The union of a man and a woman as husband and wife according to the standard set out by God. Marriage is a divine institution, authorized and established by Jehovah in Eden. Marriage brings into being the family unit, the family circle. Its basic purpose was the reproducing of the members of the human family, to bring into existence more creatures of the human kind. Jehovah the Creator made male and female and ordained marriage as the proper arrangement for the multiplication of the human race. (Ge 1:27, 28) The first human wedding was performed by Jehovah, as described at Genesis 2:22-24.
Marriage was designed to form a permanent bond of union between man and woman, that they might be mutually helpful to each other. Living together in love and confidence, they could enjoy great happiness. Jehovah created woman as a mate for man by using the man’s rib as a base, thereby making woman man’s closest fleshly relative on earth, his own flesh. (Ge 2:21) As Jesus pointed out, it was not Adam but God who said, “That is why a man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh.” The wording of this text makes it evident that monogamy was the original standard for marriage in the eyes of Jehovah God.
Marriage was the normal way of life among the Hebrews. There is no word for bachelor in the Hebrew Scriptures. The basic purpose of marriage being to have children, the statement of blessing by Rebekah’s family is understandable: “May you become thousands times ten thousand” (Ge 24:60), also Rachel’s appeal to Jacob: “Give me children or otherwise I shall be a dead woman.”
Marriage was a matter affecting the family, and not only the family but the entire tribe or patriarchal community, for it could have an effect on the strength of the tribe as well as its economy. It was natural and seemed necessary, therefore, that the selection of a wife and the arrangement of all contractual and financial matters connected with it should be decided upon by the parents or guardians involved, though the consent of the parties was sometimes sought (Ge 24:8) and romantic attachments often accompanied the arrangements. (Ge 29:20; 1Sa 18:20, 27, 28) The initial steps or proposals were generally made by the parents of the young man, but sometimes by the father of the girl, especially if there was a difference of rank.
It seems to have been generally customary for a man to look for a wife within the circle of his own relations or tribe. This principle is indicated by Laban’s statement to Jacob: “It is better for me to give [my daughter] to you than for me to give her to another man.” (Ge 29:19) Especially was this observed among the worshipers of Jehovah, as exemplified by Abraham when he sent to his relatives in his own country to get a wife for his son Isaac rather than to take one from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom he was dwelling. (Ge 24:3, 4) Marriage to nonworshipers of Jehovah was frowned upon and strongly discouraged. It was a form of disloyalty. (Ge 26:34, 35) Under the Law, marriage alliances with persons of the seven Canaanite nations were prohibited. (De 7:1-4) However, a soldier might marry a captive virgin from another foreign nation after she had undergone a purification period, during which she mourned her dead parents and got rid of all features of her past religious connections.
Bride-Price. Before the marriage contract was concluded, the young man or the father of the young man had to pay to the girl’s father the bride-price, or marriage price. (Ge 34:11, 12; Ex 22:16; 1Sa 18:23, 25) This was doubtless regarded as compensation for the loss of the services of the daughter and for the effort and expense required of the parents in caring for and educating her. Sometimes the bride-price was paid in services to the father. (Ge 29:18, 20, 27; 31:15) In the Law there was an established purchase price for an unengaged virgin who was seduced by a man.
Ceremony. As to the wedding itself, the central and characteristic feature was the solemn bringing of the bride from her father’s home to her husband’s home on the date agreed upon, in which act the significance of marriage as representing admission of the bride into the family of her husband found expression. (Mt 1:24) This constituted the wedding in patriarchal days before the Law. It was altogether a civil affair. There was no religious ceremony or form, and no priest or clergyman officiated or validated the marriage. The bridegroom took the bride to his house or to the tent or house of his parents. The matter was publicly made known, acknowledged, and recorded, and the marriage was binding.
However, as soon as marriage arrangements had been made and the parties were engaged, they were considered bound in marriage. Lot’s daughters were still in his house, under his jurisdiction, but the men engaged to them were termed Lot’s “sons-in-law who were to take his daughters.” (Ge 19:14) Although Samson never married a certain Philistine woman but was only engaged to her, she was spoken of as his wife. (Jg 14:10, 17, 20) The Law stated that if an engaged girl committed fornication, she and the guilty man were to be put to death. If she was violated against her will, the man was to be put to death. However, any case involving an unengaged girl was handled differently.
Marriages were registered. Under the Law marriages, as well as births resulting from the union, were recorded in the official records of the community. For this reason we have an accurate genealogy of Jesus Christ.
