While there were many different cultures throughout the world in Bible times, the Bible itself mostly follows God’s chosen people, the Israelites, through the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, this article will focus on Jewish marriage customs.
Marriages in Bible times were not made for love, per se, but for the mutual benefit of both families involved. Jewish marriages were usually arranged by the fathers of the bride and groom and would begin with a betrothal, or engagement. The bride’s and groom’s feelings on the marriage were not usually taken into consideration, and it was possible that the bride and groom had never met before the betrothal. Betrothals could even be agreed upon when the couple was very young. In these cases, the engagement would stand until the bride and groom were old enough to marry.
Contrary to the practice of many other cultures, in which the bride’s father would pay the groom’s family a dowry, in Jewish culture the groom’s father paid a bride price, or mohar, to the bride’s family in order to negotiate the betrothal and, in essence, “purchase” the bride. The groom would also give a gift to the bride called a mattan, which became a part of the property the bride would bring into the marriage. These gifts were not always monetary; they may have been property or even services provided to the bride’s family. A good father was expected to share the mohar with his daughter or give it over to her entirely.
A Jewish betrothal was an important part of the marriage process and was as binding as marriage itself. Those initiating the betrothal and witnesses to the event would likely sign a marriage contract called a ketubah. Therefore, if one or both parties wished to end the betrothal, they would be required to get a divorce. We see this in the case of Mary and Joseph, who were pledged to be married; when Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, Joseph considered divorcing Mary quietly to protect her reputation (Matthew 1:18–19). However, after an angel visited Joseph in the night, Joseph decided to continue their betrothal. As a betrothed couple, Mary and Joseph were essentially husband and wife, and they later married (verse 24), although they did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born (verse 25).
It was a common custom for the bride to join the groom’s father’s household, rather than the groom and the bride establishing their own household. So, if the bride and groom were of a marriageable age, the groom would return to his father’s house after the betrothal to prepare a bridal chamber. This process traditionally took a year or more (the length of time being dictated by the groom’s father). When the place was complete, the groom would return and fetch his bride. The bride would not know the day or hour of her husband-to-be’s return, so the groom’s arrival was usually announced with a trumpet call and a shout so the bride had some forewarning.
Before the ceremony, which was attended by a select few (most likely family), the bride would take part in a ritual cleansing. After the ceremony, the couple would attend a wedding feast in their honor. It was customary for a wedding feast to include a much larger crowd than the ceremony itself, and it was a great celebration provided by the groom’s family. Jesus Himself attended a wedding feast in Cana, where He performed His first miracle of turning water into wine. At this marriage feast, the groom’s family had run out of wine, which could have damaged their reputation. So Jesus’ mother, Mary, appealed to Him for help on behalf of the family. Jesus responded by turning the water into even better wine than the family had served previously. (For a full account of the wedding at Cana, see John 2:1–12.)
In His time on earth, Jesus often used Jewish marriage customs as a beautiful allegory of God’s relationship with the church, His “bride.” Jesus purchased believers with His blood, shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:19–20; 11:25). He is currently preparing a place for us (John 14:3), and at a future time no one knows (Matthew 24:36) He will return for His bride with a trumpet call and a shout (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17). The dead in Christ and those alive in Him will be taken to heaven, where they will be joined forever with the Lord (Revelation 19:7) and take part in the marriage feast of the Lamb (verse 9).