In the Old Testament world, marriage was referred to as the taking of a wife. Couples weren't joined together because they had fallen in love; marriage cemented alliances between families and had less to do with love than with property and ownership. A girl was the property of her father until she was married, at which time she became the property of her husband. A mother might have some say in her daughter's marriage arrangement, but the father had final say and could decide without input from anyone, as was the case when Judah took a wife for his son Er (Genesis 38:6). Marrying within one's community tended to concentrate property and people within that community, and thus the wealth built up within a village or town remained there. That isn't to say couples never fell in love; they did. But in general, love was something that one hoped would grow out of the marriage alliance.

According to the ancient Hebrew law, marriage between a man and a woman required three things: (1) the man must pay the bride price; (2) the young woman and her father had to consent; and (3) for it to be considered legal, intercourse had to take place.

Among the ancient Hebrews, it was customary for the father of the groom to pay a mohar, or the purchase price or dowry, to the father of the bride. It could be a monetary payment or an exchange of services or property.

Loss of Labor

When a man found a woman from his village or region that he thought would make a good wife, he had to compensate the woman's family for her. After all, the loss of the woman meant the loss of a worker for her family. Some sources assert that the bride price became little more than a symbolic token (certainly not the buying of a woman) in the few centuries just prior to the Common Era. The paying of a bride price may have been the reason that Laban, father of Leah and rachel, had insisted that Jacob work for seven years to earn the right to marry first Leah, and then rachel. of course, Jacob had only intended to marry Rachel, but Laban and Leah tricked him into marrying Leah first. Jacob's gain was Laban's loss of his daughters and their labor.

Marriageable Age

The most typical marriageable age for a girl was just after puberty. At twelve or thirteen, she would still most likely do exactly what her father told her to do. So, if the marriage was something the father wanted, his daughter generally consented. Once married, the young woman typically moved from her father's house to her husband's. As for the wedding, the ancient Israelites surely had them, but the Bible sheds little light on the ceremony. Most likely, families followed whatever local customs in the couple's village or region dictated.

A Hebrew wedding procession


A husband expected his wife to obey him as she had her father. He also expected her to love him and to produce offspring (especially male heirs). The wife was expected to conduct herself in virtuous ways, so that she remained beyond reproach, and was to be faithful to her husband. She was also expected to practice his religion; the ancient Israelites, for the most part, shunned marriages to non Israelites. The ketubah, or marriage contract, was an instrument of understanding that laid out the particulars. The Book of Exodus states, “If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money” (Exodus 21:10–11).

The wife expected the husband to provide for her and to love her. Her life was fulfilled if she could bear him children, so there was an expectation that they would try to have a family. The wife might reasonably expect that her new husband would allow her to see her family. Husbands generally married within their communities, villages, or regional areas, so allowing a wife to visit with her family members was usually easy enough to fulfill.


The taking of more than one wife by ancient Hebrew men was permitted, although it didn't happen often. The Old Testament reveals that a few Hebrew patriarchs and kings practiced polygamy. Abraham had three wives — Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah (Genesis 16:1–3, 25:1); Moses had two — Zipporah and the Ethiopian woman (Exodus 2:21, 18:1–6; Numbers 12:1); and Jacob had four — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah (Genesis 29:23, 29:28, 30:4, 30:9). King David had numerous wives, including Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Abital, Maachah, Haggith, Eglah, and possibly Abishag, who slept with him to keep him warm during the end of his life (1 Samuel 18:27, 25:39–44; 2 Samuel 11:3–4; 1 Chronicles 3), and Solomon had 700 (1 Kings 11:3). Men could take multiple wives, but were required to support them all. Women, however, weren't permitted to take multiple husbands.

What evidence exists of a marriage contract stipulating a bride price?

The oldest Jewish marriage document (dating to the period after Babylonian exile) was discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century. The contract included a declaration of marriage by As-Hor, the groom, to the bride's father. The bride price was five shekels.

The Levirate Marriage

When a Hebrew man died before his wife could bear him a son (heir), the law allowed for the brother of the deceased man to marry the widow. The law seemed to apply only if the two men lived within the same house. The dead man had no son to carry on his name, so the law justified the marriage of the widow to her brother-in-law so that she might bear a son and heir. In this way, the dead man's name wasn't erased from the history of the Israelites. If the widow conceived and bore a son, he would carry on the genealogical line of the deceased father. The ancient Hebrews considered this a legal arrangement that was respectful of all parties.

If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. (Deuteronomy 25:5)

Marriage Between Paternal First Cousins

Another way Hebrew marriages ensured that property stayed in the lineage of a father involved the marrying of daughters to their father's brother's sons. This sounds a little confusing, but basically it was done when a man produced only girls to inherit his property. To keep the property within the father's hereditary lineage, the girls were married to the sons of their uncle (father's brother).

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