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Volume 7, Issue 6: Childer

Beyond Price and Blessed

Douglas Wilson

The customs surrounding marriage in biblical times certainly demonstrate the high view taken in Scripture of both women and marriage. When these customs are contrasted with the practices of our own day, we find that we, in the name of liberation, have treated our daughters with comparative contempt. Biblical law and custom made clear provision for the daughters of believers to live as endowed and free women. This is not to say that all took advantage of the provisio -- then, as now, believers sometimes drifted into financial situations which placed their daughters in much more difficult marital circumstances.

According to biblical custom, after a spouse was selected, the families made arrangements for the marriage. But in order for us to make sense of these arrangements, we have to remember that biblical society was not egalitarian as ours is. The status of wives differed markedly, and this status was revealed in the arrangements surrounding an upcoming marriage. Not surprisingly, the status of daughters in Israel was determined by the financial responsibility of fathers.
In some situations, slave wives were purchased. When a "bride price" went to the father of the bride, this was an acknowledgement that the daughter was not a free woman -- and, of course, the status of her family was directly affected. Biblical law protected her regardless (Ex. 21:7-11), but she did not have the same protections as an endowed woman had. Such a "purchasing" arrangement does not reflect the servile status of women in biblical society, but rather the servile status of that particular family . When a father took money for his daughter in this way, it was an admission that their family was lower class. A slave wife was a concubine. She was recognized and protected under biblical law living with a concubine was not sexually immoral, but she was not endowed as a free woman, and had a lawful, but lower, status.
With the marriage of a free woman, gifts of a different nature were exchanged. One word for this process of giving gifts was the Hebrew word mohar , a marriage present. The young Canaanite prince offers one for Dinah (Gen. 34:12); it was required when a man had seduced a virgin (Ex. 22:17); Saul required David to bring back the foreskins of one hundred Philistines (1 Sam. 18:25); and Laban required Jacob to work for him for seven years (Gen. 29:18). As these examples make clear, a free woman was not purchased -- rather, a man who was to marry a free woman could be required to prove himself in various ways. The standards of this testing set by the father were clearly very flexible.
Related to this was the endowment of a free woman. This was a gift to the bride or groom from her father. These gifts varied also. For example, Rebekah and Leah received servants (Gen. 24:59-61; 29:24) and Caleb's daughter and son-in-law received land (Judges 1:15). Clearly, the father of the bride had the prerogative to take what was given in the marriage present, and turn it back around into the dowry. By means of the biblical endowment, the standing of women in biblical society was elevated and honored.
When a suitor gave a marriage present, he was making the statement that a woman as worthy as this one needed to have a husband worthy of her. The marriage present provided a means for a suitor to acknowledge that fact. And when a father endowed his daughter, he was saying that she had his trust and confidence.
A reductionist mentality can be readily seen in how the modern mind reacts to these sentiments. A marriage present was not the purchase price for an expensive concubine. It was a prelude to a marriage with a lady. The fact that all marriages create economic relationships does not mean, contra feminism, that biblical marriage is simply sophisticated prostitution. Nor is marriage simply concubinage with different price tags.
Protection, including economic protection, is necessary for daughters. But such protection for daughters is impossible apart from a biblical culture . Understanding the economics of marriage does not result in a denigration of women or marriage; rather, it sets the economic aspect within the broader context of a cultural expectation of love, trust, and godly dominion. The modern "all you need is love" approach, far from elevating women, accomplishes the opposite. The logic of egalitarianism always works downward. Biblical law and custom acknowledge the differences between a concubine and a lady. But because we will have none of it, we rail against outmoded concepts like class, distinction, and nobility; and we outlaw concubinage. When the dust clears, we find that we have actually outlawed the idea of the lady. "Who does she think she is?"
So the biblical woman was an endowed woman endowed by her father, who was perhaps aided by her suitor. They both rose up and called her blessed.

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