In order to understand marriage from a Biblical sense, you need to set aside your current understanding of modern marriage and start to explore what the Bible says about men and women and marriage– what does it say in the law, and how were these things done back then.
What was the status of a single woman?
“Ask me for as great a bride-price and gift as you will, and I will give whatever you say to me. Only give me the young woman to be my wife.” – Genesis 34:12
If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.
– Exodus 22:16
The unmarried woman was considered to be a virgin, and she lived in her father’s house under his protection until such time as a man came and sought her out to be his bride. This could be for any number of reasons. Samson saw a woman and was physically attracted to her and requested that his father get her to make her his bride. Jacob fell for the beauty of Rachel and worked 14 years for her (again, a price for her). Abraham sent out his servant with money and possessions to procure Rebekah for Isaac. Throughout the Old Testament, the arrangement of marriage was more a financial transaction than one where compatibility was sought.
The unmarried woman, living in her father’s house, was transferred into her husband’s jurisdiction by his payment of the ‘bride price’ (Heb. mohar) to her father. If a man seduced a girl, he had to pay the bride price as a penalty and make her his legal wife.
When were marriages made?
And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”
– Genesis 24:2-4
“You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.”
Marriages were generally contracted at a young age and arranged by the parents or at least with their consent. In the case of Isaac and Rebekah, Abraham contracted his servant to go find a woman– with no input from Isaac, and some apprehension on the part of Rebekah and the servant as to whether Isaac would find her acceptable. In the case of Jacob, Isaac again told his son where to go to find a wife that was acceptable to him. Samson’s desire to be married outside of the Israelites was a problem for his parents.
The fact that there was money involved, finding a match meant more than feelings of compatibility but more of a desire of making a good investment. There was definitely passion involved in some instances, and appearance definitely made an impression, don’t get me wrong, but much of what we consider today to be a formality (asking for the father’s permission, the purchase of an engagement ring, etc) carried more weight in this Biblical culture.
What rule regarding marriage is enshrined in the 10 commandments?
You shall not commit adultery. – Exodus 20:14
And you shall not commit adultery. – Deuteronomy 5:18
The prohibition of adultery is one of the Ten Commandments central to the moral code of the Torah. If one considers the primary importance of these ten commandments and then sees the fact that one of these ten was not to commit adultery, it’s easy to infer that God expected a life long, exclusive commitment between the married partners. The married couple was expected to develop a bond of mutual love and respect, which they, in turn, would pass on to their children.
What were the rules for divorce?
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. -Deuteronomy 24:1-4
If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. – Deuteronomy 22:13-19
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. – Deuteronomy 22:28-29
The man was allowed to divorce his fie if she found no favor in his eyes in Deut 24, he could also claim that she wasn’t a virgin– but if that couldn’t be proven he was not allowed to divorce her. If a man raped a women, or took her by force, and she was unmarried, then he could not divorce her. If she became divorced and married another man, she could never remarry the first. Divorcing would result in the man forfeiting the bride price and any property the wife brought into the marriage.
What about multiple marriages?
If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved… – Deuteronomy 21:15
It was assumed by the law that multiple marriages would occur, therefore there are laws written about it. We have record of a few people having multiple wives after the law– Elkanah, husband of Hannah, mother of Samuel comes to mind. We know David and Solomon had multiple wives, though others aren’t really recorded. Leverite marriages could also end up with a man with multiple wives in the fact that the redeemer had to marry his brother’s widow if she had no children. One never reads this going the other way– with a wife with more than one husband.
Who Could the Israelites Marry? (Deut 7:1-6, Deut 21:10-14)
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. – Deuteronomy 7:1-4
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.- Deuteronomy 21:10-14
The first passage states that the Israelites were not to intermarry with the people from the land, and God lists them all. He states that the reason for this is that the marriages will cause the people to fall away from God. This was proven with Samson and Solomon.
The second talks about how it is permissible to marry captive foreign women. There was to be a certain way to take a woman captive and make her your wife, which meant that she needed to have time to mourn her loss and then be shamed so she knew she was a captive.
They could not marry any close kin, and the Israelites interpreted the marriage to make two people close kin, so they disallowed all sexual activity other than the Leverite Marriage.
What is a Levirite marriage? (Deut 25:5-10)
If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. – Deuteronomy 25:5-6
The brother of a man who dies without a son had an obligation to marry the wife who was left, and ‘the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead.’ If this did not happen, the man would no longer have a name in Israel. This was illustrated in full with the story of Ruth in the book by the same name.