage and adultery as a metaphor of the relationship between
Yahweh and Israel, and Jesus’ restoration of marriage to its covenantal meaning within the state
of original innocence in the creation narratives of Genesis.
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Our culture is so different from what we find in the Old Testament. How many women
would be killed for not being virgins on their wedding night? How would a rape victim feel if
her father accepted a large payment from a rapist and gave his consent for the rapist to marry her
without consulting her? The laws and stories we find in the Old Testament are very strange to
us, so it is important to explore marriage customs of that time to aid our comprehension.
Marriage also serves as an important metaphor for the relationship of Yahweh and his people,
and for Christians, Jesus restores the original meaning of marriage from the creation narratives of
Genesis. There are unusual concepts such as endogamy, polygyny, and levirate marriage to
understand as part of the ancient Israelite marriage culture, as well as the differing sense of
family and patrimony.
The Culture of Marriage in the Old Testament
The contemporary idea of marriage is very different than what appears in the Old
Testament. If we take our modern notions of love and marriage into our reading of the Old
Testament, we can be horrified and perplexed at what we find there.
Marriage was not primarily a romantic alliance; marrying for love only became the
dominant paradigm in the twentieth century. Marriage was not administered by political or
religious authority (McKenzie, 1995); in our times, states issue marriage licenses and churches
and other religious organizations administer a public ceremony. Marriage was considered a
private contract and usually not written (McKenzie, 1995). The Bible does not contain
instructions on how to conduct a marriage ceremony, because it was not intended to be a
complete manual on how to run a synagogue or church.
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Marriages were typically arranged by the families. Women married young, soon after
puberty, in the mid-teens (Berquist, 2000). Today, we are shocked by such young marriage and
consider it a tragedy. We have a notion of extended childhood, adolescence, and young
adulthood that is a relatively recent invention; the ancient Israelites did not operate under those
notions and people were considered adults at much younger ages. The men may have married at
a little later age, because of the economic requirements for marriage and establishing a
household (Berquist, 2000).
It was very important for families to consider the social and economic realities of marriage.
Endogamy means marrying within the extended family, to preserve family property and cultural
unity. Preserving family property was important in an agrarian age, when property was the very
means of survival. The whole family was needed for labor, to grow and process the crops and/or
animals on their land, to develop skill in agricultural productivity, and to prepare to inherit the
responsibility of continuing the operation with good stewardship (McWhirter, 2012). To
preserve land holdings, primogeniture was practiced—the oldest son would receive most of the
inheritance (McWhirter, 2012). To divide up the property among heirs would fragment the
family wealth and make the operations too small over successive generations. In modern
America, we typically practice, and the law assumes, equal shares of inheritance (including
agricultural land). This can become problematic, with vast numbers of descendants struggling
over management decisions and the sharing of expenses, work, and profit on a farm.
Endogamy was a major benefit to fathers of daughters (and no sons). Without a son to
inherit, the daughters would have inherited; if they had married outside the extended family, sons
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of strangers would have inherited next. If the daughters married endogamously, the next
inheritance level would be within the extended family (McWhirter, 2012).
Endogamy was a stricter requirement for priests, to reduce the risk of foreign wives
exerting influence and introducing strange gods and practices into temple worship (McWhirter,
2012). This was a particular concern in the post-exilic period, when the community was trying
to recover its ethnic and religious identity and re-establish its leadership (McWhirter, 2012).
They had been exposed to strange gods and offensive worship practices (such as cult
prostitution) during the exile in Babylon and were striving to overcome this experience.
Endogamy as a source of joy can be seen in Tobit 7:2-6. Sarah’s father, Raguel, comments
that the visitor, Tobiah, looks like his cousin (“son of my uncle”) Tobit. Raguel weeps with joy
when he finds out that the visitor is Tobit’s son, because it restores his hope for an endogamous
marriage for his daughter, when perhaps being deported to Nineveh and the forced intermarriage
by the Assyrians would have been grounds to give up hope. Sarah is clearly an only daughter
and Raguel has no sons, as evidenced by the promised inheritance in Tobit 8:21. The drama of
this moment in Scripture comes alive when you understand the multivalent importance of
endogamy, especially in post-exilic literature, to which the Book of Tobit belongs.
The Importance of Virginity and Marital Fidelity in Women
Because of the laws of primogeniture and inheritance, the requirement for virginity in
women was paramount. It wasn’t just about sexual control—it was about ensuring that the
firstborn son was really the son of the new husband/father. It was unacceptable to risk handing
on the inheritance to another man’s son. There was no DNA testing available and no paternity
investigations on the Maury Povich Show. Beyond that, the man retained the reproductive rights
over his wife even beyond the firstborn son, until divorce or death.
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Raping or seducing a virgin was a putative intent to marry, upon payment of the marriage
present, or bride price, Heb. mōhar. Without her virginity, the woman was considered
unmarriageable and her upkeep for life would be the responsibility of her brothers.
The betrothal period was considered legally as marriage, so a betrothed woman who had
sex with another man was guilty of adultery as if she were married, and the penalty was that of
the married adulterers—death by stoning (Hahn, 2009). We do not even comprehend how
violent and terrifying a death by stoning is; for an excellent movie depiction that dramatizes an
actual stoning in modern times, see “The Stoning of Soraya M.” (Nowrasteh, 2008).
