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WEDDING (Gr. gamos). An event regarded in Scripture as the ceremony by which a man and a woman were joined together as husband and wife and legally entitled to form a separate family unit. The betrothal was a significant, binding, legal commitment for the forthcoming marriage (Deut.20.7), a commitment that could be broken only by death or divorce. At the time of the betrothal, gifts of jewelry (which were often made of gold set with semiprecious stones) would be presented to the girl and sometimes to her mother, and, depending on the society, the bride price, dowry, or contract would also be exchanged. After the invention of coinage it became increasingly common for gold coins to form part of the betrothal gifts. During the period of the betrothal, which normally lasted for one year, the girl was already deemed to belong to her future husband, and the punishment for any man who violated her sexually was death by stoning.

The wedding of patriarchal times was very similar to that found among nomadic Bedouin tribes today. Often a separate small tent or hut was erected to be used by the bride and groom for the wedding night (2Sam.16.22; Ps.19.4-Ps.19.5; Song.1.16-Song.1.17). The tent was often round in shape and was pitched in the early evening by the women. To the accompaniment of considerable merriment they also made the bed ready for the bridal pair. For the very poor, who could not afford this privacy, a small section of the groom’s parents’ tent was partitioned off for the use of the young couple. At sunset, certain female relatives of the groom would go to the tent of the bride’s parents and escort the young bride to the nuptial chamber. There the bridegroom would meet her subsequently.

Traditionally, the bride remained veiled and the tent was kept in darkness until after the marriage was consummated. This custom helps to explain the comparative ease with which Laban was able to substitute Leah for her younger and more attractive sister Rachel in the bridal chamber. The public transfer of the bride to the tent of the groom was always a significant part of the wedding ceremony. Gen.24.67 records that Rebekah accompanied Isaac to his tent and she became his wife. This, in its simplest form, was the wedding, without additional ritual.

With the passage of time, changes in lifestyles and habitation, and the increase in wealth and the desire for ostentation, the wedding ceremony became far more elaborate. The entire village or town would participate in this most memorable event. Bride and groom would be dressed in clothing of fine linen, sometimes decorated by means of gold thread that had been woven into the garment. The bride was also prepared for the nuptials by being bathed and groomed with cosmetic preparations and anointed with sweet-smelling perfumes. By tradition she also wore an elaborate headdress heavily encrusted with jewels and often containing gold in the form of small ornaments. After the invention of coinage the headdress was adorned with gold coins, these sometimes forming part of the bride’s dowry. In later biblical times there appear to have been separate processions for bride and groom, where each was accompanied by musicians with drums and tambourines, dancers, torchbearers, well-wishers, and friends, all of whom joined with shouts and songs in celebrating the wedding (Jer.7.34; Jer.16.9; Jer.25.10).

Following the example of king Solomon (Song.3.11), the bridegroom was crowned king of the festival, and apparently from about the same period (900 b.c.) the bride also submitted to a ceremonial crowning, which in effect made her queen for the period of the celebrations (Ezek.16.8-Ezek.16.13). There seem to have been some occasions when, on arrival at the house of the groom, the men participated in the feast (Gen.29.22), while the women, including the bride, had a separate feast at the home of the bride’s parents. Traditionally, the feasting lasted for seven days (Judg.14.12, Judg.14.17), though this period was sometimes doubled in length and was marked by music and entertainment of all kinds, including special poems and songs proclaiming the praises and extolling the charms of the bride and bridegroom. If some Bedouin practices are any guide to the nature of ancient Hebrew marriage proceedings, the songs and poems that were features of the celebrations would be of a decidedly erotic character. The bride would observe all these activities, and might sometimes participate in the dancing with her female attendants. Then, at an approved point in the ceremonies, she was escorted to the specially prepared bridal chamber, to the cheers, laughter, and enthusiasm of the assembled guests.

In the postexilic period, weddings increasingly took place in the middle of the week, so that if, on the wedding night, the bride was found not to be a virgin, her husband could denounce her and bring evidence, or, rather, lack of it, before the magistrates the following day and still have a decision regarding nullity rendered before the Sabbath. The garment stained with hymeneal blood was adopted as the traditional evidence of the bride’s virginity and was usually retained as proof by the women of her family.

In Greek times the bridegroom gave a promise neither to maltreat his bride nor to bring any other woman into the house, while the bride promised always to obtain his consent prior to leaving the confines of the house. It was only in Roman times that the groom began to carry the bride over the threshold, a superstitious concession to the belief that it would have been a bad omen for the marriage had she stumbled. This custom was not practiced in Jewish or Christian circles, however.

Although certain aspects of the wedding varied according to the times or local custom, the central theme was the public escorting of the bride to the house of the groom, followed by the celebrating and feasting prior to the wedding night activities in the bridal chamber.

As is the practice today in Jewish circles, the wedding ceremony itself was simple and brief, but the accompanying festivities took on an elaborate ritual that varied somewhat according to the social and economic status of the participants. Where custom demanded that the entire village or town should celebrate the wedding, the occasion became a grand excuse for a magnificently colorful event enhanced by every display of wealth and finery. It also served as a rare opportunity for a feast that included meat and other foods that were not normally a part of the everyday menu. The dancing, laughter, and general merriment that were so characteristic a part of the occasion would have made a welcome break from the rigors of normal daily work.

Bibliography: E. Westermarck, History of Human Marriage, 1-3 (1923); R. H. Kennett, Ancient Hebrew Life and Social Customs (1933); L. M. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud (1942); idem., Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (1948).——HWP

See also

  • Marriage