Those who embrace the law of God as binding on their lives see God’s laws as blessings; those who do not, see them as hindrances to their autonomy. God’s law acts as a boundary that we move at our peril. By obeying it we are performing our duty before the Lord, (Eccles. 12:13) and we are living a life that is lived according to God’s instruction manual.
There are many laws in Scripture that are intended to preserve and enhance the primary institution ordained by God—the family. One is the dowry system. Although greatly maligned and often portrayed as the purchasing of a wife as property, when understood properly, the dowry is evidence of God’s intent to build strong families and to protect and cover women.
R. J. Rushdoony notes,
God’s law requires a dowry for wives (undowered wives are legally concubines). This gives stability to marriage as an institution. The dowry was normally equal to about three years’ wages. A young man did not lightly enter into marriage, nor did he easily abuse his wife; if she then divorced him, he lost the dowry as an inheritance for his children. The abuse of wives was thus costly. Likewise, the wife knew that she could lose the dowry for misconduct and face the anger of her father and brothers. The dowry system thus was a major check on the conduct of both men and women. In a culture given to romantic ideas of marriage, there is no brake on the behavior of husbands and wives, or very little.1
Setting the Record Straight
Contrary to revisionist history, it was never the Biblical practice to require that a bride’s family pay a dowry to the intended husband in order to get her married. The Biblical position is the opposite. The Bible, having its emphasis on creating strong families, requires that a prospective husband demonstrate to a young woman’s father (or uncle or brother in the absence of a father) that he has more than a superficial interest in the daughter. A dowry was among the evidences used to convince a father to release his daughter to the authority and protection of another man. It also showed that the man was a person of integrity and faith.
The book of Genesis presents this practice in numerous places. When Abraham sought a godly woman for his son, Isaac, his servant was sent with a dowry to procure a wife. Her father Bethuel and her brother Laban received Eliezer who plainly stated his mission. The transmission of expensive gifts was a demonstration that Rebekah would be cared for as she left her homeland to marry Isaac.
When Jacob left hurriedly after receiving his birthright, he left without any capital or resources, although his father was wealthy. When he was eager to marry Rachel, he offered seven years of labor to serve as his dowry. Despite the deception of Laban in secretly marrying his older daughter to Jacob, he was acting as a responsible father in making sure his daughters would be cared for. His cheating of the daughters out of their dowries should not be viewed as a negative regarding the dowry system itself. Rushdoony explains,
In what follows, Laban is commonly abused by commentators. It is true that Laban deceived Jacob, but this is not the whole story. Rebekah had been given a very generous dowry by Eliezer for Isaac; obviously, wealth was in the family. Whatever story Jacob could tell could not erase the fact that he had come with nothing. There was no assurance that, when Jacob returned, his parents might not be dead and Esau in possession of everything. It would have been unwise for any father to entrust his daughter to a man in such a plight. Laban clearly wanted to keep Jacob and his daughters in Haran. His actions were those of a good father. It was his hope that after fourteen years, Jacob would prefer to remain.
It was Jacob who offered to serve Laban seven years as a dowry for Rachel (vv. 19–20). He perhaps reasoned that, after seven years, Esau might be less hostile.2
Marriage Is a Covenantal Agreement
Marriage is the picture the Bible uses to show us the relationship of Christ and His bride (the church). The Scriptures tell us that it is Jesus who pursues His bride, arranges the marriage feast, and covers and protects her. When we are justified through His blood, we are given a dowry, the down payment of the Holy Spirit:
2 Cor. 1:21: And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
In a like manner, the dowry acts as the down payment on the earnestness of the husband in his promise to remain faithful until one of them dies. Why would a woman need such a promise in God’s eyes? Because she is the instrument God ordained to carry children into this world and nourish and rear them. Pregnancy and childbearing are vulnerable times for a woman. The husband’s prenuptial demonstration of commitment goes a long way in keeping the marriage together because he has shown a willingness to make a significant investment in his new family.
Some argue that this takes the “romance” out of marriage. In actuality, it is quite the contrary. A woman will have a greater sense of her future husband’s appreciation of her as a person when he is willing to demonstrate it with the fruits of his labor.3 What’s more, it demonstrates to her family that this addition to their family brings with him a capability to support her and future children.4
The Benefits of an Endowered Wife
The Scripture states that “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the Lord (Prov. 18:22).” Finding a wife of good character is an advantage to a man and the Bible tells a man to actively pursue one. Proverbs 31 also describes a worthy woman’s price as being “far above rubies.” Thus, a prospective husband demonstrates his recognition that he has found a pearl of great price.
When a woman enters a marriage with the resources of a dowry, it gives her the liberty to carry out her calling as wife according to Proverbs 31. She knows that her husband has invested in this marriage before it ever took place and that she is protected against his acting unlawfully towards her, since her family played an integral part of the contractual agreement.
