Among the valuable traditions of the people of God recorded for us in the Old Testament is the bride price sometimes called a dowry. This is a large transfer of wealth from the groom to the new father-in-law before marriage.1 As we will see, a bride price is best understood not as a payment for the transfer of a human being, but as a way to protect the bride as she leaves her father’s household. It is present in many important Old Testament marriages. First mentioned in Genesis 24:53, in which Abraham’s servant pays a bride price for Rebekah, the bride price takes on special importance in the marriage of Jacob to Leah and Rachel. In this instance, recorded in Genesis 31, Laban required an expensive commitment of labor from Jacob for his daughter Rachel. Later, Saul required an unusual bride price of David for his daughter Michal (1 Sam. 18:25).
The bride price is not only part of ancient Near Eastern custom, but is part of the Mosaic law, as in Exodus 22:16-17: “If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins.” A parallel passage in Deuteronomy (22:28, 29) indicates that the bride price is properly paid to the woman’s father, that it was fifty shekels of silver, and that if the two marry, the man loses whatever right he may have otherwise had to divorce her thereafter. Fifty shekels was a considerable sum, probably enough to induce many a young Israelite lover to govern his passions.
The wisdom of the bride price is completely lost on modern Westerners, who generally regard it as antiquated and pointless. Yet bride prices had a significant economic purpose: they provided a trust fund to protect the wife and her children against the possible infidelity or incompetence of the husband. R.J.Rushdoony noted that the bride price was “the family capital; it represented the wife’s security, in case of divorce where the husband was at fault. If she was at fault, she forfeited it.”2 A woman lacking the protection of a bride price, he wrote, was actually a concubine.3
Normally the father of the bride would keep the bride price in trust for his daughter and her children, investing it wisely for their benefit. After his death the fund would go to the daughter for her to manage. Laban’s behavior with Rachel and Leah’s wealth provides a good example of a breach of that trust:
Then Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him [Jacob], “Is there still any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not considered strangers by him? For he has sold us, and also completely consumed our money. For all these riches which God has taken from our father are really ours and our children’s; now then, whatever God has said to you, do it.” (Gen. 31:14-16)
In Laban’s quarreling with Jacob over wages, God providentially gave the fortune — fourteen years’ worth of Jacob’s labor — back to Jacob (Gen. 30:27—31:13).
According to Rushdoony, the bride price was normally about three years’ wages.4 In modern society, a groom rarely comes to a marriage with that much wealth, yet it might be wise for Christians to begin placing heavier requirements on the groom than is customary in today’s society. The groom’s father could provide some of the funds, as a blessing on his son’s marriage, and the groom himself would, of course, contribute money from his own earnings. Rushdoony observes that the bride’s father would usually add to the bride price himself, but the funds generally came from the groom or his family.
The tradition of the bride price thus had the virtue of involving the family of the young man in his choice of a wife. A poor choice might meet with the disfavor of the groom’s family, and thus a greater financial commitment out of the groom’s own pocket. Talk is cheap, but withholding family assets from the groom could make a poor choice an expensive one. A secondary benefit of the tradition is that it provides an incentive to a young man to maintain a good relationship with his parents.
As the tradition of the bride price has faded from Western culture, the state has made attempts to fill the void. Chief among these are alimony provisions in divorce settlements, which require the ex-husband to pay some amount toward the ex-wife’s care. To many people this may seem an acceptable substitute for the bride price, because it provides a divorced wife with financial support. Some might even argue that it is superior, for it puts an additional financial burden on a divorcing husband, while the bride price tradition requires nothing more from him than what he contributed before the wedding. However, alimony has serious shortcomings.
First, this state intervention acts to separate the marriage decision from the beneficial influences of the two families. As the supposed guarantor of the woman’s well-being, the state somewhat reduces the pressure on the bride’s family to carefully screen suitors before marriage. Likewise, the groom’s family has less invested in the marriage — literally — and may not exert that valuable cautionary influence on the young man.
Second, alimony judgments are sometimes poorly enforced. The state, as a disinterested third party, may be lax in squeezing alimony payments from a less-than-enthusiastic ex-husband. Who better than the ex-wife’s father to entrust with making on-time payments out of a trust fund to his victimized daughter?