Social Organization of the Family
The man was the leader of the household, and both custom and law respected his authority.
He was considered to have ownership and control of people and property within his household.
When different households interacted with each other, the male heads of household interacted
with each other (Berquist, 2000). The male head of household had sexual access to the married
women and possibly others in the household, within the limits of taboo and law (Berquist, 2000).
Keep in mind that law was revealed after the earlier patriarchal period, so those patriarchs did
not know and weren’t bound by all the details of the law as revealed to Moses. There is
development and progressive revelation throughout the Old Testament.
Male dominance is understood by the writer(s) of the primordial history in Genesis to be a
consequence of the Fall, borne by women (Genesis 3:16). The desire for dominance in men has
to also be understood as a consequence of the Fall, even though it is not specifically stated; it can
be inferred by referring to the creation of woman as a corresponding strength [or power] (ezer
kenegdo, often erroneously translated as helpmate or helpmeet) that implies no subordinate
position or any lesser dignity or value (Hyatt, n.d.).
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Polygyny is the specific type of polygamy that means one husband and more than one wife.
Nowhere in the Old Testament or the whole Bible does God command polygamy or polygyny. It
first appears in Genesis 4:19, when Cain’s great-great-great grandson Lamech took two wives
(Hahn, 2009). There is no editorial comment approving or disapproving of this behavior;
however, the ancient hearers would have considered the genealogy that immediately preceded it
as a judgment on the described behaviors of Cain’s descendants. Lamech is further described as
being violent when he swears excessive vengeance on anyone who harms him in the slightest
way (“avenged seventy-sevenfold”) in Genesis 4:23-24; this would have painted him as an evil
person among the hearers who subscribed to a law of lex talionis (an eye for an eye), which
limited punishment to the injury caused. Lamech’s lineage and violence itself is the implied
condemnation of his deciding to take two wives. In later biblical episodes, polygyny causes
strife, hatred, exile, and murder, so the unfolding of the natural consequences of polygyny in
biblical history served as a resounding implied condemnation of polygyny (Hahn, 2009).
Polygyny may have been a strategy in early Israel to grow a nation quickly with high
fertility rates, to occupy the promised land and be a significant nation in the face of threats from
surrounding nations. Because of higher rates of mortality in infants, children, and women during
childbirth, polygyny could have been a strategy to ensure that there would be a surviving son to
be heir and leader in the next generation (McWhirter, 2012).
Because it takes a lot of resources to support a large clan, it was probably just wealthier
men who practiced polygyny. It would have been difficult for a poor Israelite to accomplish.
Wealthy, influential, and royal families used marriages to form alliances, so the kings in the
united kingdom period at the peak of Israel’s power had many treaty wives and concubines
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(McWhirter, 2012). Solomon had the greatest excess in this regard, with seven hundred wives
and three hundred concubines. Deuteronomy 17:17 contains a warning for kings not to have a
great number of wives, and it was probably a post-exilic reflection on the causes of Israel’s
troubles. The huge number of wives and concubines represented a huge royal family to be
supported with heavy taxation, conscription into support services, and the aspirations of empire
represented conscription into military service and heavy taxation to support a military. The
taxation load led the people to grumble and the conflict to develop which led to the division of
the kingdom after Solomon’s death.
Logistically, it is difficult for a whole society to practice polygyny and maintain social
stability, because of a large group of leftover men who never marry. However, if many men’s
lives are lost in war, polygyny can be a part of the solution for excess women in the population.
One of the strange and unfamiliar marriage customs in the Old Testament is levirate
marriage, from the Hebrew levir, which means husband’s brother. After the giving of the Law to
Moses at Sinai, the law contained prohibitions of marriage or sexual relations with close
relations. The levirate marriage law seems to contradict these prohibitions, but it demonstrates
the primary concern of heirs and inheritance of property. If a man died without fathering a male
heir, the law required the brother of the deceased man to marry the widow and to father children
on his behalf (patronymy). This is so that the man’s name (Heb. shem)—his lineage, name,
dynasty, inheritance—would not die out in Israel, which was considered a tragedy. If there was
no brother, the duty fell to the nearest male relative (McWhirter, 2012). The story of Tamar,
Onan, and Judah in Genesis 38 demonstrates the importance of this duty; Onan is struck dead by
God for having sex with Tamar but spilling his seed on the ground, in refusal to sire children that
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would not be his (McWhirter, 2012). Tamar shrewdly conducts a ruse to pose as a prostitute and
be impregnated by Onan’s father Judah, obtaining his seal, cord, and staff (symbols of his family
headship and authority) apparently as pledge of payment, but actually to defend herself and her
rights when her pregnancy would be discovered and she would be at risk for accusations of
adultery and possible death. This story is recalled in an unstated way in the genealogy of Jesus
in Matthew 1, where Tamar is mentioned by name in verse 3. In other ancient near Eastern
sources, Hittite laws also listed the father-in-law as the next responsible person for the duty after
the brother-in-law (McKenzie, 1995).
