Dowry and Bride Price

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Bride price and dowry have fallen out of practice in recent centuries, and thus have been a subject of much confusion. Especially recently, they have also been decried as “misogynistic”, as if it reduces the woman to the status of chattel. As we shall see, both the dowry and the bride price practice are far from degrading. In fact, they are yet one more illustration of God’s wisdom in ensuring a good marriage for both the husband and the wife, and are practices Westerners would do well to reinstitute along with the rest of the Divine Law.

The first thing necessary to understand is that dowry and bride price are not synonymous. Reading many Bible translations and commentators could lead us to think they are, but a distinct difference exists between the two. Bride price, perhaps more accurately known as “bridewealth”, is paid by the prospective husband to the woman’s father, while dowry is paid by the woman’s father to the bride on event of the wedding. Ghosts of these practices exist in the West even today, in which the suitor presents the woman with an expensive ring upon engagement, while the bride’s parents are usually expected to foot the bill for the wedding, or at least a significant portion of it.

We will first examine the bride price from Biblical examples and the laws pertaining to it.


BRIDE PRICE

While Biblical Law doesn’t directly state that the bride price should be paid, it handles the topic as a matter of course, incorporating it into laws regarding sex and marriage. One prominent example is Exodus 22:16-17, in which a man is obligated to pay the bride price if he has sex with a young woman, whether he marries her or not. He has damaged the integrity of a member of another man’s household. The man has no choice but to pay, making the bride price integral to the Law.

When Saul sought to have David marry his daughter Michal, David had only one objection: He was a poor man with low social status. He loved Michal, but he saw this as the one obstacle standing between him and her. Saul had his servants tell David, “The king desireth not any dowry [1] , but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies.” (I Samuel 18:25, KJV) Upon which David immediately went out, fought the Philistines, and returned with 200 foreskins. Saul gave Michal to David in marriage.

As a poor man, David didn’t have the funds or property with which to pay a bride price suitable for the daughter of a king. David didn’t treat the matter as optional. He had given up on the idea of marrying Michal because he knew he couldn’t pay her bride price. It was an accepted aspect of society revolving around the Law of YHWH.

When Abraham sought a wife for Isaac, he paid the bride price for his son by giving lavish gifts to Rebekah and her family (Genesis 24). Jacob worked 14 years for his wives – a bride price of service rather than money or goods (Genesis 29, Hosea 12:12). In both cases it was not a question of whether the bride price should be paid, but rather how. These situations both involved godly men (Abraham and Jacob) who were familiar with God and His Law.

But what is the purpose of the bride price?

Mainly, it screens out undesirable suitors. First, if anybody, no matter how impoverished, could take a woman to wife without proof of income and wealth, the father would have no way to guarantee that his daughter would be cared for. In demanding a bride price, the father in effect forces the young man to prove he can provide – and if he cannot, to make a way. Second, if the young man isn’t willing to wait and work for his bride, then the father is safe in concluding the suitor doesn’t love her enough to put out effort on her behalf, and is thus unworthy. Third, if a man is compelled to sacrifice to acquire his wife, the odds of him taking her for granted and mistreating her are much less than they otherwise might be. Meeting a bride price would require, if not develop, a certain degree of integrity and dedication. Fourth, when the father pays the dowry, the bride price could cover most, if not all of it. A man’s bride price could be returned in the dowry, which would then serve to provide the couple with funds for a solid start to their life together, or as protection for the woman against poverty in the event that she is divorced or abandoned.

Abraham proved to Bethuel that Isaac would be able to provide for Rebekah, though Isaac himself didn’t pay the bride price. In giving lavish gifts to the entire family, Abraham showed that Isaac was heir to great wealth and thus would have no problem supporting a wife. In the case of Jacob, he had nothing to offer for bride price but labor. He’d just shown up on Laban’s doorstep while fleeing from his murderous brother Esau. By working seven years for Rachel and then, upon being deceived with Leah, working another seven, he not only proved his dedication in acquiring her, but also amassed great wealth.

A father could determine the bride price based on whether his daughter was a virgin, and also change that price based on what the suitor could afford. Abraham, being extremely wealthy, volunteered a massive bride price for Rebekah. Saul, knowing David could pay no bride price (and hoping he’d get killed), demanded, not wealth, but Philistine foreskins, which required effort and courage, rather than wealth. Notice that Exodus 22:16-17 doesn’t mandate a specific price, but makes clear that the price of a virgin is higher than that of a girl who has been previously deflowered. Other than that, the bride price must be determined by the father and agreed upon by the suitor.

