Symbols of Redemptive Salvation in the Eastern Betrothal Contract, Wedding, and Marriage*
by Steve Santini
The apostles Peter and Paul considered the sealing of the Holy Spirit as the confirmation of betrothal and Jesus referred to his second coming as the wedding feast. To understand both one needs to understand the ancient Eastern customs of betrothal and marriage.
A wedding in Israel was a joyous occasion that could last as long as a week. Community members prepared with prayerful expectancy, not only because their regard for the couple, but also because each wedding symbolized the cleansing of sin for the nation of Israel when they, as a bloodline, were to be married to their coming Messiah. Each aspect of the formal preparations represented a part of their entire redemption. It was such a significant occasion for the community that some prepared by fasting, prayer, and washings. Before the final days of a feast a colorful processional would go through town displaying the bridal gifts with music, dancing, and singing. At times the veiled bride would be escorted through town by her attendants to the public baths for display and preparation. The washings for purification were also representative symbols of the cleansing to take place through the approaching consummation with her groom. These weddings had not only been the lifetime focus of the bride and groom but were the centerpieces of family life in the community.
For families of both groom and bride in the Eastern culture, the marriage plan was comprised of distinct stages. The first was the arrangement. Parents could make the arrangements for the marriage of their children before the children were even born. It was exceptional for the bride and groom to meet face to face before the wedding feast. The Easterners believe that the love between a couple is set in motion during the final exchange of the ten pieces of silver during the wedding feast and that their love is more like a predestined divine union between a brother and sister. The dowry, to be paid by the father from the household accounts administered by the mother of the groom to the family of the bride, is also negotiated during this arrangement period. If a son reached marriageable age and had not yet been entered into an arrangement he could go to his father and ask him to find him a wife. Then the mother of the groom would consult her son and go with female relatives to the homes of kinsmen in search of a wife that would be appropriate for her son. She would meet with the mothers of eligible daughters. When she found a potential bride for her son and the daughter consented through her mother and the son expressed his approval to his mother, plans were made by the father of the groom for the formal betrothal agreement.
For the betrothal contract, the father of the groom selected a deputy to act as “the friend of the bridegroom”. The deputy and the father proceeded to the prospective bride’s home where the father of the bride had also selected a deputy or another daughter to act in his behalf. The details of the dowry and the character of both the soon to be bride and groom would be discussed. At the conclusion of the negotiations a contract was signed with copies for each party. It stipulated the portion of the dowry to be paid to seal the betrothal contract and the fulfilling portion to be given during the wedding feast. It also set the date of the wedding feast which was most often months or even years in the future. When this was completed, refreshments were served as each party congratulated the other and extolled the character of both the groom and bride.
Next the groom would seek gifts for his betrothed and her family. When he had acquired these gifts he would give them to his mother who would deliver them to the betrothed and her family. To publicly announce the agreement the friend of the bridegroom would hurriedly proceed the mounted groom through the community boldly declaring the arrangement.
During the period of betrothal the bride was considered to be under the instruction and care of her mother in law. When Rebecca was brought from her far off kinsmen after her betrothal to Isaac, through Abraham’s chief servant, she went into Sarah’s portion of the tent. The mother in law would oversee the preparation of her son’s future wife giving her advice and counsel, including family history and the nature of her son, in order to prepare the betrothed bride to enter into a new family.
The betrothal was considered sacred and legally binding. To break the agreement required a formal divorce and engendered public humiliation. When Mary was found to have conceived through the Holy Spirit and the power of the highest during her betrothal, Joseph ignorantly wrestled with divorcing her for fear of public humiliation.[i] When the angel of the Lord told him that that which was conceived in her was of the Holy Spirit, Joseph knew that their public tokens of virginity would not be a disgrace and took Mary as his wife.
The date for consummation at the end of the wedding feast was often set after consulting the local synagogue leaders concerning the positioning of the celestial bodies in relation to their biblical significance and after determining the bride’s most fertile day of her monthly cycle. As the day approached for the wedding feast to commence at the parents of the groom’s home, the father and mother of both the groom and bride would send out invitations with small oil lamps to be lit during the festive occasion. The festivities could include a day in which the bride fled into the surrounding hills with young male relatives to a home of distant relatives requiring her groom and his attendants to search for her and to return her with feigned force for the completion of the festival.
