What is marriage and where did it come from? If we do not now the intended use of something, we are bound to misuse it and abuse it. Marriage is a covenant that takes place between a man and a woman. When we examine the biblical basis of the marital covenant, it becomes somewhat controversial due to the biblical context and our contemporary culture. We tend to define Adam and Eve as the model for marriage or covenant between a man and a woman. I believe that there is definitely covenantal value in this first relationship between a man and a woman. But we must remember what we are outlining as the model was the ideal context that you and I will never and can never experience. A context where there is only one man and one woman – not simply by choice, but in all of creation – is a context that will never exist again. The relationship was totally supported by God in that He literally provided everything. As part of this ideal context, they had not begun to have children before they were expelled from the garden. There are other facts about this relationship that I will bring out that I believe can be useful to you and me as we attempt to navigate through the difficult relationship of marriage.
This relationship was a monogamous relationship, by force, not by choice, and as more humans were created through the first family, the practice of monogamy ended as incest entered the picture by necessity. Before the Law of Moses, incest was permitted in order to populate the earth, and the command was given to be fruitful and multiply. The Law of Moses introduced the laws of social relationships or the divine expectations of God upon the interpersonal relationships of humankind. Specifics on the law of covenant were introduced between a man and a woman. With this law came the law of adultery that defined sexual commitment to marriage. The Law of Moses also introduced social laws of human sexuality in general, thus restricting sexuality to relations between a man and a woman (outlawed same sex relations and bestiality). Incest was also prohibited, because there needed to be some order within the ranks of human relationships. Sex was restricted to a covenantal relationship that created a structurally functional context for raising emotionally healthy children.
Marriage, however, was not defined in the Hebrew scripture as that which takes place between one man and one woman. In fact, what we refer to as polygamy was perfectly legal and spiritual under the Law of Moses. When God gave Moses the laws that governed human relationships, polygamy was not mentioned as something God forbade. While I know this may seem very difficult to understand, for the time being, let’s simply stay biblically accurate even if it is seemingly inaccurate culturally. The man that God called “a man after God’s own heart,” David, was clearly a polygamist in our modern day vernacular. In antiquity, it was permissible for a man to have multiple wives, as long as he had the resources to provide for each wife and their offspring. What governed how many wives a man could have was how deep his pockets were or how resourceful he was.
These ancient biblical truths allowed for a covenant to be between one man and multiple wives. However, it did not permit a woman to have many husbands. When I think about this divine structure, I must conclude that this very structure lends itself to some insights into the wiring of a man and the wiring of a woman. One man could satisfy the biblical expectations of a wife, but the wealthier a man was, the more he was allowed to increase his capacity to raise emotionally healthy children (and satisfy his own sexual needs). This is just a small nugget that makes you say, “Selah.” I don’t want you to think that I am advising men to go out and get multiple wives based upon their wealth. I do mean to say that the Bible did not seem to have as big of an issue with polygamy as the traditional views of colonial Christianity. This is one of the reasons why the Mormon Church (Church of the Latter-Day Saints), as heretical as it is in its doctrine, once saw polygamy as permissible. We must remember that the Bible, however, instructs us to follow the laws of our government as long as they do not cause us to break the laws of God.
When we look at marriage as an historical institution, we must realize that its framework is different than our contemporary framework. We can see the structural framework for marriage throughout the book of Genesis through what is called the betrothal.
The Jewish Betrothal
The Jewish betrothal was the engagement and marital system of covenant between a man and a woman. The New Testament is full of teachings that refer back to this system of covenantal relationship. Understanding the Jewish covenantal process of betrothal is key to understanding the New Testament. God used this paradigm of betrothal to communicate a spiritual message to humanity. We must first explore the ancient Hebrew context for marriage by examining the biblical context of marriage.
In antiquity, when someone wanted to marry another person, there was protocol that had to be followed. What is betrothal? It is the act of becoming engaged to marry. Marriage was a process in the Bible, even when it came to the first informal marriage of the Bible. Adam dated and didn’t find the right animal that met his needs. God then put him to sleep and brought him Eve. Adam had worked in God’s garden faithfully and kept the terms of the agreement; but he was lonely and God brought him a woman.
Adam and Eve were given the mandate to have dominion, be fruitful, and multiply. This union was a model with a spiritual message that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5:30 when he writes, “for this reason shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become flesh.” The Bible teaches us first that which is natural and then that which is spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:46.) Adam was a type of Christ (sleep = crucifixion and resurrection) and Eve was a type of the church (blood and water that came out of His side) called to be submitted to Christ. The tree was a type of stewardship, and the mandate to be fruitful and multiply was a type of discipleship. While Adam’s relationship with Eve was a journey, it was not a betrothal. However, we discover the first example of betrothal that already existed in the culture in Genesis 29 (well before the law).
So Jacob went on his journey and came to the land of the people of the East. And he looked, and saw a well in the field; and behold, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it; for out of that well they watered the flocks. A large stone was on the well’s mouth. Now all the flocks would be gathered there; and they would roll the stone from the well’s mouth, water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the well’s mouth.
And Jacob said to them, “My brethren, where are you from?”
And they said, “We are from Haran.”
Then he said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?”
And they said, “We know him.”
So he said to them, “Is he well?”
And they said, “He is well. And look, his daughter Rachel is coming with the sheep.”
Then he said, “Look, it is still high day; it is not time for the cattle to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go and feed them.”
But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well’s mouth; then we water the sheep.”
Now while he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s relative and that he was Rebekah’s son. So she ran and told her father.
