Were Wives In Israel Considered The Property Of Their Husbands?

It is written:

Genesis 34:12-Ask me ever so much dowry and gift, and I will give according to what you say to me; but give me the young woman as a wife.”

A “dowry” is usually understood to be a sum of money that a bridegroom presented to the bride and her family. Many claim that this was equivalent to the husband “purchasing” the wife, and thus it is argued that women were looked upon as nothing more than property owned by a patriarchal society which viewed women as nothing other than chattel.

What should we make of this?

First, it is not true that God ordered women in the Old Testament to be treated as property. Instead, the marriage relationship was seen as binding on both husband and wife, so that both had rights under the Law of Moses. This understanding even predated the Old Testament Law.

For example, notice that the family often gave the woman the right to decide whether or not to accept the wedding invitation of the man. We see this clearly in the account of Rebekah:

Genesis 24:58-Then they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” And she said, “I will go.”

In ancient Judaism, there is a ceremony called the ketubbah. One author describes it in this way:

“If the bride price was agreeable to the young woman’s father, the young man would pour a glass of wine for the young woman. If the young woman drank the wine, it would indicate her acceptance of the proposal. At this point, the young man and young woman would be betrothed. Betrothal was legally binding, just like a marriage. The only difference was that the marriage was not yet consummated. A typical betrothal period was 1-2 years. During this time the bride and bridegroom each would be preparing for the marriage and wouldn’t see each other.” (Tov Rose, Jesus in the Jewish Wedding: Messianic Fulfillment in the Bible and Tradition, 63 (Kindle Edition); www.TovRose.com)

The “price” that the bridegroom pays is directly in proportion to what the bride’s family business will suffer as a result of the wife being joined in marriage to a new family. In fact, some scholars strongly object to the phrase “bride price.”

“The term elsewhere used for this marriage gift is mōhar (Exod. 22: 17 [MT v. 16]), but it is wrong to translate it “bride-price” (as NIV). The custom of exchanges of money and other gifts between families in the context of marital arrangements is widespread in many cultures and is usually a part of the cementing of relationships and investing in the stability and permanence of the new union. The idea that it reduced marriage to a matter of mere purchase or the wife to mere property has long been shown to be a misunderstanding of the whole phenomenon (in India, dowry is paid by the woman’s family to the man’s—the reverse of the biblical direction—but it certainly does not mean that the husband is thereby the purchased property of the wife!).” (Christopher J.H. Wright, Deuteronomy, 246 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books)

Finally, there was a very important function that the dowry served in ancient Israel:

“The idea of bride-price is presented by the New Atheists as though it’s a matter of buying a wife like you would a horse or a mule. In actual fact, the bride-price was the way a man showed his serious intentions toward his bride-to-be, and it was a way of bringing two families together to discuss a serious, holy, and lifelong matter. Having sex with a young woman without the necessary preparations and formal ceremony cheapened the woman and sexuality. The process surrounding the bride-price reflected the honorable state of marriage. Think of the dowry system used in places like India. In this case, the family of the bride-to-be gives money to the future husband’s family. Such a transaction hardly means that the groom-to-be is mere property! Why automatically conclude that a woman is property because this marriage gift is given in the Old Testament but that a man isn’t property under the dowry system? The bride-price was more like a deposit from the groom’s father to the bride’s father. The Hebrew word for this deposit (mohar) is better translated “marriage gift.” It not only helped create closer family ties between the two families but also provided economic stability for a marriage. This gift given to the bride’s father (often several years’ worth of wages) compensated him for the work his daughter would otherwise have contributed to the family. The marriage gift—preserved by the husband throughout the marriage—also served as security for the wife in case of divorce or her husband’s death. 9 In fact, the bride’s father would often give an even larger gift of property when the couple married. Hitchens’s complaint about the Old Testament’s bride-price is misguided.” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 117 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

The claims of the skeptics-that the God of the Bible views women as property-demonstrate again their lack of study and their preconceived notions of wanting to do anything they can to spread prejudice against Holy Scripture.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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