The story of Ruth and Boaz is also an instance of levirate marriage, whereby their son
Obed is enabled to inherit the property of Ruth’s deceased father-in-law Elimelech (Ruth 4:10).
The discussion of the purchase of his land and the levirate obligations attached to it show how
interlinked land, inheritance, and family structures were. The first kinsman-redeemer interested
in buying the property cannot afford to have it pass out of his holdings to another man’s son, and
Boaz is willing to take on this obligation, which is a hint at his wealth and generosity. Because
the arrangements save Naomi and Ruth and restore their family and property, Boaz is considered
a kinsman-redeemer. Ruth is the great-grandmother of David (Ruth 4:21-22) and is also
mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5), making the second appearance of a foreign
woman exercising levirate rights in the genealogies.
In the synoptic Gospels, the Sadducees pose a question to Jesus that reference levirate
marriage (Hahn, 2009). The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife, so their question was
really about the afterlife and not levirate marriage per se, but knowing about levirate marriage
helps to comprehend their question. Otherwise, we would be shocked and horrified at a woman
who would marry seven brothers. This event appears in Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-23, and
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Luke 20:27-33. This is an instance where knowledge of Old Testament backgrounds helps the
reader understand the New Testament better.
Marriage as a Sign of Yahweh and Israel
Marriage and fidelity served as a sign of the covenant relationship of Yahweh and Israel. It
is implicit in the Pentateuch, where Yahweh is described as “jealous” (Exodus 20:5, 34:14;
Numbers 5:14, 30) (Hahn, 2009). It becomes more explicit in the prophets, who use the imagery
of marriage as an exhortation to Israel. This is most obvious in the prophetic action of Hosea
marrying the adulteress and prostitute Gomer and showing great patience and mercy towards her
in spite of her infidelities. In the prophets’ metaphoric use of marriage, adultery and infidelity
represent chasing after strange gods like Baal and Asherah. As Gomer experiences the
desolation of her situation, then returns to him, he even pays a new bride-price for her and they
are reunited in fidelity. Hosea lived out what God will do with Israel through destruction,
deportation, exile, and a promised restoration. Similar use of the marriage metaphor is used in
the major prophets: Isaiah 54:4-8, 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2, 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8-14 (Hahn, 2009).
God’s explicit hatred of divorce is stated in Malachi 2:16a.
“In the Beginning it Was Not So”
I wanted to end with Genesis, the beginning, because Jesus restored the meaning of
marriage to its state of original innocence, as willed by God, before sin entered the world, and
many distortions entered into the concept and practice of marriage (Hahn, 2009). In Matthew 19,
Jesus was asked about acceptable reasons for divorce, and he answered by going back to the very
beginning of creation. The creation narrative in Genesis 1 emphasizes the procreative aspect of
marriage, with God’s first spoken command to all of humanity being the instruction to be fruitful
and multiply. The creation narrative in Genesis 2 emphasizes the unitive aspect of marriage,
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bringing the man and woman together in a covenant bond of unity, love, and joy. I will close
this paper by sharing Adam’s joyful song, a popular Scripture reading for wedding ceremonies:
The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a
helper suited to him. So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild
animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he
would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.
The man gave names to all the tame animals, all the birds of the air, and all the wild
animals; but none proved to be a helper suited to the man.
So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he
took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then
built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to
the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called ‘woman,’
for out of man this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the
two of them become one body.
The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.
(Genesis 2:18-25 NABRE)
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Berquist, J. L. (2000). Marriage. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.),
Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (pp. 861-862). Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans.
Hahn, S. (2009). Catholic Bible dictionary. New York: Doubleday.
Hyatt, S. (n.d.). Word study: ezer kenegdo. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from God's Word to
Women: http://www.godswordtowomen.org/ezerkenegdo.htm (used as a citable source
but it is originally from the medieval French rabbi Rashi)
McKenzie, J. L. (1995). Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Touchstone.
McWhirter, J. (2012). Marriage. In J. D. Barry, & L. Wentz (Eds.), Lexham Bible dictionary.
Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Nowrasteh, C. (Director). (2008). The stoning of Soraya M. [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from
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Figure 1. Tobiah and Sarah on their wedding night, follow the advice of the archangel Raphael
and successfully get rid of the demon Asmodeus who had killed Sarah’s previous suitors. The
demon is seen exiting on the left, while Sarah’s father Raguel is going out with a shovel to dig a
grave for Tobiah on the right. (Tobit 7-8)
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Figure 2. This illustration resembles the bridal finery of Ezekiel 16:8-14. The bride wore a
beautiful dress, jewelry, and a diadem or crown; she would wear the veil until she entered the
bridal chamber to consummate the marriage. Apokalypsos is Greek for unveiling, as in bridal
unveiling; this is where we get the word Apocalypse as the name of the last book of the New
Testament, referring to unveiling the bride as the bridegroom comes to her (Revelation 19:7,
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Figure 3. At Naomi’s urging, Ruth lay at the feet of Boaz to signal that she was offering herself
for marriage. Boaz signaled his intent to marry her by placing his cloak over her (Ruth 3:9)