On the evening prior to the ceremonial day, the darkness of the Eastern night would be pierced by repetitive cadenzas of a torchlight processional that included the wedding feast governor, attendants, musicians, singers, dancers and the bridegroom. The governor of the wedding feast would lead this procession as it circled the town a number of times stopping also, on occasion, for the dancers to perform. Under the light of the torches, an alternating variety of colorfully clad individual dancers would come forth towards the town to perform with flashing swords or staffs to the echoing blast of ram’s horns and the booming of drums. They would then recede into the contingent as it again moved forward in its circuit.
At a point directly east of the town, as they circled, the procession would stop in a hush and then, after a moment’s pause that seemed an eternity, the governor, at the final trumpets blast, would lead the procession towards the groom’s parent’s home. When they came near, the groom would come forward through the procession to meet the bride and her attendants in the light of their oil lamps.
The gathering would proceed to the home of the groom’s family for a festive meal. They bride would retire to the room of her mother in law. At one point the groom would go to the room where his bride had retired. Upon entry he would approach his bride. She would gently lift her veil allowing the groom his first. but brief, glimpse of her opened face. At that point he would shout his delightful approval for all without to hear.
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. John the Baptist; John 3:29
On the following day, during the formal ceremony, as the couple faced each other under the ceremonial canopy, the groom would gently drop, one by one, ten pieces of silver into the cupped hands of his bride. These ten pieces of silver were minted with his family’s crest and were so fashioned that they could be hooked in the hair, five on a side. They were to be worm publicly only on the most formal and celebratory occasions. The transfer in the marriage ceremony symbolized the authority of the new wife to administer the couple’s household matters.
Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? Luke 15:8
After the formal ceremonies had concluded the groom would lead his bride to a room that had been prepared for the new couple in his family’s home. The room and marriage bed would be garnished and perfumed by an abundance of floral arrangements. Here the bride would remove her veil for the first bonding gaze in the warmly lit room. In the sanctity and security of their room in the familial home the two would consummate their marriage.
In my Father’s house are many rooms: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. John 14:2-3
The next morning they would hang the blood-spotted bed sheets from the apartment window for all to witness the purity of their relationship. The groom’s father would then provide the couple an elongated honeymoon within the household. It was under this canopy of the father’s provision and within the tender sanctuary of their apartment that the union of the new couple was securely implanted
The importance of the symbolism within the Eastern betrothal contract and wedding feast is woven throughout scripture. Peter’s final epistle alludes to this Eastern understanding. The subject of Peter’s second epistle appears in the first chapter and in the sixteenth verse.
For we have not followed cunningly devise fables, when we made know unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ….
The English word coming is the word parousia in the Greek texts. Parousia is a state produced by at thing arriving along side another thing. It is not an instantaneous event. It includes the span of a particular condition. The Greek prefix para means beside, while ousia in classical Greek means feminine substance as that of a wife administering the household. Spiritually, it has a meaning of the gods interacting with substance.
Before this verse, in the same chapter and in verse eleven; there is an affirmation and a descriptive verb pertaining to this condition of the parousia.
For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
In this verse the word entrance is the Greek word eisodos. Eisodos is composed of the Greek preposition eis, which means motion unto a point with an emphasis on the motion, and hodos, which literally means a road and figuratively means a means of progress.
The Greek verb for ministered has a unique descriptive meaning that relates to the Eastern wedding feast. In the Greek texts it is the word epichoregeo. One meaning of the word is to furnish beside. This word, epichoregeo, is a compound word composed of two Greek words. Epi, the prefix, means over or down upon and choregeo, from its roots, means the leadership of circling singers and dancers.
