There are arguments in favor of the bride-price tradition; and there are also forceful arguments against it. To be fair, we should listen to both sides:
Arguments for Traditional Dowry
1. It is mostly an African custom (in many parts of the continent). The people expect it. Nevertheless, some parts of the western world still honor this practice.
2. It stabilizes the marriage and prevents the wife running away from her husband (though now quite efficient).
3. Payment of dowry demonstrates that the husband-to-be is capable of caring for and supporting a wife.
4. Payment of dowry makes the wife feel that she is worth ‘something’ and that her husband considers her valuable; therefore it builds her sense of self-respect. It can be considered a proof of love.
5. Christian missionaries have often supported and encouraged the dowry system as a safeguard to the stability of marriage.
6. The parents of the girl feel repaid for all their expense of caring for her and educating her.
7. Bride Price enables the girl’s parents provide similar dowry for their sons to marry wives. Thus the bride price becomes a kind of revolving fund in the family.
8. Payment of the dowry satisfies a deep longing for justice and legality in the eyes of the families involved.
9. In our modern society with marriage breaking down, increased infidelity, pre-marital sex, adultery, and prostitution, the bride price tradition is seen as a factor that links modern African society to the strong moral standards of its pre-colonial past.
10. Perhaps most important of all, dowry is understood to be an evidence that the man is serious about his intentions to make the marriage stable.
11. The Bible tells us that dowry was an essential element of ancient marriage.
Arguments against traditional Dowry
1. It degrades the woman to the status of a commodity being sold and bought.
2. It makes marriage to become primarily an economic relationship in which the choice of a wife depends on one’s ability to pay rather than on mutual respect and love between bridegroom and bride. In other words, only a rich suitor is ever able to marry a rich man’s daughter; thus the system aggravates rather than heals class distinctions. A young man can demonstrate to the girl’s parents his ability to care for her by his intelligence, diligence, and success in making the most of the opportunities he has had in life so far. Such character is true wealth.
3. As bride prices rise higher and higher, haggling and bargaining enter into negotiations. Thus, a hard spirit enters which is destructive to the love and respect that ought to characterize future relationships between the two families.
4. Since the wife’s motivations to be faithful and helpful to her husband are affected by the fear of her parents’ inability to return the dowry if she fails as a wife, it becomes more difficult for a love-relationship to develop that would make the marriage truly stable. Selfish economic factors do not build genuine love and fidelity.
5. In modern educated society, young people tend more and more to want to marry the one of their own personal choice based on love; the girl’s parents can easily thwart this by demanding of a worthy young man a dowry impossibly high for him to manage to pay. Thus, they can force her to marry someone she cannot truly love.
6. The dowry system encouraged hard-hearted but wealthy husbands to treat their wives in any way they wish since they have successfully “paid’ for them: the system also encourages the wife to consider herself virtually a slave to such a husband. Her parents cannot encourage her to resist in justice because they fear having to pay back the price paid. Thus the dowry system contributes to the degradation of women.
7. African newspapers contain numerous articles and letters from educated people who declare the system to be a modern counterpart of ancient slavery.
8. With the dowry system, the young married couple must suffer serious privation in their home because so much of the husband’s income must go to paying the wife’s parents the unpaid portion of the dowry. Those who argue that this long over-hanging debt is good because it keeps the wife submissive are answered by the argument that this problem creates unnecessary tension in the new home. It becomes a continual cause for resentment and bitterness.
9. Opponents of the system point out that it actually encourages divorce, infidelity, and polygamy in that it substitutes for and thus replaces the proper Biblical basis for happy, stable marriage-love and the desire to honor God. The wife’s self respect based on dowry paid is reduced to a materialistic basis.
10. The deep need for a foundation of legality and justice in marriage is better satisfied by the public vows of love and fidelity under God, witnessed and approved by family and friends.
11. Although dowry was a stabilizing factor in marriage in the past, the rapid increase of education and urbanization has made it only obsolete, but actually a hindrance to modern marital happiness and stability. it is even blamed as one of the causes of modern prostitution. Young people frustrated and defeated by excessive dowry demands tend to elope and live together without a proper marriage. This only perpetuates immorality.
What can be said for and against these perplexing arguments?
There is no man on Earth as wise as Solomon who can solve these difficulties to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is a savior who knows all about our problems, and is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). He knows how to help us, and His word can give guidance.
Modern government and Church leaders are very hesitant to interfere with the dowry system. The reason is, they fear that such a break with the traditions of the past might create a social revolution that could have disastrous results. Although many leaders recognize the evils evident in the modern dowry system, they fear that society in general is not ready for its abolition. The fact is that no system of marriage anywhere around the world will work in today’s modern society without Christ! The Lord does not violently uproot traditional customs that are good of themselves; but His spirit of love and common sense utilizes them for the well-being and happiness of all concerned.
In other words, it is not the dowry system itself that is intrinsically evil, but the selfishness of human hearts that administer it wrongly. Does the Bible uphold the tradition of dowry? Let us see what it says:
1. We read of a heathen man who tried to bargain with Jacob for his daughter Dinah to marry his son Shechem:
The soul of my son Schechem longeth for your daugther: I pray you give her to him to wife. Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me: but give me the damsel [for my son] to wife (Genesis 34:8, 12).