Celebration. While the wedding itself had no formal ceremony, there was, nevertheless, a very joyous celebration of weddings in Israel. On the day of the wedding, at her own home the bride usually made elaborate preparations. First she would bathe herself and rub herself with perfumed oil. (Compare Ru 3:3; Eze 23:40.) At times assisted by woman attendants, she put on breastbands and a white robe, often richly embroidered, according to her financial status. (Jer 2:32; Re 19:7, 8; Ps 45:13, 14) She decked herself with ornaments and jewels, if she was able to do so (Isa 49:18; 61:10; Re 21:2), and then covered herself with a light garment, a form of veil, that extended from head to foot. (Isa 3:19, 23) This explains why Laban could so easily practice a deception on Jacob so that Jacob did not know that Laban was giving him Leah instead of Rachel. (Ge 29:23, 25) Rebekah put on a head covering when she approached to meet Isaac. (Ge 24:65) This symbolized the subjection of the bride to the bridegroom
The bridegroom was likewise arrayed in his best attire and often had a handsome headdress and a garland on his head. (Ca 3:11; Isa 61:10) Escorted by his friends, he would leave his house in the evening for the home of the bride’s parents. (Mt 9:15) From there the procession, accompanied by musicians and singers and usually by persons bearing lamps, moved toward the home of the bridegroom or to the house of his father.
The people along the route would take great interest in the procession. The voices of the bride and bridegroom would be heard in exultation. Some, particularly maidens bearing lamps, would join the procession. (Jer 7:34; 16:9; Isa 62:5; Mt 25:1) The bridegroom might spend considerable time at his home and, then again, some delay might take place before the procession would leave the home of the bride, so that it would thus be quite late, and some who were waiting along the way might get drowsy and fall asleep, as in Jesus’ illustration of the ten virgins. The singing and exultation might be heard quite a distance ahead, those hearing it making the cry: “Here is the bridegroom!” The attendants were ready to greet the bridegroom when he came, and those invited to the marriage supper would enter the house. After the bridegroom and his entourage had gone into the house and closed the door, it was too late for tardy guests to enter. (Mt 25:1-12; 22:1-3; Ge 29:22) It was looked upon as a gross insult to decline the invitation to the marriage feast. (Mt 22:8) The guests might be provided with robes (Mt 22:11), and their respective places at the feast were often designated by the one extending the invitation.
Friend of the Bridegroom. “The friend of the bridegroom” had a large share in the arrangements and was looked upon as bringing together the bride and groom. The friend of the bridegroom rejoiced in hearing the voice of the groom conversing with the bride and now could feel happy that his duties had been blessed with a successful conclusion.
Proof of Virginity. After the supper the husband took his bride into the nuptial chamber. (Ps 19:5; Joe 2:16) On the wedding night a cloth or garment was used and then kept or given to the wife’s parents so that the marks of the blood of the girl’s virginity would constitute legal protection for her in the event she was later charged with lack of virginity or of having been a prostitute prior to her marriage. Otherwise, she could be stoned to death for having presented herself in marriage as a spotless virgin and for bringing great reproach on her father’s house. (De 22:13-21) This practice of keeping the cloth has continued among some peoples in the Middle East until recent times.
Privileges and Duties. The husband was head of the house, and the final decision on matters affecting the welfare and economy of the family were left to him. If he felt that the family would be adversely affected, he could even annul a vow of his wife or daughter. This authority evidently also belonged to the man when he was engaged to a woman. (Nu 30:3-8, 10-15) The husband was the lord, master of the household, and was considered the owner (Heb., baʹʽal) of the woman.
Proverbs 31 describes some of the duties of the wife toward her husband, or owner, which included the household work, the making of and care for clothing, even some of the buying and selling, and general supervision of the household. The woman, while being in subjection and being in a sense the property of the husband, enjoyed a fine status and many privileges. Her husband was to love her, and this was true even if she was a secondary wife or one who had been taken as a captive. She was not to be mistreated and was guaranteed food, clothing, shelter, and the marriage due without diminution. Also, the husband could not constitute the son of the favorite wife as the firstborn at the expense of the son of the “hated” (or less preferred) wife. (Ex 21:7-11; De 21:11, 14-17) Faithful Hebrew men loved their wives, and if the wife was wise and acted in harmony with God’s law, often the husband would listen to her or approve of her actions.
Even the unengaged virgin who was seduced by an unmarried man was protected, for if the father permitted, the seducer had to marry the girl and could never divorce her all his life. (De 22:28, 29) If the wife was formally accused by her husband of not being a virgin at the time of marriage and the charge was proved false, her husband was fined and could never divorce her. (De 22:17-19) The woman who was accused of secret adultery, if innocent, was then to be made pregnant by her husband so that she could bear a child and thereby give public notice of her innocence. The dignity of the wife’s person was respected. Intercourse with her during menstruation was forbidden.
Prohibited Marriages. Besides prohibition of marriage alliances with nonworshipers of Jehovah, especially with the seven nations in the land of Canaan (Ex 34:14-16; De 7:1-4), other marriages were prohibited within certain degrees of consanguinity or affinity.
