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The Traditional Dowry-System in Africa[1]

Arguments for traditional dowry 

1.     It stabilizes the marriage and prevents the wife running away from her husband.
2.     Payment of dowry demonstrates that the husband-to-be is capable of supporting a wife.
3.     Payment of dowry makes the wife feel that she is worth “something” and that her husband considers her valuable. It can be considered a proof of love.
4.     Christian missionaries have often supported and encouraged the dowry system as a safeguard to the stability of marriage.
5.     The parents of the girl feel repaid for all their expense of caring for her and educating her.
6.     Bride Price enables the girl’s parents to provide similar dowry for their sons to marry wives. Thus the bride price becomes a kind of revolving fund in the family.
7.     Payment of the dowry satisfies a deep longing for justice and legality in the eyes of the families involved.
8.     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.
9.     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.
10.  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 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.
3.     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.
4.     In modern educated society, young people tend 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.
5.    The dowry system encourages hard-hearted but wealthy husbands to treat their wives 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 often contributes to the degradation of women.
6.     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. That creates unnecessary tension in the new home.
7.     The dowry-system contributes to polygamy, since the practice is rooted in both cultural and economic factors. It South Sudan, the practice has been traced to theft as men are eager to get cows.
8.     The dowry-system has shown to lead to divorce in that it replaces marriage as a means to honor God with a means of personal benefit. What happens to children in the case of a divorce? The dowry-system is even seen as one of the causes of immorality. Young people frustrated and defeated by excessive dowry demands tend to elope and live together without a proper marriage.
9.    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.
10.  The intent of dowry was for the parents to return it to the newlywed couple, so that the girl would be taken care of, not to enrich the parents of the bride. This is still the practice in India today.

Does the Bible uphold the tradition of dowry?

1.     Jacob and Dinah
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). Dowry is mentioned, but 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 shows the true meaning of dowry in that he loved Dinah more than any amount of money. His request of dowry only served to secure her true happiness within the Lord's plan for His people (Deut. 7:1-3).

2.      If a man seduces a girl.
 “If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry for virgin” (Exodus 22:16-17). Clerly that there was a bride price system in effect in ancient Israel. However, as we shall reinforce, the system was a physical transaction that pointed to the spiritual importance and worth of marriage.  Matthew Henry writes, “A law that he who debauched a young woman should be obliged to marry her, v. 16, v. 17. If she was betrothed to another, it was death to debauch her (Deut. 22:23-24) but the law here mentioned respects her as single. But, if the father refused her to him, he was to give satisfaction in money for the injury and disgrace he had done her. This law puts an honour upon marriage and shows likewise how improper a thing it is that children should marry without their parents’ consent.”

3.     King Saul offered his daughter Michal in marriage to David if he would kill one hundred Philistines (1 Sam. 18:20-30). It is clear from the story that although dowry, or bride-price, was an established custom in Israel, Saul was only interested in having David fall in battle (v. 25) even though Michal loved David (v. 20). Saul failed miserably at seeing the dowry as a physical indicator of the deep love relationship that is marriage.

4.     Parents who feared God did not keep the dowry but returned it to the couple to be used in building up their new home. “Rachel and Leah said to him, “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you” (Gen. 30:14-16). Not only did Laban deceive Jacob (Gen. 29), but their father never showed any real love for Rachael and Leah. They said he had “sold” them. 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.

5.    The worth of a wife is “priceless.” “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.  Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value” (Prov. 31:10-11).

Concluding thoughts

1.    The purpose of the dowry system in the OT when properly administered was to function as evidence of the spiritual suitability of an intended couple. More, it demonstrated to the parents of the girl that her interests were safeguarded by making certain that the young man who seeks her is one fully worthy of her. 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.

2.    In the OT, it was never the intent of the parents of the girl to profit from their daughter’s marriage. Rather, the dowry was to be held in trust or given back in whole for the wellbeing of the daughter and her children. 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.

3.    Without exception, a happy, stable marriage is based on love and fidelity, as these qualities as established in Christ. Nothing must interfere with this reality.


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