Negotiating a Reasonable Bride-Price
TODAY, as in Bible times, some cultures require that a bride-price be paid before a man can marry a woman. “I am willing to serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter,” said Jacob to his future father-in-law, Laban. (Genesis 29:18) Because of Jacob’s love for Rachel, he offered a high price—the equivalent of seven years’ wages! Laban accepted the offer but tricked Jacob into first marrying his older daughter, Leah. Laban’s subsequent dealings with Jacob continued to be devious. (Genesis 31:41) The emphasis that Laban placed on material gain caused his daughters to lose respect for him. “Are we not really considered as foreigners to him since he has sold us, so that he keeps eating continually even from the money given for us?” they asked.—Genesis 31:15.
Sadly, in today’s materialistic world, many parents are like Laban. And some are far worse. According to one African newspaper, some marriages are negotiated “simply for the sake of profiteering by greedy fathers.” Another factor is economic pressure that tempts some parents into viewing their daughters as a means of easing a financial crisis.*
Some parents hold their daughters back from marriage because they are waiting for the highest bidder. This can cause serious problems. A newspaper reporter stationed in eastern Africa wrote: “Young people choose to elope to escape excessive dowries demanded by tenacious in-laws.” Sexual immorality is one of the problems caused by the demand for a high bride-price. Furthermore, some young men manage to buy a wife but are left in heavy debt. “Parents should be reasonable,” urged a South African social worker. “They should not demand high amounts. The newly married couple need to live . . . So why bankrupt the young man?”
How can Christian parents set an example of reasonableness when negotiating for the payment or receipt of a bride-price? This is a serious matter, for the Bible commands: “Let your reasonableness become known to all men.”—Philippians 4:5.
Reasonable Bible Principles
Whether Christian parents decide to negotiate for a bride-price or not is a personal decision. If they choose to do so, such negotiations should be conducted in harmony with Bible principles. “Let your manner of life be free of the love of money,” says God’s Word. (Hebrews 13:5) If this principle is not evident in marriage negotiations, a Christian parent might be making manifest that he is not a good example. Men with responsible positions in the Christian congregation are to be “reasonable,” not ‘lovers of money’ or “greedy of dishonest gain.” (1 Timothy 3:3, 8) A Christian who greedily and unrepentantly extorts a high bride-price may even be disfellowshipped from the congregation.—1 Corinthians 5:11, 13; 6:9, 10.
Because of the problems caused by greed, some governments have enacted laws that set a ceiling on the bride-price. For example, a law in the West African country of Togo states that the bride-price “can be paid in kind or in cash or in both ways.” The law adds: “In no case should the amount exceed the sum of 10,000 F CFA (US$20.00).” Repeatedly, the Bible commands Christians to be law-abiding citizens. (Titus 3:1) Even if the government does not enforce such a law, a true Christian will want to obey. He will thus maintain a good conscience before God and will not be a cause of stumbling to others.—Romans 13:1, 5; 1 Corinthians 10:32, 33.
Who Is Responsible for Negotiations?
In some cultures, the way the bride-price is negotiated may clash with another important principle. According to the Bible, the father is responsible for the affairs of his household. (1 Corinthians 11:3; Colossians 3:18, 20) Therefore, those with responsible positions in the congregation are to be men who ‘preside in a fine manner over children and their own households.’—1 Timothy 3:12.
However, it may be common in the community for important marriage negotiations to be left to relatives of the family head. And these relatives lay claim to a share of the bride-price. This places a test on Christian households. In the name of custom, some family heads allow unbelieving relatives to extort a high bride-price. This has sometimes led to the marriage of a Christian girl to an unbeliever. That is contrary to the admonition that Christians should marry “only in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:39) A family head who allows unbelieving relatives to make decisions that prove detrimental to the spiritual welfare of his children cannot be viewed as “presiding over his own household in a fine manner.”—1 Timothy 3:4.
As in the case of the God-fearing patriarch Abraham, what if a Christian father does not directly take part in the marriage negotiations of one of his children? (Genesis 24:2-4) If someone else is appointed to do this, the Christian father should make sure that the negotiator follows instructions that are in harmony with the reasonable principles of the Bible. Moreover, before any moves are made to negotiate a bride-price, Christian parents should carefully think matters over and not allow themselves to be carried away by unreasonable customs or demands.—Proverbs 22:3.
Avoiding Unchristian Traits
The Bible condemns pride and the making of a “showy display of one’s means of life.” (1 John 2:16; Proverbs 21:4) Yet, certain individuals associated with the Christian congregation have displayed these traits in their marriage negotiations. Some imitate the world by showing off the payment or the receipt of a large bride-price. On the other hand, one of the Watch Tower Society’s branch offices in Africa reports: “Some husbands have not shown respect when the family has been reasonable in their demands, viewing their wives as being purchased for the price of a ‘goat.’”
Greed for a high bride-price has overtaken some Christians and has led to tragic consequences. For example, consider this report from another branch office of the Watch Tower Society: “It is generally hard for single brothers to get married or for sisters to find mates. The consequence is a growing number of disfellowshippings because of sexual immorality. Some brothers go to the mines in search of gold or diamonds that they can sell in order to have sufficient means to get married. This may take them one or two years or more, and they usually become weak spiritually as they get away from the association with the brothers and the congregation.”