Parents are to play a significant role in the formation of a new family. Their input and direction are another aspect of God’s protection of both men and women. Rushdoony states,
[T]he Hebrew word for bridegroom means “the circumcised,” the Hebrew word for father-in-law means he who performed the operation of circumcision, and the Hebrew word for mother-in-law is similar. This obviously had no reference to the actual physical rite, since Hebrew males were circumcised on the eighth day. What it meant was that the father-in-law ensured the fact of spiritual circumcision, as did the mother-in-law, by making sure of the covenantal status of the groom. It was their duty to prevent a mixed marriage. A man could marry their daughter, and become a bridegroom, only when clearly a man under God.
Thus, the parents of the bridegroom had an obligation to prepare their son for a life of work and growing knowledge and wisdom, and the parents of the bride had a duty, under Biblical standards, to examine the faith and character of the prospective bridegroom.5
Rather than have to provide for herself, the dowry acts as the down payment on the continuous provisions that a husband will provide for a woman as she assumes the role of household manager and mother of the children. It should be noted that the dowry is given to the woman’s father who holds it in trust for her use and it is not meant to pay for the day to day expenses of the family. The husband is not intended to have access to those resources.6
A Father’s Role in Protecting His Daughters
The Bible puts a high premium on moral purity and this is tied in to the preservation of the family. That is why adultery is a capital crime. It attacks God’s primary institution by breaking the marriage covenant. Additionally, God’s law commands that not only a married woman, but also a betrothed woman, is not to be violated either by seduction or rape, and both carry the penalty of death. But the law goes further in that it cites the case of the seduction of an unbetrothed virgin. Rushdoony notes,
In Deuteronomy 22:25–29, we have the law of rape, but in this instance the word used is “entice.” Although the girl participates in the act, the responsibility still rests primarily on the male. In Biblical law, the greater the responsibility the greater the culpability.
Without any qualification whatsoever, the guilty man must pay the virgin “the dowry of virgins.” The amount is not specified here, but in Deuteronomy 22:29 we are given the amount, fifty shekels of silver, a very large amount in those days. This dowry is to be paid whether or not he marries the girl. Seduction was thus too costly to be commonplace in times when the law was kept.
Whether or not a marriage followed depended on the girl’s father. If he “utterly refuse” the man as a son-in-law, the dowry still went to the girl. Since a subsequent suitor also paid some kind of dowry, the girl went into her marriage well endowered.
This law stresses the priority of the father over both his daughter and her possible husband. It was his duty to protect his daughter and to ensure a good marriage for her.7
While the modern mind rebels against this power given to the father, it should be noted that a godly father has as his primary interest procuring a godly marriage for his daughters. Much more is at stake than the man’s personal financial position. The father’s goal is to find someone equally trustworthy to himself in the care and protection of his daughter, and one who will be a true covenant head over the new family and children who may follow.
By requiring a dowry from the man who wants his daughter, the father is weeding out those who are not stable and have superficial and temporary designs on the woman.
This dowry was [the woman’s] protection money against abuse or desertion and an inheritance for her children. This dowry system ensured the wife’s security and the stability of the family. A man did not readily wrong a wife who held so much family capital, three years’ wages normally, in gold or silver.8
Guarding a Woman’s Reputation
The Bible puts a high premium on being chaste before marriage. This is evidenced in that the dowry amount for a virgin was higher than for a woman who was not. Moreover, the father plays an important role in guaranteeing his daughter’s virtue and upholding her honor. A woman’s reputation is not only her concern but the concern of her entire family.
Deuteronomy 22:13–21 cites a case law:
If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her;
And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.
Rushdoony has extensive comments on this passage,
This is not a popular text with feminists because it so clearly gives priority to the family andto the parents. The father in particular is seen as centrally important, and the matter of honoris stressed.
The seriousness of the matter is seen by the fine cited in v. 19, 100 shekels or weights in silver. In 1 Samuel 9:8 we see that a quarter of a silver shekel was a good gift. A half a shekel was the extent of the poll tax to maintain a civil order (Ex. 30:15; cf. Neh. 10:32). The fine of 100 shekels of silver was virtual confiscation of an estate. (A shekel was a weight of silver, not a coin.) Obviously, the honor of a family and its daughter could not be lightly impugned. This was not the only penalty. The husband making a false accusation was also to be chastised or beaten (v. 18). To question the honor of a family and its daughter was not something done casually or frequently. The man making the false accusation was not killed because he had to support the wife whose honor he had questioned.
This was to an extensive degree a self-enforcing law. The penalty was such that no man dared question his wife’s premarital virtue unless there was certain proof of it. The evidence was not limited to the cloth used when the hymen was broken.9
The family is in God’s order the basic institution in society. It has priority over church and state. It is man’s first and basic government and the primary area of worship and the practice of religion. To undermine the family is to undermine society, a fact well known to our immoralists of today.
