Marriage in ancient Israel was very different from marriage today. Although there is a great deal we do not know about Israelite marriage, the biblical texts that speak about it tell us that many Israelite marriage customs were unlike those of modern western societies.
First, although girls were expected to be virgins when they got married—and according to Deut 22:21 could even be put to death if they were found not to be—men were allowed to marry multiple women. It is hard to know how common polygamy, which entailed a husband being married to more than one woman, really was in ancient Israel. Also, the evidence suggests that compared to women, men had more control over whom they married. For example, Samson chooses his own wife in Judg 14, even though his parents disapprove of the match. Most likely, girls were married around puberty whereas men were somewhat older. Though unions were generally based more on economic or social considerations than romantic ones, some texts, including the Song of Songs, show us that ideas of passion and sexual love were also present in ancient Israel.
In order to marry a girl, a man would give her father a gift (called mohar in Hebrew) that would seal the betrothal between the bride- and husband-to-be. Betrothal was a much firmer commitment than today’s engagement. Though some people think of the betrothal gift as a purchase price, this is inaccurate. Anthropologists call this gift “bridewealth.” It is found in many societies throughout the world and is not considered a sale by people in those cultures—Israelite wives were not thought of as slaves in biblical texts, though men sometimes did marry slave women. Some length of time after the betrothal, wedding festivities, often involving days of feasting, would occur.
The relationship between husbands and wives was not equal in the ancient Near East, including Israel. Ba‘al, one of the Hebrew words for “husband,” also meant “lord” or “master,” and men had life-and-death power over women in the case of adultery, which in ancient Israel involved a woman having sex outside of her marriage or a man having sex with another man’s wife. Men, though, could have multiple wives and concubines and were allowed to go to prostitutes, thus monogamy was a one-way street in this culture.
Biblical texts make clear that marriages between cousins were strongly preferred. Marriages with non-Israelites are treated differently by different texts. Although some passages either limit or prohibit marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites, other biblical texts, such as the book of Ruth, are tolerant of intermarriage. Lev 18 prohibits incest but does not include uncle-niece marriages, which are prohibited in some later Jewish communities, including those responsible for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. Deut 25:5-10 encourages a custom called levirate marriage, where a widow marries her husband’s brother if her husband has died without children; a similar, though not identical, practice is found in the book of Ruth.
In conclusion, not all biblical texts are in agreement on every issue regarding marriage, suggesting that different Israelite communities and authors had diverse viewpoints on marriage and that Israelite viewpoints evolved over time. Many biblical customs would be unfamiliar or even objectionable to many people living in western societies today. Still, when we read the impassioned romantic poetry of the Song of Songs, we realize that some things never change.