The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

marriage, the physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman. Gen. 2:21-24, in which God fashions one wife for Adam, expresses the biblical ideal of monogamous marriage (see Mark 10:6-9). However, the patriarchs practiced polygamy (Gen. 29:15-30). They also took concubines, especially in cases in which the wife had difficulty in conceiving children (Gen. 16:1-2). In the legislation of the Torah, it is taken for granted that a man may have two wives and that relationships were not always harmonious between them (Deut. 21:15). The kings of Israel were known to have had large harems, although the prevailing form of marriage was monogamy.

The unmarried woman, living in her father’s house, was transferred into her husband’s jurisdiction by his payment of the ‘bride price’ (Heb. mohar) to her father (Gen. 34:12). If a man seduced a girl, he had to pay the bride price as a penalty and make her his legal wife (Exod. 22:16).

It is clear from Gen. 34:12 that the bride price was separate from the other gifts presented by the groom’s family to the bride’s. When the family of Rebekah accepted the terms of her marriage, Abraham’s servant responded by presenting costly gifts to her, her mother, and brother (Gen. 24:53).

Marriages were generally contracted at a young age and arranged by the parents or at least with their consent. It was common to marry within the clan, and first cousins were suitable partners (Gen. 24:4; 28:2). The Bible prohibits consanguineous marriage (Lev. 18). Priests were subject to even more stringent marriage regulations than ordinary Israelites, such as the prohibition of marriage with a divorcée (Lev. 21:7).

There was usually a betrothal period after which the marriage was celebrated (Deut. 22:23). David was promised the oldest daughter of Saul, Merab, but when the time of the marriage came, she was given to Adriel (1 Sam. 18:17-19). It is not certain if written contracts were in use, as they are not mentioned until Tob. 7:14.

The central ritual of the marriage ceremony itself was the symbolic bringing of the bride into the groom’s house, followed by great rejoicing. Song of Sol. 3:11 describes the bridegroom as wearing a special crown given to him by his mother, and in Isa. 61:10 he wears a garland. A later description relates that the bride was escorted to meet the groom, and the groom came out with his friends accompanied by musicians and the sound of tambourines (1 Macc. 9:37-39). The bride wore her finest clothes, many jewels (Isa. 61:10), and a veil (Gen. 29:23-25; Song of Sol. 4:1). There followed a lengthy celebration with merrymaking, singing (Jer. 16:9), and feasting often lasting a week or two (Judg. 14:12).

Marital faithfulness was the ideal (Prov. 5:18-29). The prohibition of adultery is one of the Ten Commandments central to the moral code of the Torah (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). While it was certainly considered a wrong against one’s neighbor, it was also a sin against God. Marriage, therefore, became the metaphor with which to describe the relationship between God and Israel (Hosea 3). Prostitution was strongly condemned and often appears as a metaphor for grave sins associated with idolatry (e.g., Exod. 34:15; Deut. 31:16; Judg. 2:17; Hos. 9:1). The married couple was expected to develop a bond of mutual love and respect, which they, in turn, would pass on to their children.

A marriage could always be ended by the husband upon the presentation of a written bill of divorce permitting the wife to remarry (Deut. 24:1-2). However, it is not stated specifically what constituted grounds for divorce. The tannaim (early rabbinic sages) argued over whether adultery alone constituted sufficient grounds, or whether the husband could divorce his wife for any reason. The latter view was accepted in later Judaism. Mark 10:2-9, however, totally rejects divorce.

If a man had intercourse with a virgin, he was compelled to marry her and could never divorce her (Deut. 22:29). Similarly, he could not divorce a wife whom he falsely accused of not being a virgin when he married her (Deut. 22:19). A woman who was married to a man, divorced, and married to another, could never remarry the first (Deut. 24:3-4).

There was no law among biblical Israelites that allowed the woman to initiate divorce. Although it is not mentioned, it is probable that a husband who divorced his wife forfeited the bride price and was no longer able to make use of the property the wife brought into the marriage.

The levirate law is specified in Deut. 25:5-10. The brother of a man who dies without a son had an obligation to marry the wife who was left, and ‘the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead.’ Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, tried to force Judah to fulfill his obligation to provide a levirate marriage for her (Gen. 38), and the marriage of Boaz to Ruth was intended in some way to fulfill this same custom (Ruth 4:10).

Some of the sectarians of the Second Commonwealth period, including the Essenes, practiced celibacy by separating from their wives after fulfilling the commandment of procreation. While, according to many scholars, members of the Dead Sea sect appear to have been celibate, they also seem to have been married, and a marriage ritual is presented in their scrolls.

In the NT. marriage is often used figuratively in connection with the Kingdom of God (e.g., Matt. 25:1-13; Luke 14:16-24; Rev. 19:7, 9), but it is an institution for the present rather than the future age (cf. Mark 12:25; 1 Cor. 7:8). It is nevertheless not to be taken lightly (Mark 10:9; 1 Cor. 7:10-11; Heb. 13:4); divorce (which in the NT world the wife could also initiate; Mark 10:12; 1 Cor. 7:13), if permitted at all, is only for the gravest of reasons (Matt. 19:9). The negative view of marriage found in Paul’s first Letter to Corinth is due to his expectation of the end of the present age, rather than to a negative view of the institution as such (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:26-31).

Oxford Dictionary of the Bible

by W.R.F. Browning (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Levirate law. An injunction that if a married man died without children, it was the duty of a brother or other near relative to marry the widow, and the son of the union would be reckoned to be the son of the first husband (Deut. 25:5-10). The law did not forbid a man to be married twice (Deut. 21:15-17), but it was possible for a brother or kinsman to relinquish his right to marry a widow by taking off his shoe and giving it to a neighbour (Ruth 4:7). Levirate law seems to be presupposed in the dialogue of Matthew 22:23-30 between Jesus and the Sadduccees -- religious conservatives, who did not believe the comparatively recent doctrine of resurrection but did acknowledge the authority of the Pentateuch. Jesus argues that life after death is of a different order from that of the present, and the Levirate law does not apply to the case cited by the Sadduccees. Jesus quotes Exod. 3:6.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible

edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Levirate Law (from Lat. levir, "brother-in-law"; the Hebr. term is yabam, "to perform the duty of a brother-in-law"). If a man dies without bearing offspring, his widow is to marry the deceased's brother (her levir). A child born of that union is considered to be perpetuating the "name" (lineage, honor, and inheritance) of the deceased (Deut. 25:5-10). Such a practice is common in traditional societies, promoting social and economic stability. Refusal to fulfill this obligation results in public shame (Deut. 25:9-10), because it indicates a greater concern for one's personal welfare than the welfare of one's extended family.

There are two examples of levirate marriage in the Bible. In Genesis 38, Judah's son Er is killed by God. His second son, Onan dies too, for refusing to serve as a levir to Tamar, the widow. When Judah refuses to give her his third son, Tamar dresses as a prostitute and tricks Judah himself into fathering a child. This initially evokes condemnation on Tamar, but subsequently she is regarded as "righteous" for her actions (Gen. 38:26), which demonstrates the great significance placed on fulfilling this obligation of the levir on behalf of Ruth's first husband. A closer kinsman declines to perform this duty, apparently fearful of the economic stress it would place on him (Ruth 4.6; perhaps, too, he was unwilling to marry a foreigner). This shows that a levir's obligations continue until the child he has fathered is able to assume the responsibility of defending the deceased's "name" on his own.

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Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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