This word becomes most revealing when one considers that on several occasions Jesus likened the entrance into the kingdom to an Eastern wedding feast and that one of the primary elements of the elongated feast, as stated, was a circuitous choral dance around the town by the groom and his party the night prior to the ending of the feast. Both Peter and Paul refer to this as the coming of a thief in the night as translated in the English language. They also refer to it as the apocalypse. The three words, thief, veil and apocalypse in the Greek language have a common family member. It is the Greek word kalupto, which means “to cover or hide.” Apocalypse literally means away with the veil. It is here that each the bride and the groom first fully gaze face to face at their respective beloved.
Life in the ancient East was colored symbolically with characteristic representations of divinity and man’s relations to it. With the exception of periodic tribal alterations, abridgements and additions these symbols proceeded from those many years when Noah lived as the father of the second heaven and earth. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was popular and well known as a text and a play for centuries throughout the ancient East, Noah was honored as the moving patriarch from divinity.
The first heaven and earth had utterly corrupted because the arrangement between masculine and feminine had corrupted. Noah had preached the correct relationship without success. As the patriarch of the second heaven and earth he established a representative foundation in the betrothal and marriage process that pointed to the higher reality of the eventual collective union between the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus. From scripture, Jesus, John and the apostle Paul used the framework of Noah’s foundation to teach about the future fulfillment of the family of God in a new heaven and earth where righteousness dwells.
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The mother of the son, or mother in law of the betrothed female, represents the feminine Holy Spirit as the Paraclete or Comforter of scripture.
The betrothal contract is the scripture.
The gift from the groom that seals the contract is the betrothal gift from the feminine Holy Spirit, the mother of Christ. (Luke 1:35, Ephesians 1:13, Acts 2)
The groom and his party represent Christ and the saints.
The bride and her party represent the faithful in Christ Jesus.
The feigned fight to bring the betrothed back for the ceremony represents the saints as holy angels coming for those of faith for the finality of union in the Lord's family
The consummation of the ceremony itself represents the fulfillment of the second coming of Christ when the saints and the faithful in Christ Jesus are united in his one body as a functional joint priesthood.
Some Other Symbols:
The circling troop of singers and dancers also represents the messages of the heavens including the luminous bodies cycling around the zodiac along the elliptic of the sun.
The town represents the inhabited world.
The ten pieces of silver given in the marriage ceremony represent the bride’s authority as a wife to functionally administer the familial household.
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; II Corinthians 11:2
The Figuratively Masculine Saints and the Figuratively Feminine Faithful in Christ Jesus in Union
Additional and Excerpted Studies on the Living Allegory
of the Ancient Eastern Family and Its Marriage customs.
Edersheim, A., The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980
Freeman, J.M., Manners and Customs of the Bible, Plainfield, Logos International, 1972
Pillai, K.C., Orientalisms of the Bible, Fairborn, Mor-Mac Publishing Co., Inc., 1974
Lamsa, G. M., Gospel Light, Aramaic Bible Society, 1999
Eduljee, K.E., Zoroastrian Heritage, 2005-13, Iranian Zoroastrian Wedding/Marriage Customs
Trumbull, H. C., Studies in Oriental Social Life, Philadelphia, John D. Wattles & Co., 1894 (Author’s note: Many elements of the of the betrothal and marriage in this article are based on H. Clay Trumbull’s chapter titled “Betrothals and Weddings in the East” in his fine work.)
Steven G. Santini, 2001
[i] In Matthew 1:19, after Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, yet before he knew that the pregnancy was by the Holy Ghost he contemplated breaking the betrothal agreement because he did not want to make her a public example as an adulterous woman. The public example would have been the unspotted bed sheet hung from their apartment window declaring to the community that Mary was not a virgin. Then after Joseph was informed that the pregnancy was by the Holy Ghost and the Power of the Highest he knew the bed sheet would be spotted with blood from the breaking of Mary’s hymen and it would be an example to the community of her virginity. Even so, the hyper religious Pharisees later accused Jesus of being born of fornication because he was born in noticeably less than nine months after the wedding ceremony of Joseph and Mary. (John 8:41) From purely senses reasoning Jesus was a most unlikely candidate for being Israel’s Messiah. To the religious powers in place he was potrayed as just another of the unwashed troublemaking zealots to be disposed of yet, at that time, throngs of the meek and oppressed followed him in passionate hope for themselves and for their unique nation.