This sounds like Bible support for asking any amount of dowry, however high! But look closer; we find this is not true. Jacob did not ask for a high dowry; in fact, he did not want to give Dinah to this heathen husband at all, no matter how high the dowry offered. Jacob loved Dinah more than any amount of money and wanted only to secure her true happiness within the Lord’s plan for His people. (See Deuteronomy 7:1-3; 2 Corinthians 6:14-16).
2. One of Moses’ laws said what should be done if a man seduced a girl:
If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, he must pay the bride price for her and marry her. But if her father refuses to let him marry her, he must pay the father a sum of money equal to the bride price for virgins (Exodus 22:16, 17).
According to this, it is very clear that there was indeed a bride price system in effect in ancient Israel. However, as we shall see in a moment, it did not operate in a selfish, materialistic way as so often happens today. First, let us look at the other Bible passage that mentions dowry:
3. King Saul, a man who was not at all right with the Lord, had offered his daughter Michal in marriage to David if he would kill one hundred of the Philistines, the national enemy of Israel. Other than this, Saul’s servants said to David, “the king desires not any dowry” (1 Samuel 18:24-15). It is clear from this that dowry, or bride-price, was indeed an established custom in Israel. And further, that King Saul was exceedingly selfish in the way he used the Custom! His purpose was to have the Philistines Kill David and so get him out of the way, even though Michal loved David (Verse 20). What a terrible misuse of the dowry tradition! How selfish a bride’s father can become! Saul would even kill her bridegroom.
The proper use of the dowry system was to establish the happiness and security of the bride. Parents who loved their daughters and who feared God, did not keep the dowry paid for their daughters but gave it freely to them to be used in building up their new home. We learn this from a story in Genesis:
4. Laban was about as selfish a father as two girls ever had. When Jacob learned to love his daughter Rachael, Laban accepted his offer to work for her seven years, in as much as Jacob had no wealth to pay as a dowry. “And they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Genesis 29:20). But then the wedding night came, Laban and his other daughter Leah conspired to cheat Jacob; and Leah pretended to be Rachael. Poor Jacob had to work another seven years to get the girl he really loved; and he ended up with two wives instead of one! Laban’s selfish, cheating character was seen over and over by his children. until finally Jacob and his family felt they had to escape. Leah and Rachael were happy to get away from being anywhere near their father. One of their complaints lets us unto the real secret of how the dowry system ought to have worked. but did not in their case:
Rachael and Leah answered Jacob: There is nothing left for us to inherit from our father. HE treats us like foreigners, HE sold us, and now he has spent all the money he was paid for us. All this wealth which God has taken from our father belongs to us and to our Children” (Genesis 31:14-16). The girls’ criticism was just. Their father never showed any real love for his daughters. They said he had “sold” them-the very criticism that many modern, educated young women level against today’s dowry system. The trouble was that Laban wanted money more than he wanted happiness for his daughters! Laban should have bestowed on the girls the bride-price received, that they might use it to establish their new home. Instead he selfishly spent it on himself. And thus the Bible condemns such a practice on the part of any father.
The correct practice
In our modern society, all the principles embodied in the dowry system can be fully satisfied in the case of a young couple who wish to follow Christ:
1. The parents of the girl safeguard her interests by making certain that the young man who seeks her and whom she loves in return, is one fully worthy of her. They require him to give evidence of character. diligence, intelligence, and the capability of caring for her and supporting her. Whether this “evidence” is in the form of a material dowry payment of wealth, as cattle or cash, or whether it is the demonstration in his life of such a character, is not important; what is important is that all concerned are satisfied that the young man is ready to be a faithful, loving, dependable, and capable husband to the girl. This is the spirit that underlies the dowry system when properly administered.
2. Further, the parents of the girl have no intention of profiting from their daughter’s marriage. The very thought of profiting from such a transaction would be abhorrent to them, almost like being party to prostitution for gain. Their concern is for the daughter’s happiness. What Laban received for his daughters should have been given back for their good and that of their children. This is how true parental love should administer the dowry system. Modern young people who feel perplexed and frustrated by the dowry system need to remember that there is a God in heaven who rules and overrules the affairs of men here below (see Daniel 4:17,25,32). His Holy spirit is constantly at work in our environment to lessen the evil and to strengthen the good. This is part of the “good news” that Christ brings. The Lord is more concerned for your happiness and stability in marriage than you are yourself! To believe this is our fundamental human duty. To disbelieve it is to invite Satan’s efforts to destroy your true happiness.
Parents can learn to appreciate the needs of their children more than to set their hearts on their own material prosperity. The bride’s parents can realize that her own life-long happiness in her marriage will bring them greater joy in the long run than any amount of material enrichment that a high bride-price can bring. If their daughter can marry a worthy young man who reveals a solid character of uprightness and fidelity, she will be happier than if she marries the unworthy son of a millionaire who can give them the highest material dowry imaginable. Her parents fear that they may be unable to satisfy the parents of their son’s bride. This can be healed by the same faith in the overruling love of the God of heaven. He is wise enough and big enough to care for that need. also!
Without exception, a happy, stable marriage is based on love and fidelity. Let no one be afraid that God’s eternal principles will not work in today’s modern society. God is not caught napping, nor is He archaic and out of step with our modern needs.