Third, alimony payments depend upon the income of the ex-husband, who has already demonstrated his unreliability. What of the ex-husband whose income drops substantially after divorce (not unlikely), or is in jail, disabled, or deceased? With the trust fund, the ex-wife’s financial situation is completely unrelated to the success or failure of her ex-husband.
Fourth, the bride price provides the wife with some means of support if the husband fails financially but the marriage survives. The wife’s father may, in such circumstances, decide to support his daughter out of the trust fund until his son-in-law is once more able to provide for his family. The fund should not be overused, however — it should be regarded as an emergency fund only to be relied upon when there is the utmost financial distress.
Alimony should be regarded as a poor substitute for a bride price. A culture moving toward Biblical marriages and strong family-oriented traditions should wean itself from this counterfeit and remind fathers of their responsibilities toward their daughters.
The giving of an engagement ring is a relatively new custom that, to a very limited extent, takes the place of a bride price. It acts as a performance bond: if the man does not follow through on his promise to marry, the woman keeps the ring as compensation for her emotional loss. That is why the value of an engagement ring is traditionally a certain (large) proportion of the fiance’s income. It is supposed to require such a significant financial commitment on his part that he will not casually make a promise to marry (or break the promise). A cubic zirconia, because it is cheap, defeats the economic purpose of the ring. It is similarly useless as a bond if the fiance purchased the ring on credit and has subjected it to repossession if he does not make the payments.
Before the 1930s, the practice of giving an engagement ring was uncommon. As economist Margaret Brinig has suggested, this is probably because at that time almost all states permitted a jilted fiancée to file a lawsuit for damages if the man broke his promise to marry. Between 1935 and 1945, however, this legal option was abolished in states containing about half of the U.S.population. Engagement rings then became more popular, as they afforded the protection the state had ceased to provide.
Regrettably, our society is confused about the economic purpose of the engagement ring, so the woman frequently faces some pressure to return the ring if her fiance proves unfaithful, and the wedding is called off. The only case in which the woman should return the ring is if she is at fault in the breaking off of the engagement.
Even after marriage, the ring remains the property of the wife alone, so that she possesses at least one valuable asset that can be sold in the event that the husband breaks the marriage covenant or impoverishes her. The engagement ring thus acts as a sort of bride price, though it is typically less expensive — and thus less protective of her — than a true bride price.
Recovering the Tradition
Where do we start in reforming our society’s ideas about bride prices? There are several possibilities. First, fathers should acknowledge their responsibility in protecting their daughters by planning for them to enter marriage in sound financial condition. Ideally, brides would not only be endowered, but would be debt-free.5 Second, daughters should be convinced of the protection that a bride price provides, so that the requirement is not cause for her rebellion if a suitor objects. Third, the suitor should be informed (as soon as his intentions become clear) that he will be asked to contribute to this trust fund for his wife, so that he can plan accordingly. The financial sting of the bride price can be reduced by permitting the engagement ring to satisfy part of the requirement, and perhaps by offering to turn over a portion of the earnings from the trust fund to the couple after marriage. In addition, the father of the bride may contribute to the fund himself, as a gift to the married couple. A college education can provide an alternative source of financial protection for the woman in the event of divorce, and should be factored into the decision about the amount of the bride price. Yet it may not be wise for a young mother to depend on this contingency plan while she has young children.
In thinking about bride prices, the father should be careful not to be hypocritical or unduly rigid. For example, it may be a bit unreasonable for a father to demand an $80,000 contribution to a trust fund from a brand-new seminary graduate with very little money in the bank and middle-class parents. This is particularly true if the father has himself demonstrated a serious lack of faithfulness in financial matters. As with the reviving tradition of courtship, the bride price tradition requires the father to be trustworthy and actively involved in the betrothal of his daughter, seeking her best interests before his own.
1. The European dowry reverses this and requires a payment from the bride’s father to the groom.
2. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, vol.1, p.177.
3. Rushdoony, p.176.
4. Rushdoony, p.177.
5. Of course,a father’s duty toward his daughters includes many other, less tangible gifts, such as spiritual development and education. Rushdoony notes, “The bride’s dowry was not only whatever her father gave her, and what her husband endowered her with, but also the wisdom, skill, and character she brought into the marriage” (p.177).
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.