Question: "What was the purpose of a dowry (Genesis 31:15)?"
Answer: A dowry, sometimes called a bride price or bridewealth, was a payment made by a man as a gift to the family of a woman he desired to be his wife. In Genesis 29, Jacob loved Rachel and offered to work seven years for her father, Laban, in exchange for her hand in marriage. This is one example of the ancient convention of the dowry.
In Jacob’s day, giving a dowry for Rachel was the expected cultural practice. Arranging to work off a dowry was an accepted practice as well. One scholar notes, "Regarding marriage generally, the Nuzi tablets provided that if a man worked over a period of time for the father of a girl whom he wished to marry, then he would have the right to take the girl as his wife." (Stuart A. West, "The Nuzi Tablets." Bible and Spade 10:3-4 (Summer-Autumn 1981), 70.)
Since Jacob had no other major source of income at that time, he offered to work in exchange for Rachel as his wife. He understood it was the only offer he could make that would have appealed to Laban. Scholars note that laborers in the ancient Near East generally earned between one-half shekel and one shekel per month. Laban would likely have seen an offer of seven years of free labor as very generous. Jacob wanted to make his offer appealing to ensure Laban said “yes” to giving Rachel in marriage.
Jacob was deceived by Laban and first given Rachel’s sister, Leah, as a wife. In order to marry Rachel, Jacob had to agree to another seven years of labor. When the time finally came for Jacob and his family to leave Laban’s house, Leah and Rachel said, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father's house? . . . For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money” (Genesis 31:14-15). Jacob’s years of work in exchange for Rachel was clearly seen by these women as a form of income for Laban—income that he had spent, leaving his daughters no inheritance.
Still today, the dowry system is used in some parts of the world, especially in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The process requires the involvement of both families and a deep commitment by the potential husband before marriage. In Western nations, a different tradition has developed that involves asking a woman’s parents for her hand in marriage. Also somewhat confusing is that, today, a dowry is often regarded as money or other goods that a woman brings to the marriage rather than what the man gives.
The dowry system is a long-standing practice in Eastern culture that is still in use today. The benefits include a closer connection between both families and assurance of the man’s commitment to the union. The disadvantages include money serving as a barrier to one’s ability to marry.