To avoid such sad consequences, Christian parents should follow the example of mature ones in the congregation. Although he was not a parent, the apostle Paul was reasonable in his dealings with fellow believers. He was careful to avoid imposing an expensive burden on anyone. (Acts 20:33) Certainly, Christian parents should consider his unselfish example when entering into bride-price negotiations. In fact, Paul was divinely inspired to write: “Unitedly become imitators of me, brothers, and keep your eye on those who are walking in a way that accords with the example you have in us.”—Philippians 3:17.
Examples of Reasonableness
When it comes to marriage negotiations, many Christian parents have set a fine example of reasonableness. Consider the case of Joseph and his wife, Mae, who serve as full-time evangelizers.* They live on one of the Solomon Islands where bride-price negotiations are sometimes a problem. To avoid such difficulties, Joseph and Mae arranged for their daughter Helen to get married on a neighboring island. They did the same for another daughter, Esther. Joseph also agreed that his son-in-law Peter pay a bride-price well below what could reasonably be accepted. Asked why he did this, Joseph explained: “I did not want to make a burden for my son-in-law who is a pioneer.”
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Africa have also set a fine example of reasonableness. In some areas, members of the extended family generally expect to be paid a large amount of money in advance of negotiations about the actual bride-price. And in order to secure a bride, the bridegroom may be expected to promise that he will cover the future bride-price for a younger brother of his fiancée.
In contrast, consider the example of Kossi and his wife, Mara. Their daughter, Beboko, recently married a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Before the marriage, relatives put great pressure on the parents for their share of a large bride-price. However, the couple stood firm and did not comply with such demands. Instead, they negotiated directly with their future son-in-law, requesting a minimum for their daughter and then returning half of it to the couple for use in preparing for their wedding day.
Another example in the same country involves a young Witness named Itongo. At first, her family requested a reasonable bride-price. But relatives demanded that the amount be increased. The atmosphere was tense, and it seemed that these relatives might get their way. Though timid by nature, Itongo stood up and respectfully stated that she was determined to marry a zealous Christian named Sanze, according to what had been arranged. Then she courageously said, “Mbi ke” (meaning, “The matter is settled”) and sat down. She was supported by her Christian mother, Sambeko. There was no further discussion, and the couple got married as originally planned.
There are things that concern loving Christian parents much more than the personal benefit of a bride-price. A husband in Cameroon explains: “My mother-in-law seizes every opportunity to tell me that whatever I wanted to give her as a bride-price, I should use to care for the needs of her daughter.” Loving parents are also concerned about the spiritual welfare of their children. For instance, consider Farai and Rudo, who live in Zimbabwe and spend much time in the work of preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom. Though not wage earners, they gave their two daughters away in marriage for a fraction of the price often asked. Their reason? They wanted their daughters to benefit from marriage to men who truly love Jehovah. “What we regarded as more important was the spirituality of both our daughters and our sons-in-law,” they explained. How refreshing! In-laws who show loving concern for the spiritual and material well-being of their married children are to be highly commended.
Benefits of Reasonableness
Joseph and Mae of the Solomon Islands were blessed for the generous and careful way they handled the marriages of their daughters. Thus, their sons-in-law were not placed in debt. Instead, both couples have been able to spend many years in the full-time work of spreading the Kingdom message. Looking back, Joseph says: “The decisions that I and my family have made have resulted in rich blessings. True, sometimes there was a lot of pressure from those who did not understand, but I have a good conscience and contentment as I see my children busy and strong in Jehovah’s service. They too are happy, and my wife and I are more than happy.”
Another benefit has been good relations between in-laws. For example, Zondai and Sibusiso serve as volunteer workers with their wives, who are fleshly sisters, at the Zimbabwe branch of the Watch Tower Society. Their father-in-law, Dakarai, is a full-time evangelizer and not a wage earner. During bride-price negotiations, he said he would accept whatever they could afford. “We dearly love our father-in-law,” say Zondai and Sibusiso, “and we would do all in our power to help him if he came to be in need.”
Yes, being reasonable in bride-price negotiations contributes to family happiness. For instance, the newlyweds will not be in debt, making it easier for them to adjust to married life. This has enabled many young couples to pursue spiritual blessings, such as serving full-time in the urgent work of preaching and disciple making. In turn, this brings glory to the loving Originator of marriage, Jehovah God.—Matthew 24:14; 28:19, 20.
In some cultures, the situation is reversed. The in-laws expect a dowry from the bride’s parents.
Substitute names are used in this article.
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THEY RETURNED THE BRIDE-PRICE
In some communities, a bride and her parents are looked down upon if the bride-price is low. Thus, pride and a desire to flaunt a family’s status are sometimes motives for negotiating a high price. A family in Lagos, Nigeria, provide a refreshing contrast. Their son-in-law, Dele, explains:
“My wife’s family relieved me of many of the expenses that go with the traditional bride-price ceremony, such as buying expensive changes of clothing. Even when my family presented the bride-price to them, their spokesperson asked: ‘Do you want to take this girl as a wife or as a daughter?’ Together my family replied: ‘We want to take her as a daughter.’ After that, the bride-price was returned to us in the same envelope.
“Up till today, I appreciate my in-laws’ handling of our wedding. It made me have a high regard for them. Their excellent spiritual outlook makes me see them as very close relatives. It also had a tremendous effect on how I view my wife. I have developed a deep appreciation for her because of the way I was treated by her family. When we have a disagreement, I do not allow it to become a problem. Once I remember the family from which she comes, the disagreement is minimized.
“My family and hers have become cemented in bonds of friendship. Even now, two years after our wedding, my father still sends gifts and foodstuffs to my wife’s family.”