There is an important fact about this fine; it is twice as severe as the fine for seduction in vv. 28–29, which is fifty shekels of silver. Deuteronomy 22:28–29 and Exodus 22:16–17 are cognate texts. The payment in Exodus 22:17 is called “the dowry of virgins.” From this we can assume that in such cases, as a penalty, the dowry was set somewhat higher than was normally the case. Thus, fifty shekels of silver was a large sum, one equivalent to a total income of perhaps three years, the traditional reckoning of the dowry. This helps us to appreciate the significance of the fine. To defame one’s wife deliberately and wrongfully was a very serious offense.10
Such is the high value that God’s Word places on a woman of the covenant who has remained pure in keeping with the Lord’s commandments. The fact that defaming a wife is so costly with both a severe financial penalty and a loss of options for a guilty husband, should debunk the assertion that the Bible subjugates and debases women. By placing such a high regard on the family and its preservation, the law-word of God stands as a condemnation of gender equality and an androgynous culture.
In a like manner, in the penalty if the husband’s charge is true, vv. 20–21 state,
The wife is executed near the door of her father’s house. This is death for the wife and dishonor for her parents. The husband who is guilty of slander lives as the virtual slave of his father-in-law, who now commands his wealth. He remains alive to support his wife and children. The wife who is guilty dies because her duties can be assumed by others.11
Rather than a private arrangement between two people that involves none but themselves, the Bible posits the joining of godly covenantal families as the key to dominion in Jesus’ name. It is not hard to see that we have seen a systematic removal of all things Biblical from our schools to our courts to our media. Both the Christian family and the church are seen as the great roadblocks to their new world order, and,
As a result, the legal aspects of family life are trivialized. Since World War II, it has increasingly been the practice to reject substantial reasons for divorce unless a wealth of assets is at stake. Only then will such matters as adultery be considered, and, of late, even in such cases it is waning. If marriage is essentially a private arrangement, this is logical. If it is basic to social order, the present trend is suicidal.12
Women Need to Recognize Their Value
Rather than succumbing to the culture that surrounds us, young girls need to embrace their high calling as women. According to Deuteronomy 22:21, a woman who enters into marriage unchaste is said to have “wrought folly in Israel.” Rushdoony notes that it amounts to an assault on the social order and is thus treasonous. This bears evidence to the integral part covenantally faithful women play in producing a godly culture. In the case noted, her offense amounts to premarital adultery and shows contempt for both her parents and future husband.13
To the modern mind, this case law reeks of a double standard. Not only does the woman lose her life and the man doesn’t, but God has placed physical evidences in a woman’s body of her infidelity before marriage (broken hymen and/or pregnancy). Some argue that this proves the Bible is misogynistic.
On the contrary, God has protected women in such a way that a woman has the ability not only to prove her virginity (as opposed to a man), but is given tremendous recourse should she be maligned and slandered by her husband. This is God’s way of strengthening the family and keeping it intact.
This examination of laws of the Bible that protect women is by no means exhaustive.14 The people of God need to understand the full counsel of God regarding the basic institution of society—the family—in order to proceed in the building of future covenant families on Biblical terms rather than modern, humanistic ones. When the role of women is viewed in the elevated standards of Scripture, we will see greater evidences of the Kingdom of God in our day.
1. R. J. Rushdoony,Genesis (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2002), p. 63.
2. ibid., p. 203.
3. There are many stories that abound in many cultures of the plain old maid who everyone expected would never marry, but if she did would only be worthy of one or two cows as the bride-price or dowry. These accounts tell of a rich man who instead of offering the normal number of cows (2–3) instead offered ten cows for this woman. Not only did this alter the view the woman had of herself and caused her beauty to shine forth, but others in her village suddenly had a new found estimation of her. Such is the transformation in a woman when a man truly appreciates her and demonstrates it in practical ways.
4. Whenever a sizable loan is made in procuring land, a house, or a vehicle, the lending institution requires information that shows the person requesting the loan has the means to pay it back. Why should we expect that something of much more value than these should just be entered into with a smile and a promise to be faithful?
5. R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, Co., 1973), p. 344.
6. Contrary to the negative connotations given to prenuptial agreements, the Bible actually prescribes it. And, unlike the community property laws that exist today, the husband was not to maintain control over the dowry given.
7. R. J. Rushdoony, Exodus (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2004), p. 316.
8. R. J. Rushdoony, Numbers (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2006), p. 294.
9. Commonly referred to as the tokens of virginity, the cloth that was placed on the marriage bed during the first time of intimacy was then given to and safely stored by the woman’s father as proof that she was a virgin before marriage.
10. R. J. Rushdoony, Deuteronomy(Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2008), 331–332.
13. ibid. (I encourage this section to be read in its entirety to get a full appreciation for the deep implications of this law.)
14. This essay has skimmed the surface regarding the provisions within the law of God to preserve and strengthen the family. An extensive study of Rushdoony’s commentaries on the Pentateuch and his Institutes will do much to enable us to reconstruct this area with greater understanding and authority.