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On Marriage, Sex, and Inheritance

By Ralph Howarth

The following is written in response to the e-mail exchange, Inheritance, Engagement, and Sex.

This is a very involved and heavy subject matter. It takes much evidence and reference to explain; and I dare say that this present generation is very much robbed of knowledge and understanding of it. I pray that I may be able, with the Spirit of God bearing revelation of the mind, to deliver the precepts found in marriage.

Marriage, Christ, and the Church

Rev 22:16-17 I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. 17 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.

The Lord, being our Creator, made His creation after the likeness of His very dominion. Marriage is made like the holy union of the Church to the Lamb of God, for the Scripture says in Rev 21:9: “Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb's wife.” And then it says in verse 10: “And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God”.

It is overwhelming to take this opportunity to tell of just how significant and how interwoven the Lord Jesus Christ is made one with the children of God just as a marriage of man and wife. The Scriptures cannot be appreciated until it is understood what custom and manner a real marriage is and how it had been put together. When the Scriptures are then revisited upon gaining access to understanding culture and custom of the day, it may cause us to ponder just which custom came first, the espousal of the Church to Christ or the espousal of man and wife. When you understand these things the implications of it may cause us to change our very ways.

Significance of the Espousal

2Cor 11:2 For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.

Apostle Paul wrote that. He knew what audience he was writing to. To the audience, his word choice of “espoused” was utmost significant and gave a precise expression. That expression segues the day that the bride is brought before Christ. To substitute the word “espouse” with any other takes away the cliches found in it such that much meaning is lost.

I often still hear and notice the word “espoused” in the newspaper and on the radio. It is used in a context much like an expression of marriage to mean to embrace or adopt something. Such an expression may be given as “...the IMF espoused a new economic policy for buying back credit on loans.” In other contexts, such as in a context of marriage, some receive it to mean “promised” while some receive it to mean “engaged.” In a sense, all is a semblance of truth, but it still falls short of the power and meaning that once was.

One of my favorite portrayals of the culture behind espousals was made in a classic movie of yesteryear. Believe it or not, Metro-Goldwin-Mayor once made a lot of Godly movies and when they made these movies, it was replete for the audience to whom it was to.

In the making of Ben Hur the storywriter and the scriptwriters seem to possess a great understanding and appreciation for it, and did I very good job of portraying it. Pardon me as I recall this from memory but the plot of the story line follows a Jewish man by the name of Jacob Ben-Hur (which was a short name James Benjamin-Hur). He was sentenced to slavery to the galleys of Rome for being accused of rebelling against the Roman procurator over Judea. Such a sentence was as much as a death sentence for men soon died under the arduous labor of rowing warships. The plot goes on that the Lord has favor over this one and raises him up in a miraculous fashion in a manner like Joseph, once thrown in a pit and sold to slavery, rises up to become a principal ruler. Ben-Hur returns home from his glorious rise having been adopted as a son of a Roman Senator and having been a champion in chariot races. He returns to see his family again, as well as his accusers, and as well as the house of the woman he grew to love. Having been away for so long, in the terms of many years, there is a scene where he is in the courtyard without the house of his beloved. At a very tenuous moment, Ben-Hur shrinks from his beloved for fear of violating the custom and law. His beloved was quick to perceive Ben-Hur’s reservations in standing off from her to which she then declares emphatically to him “I am not a bride!” Instantly, Ben-Hur is relieved wondrously and he embraces her. In the end of the story Ben-Hur has his vengeance exacted over his adversaries, and before his hatred turns him into his own enemy, he is delivered by Jesus Christ himself at the very moment that Christ is being driven to be crucified. With the kind of movies that Hollywood puts out today, it is hard to imagine the kind of classics once brought forth that were once so Biblical.

I bring that up as an example for that very scene portrays just the manner of what an espousal is where Ben-Hur’s beloved pleads, “I am not a bride!” What she meant by saying that was “I am not another man’s bride” or more precisely “I am not espoused.”

For a woman to be espoused was much more than just being promised in marriage and is of greater force than just an engagement. No matter which nation or culture it had been practiced in, there was one common denominator: it was a lawful engagement, meaning it was a promise of marriage that had the strength of the law. It was not just two promising to marry each other, and maybe having a few witnesses, it was a vow and a contract not meant to be broken.

