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Betrothal: Engagement in the Bible

Deuteronomy 22:23-27; Matthew 1:18 and Luke 2:4-5

The King James renders “espoused” betrothed, or engaged to be married (for matrimony) in Deut. 22:23-27; to be promised in marriage or to give a souvenir or engagement present in Matthew 1:18 and Luke 2:4-5.

Betrothal is the first formal part in ancient Hebrew marriage. It was of a more formal and far more binding nature than the modern “engagement” is with us and can be broken only by divorce or death. In case of death the survivor became a widow or widower. The betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage. In Deut. 22:24 a bethrothed woman is called a “wife,” though the preceding verse speaks of her as being “engaged to a man.” Matthew uses the terms “husband” (Matt. 1:19) and “wife” (Matt. 1:24) of Joseph and Mary before their bethrothal was consummated.

Its central feature was the dowry (mohar), or at least part of the bride price, which was paid to the parents, not to the bride. It may take the form of service (1 Sam 18:25). It is customary in Syria today, when the projected marriage is approved by both families, and all the financial preliminaries have been settled, to have this ceremony of betrothal, which commonly an interval of ten or twelve months, between the contract of marriage and the celebration of the nuptials.

Two witnesses, mutual consent and the groom’s declaration were necessary to establish Jewish betrothals. While in Roman betrothals, consent alone sufficed. Although rings were used in the Roman world, it s not clear whether Palestinian Jews used them in early period.

Betrothal, which commonly lasted a year, meant that bride and groom were officially pledged to each other but had not yet consummated the marriage; there were no sexual relations during a Jewish bethrothal period, advances toward anyone else were thus regarded as adulterous (Deut. 22:23-27). These legal procedures show that betrothal with the Jews was a serious matter, not lightly entered into and not lightly broken. The man who betrothed a maiden was legally husband and “an informal cancelling of betrothal was impossible. Though they did not live together as husband and wife till actual marriage, breach of faithfulness on the part of the betrothed was treated as adultery and punished with death.

Mary would have been between the ages of twelve and sixteen, Joseph perhaps between eighteen and twenty; their parents likely arranged their marriage, with Mary and Joseph’s consent. Pre-marital privacy between betrothed persons was permitted in Judea but apparently frowned upon in Galilee, so Mary and Joseph may well not have had any time alone together at this point.

Sources:

Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament. Third Edition. Manila, Philippines: OMF Literature, Inc., 1994.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

MySword for Android. Riversoft Ministry, 2011-2019.

Zondervan NASB Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999.

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