The bride price is in no way a sale, like the purchase of a slave, but rather a surety. While not foolproof, it certainly reduces the odds of young women being married off to men of worthless character and little means. It also encourages young men to be industrious. In a society wherein bride price is a matter of course, any man who desires a wife must become a hard worker and establish himself, becoming a contributor to society. The father makes clear that his daughter is highly valuable and will not be easily given away to anyone who happens to desire her. She is a treasure that must be won. Rather than being misogynistic, the practice elevates the woman to a level of honor and value.

Jesus Christ made comparisons that echoed very strongly of the bride price when you remember that Israel was the treasure hidden in the field, or the pearl of great price, for which the finder sold all he had so he could buy it (Matthew 13:44-46). Once the bride price (in His case, a bride price of blood) was paid and He was married again to Israel, God could restore the kingdom (Acts 1:6, Colossians 1:12-13).

In today’s Western society, the bride price has been abandoned. Fathers have little to no involvement in determining whom their daughters marry, and they have few, if any, ways of ensuring that she will be in good hands. Restoring the practice of the bride price would go far in repairing this flaw. Hasty (and thus often disastrous) marriages would be much rarer. Divorce rates would be lower. Fewer families would be in need of charity. Impoverished men would be encouraged to work hard to improve their social standing so they could marry. Domestic abuse would be less prevalent. A society that properly instituted the bride price would be wise indeed.


DOWRY

The Bible actually says little directly about dowry in its true sense – as in, dowry being what the father pays to the bride. However, that the practice was observed is made plain.

Rebekah brought back the gifts which Abraham’s servant had given her, as well as her own servants (Genesis 24:53,61). Caleb gave his daughter Achsah a dowry of land, which she later asked him to supplement with access to water (Joshua 15:17-19). In the case of Caleb, Achsah refers to this addition to her dowry as a “blessing” (Judges 1:15).

The case of Laban was quite interesting, because it would appear he never gave his daughters a dowry and Leah and Rachel were upset about it. When Jacob spoke to them about leaving Laban and returning to Canaan, they were happy to go, remarking of their father, “He has sold us and has certainly spent our money” (Genesis 31:14-16, Holmen Christian Standard Bible). In other words, Laban, rather than translating Jacob’s fourteen years of service into a dowry to his daughters, had kept it for himself. Thus, Leah and Rachel felt sold – the bride price (“our money”) had not been returned [2]. There was no point in sticking around and waiting for him to hand it over, they reasoned, because he had likely spent it all. They deemed themselves robbed. In addition, since Jacob had acquired so much wealth from their father, they saw it as God having intervened and given Jacob the wealth which Laban owed them. When Leah gave birth to Zebulun (Genesis 30:19-20), she remarked that the Lord had given her a “good dowry” (KJV), because perhaps at last Jacob would love her. The Hebrew word translated “dowry” is zebed, which, according to Strong’s, means “a gift” or “dowry”. This is the one and only time we find this word, which indeed refers to the dowry in its accurate sense, in the Bible. Notice also that, contrary to 21st-Century thought, Rachel and Leah felt degraded, not by the dowry practice, but by their father’s failure to observe it.

Understanding this would also make sense of why God never reprimanded Jacob for manipulating his deal with Laban regarding the speckled, spotted, and dark sheep and goats (Genesis 30:25-41). At first glance it would seem Jacob was stealing from Laban. But if we understand that Leah and Rachel had never received the dowry considered due them, then we realize Jacob may have been in the right after all. He was taking what was owed. Figure in that the Law requires for a thief to repay what was stolen multiple times (Exodus 22:1-2), and of course it would make sense that Jacob, in exacting justice, should nearly ruin Laban (Genesis 31:1).

A nation requiring a dowry paid by the father following the husband’s payment of the bride price would prevent greedy fathers from taking advantage of the bride price and essentially using their daughters as cash cows, as in the case of Laban. The father would be the trustee of the marriage startup capital as the suitor paid it in, to be returned in one form or another on the wedding day. True to biblical form, the father would be seeing to his daughter’s future in her new life as a married woman, making sure she would not lack. As in the case of bride price, the nation that reinstitutes the dowry practice will be wise.

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[1] The KJV, as well as many other versions, confuses “bride price” with “dowry”. The Hebrew word mohar, according to Strong’s Concordance, is the “purchase price (of a wife)”. This is not the same as a dowry, which is what the bride receives from her father upon being married.

[2] The Law does allow for the sale of daughters (Exodus 21:7-11), presumably with impoverished families in mind. A father could sell his children so his family wouldn’t starve and so the sold child would be taken care of, albeit in the capacity of a servant. In the case of daughters, the father kept the funds and was not required to pay the dowry, but his daughter did not necessarily enjoy the same status as a wife. She was a concubine – also known in Scripture as a female servant or a handmaid.