Consider now this. If the church is prepared for that great catching away of the bride and the marriage day before the Lord, how is it then that the Lord speaks of putting away the church with a bill of divorcement before that wedding day has come?

Isa 50:1 Thus saith the LORD, Where is the bill of your mother's divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.

The reason for the Lord saying this is because an espousal is a marriage, generally speaking, it is a marriage that generally has not been consummated nor had its wedding day. This may sound all backwards-how can a marriage occur before a wedding day? It is not at all backwards if you know the custom and the law. And when you understand this, then you may understand that the church is married to Christ and that one day to come there is going to be that wedding day where there will be the wedding feast. And on that feast there will be a great celebration of all the host of Heaven for the Spirit and the Bride are finally brought together forevermore.

Historical Background of the Espousal

In real life, it does happen from time to time where a couple do marry, sign a marriage license, and then on another certain day, they have a church wedding. It may be many months later that they have a church wedding, but nevertheless, the law had already married them. An espousal was made in a similar fashion to that.

An espousal began when the house of the bridegroom goes to the house of the bride and makes a proposal to marry their children. The father of the bride would exact a pledge that often is considered a dowry, but in actuality it is a payment of a pledge and not so much a dowry. The pledge was a ransom against jealousy and against reproach of the bride’s father in case she is accused of not being a virgin, or as the Scripture says, “found not a maid.” This arrangement would often be made years in advance, and depending on the culture, either was with or without the consent of the married. In the Jewish culture it was usually by their consent and often arranged as soon as they were considered of marriageable age (which was the age of twelve). Also within the Jewish culture, the judges were the priests, and so a priest-upon the giving the pledge of marriage-would witness the espousal so that the law of marriage would be witnessed by God-and so be in force. The nature of an espousal was such that it was not an open, public marriage but all nations regarded it as such. In the meantime, while the espoused were married they prepared all the while for their wedding day where the bride still abides in her father’s house as the bridegroom prepared him a house for his bride. At some later time, the wedding day would be set and the feast and celebration prepared. This was then called “the gala.”

On the wedding day, the handmaidens would go forth and plant leis, flowers, or linen along the way to the bridegroom’s house. A tent also may be set. In the morning a feast would be set in the bride’s house for it would be her last meal in her father’s house. After the feast, the bride’s father then would accompany his daughter to her new home to give her away. The trip to her new house was lined with much commotion, accompaniment which often followed as her “train” (hence, in modern times we get “the wedding gown train” though it was a different kind of train that followed behind her). The bridegroom would take his wife into his bedchamber, or in the tent prepared for them, and he would rejoice over his bride. The marriage would then be consummated while the party prepares the feast for that evening. An even greater feast is put on and much merriment made to conclude the gala. At the very last afterwards, the bride’s mother would even go and retrieve her daughter’s gown from the bedchamber or tent and keep it. Once having the wedding day gown kept in their house, the house of the bride would be free to sell the original pledge for having no need to keep it any longer. The reason they could sell the pledge was for the gown was proof of their daughter’s virginity. If at a later time the bridegroom brings charge against the bride’s house that she was not a virgin when she was given to him, then the bride’s parents could bring in the token’s of her virginity before the priest and contest it. The priest would then judge that it is for her husband’s jealousy and not for harlotry.

OT Law Regarding Marriage and the Espousal

Once knowing and understanding all this custom and concerning the law and marriage then you may fully understand the Scriptures in so many cases where it mentions espousals such as follows:

Deu 22:13-29 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, 14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: 15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: 16 And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; 17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; 19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. 20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: 21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

22 If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. 23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; 24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. 25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: 26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: 27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her. 28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; 29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

Notice further that in the event a man humbles a virgin who is not betrothed (espoused) to another man then he pays her father money so that he father can go buy a pledge. Since this man takes a daughter of her father’s house by forcing her then all the arrangements of a gala could not take place so her father must go buy a pledge. Also notice that a man who forces a virgin who is betrothed is punished the same as if he forces his neighbor’s wife, for she is his neighbor’s wife.

