5 - 8/11/2005
A CHRISTIAN LOVE STORY
by ZOLA LEVITT
Our Lord was Jewish and He did things like a Jew. So often, if we consult the Jewish law and custom, we find many of the motivations for particular actions of our Lord.
We will consider the Jewish custom of matrimony. Obviously, wedding customs varied from nation to nation and from time to time. Even in today's world we see different traditions of marriage taking place at the same time in different countries. The Jews had their own peculiar ways, based on the Old Covenant, and the Lord, as we shall see, followed those traditions in choosing a bride.
We should appreciate that the Jews had no dating or courtship as we now think of those things. Marriage to them was a practical legal matter, established by contract and carried through by exacting procedure. These customs exist in a form today in the Jewish wedding ceremony, and in Jesus' time they were most fascinating and complex.
When the young man of Israel in Jesus' time saw the girl he wanted (or the girl his father said he wanted), he would approach her with a marriage contract. He would come to her house with a covenant—a true legal agreement—giving the terms by which he would propose marriage. The most important consideration in the contract was the price the bridegroom would be willing to pay to marry this particular bride.
The “bride price” is still utilized today in parts of the Mediterranean and African worlds and while it seems most archaic to us now, it had some useful purposes. First of all, if the bridegroom was willing to sacrifice hard cash for his bride, he was showing his love in a most tangible way. Secondly, it was a favor to his future father-in-law. We must recall that in those days of farming and heavy labor, it was something of a liability to raise a daughter. A family with sons would prosper more because of the built-in work force; but a family with daughters would expect to “consolidate their losses” when the girls were mature enough to attract bridegrooms. And so the father of the bride was more or less paid off for his earlier expenses and for his patience and skill in raising a girl to be good marriage material.
The bridegroom would present himself to the bride with this agreement, offering to pay a suitable price for her, and she and her father would consider his contract. If the terms were suitable, the bride and groom would drink a cup of wine together and this would seal the bargain. This cup was most significant. It signified the bridegroom's willingness to sacrifice in order to have this bride. It was offered as a toast to the bride, and of course, it showed the bride's willingness to enter into this marriage.
Then the groom would pay the price. It should be said that this price was no modest token but was set so that the new bride would be a costly item—that was the idea. The young man had no delusions that he was getting something for nothing. He would pay dearly to marry the girl of his choice.
When that matter was settled the groom would depart. He would make a little speech to his bride, saying, “I go to prepare a place for you,” and he would return to his father's house. Back at his father's house, he would build her a bridal chamber, a little mansion, in which they would have their future honeymoon.
We should appreciate that this was a complex undertaking for the bridegroom. He would actually build a separate building on his father's property, or decorate a room in his father's house. The bridal chamber had to be beautiful—one doesn't honeymoon just anywhere; and it had to be stocked with provisions since the bride and groom were going to remain inside for seven days. This construction project would take the better part of a year, ordinarily, and the father of the groom would be the judge of when it was finished. (We can see the logic there—obviously, if it were up to the young man, he would throw up some kind of modest structure and go get the girl!) But the father of the groom, who had been through this previously and was less excited, would be the final judge on when the chamber was ready and when the young man would go to claim his bride.
The bride, for her part, was obliged to do a lot of waiting. She would take the time to gather her trousseau and be ready when her bridegroom came. Custom provided that she had to have an oil lamp ready in case he came late at night in the darkness, because she had to be ready to travel at a moment's notice. During this long period of waiting, she was referred to as “consecrated”, “set apart”, “bought with a price”. She was truly a lady-in-waiting, but there was no doubt that her groom would return. Sometimes a young man would depart for a very long time indeed, but of course he had paid a high price for his bride; even though there were other young women available, he would surely return to the one with whom he had made a covenant.
The bride would wear her veil whenever she stepped out of her house so that other young men would realize she was spoken for and would not try to approach her with another contract. (Today, the Bride of Christ wears a veil—those not understanding of our covenant try to make other contracts with us that would violate the one we have with our Bridegroom. We are to resist those other offers and wait only for the One Who paid for us.)
As the year went on, the bride would assemble her sisters and bridesmaids and whoever would go with her to the wedding when the bridegroom came, and they would each have their oil lamps ready. They would wait at her house every night on the chance that the groom would come, along with his groomsmen, and sweep them all away to a joyous and sudden wedding ceremony.
