The customs of the Arabs in certain areas of Bible lands when they negotiate to secure a bride for their son, illustrate in many respects Biblical practices. If a young man has acquired sufficient means to make it possible for him to provide a marriage dowry, then his parents select the girl and the negotiations begin. The father calls in a man who acts as a deputy for him and the son. This deputy is called “the friend of the bridegroom” by John the Baptist (John 3:29). This man is fully informed as to the dowry the young man is willing to pay for his bride. Then, together with the young man’s father, or some other male relative, or both, he goes to the home of the young woman. The father announces that the deputy will speak for the party, and then the bride’s father will appoint a deputy to represent him. Before the negotiations begin, a drink of coffee is offered the visiting group, but they refuse to drink until the mission is completed. Thus Abraham’s servant, when offered food by the parents of Rebekah, said, “I will not eat, until I have told mine errand” (Genesis 24:33). When the two deputies face each other, then the negotiations begin in earnest. There must be consent for the hand of the young woman and agreement on the amount of dowry to be paid for her. When these are agreed upon, the deputies rise and their congratulations are exchanged, and then coffee is brought in, and they all drink of it as a seal of the covenant thus entered into.
Reasons for the Marriage Dowry
Bride’s family – In the Orient, when the bride’s parents give their daughter in marriage, they are actually diminishing the efficiency of their family. Often unmarried daughters would tend the flock of their father (Exodus 2:16), or they would work in the field, or render help in other ways. Thus upon her marriage, a young woman would be thought of as increasing the efficiency of her husband’s family and diminishing that of her parents. Therefore, a young man who expects to get possession of their daughter must be able to offer some sort of adequate compensation. This compensation was the marriage dowry.
It was not always required that the dowry be paid in cash; it could be paid in service. Because Jacob could not pay cash, he said, “I will serve thee seven years for Rachel” (Genesis 29:18). King Saul required the lives of one hundred of the enemy Philistines as dowry for David to secure Michal as his wife (I Samuel 18:25).
The bride – It was usually customary for at least some of the price of the dowry to be given to the bride. This would be in addition to any personal gift from the bride’s parents. Leah and Rachel complained about the stinginess of their father Laban. Concerning him they said, “He hath sold us, and hath also quite devoured the price paid for us” (Genesis 31:15, ARV margin). Laban had had the benefit of Jacob’s fourteen years of service, without making the equivalent of at least part of it as a gift to Leah and Rachel.
Since a divorced wife in the Orient is entitled to all her wearing apparel, for this reason much of her personal dowry consists of coins on her headgear or jewelry on her person. This becomes wealth to her in case her marriage ends in failure. This is why the dowry is so important to the bride and such emphasis is placed upon it in the negotiations that precede marriage. The woman who had ten pieces of silver and lost one was greatly concerned over the loss, because it was doubtless a part of her marriage dowry (Luke 15:8, 9).
Special dowry from the bride’s father
It was customary for fathers who could afford to do so to give their daughters a special marriage dowry. When Rebekah left her father’s house to be the bride of Isaac, her father gave her a nurse and also damsels who were to be her attendants (Genesis 24:59, 61). And Caleb gave to his daughter a dowry of a field with springs of water (Judges 1:15). Such was sometimes the custom in olden times.
Fred H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, Moody Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 1953, 127, 128.