A high priest was prohibited from marrying a widow, a divorced or violated woman, or a prostitute; he was to marry only a virgin from his people. (Le 21:10, 13, 14) The other priests could not marry a prostitute or violated woman, nor a woman divorced from her husband. (Le 21:1, 7) According to Ezekiel 44:22, they could marry a virgin of the house of Israel or a widow who happened to be the widow of a priest.
If a daughter inherited property, she was not to marry out of her tribe. This prevented the hereditary possession from circulating from tribe to tribe.
Divorce. At the institution of marriage by the Creator, he made no provision for divorce. A man was to stick to his wife, and “they must become one flesh.” (Ge 2:24) A man would therefore have one wife who was considered one flesh with him. It was only after man’s fall and consequent imperfections and degradation that divorce entered in.
In giving the Law to Israel, God did not at that time choose to enforce the original standard, but he regulated divorce so that it would not bring dissolution of the family arrangement in Israel or work undue hardship. However, at God’s due time his original standard was restored. Jesus stated the principle governing the Christian congregation
In the Christian congregation, therefore, aside from death, which automatically breaks the marriage tie, the only other way it may be broken is on the ground of “fornication,” which causes the offending one to become one flesh with an illicit partner. It therefore may be used by the innocent party as a ground for dissolving the marriage if that one chooses to do so, and the innocent one may then remarry. (Mt 5:32; Ro 7:2, 3) Aside from making this allowance in case of “fornication” (Gr., por·neiʹa), the Greek Scriptures counsel Christians not even to separate from their mates, whether believers or unbelievers, and require that if they do, they have no sex relations with anyone else.
Under the Law a husband could divorce his wife for something ‘indecent’ on her part. This, of course, would not include adultery, for it carried a death penalty. It might be such offenses as great disrespect for the husband or for the house of his father, or something bringing reproach upon his household. The husband was required to provide her with a written certificate of divorce, which implies that in the eyes of the community he had to have sufficient grounds on which to divorce her. The certificate being a legal document, there is the implication that it involved consultation with the older men or authorities of his city. The woman could then remarry, the certificate protecting her from any later charge of adultery. No divorce was allowed a man if he had seduced the girl before marriage or if he had falsely charged after marriage that she was deceptive in claiming to be a virgin at the time of their marriage.
After a divorce if a woman married another man and this man later divorced her or died, the original husband could not marry her again. This worked to prevent any scheme to bring about a divorce from the second husband or perhaps even his death so the original couple might remarry.
Jehovah hated an unjust divorce, especially where a faithful worshiper of his was treacherously dealt with in order to arrange for another marriage to a pagan woman who was not a member of his chosen covenant people.
Polygamy. Since God’s original standard for mankind was for the husband and wife to become one flesh, polygamy was not intended, and it is prohibited in the Christian congregation. Overseers and ministerial servants, who are to set the example for the congregation, are to be men having not more than one living wife. (1Ti 3:2, 12; Tit 1:5, 6) This is in harmony with what true marriage is used to picture, namely, the relationship of Jesus Christ and his congregation, the only wife possessed by Jesus.
As was the case with divorce, polygamy, while not God’s original arrangement, was tolerated until the time of the Christian congregation. Polygamy had a start not long after Adam’s deflection. The first Bible mention of it is concerning a descendant of Cain, Lamech, of whom it says: “[He] proceeded to take two wives for himself.” (Ge 4:19) Concerning some of the angels, the Bible mentions that before the Flood, “the sons of the true God . . . went taking wives for themselves, namely, all whom they chose.”
Concubinage was practiced under patriarchal law and under the Law covenant. A concubine had a legal status; her position was not a matter of fornication or adultery. Under the Law, if a man’s firstborn son was the son of his concubine, this son would be the one to receive the firstborn’s inheritance.
Concubinage and polygamy no doubt enabled the Israelites to increase at a much faster rate, and therefore, while God did not establish these arrangements but only allowed and regulated them, they served some purpose at the time. (Ex 1:7) Even Jacob, who was tricked into polygamy by his father-in-law, was blessed by having 12 sons and some daughters from his two wives and their handmaidens who became concubines to Jacob.
Christian Marriage. Jesus Christ showed his approval of marriage when he attended the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee. (Joh 2:1, 2) As already stated, monogamy is God’s original standard, reestablished by Jesus Christ in the Christian congregation. (Ge 2:24; Mt 19:4-8; Mr 10:2-9) Since man and woman were originally endowed with the ability to express love and affection, the arrangement was to be a happy, blessed, and peaceful one. The apostle Paul uses the illustration of Christ as husband and head of the congregation, his bride. It is a prime example of the tender loving-kindness and care that the husband should have for his wife, loving her as his own body. He also points out that, on the other hand, the wife should have deep respect for her husband. (Eph 5:21-33) The apostle Peter counsels wives to be in subjection to their husbands, appealing to them through chaste conduct, deep respect, and a quiet and mild spirit. He uses Sarah, who called her husband Abraham “lord,” as an example to imitate.