Meanwhile, the bridegroom would be building and decorating with all that he had. His father would inspect the chamber from time to time to see if it were ready. If we came along the road at this point and saw the young man working on his bridal chamber, we might well ask, “When's the big day?” But the bridegroom would answer, “Only my father knows that.”
Finally, the chamber would be ready and the bridegroom would assemble his young friends to accompany him on the exciting trip to claim his bride. The big moment had arrived and the bridegroom was more than ready, we can be sure. He and his young men would set out in the night, making every attempt to completely surprise the bride.
And that's the romantic part—all the Jewish brides were “stolen”. The Jews had a special understanding of a woman's heart. What a thrill for her, to be “abducted” and carried off into the night, not by a stranger but by one who loved her so much that he had paid a high price for her.
Over at the bride's house, things had better be ready! To be sure, the bride would be surprised since the groom would try to come at midnight while she was sleeping. But the oil lamps were ready and the bride had her veil. And while she might be sleeping in her wedding dress, she was definitely surprised. It's a wonder she would sleep at all as the year went on!
Now there were rules to be observed in consideration of a woman's feelings. The groom couldn't just rush in on her. After all, her hair might be in rollers! Actually, as the excited party of young men would get close to her house, they were obliged to give her a warning. Someone in the wedding party would shout.
When the bride heard that shout, she knew her young man would be there momentarily. She had only time to light her lamp, grab her honeymoon clothing and go. Her sisters and bridesmaids who wanted to attend also had to have their lamps trimmed and ready, of course. No one would try to walk through ancient Israel, with its rocky terrain, in the dark of night without carrying a lamp.
And so the groom and his men would charge in, grab the girls and make off with them! The father of the bride and her brothers would look the other way—perhaps just making one quick check to see that this was the young man with the contract—and the wedding party would be off. People in the village might be awakened from their sleep by the happy voices of the young people carrying the oil lamps through the streets, and that's how they knew a wedding was going on. Today, we hear car horns—back then, they saw the lamps late at night. Those looking on would not know who the bride was because she was still wearing a veil, of course. But she would be returning through these same streets a week later with her groom and then her veil would be off. At the return of the bride with her bridegroom, all the people would know just who got married and they would realize the total significance of this wedding.
When the wedding party reached the house of the groom's father, the bride and groom would go into their chamber and shut the door. No one else would enter. The groom's father, meanwhile, would have assembled the wedding guests—his friends—and they would be ready to celebrate the new marriage. Since the wedding was actually going to take seven days (until the appearance of the bride and groom out of the chamber), it was hard to plan for. Occasionally, the host would run out of wine, as we can well imagine. The Lord Himself graced a wedding at Cana with His presence and replenished the wine for the celebrants as told in John 2.
But the celebrating wouldn't start right away. First, the marriage had to actually be consummated. The Jews were a most law-abiding people and the law provided that the bride and groom become one before their marriage was recognized. Thus, the friend of the bridegroom—the individual we might refer to as “the best man”—would stand near the door of the bridal chamber, waiting to hear the bridegroom's voice. When the marriage was consummated, the bridegroom would tell his friend through the door and the friend would then go to the wedding guests and announce the good news. The celebration would then begin and it would continue for an entire week!
At the end of the week, the bride and groom would make their long awaited appearance to the cheers of the crowd. There would then be a joyous meal—a marriage supper, which we might refer to as the wedding reception—to honor the new couple. At this point, the bride would have discarded her veil, since she was now a married woman, and all would see exactly who it was the bridegroom had chosen. The new couple and the guests would enjoy a magnificent feast to conclude the entire matrimonial week.
After the marriage supper, the bride and groom would depart, not remaining any longer at the home of the groom's father. They would go instead to their own house, which had been prepared by the bridegroom. (The Bride of Christ will spend seven years in heaven at the home of the groom's Father, and then we shall return with our Bridegroom to occupy the Kingdom He has prepared for us.)
As the bride and groom would travel back through the village, it would be appreciated by all onlookers just who the couple was and where their permanent home would be.
And that was a complete Jewish wedding in Jesus' time, in all its glory. Readers of the Gospel can easily see the beautiful analogies between this complex procedure and the manner in which the Lord Himself called out His chosen Bride. We will review below each of the elements of the Jewish wedding, along with the Scriptures that explain them.
Perhaps there is no happier Bible study than this one!