New Meaning to the Scriptures

Now observing all these things, if looking upon the Scriptures, the Scriptures take on a whole knew meaning because the custom of espousals were so interwoven in society that the Bible did not need to teach much on it. It was just part of life, and so the Bible speaks on it by example, and not be expression. Observe the following passage that cannot be understood in any manner whatsoever unless you understand what an espousal is.

1 Cor 7:35-39) And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction. 36 But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. 37 Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. 38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better. 39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.

The meaning behind this passage is that the father has not sinned if he has given away his virgin daughter, whether or not if she is any longer able to bear children (flower of age); and, the husband who takes her has not sinned as well (Verse 36 and 38). Further, there is no law given by God upon any espousal either on how long it may be before a marriage is consummated other than what a man and wife may agree or bound themselves to (Verse 37). An espousal was solely a matter between two families and the new family accomplished from it. Outside of the parties involved, there was no other governing power to direct it; however, all families and generations honored it. All the laws were written to uphold it but none dare lay hold on it for it was holy onto the Lord.

Note also that this is a letter written after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, after the founding of the Church in Jerusalem and abroad. It is evident in the Bible that the practice and tradition of espousals were still very much in family life from the ancient of days even passing through the Roman Empire times. It is certain that even unto the days of Medieval Europe, the Renaissance, Chinese dynasties, many indigenous tribal communities, and up to the Industrial Revolution, espousals can be found made in poetry and history in many forms. Today it is not taught much at all and is just about altogether forgotten. In any case, fornication is never accepted in God’s law but marriage is (Heb 13:4). In several cultures, and depending on which Jewish community, consummating a marriage before the “gala” or “wedding day” was frowned upon or considered dishonorable and disgraceful. In other places it was accepted, but in all cases they were still regarded as marriages whether consummated or not.

Other verses of consequence to espousals, or are examples of a form of espousals even though the word “espouse” may not be expressively cited are: Exod 21:7-11; 22:16-17; Jer 2:2-13; Hos 2:14-23; Rev 21:1-5; Jn 3:29; Est 2:1-4, 8-19; Gen 19:3-12; 24:1-53; Lk 1:26-38; 2:36; Mt 1:18-25. And on how it was commonly respected: Gen 12:11-20 & 20:all & 26:7-11.

Follow-Up E-mail Exchange with the Author

Exchange #1



This article is very good. If I’m reading you and Reese Currie correctly, it sounds like you’re in somewhat of a disagreement with Reese as to how “binding” the espousal period was. You say it is as binding as a marriage whereas Reese says it is binding but not quite as much as a marriage. To tell you truth, I’m really not sure who is correct. But what I would like to do is post your article as a follow-up to Reese’s email. That way visitors to my site can read both views and decide for themselves which is correct.

God bless,
Gary Z.

Exchange #2


That would be a thrill and I would enjoy it very much.

Yes, I did find a point of disagreement with what I read that was already posted on your site (I am assuming Reese). What is an implication of how a vow of espousal is construed to be just an engagement (where one is a lawful engagement with a judge or priest-hence God-as a witness and the other by promise) is that people interpret it to mean that sex before marriage is OK. If you understand the culture it can be seen that it was not by any means being condoned. Some cultures (and even varied in the Jewish communities) frowned on consummating a marriage before the "Gala" or "Wedding Day" while others were fine with it. In any case, it was still viewed as a marriage and it was a common law that it would be feared as such (they sure did not have marriage licenses back then).

A good demonstration of the respect of marriage can be found in Gen 12:11-20 & 20:all & 26:7-11….

Thanks Gary for allowing me to participate,

God bless in the name of Jesus.

Exchange #3

Thanks Ralph. After I sent you my email I thought of the difference your and Reese’s views would have in regards to sex during the “espousal” period. In your article you discuss how carefully the parents of the bride saved the “tokens of virginity” from the marriage night. But, of course, if the couple had been having sex before the wedding night there would have been no such “tokens” on the wedding bed sheets. So it was imperative for the bride to be a virgin at that time. This would not necessarily rule out sexual acts short of intercourse before the wedding, but “going all the way” would not be allowable.

Ethics, Spirituality, Christian Life
Pre-Marital Sex: Ethics, Spirituality, Christian Life

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