Then it came to pass, when Laban heard the report about Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. So he told Laban all these things. And Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.” And he stayed with him for a month.
Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance.
Now Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”
And Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her.” And Laban gathered together all the men of the place and made a feast. Now it came to pass in the evening that he took Leah his daughter and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. And he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?”
And Laban said, “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years.”
Then Jacob did so and fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also. And Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as a maid. Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years.” 
This narrative discusses the practice of betrothal and gives us insight into the historical Jewish engagement and marriage process. This biblical text demonstrates how Jacob saw Rachel and desired to cut covenant with her, so that she could become his wife. Jacob made a contract with Laban, the father of Rachael, a dowry the equivalent of seven years of working in Laban’s vineyard. After he concluded the seven years of labor, which paid the price of the dowry for Rachel, another issue emerged. Cultural norms demanded that the oldest daughter marry first. So in order for Jacob to claim Rachel, he had two choices: 1) wait until someone came to marry Leah, the oldest daughter of Laban; or 2) he could marry Leah, which would require him to provide an additional dowry of seven years of labor in Laban’s vineyard for Rachel. So Jacob worked an additional seven years for the hand of Rachel, and the first seven years translated into the dowry for Leah. The Bible stated that he hated Leah but then impregnated her with multiple children.
This story demonstrates the acceptance of polygamy and the betrothal process. There are cultures today that still practice polygamy or multiple wives and engage in a betrothal process. But the most popular betrothal process was that of the Jews. The following is a simple outline of the Jewish betrothal process:
The man or his family had to identify a wife. This involves the finding of a wife (not finding a husband) – “He that finds a wife, finds a good thing” (Proverbs 18:22). It was not culturally acceptable for a woman to identify a man or be flirtatious with a man; she had to be chosen by the man. In addition to the Bible stating that a man must find a wife, the Bible also asks the question, “Who can find a virtuous woman?” (Proverbs 31:10). When a man or his family searched for a wife, they looked for certain behaviors of virtue. A wife would have to have a physical appeal to the potential groom. The wife would have to have domestic abilities that demonstrated she could keep house and raise children. The virtuous woman also contributed to the household economy by her proven skill sets (Proverbs 31:10-31).
The next step was to cut a covenant of mutual agreement with the father. For example, in Jacob’s case, there was a covenant of labor for the exchange of the covenant of marriage to Laban’s daughter.
The next step was the payment of a dowry (a set price which included both labor and/or money). This price was established in the agreement and paid at a set time and place. Once the agreement was set and the process began, the woman was considered unavailable in the marital marketplace. The betrothed woman was spoken for and was as good as married, simply waiting for the consummation.
The next step of the betrothal process was performed simultaneous with the agreement. The bride-to-be was given covenant pieces that served to demonstrate to the public that she was not available and that she was responsible for keeping up with her pieces. The three pieces that were believed to be given by the time of the New Testament writing was: a coin, worn around her neck that demonstrated she was betrothed; a headpiece; and a lampstand burning with oil.
This is why the parable of the lost coin is significant for it demonstrated that the woman had lost not just lost any coin, but she had misplaced the betrothal coin that the bridegroom would be looking for when he returned for her (Luke 15:8-10).
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’ Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 
The anxiety of the woman in the parable stemmed from the fact that the groom could return at any time. If she was not wearing the coin, the wedding was off and its cancellation could have major implications – financially and otherwise. Thus, when she found it, she had grounds for celebration. The second betrothal piece was the headpiece, which served as her covering, which could represent two things: the woman was under the covering or provision of her father’s house or she was betrothed to a bridegroom. The third and final betrothal piece was the lampstand burning with oil. This lampstand had to be with her at all times and the light had to be maintained with sufficient oil at all times. When the bridegroom returned the light in the lamp had to be burning or the wedding was off. The parable of the 10 virgins of Matthew 25 speaks to this cultural practice. This lamp demonstrated her ability to sustain a relationship with not only husband but also her children. These covenant pieces demonstrated to everyone that the woman was betrothed for marriage and unavailable to anyone else for marriage.
The next step was the bridegroom had to prepare a place for his wife, which was normally done on his father’s land plot. This demonstrates how important family real estate was in antiquity. The preparation of housing was the man’s covenantal responsibility to the wife and her family. The bridegroom had to demonstrate that he had ample provisions and resources to care for the betrothed wife, who held great value. The wife was so valuable that a dowry was paid; she was valuable to her father, thus she was going to be valuable to her husband. While modern culture may tend to view the betrothal as male chauvinistic, the wife was expected to be treasured and cared for, not thought of as an indentured servant. Thus, this is a covenant of care and responsibility where the bridegroom was required to prepare to care for his wife.
Imagine if this was a prerequisite for contemporary marriage whereby a man had to have a house and resources, as well as pay a dowry for his bride-to-be. There would either be fewer marriages or more grooms who were responsible, if financial sustainability had to be demonstrated before marriage.
The next step was the bridegroom would return at his own subjective time for his bride after the dowry is paid. The bridegroom would return unannounced, and the bride was required to display all of her covenant pieces, which demonstrated daily expectation for the arrival of her groom. She must have all the pieces in place or the covenant was considered broken, and the marriage was off. This could be interpreted as a sign of irresponsibility and possibly unfaithfulness.
The last step was the consummation of the marriage. This involved sexual intercourse. The groom would spend 7 days of celebration and feasting with his bride. After the sexual union took place, the groom would take the sheets that were stained with blood and show it to the public. This was proof of the woman’s honor and faithfulness. The blood was the result of the hymen being broken which demonstrated the woman’s virginity.