When the Bible speaks of “betrothal,” what does the Bible mean? Some have paralleled betrothal to a modern-day engagement. However, this isn’t a very good comparison because betrothal was much more serious and was a legal matter.
MORE THAN AN ENGAGEMENT, LESS THAN A MARRIAGE
Betrothal was not the same as marriage (Deut. 20:7). It was a precursor leading up to the marriage (Ex. 21:9-11; 22:16; Lk. 2:5). In betrothal, the man designates the woman to be his woman/wife (Ex. 21:8-9; Mt. 1:18, 24).
It can be a bit confusing when seeing the English words “husband,” “wife,” “man” and “woman” in the Bible because in both the Hebrew and Greek language, the word translated “husband” in English is the same word that is translated as “man” in English and the word translated “wife” in English is the same word that is translated as “woman” in English. It can mean either/or. Thus, context must determine the meaning (See: Mt. 1:19, 24).
In Matthew 19, Jesus speaks of how one is joined to their “wife/woman” at marriage (Mt. 19:5-6). The man is joined to the woman to whom he is already betrothed. However, having a “woman” in betrothal is not the same as having a woman in marriage (Mt. 19:10). It is at marriage that the man and woman are joined together by God (Mt. 19:6).
A LEGAL MATTER
Being betrothed was a legal matter because when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he was going to secretly put her away/divorce her (Mt. 1:19). This means that the reason for which he was going to break off the betrothal would not be revealed (Of course, this was before he realized that Mary was miraculously pregnant and was still a virgin).
It appears that the man could end the betrothal at will for any reason through divorce, although there would be other consequences such as reputations harmed and the loss of the dowry or bride price. There are no laws, restrictions or instructions in the Torah when it came to reasons for ending a betrothal. Aside from being a just man, this is presumably why Joseph was going to get out of his betrothal without revealing the reason – because no reason was needed (Mt. 1:19). The fact that he was not going to reveal the reason implies that one could break off their betrothal for any reason (Consider also the possible translation of Exodus 21:8).
So, in summary, what is betrothal? In short, Jewish betrothal was the period for the man to “claim/designate” a woman and prove his worthiness by raising the bride price and giving it to the woman’s father (Ex. 21:11, 22:16; Gen. 31:5; etc.). During this process, the woman was to remain pure (Deut. 22:13-21; Mt. 1:18-19; etc.). While separate from marriage (Deut. 20:7; Mt. 19:6, 10), betrothal was a precursor to marriage (Mt. 1:19). There appears to be no limitations or restrictions in regards to reasons for breaking off a betrothal (Mt. 1:19) although the bride price and one’s reputation could be lost and tarnished in so doing (Ex. 21:8; see also: Mt. 5:37; Ja. 5:12).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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