We have found eight types of marriages mentioned in the Bible:
1.. The standard nuclear family: Genesis 2:24 describes how a man leaves his
family of origin, joins with a woman, consummates the marriage and lives as
a couple. There were quite a few differences between the customs and laws of
contemporary North Americans and of ancient Israelites. In ancient Israel:
Inter-faith marriages were theoretically forbidden. However, they were
Children of inter-faith marriages were considered illegitimate.
Marriages were generally arranged by family or friends; they did not result
from a gradually evolving, loving relationship that developed during a
period of courtship.
A bride who had been presented as a virgin and who could not be proven to be
one was stoned to death by the men of her village. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
There appears to have been no similar penalty for men who engaged in
consensual pre-marital sexual activity.
2. Polygyny marriage: A man would leave his family of origin and join with
his first wife. Then, as finances allowed, he would marry as many additional
women as he desired. The new wives would join the man and his other wives in
an already established household. Polygyny was practiced by members of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, until the practice
was suspended, a least temporarily, in the late 19th century. It is still
practiced by separated fundamentalist Mormon groups which have been
excommunicated from the main church.
There are many references to polygynous marriages in the Bible: Lamech, in
Genesis 4:19, became the first known polygynist. He had two wives.
Subsequent men in polygynous relationships included:
Esau with 3 wives;
Solomon had 700 wives of royal birth;
Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jeholachin and Belshazzar also had multiple wives.
From the historical record, it is known that Herod the Great (73 to 4 BCE)
had nine wives.
We have been unable to find references to polyandrous marriages in the
Bible -- unions involving one woman and more than one man. It is unlikely
that many existed because of the distinctly inferior status given to women;
they were often treated as property in the Hebrew Scriptures.
3.. Levirate Marriage: The name of this type of marriage is derived from the
Latin word "levir," which means "brother-in-law." This involved a woman who
was widowed without having borne a son. She would be required to leave her
home, marry her brother-in-law, live with him, and engage in sexual
relations. If there were feelings of attraction and love between the woman
and her new husband, this arrangement could be quite agreeable to both.
Otherwise, the woman would have to endure what was essentially serial rapes
with her former brother-in-law as perpetrator. Their first-born son was
considered to be sired by the deceased husband. In Genesis 38:6-10, Tamar's
husband Er was killed by God for unspecified sinful behavior. Er's brother,
Onan, was then required by custom to marry Tamar. Not wanting to have a
child who would not be considered his, he engaged in an elementary (and
quite unreliable) method of birth control: coitus interruptus. God
appears to have given a very high priority to the levirate marriage
obligation. Being very displeased with Onan's behavior, God killed him as
well. Ruth 4 reveals that a man would be required to enter into a levirate
marriage not only with his late brother's widow, but with a widow to whom he
was the closest living relative.
4. A man, a woman and her property -- a female slave: As described in
Genesis 16, Sarah and Abram were infertile. Sarah owned Hagar, a female
slave who apparently had been purchased earlier in Egypt. Because Hagar was
Sarah's property, she could dispose of her as she wished. Sarah gave Hagar
to Abram as a type of wife, so that Abram would have an heir. Presumably,
the arrangement to marry and engage in sexual activity was done without the
consent of Hagar, who had such a low status in the society of the day that
she was required to submit to what she probably felt were serial rapes by
Abram. Hagar conceived and bore a son, Ishmael. This type of marriage had
some points of similarity to polygamous marriage, as described above.
However, Hagar's status as a human slave in a plural marriage with two free
individuals makes it sufficiently different to warrant separate treatment
5. A man, one or more wives, and some concubines: A man could keep numerous
concubines, in addition to one or more wives. These women held an even lower
status than a wife. As implied in Genesis 21:10, a concubine could be
dismissed when no longer wanted. According to Smith's Bible Dictionary, "A
concubine would generally be either (1) a Hebrew girl bought...[from] her
father; (2) a Gentile captive taken in war; (3) a foreign slave bought; or
(4) a Canaanitish woman, bond or free."
They would probably be brought into an already-established household.
Abraham had two concubines; Gideon: at least 1; Nahor: 1; Jacob: 1; Eliphaz:
1; Caleb: 2; Manassah: 1; Saul: 1; David: at least 10; Rehoboam: 60;
Solomon: 300!; an unidentified Levite: 1; Belshazzar: more than 1.
6. A male soldier and a female prisoner of war: Numbers 31:1-18 describes
how the army of the ancient Israelites killed every adult Midianite male in
battle. Moses then ordered the slaughter in cold blood of most of the
captives, including all of the male children who numbered about 32,000. Only
the lives of 32,000 women - all virgins -- were spared. Some of the latter
were given to the priests as slaves. Most were taken by the Israeli soldiers
as captives of war. Deuteronomy 21:11-14 describes how each captive woman
would shave her head, pare her nails, be left alone to mourn the loss of her
families, friends, and freedom. After a full month had passed, they would be
required to submit to their owners sexually, as a wife. It is conceivable
that in a few cases, a love bond might have formed between the soldier and
his captive(s). However, in most cases we can assume that the woman had to
submit sexually against her will; that is, she was raped.
7. A male rapist and his victim: Deuteronomy 22:28-29 requires that a female
virgin who is not engaged to be married and who has been raped must marry
her attacker, no matter what her feelings were towards the rapist. A man
could become married by simply sexually attacking a woman that appealed to
him, and paying his father-in-law 50 shekels of silver. There is one
disadvantage of this approach: he was not allowed to subsequently divorce
8. A male and female slave: Exodus 21:4 indicates that a slave owner could
assign one of his female slaves to one of his male slaves as a wife. There
is no indication that women were consulted during this type of transaction.
The arrangement would probably involve rape in most cases. In the times of
the Hebrew Scriptures, Israelite women who were sold into slavery by their
fathers were slaves forever. Men, and women who became slaves by another
route, were limited to serving as slaves for seven years. When a male slave
left his owner, the marriage would normally be terminated; his wife would
stay behind, with any children that she had. He could elect to stay a slave
if he wished.