Cleanness and loyalty in the marriage bond are emphasized throughout the Christian Greek Scriptures. Paul says: “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” (Heb 13:4) He counsels mutual respect between husband and wife and the payment of the marriage due.
‘Marry in the Lord’ is the apostle’s admonition, which is in harmony with the practice of ancient worshipers of God in marrying only those who were likewise true worshipers. (1Co 7:39) However, the apostle gives counsel to those who are not married that they may be able to serve the Lord without distraction if they remain single. He says that, in view of the time, those who get married should live ‘as though they had no wives,’ in other words, that they should not devote themselves to the marital privileges and responsibilities to the extent of making this their whole life but should seek and serve Kingdom interests, while not excluding their marriage responsibilities.
Paul counseled that just because younger widows expressed the intent to devote themselves exclusively to Christian ministerial activities, they were not to be put on the list of those to be cared for by the congregation; it was better for them to remarry. This is because, he says, their sexual impulses may induce them to go contrary to their expression of faith that might lead to their accepting the congregation’s financial support as hard workers, while at the same time trying to get a husband as well as becoming unoccupied and meddlers. They would thereby bring themselves under an unfavorable judgment. To marry, bear children, and manage a household, while still maintaining the Christian faith, would effectively occupy them, protecting them against gossiping and talking of things they ought not. This would enable the congregation to help those who were actually widows and who qualified for such aid.
Celibacy. The apostle Paul warns that one of the identifying features of the apostasy that was to come would be enforced celibacy, “forbidding to marry.” (1Ti 4:1, 3) Some of the apostles were married. (1Co 9:5; Lu 4:38) Paul, in setting forth the qualifications for overseers and ministerial servants in the Christian congregation, says that these men (if married) should have only one wife.
Christians and Civil Marriage Laws. At the present time, in most lands of the earth, marriage is governed by laws of the civil authorities, “Caesar,” and the Christian should normally comply with these. (Mt 22:21) The Bible record nowhere sets out the requirement of a religious ceremony or the services of a clergyman. According to the arrangement in Bible times, the requirement would consistently be that a marriage be legalized according to the laws of the land and that marriages and births be registered where such a provision is made by law. Since the “Caesar” governments exercise such control of marriage, the Christian would be obliged to apply to them for the legalizing of a marriage. And even if he should desire to use the adultery of his mate as a Scriptural ground for terminating the marriage, he must obtain a legal divorce if this is possible. A Christian who remarries without due respect for Scriptural and legal requirements, therefore, would be violating God’s laws.
Marriage and the Resurrection. A group of Jesus’ opponents who did not believe in the resurrection asked Jesus a question that was calculated to embarrass him. In answering them, he revealed that “those who have been counted worthy of gaining that system of things and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
Symbolic Uses. Throughout the Scriptures, Jehovah speaks of himself as a husband. He considered himself as married to the nation of Israel. (Isa 54:1, 5, 6; 62:4) When Israel rebelled against Jehovah by practicing idolatry or some other form of sin against him, this was spoken of as committing prostitution like an unfaithful wife, providing cause for his divorcing her.
In Galatians chapter 4 the apostle Paul likens the nation of Israel to the slave girl Hagar, the concubine of Abraham, and the Jewish people to Hagar’s son Ishmael. Just as Ishmael was the son of the secondary wife of Abraham, so the Jews were the children of the secondary “wife” of Jehovah. The tie binding Israel to Jehovah was the Law covenant. Paul likens “Jerusalem above,” Jehovah’s “woman,” to Sarah, Abraham’s free wife. Of this free woman “Jerusalem above,” Christians are the free spiritual children.
As the great Father, Jehovah God, like Abraham, oversees the selection of a bride for his son Jesus Christ
Also in the book of Revelation, Jehovah foretells the time when his Son’s marriage would draw near and the bride would be prepared, arrayed in bright, clean, fine linen. He describes those invited to the evening meal of the Lamb’s marriage as being happy. (Re 19:7-9; 21:2, 9-21) On the night before his death, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Evening Meal, the Memorial of his death, and instructed his disciples to keep observing it. (Lu 22:19) This observance is to be kept “until he arrives.” (1Co 11:26) Just as in ancient times the bridegroom arrived at the house of the bride in order to take her from her own parents to the home he had provided for her in the house of his father, so Jesus Christ comes to take his anointed followers from their former earthly home, taking them with him so that where he is they may be also, in his Father’s house, in heaven.