It’s become a bit cliché to describe the Bible as a love letter or a love story, but there’s a reason for that – the motivation for the entire story of mankind and God’s interactions with us is indeed Love, but it goes so, so much deeper than most people in western churches and cultures realise. When the Bible is placed back into its Hebrew context, we unlock what Jesus was communicating clearly to His Jewish disciples, and in this post, I want to help you discover the meaning and significance of the beautiful ancient Jewish wedding traditions to our understanding of our faith and future.
This information is drawn from many sources and there are myriad teachings on this subject, including in Jonathan Cahn’s Book of Mysteries, and the ministry jewishjewels.org, but much of my information for this post has been drawn from Christie Eisner’s book Watching and Waiting; Encountering Jesus in the Fall Feasts available online, and also on Facebook as the page Ruth’s Road.
My beloved spoke and said to me: “Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away…”Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) 2:10
The Jewish wedding – some scholars specify even further and trace this tradition particularly back to Galilee – seems far removed from our modern western ideas and traditions; the process was longer and more formal, and the parents had much more involvement in things, but it is in fact distinctively ‘modern’ in its emphasis on equality and respect for the bride; she had in one sense the most powerful say in the whole process, and her consent was vital.
Fathers played a very important role in the process, and were the guiding hands behind the young couple. The father of the groom would be seeking out a suitable bride for his son as he came of age, and having found a suitable young woman and negotiated with her father, the betrothal ceremony would be held, publicly, with the entire community as witnesses. Bear in mind that the young people would probably have known, or known of each other since childhood, growing up in small village communities, and that this was not an arranged marriage to a complete stranger.
“Behold you are fair, my love! You have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse…”Song of Songs 4:1, 9
The bridal contract, or ketubah, would be drawn up, detailing the groom’s responsibility to his bride-to-be and how he would honour and take care of her, and in that contract many promises and assurances were laid out. It was considered that the husband and his family were gaining an asset by the marriage, and the bride’s family were losing one. A bride price, or mohar was set, according to the wealth of the groom’s father. We might have called this a dowry in previous centuries, but our western tradition inverts the mohar, and makes the dowry the responsibility of the bride and her family. In ancient Jewish culture, both the choice of whom the bride would be and the amount of the mohar was to reflect the father of the groom’s honour, integrity and stature; his future generations were at stake by his choice. Even if the bride’s family was not wealthy, if the groom’s father was, the price was to reflect his wealth, and the value he placed on the bride. Since a wife was in this sense purchased, she belonged to her husband. Although this may seem backwards and oppressive in today’s way of thinking, it was actually a significant step above what was happening in the pagan world around them at that time. There was no value placed on wives. If a man wanted a wife, he simply took her to his house, had intercourse with her and she became his wife; no consent was needed in many cultures. God introduced sanctity and permanence into the marriage relationship, and the mohar was part of raising a standard of righteousness. Women had value. They were to be cherished.
Then He took the cup and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.”Luke 22:17-18
The betrothal ceremony involved the public reading of the ketubah, and then a ceremony of acceptance. If the bride agreed to these terms and accepted, a cup of wine was given to her by her groom-to-be, and she would drink from it to show her consent; the couple would share that cup. If she refused, for whatever reason, the contract was null and void and the groom’s father had to look elsewhere for a bride for his son. Once the bride had given her consent the contract was signed, and it was considered legally binding from that moment on; a divorce would be necessary to unlink the couple. The language and understanding from the betrothal ceremony was that they would not share another cup of wine until the day of the consummation of their marriage. The bride would cover her head with a veil in public (not a burka, just a headscarf) from that point to signify that she was spoken for, but the couple would not live together or have any interaction for another year or two, whilst the groom then went back to his father’s house to prepare the bridal chamber, an extension on the family home for his bride, and to make it ready for her. The bride would use that time to make her own preparations with her womenfolk; getting wedding garments ready, learning how to run a household, preparing herself to leave her parent’s home and start her own home and family.
Interestingly, there was no wedding date set. No-one, not the bride, the groom, or the bride’s family, would know at what point the wedding would take place. The general consensus was for a year or two of betrothal, but only when the father of the groom said that things were ready and gave his son permission to go and fetch his bride would the wedding take place. This seems absurd to us, but as with all the details in these Jewish traditions, there is a much deeper reason and a greater picture being painted here, as we will see later.
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”Words of Jesus – Matthew 24:36
When the father of the groom gave the word, the groom would set out in a joyful and noisy procession through the streets of the villages to reach his bride’s parents’ home. This would usually happen in the middle of the night; yep, you read that correctly – around midnight! He would be accompanied by musicians, and his men carrying lighted torches. Shofars – Jewish ram’s horn trumpets used in sacred ceremonies to call people to prayer, repentance, or to signal joy – would be blown, and there were shouts of “The Bridegroom is coming!”. This would alert the whole community, and give the bride a few minutes to get up and prepare to be quite literally swept off her feet. She and her bridesmaids, who were likely to be cousins and sisters living in the same house, would get up, trim their own oil lamps, and go out to meet the groom’s procession. The bride would be veiled and dressed in incredible finery; beautiful linen and jewellery, made to look as much like a queen as the family could afford, and the groom would be dressed likewise in his very best. The groom would tenderly lift up his bride and set her on a special litter carried by four of his men, raising her up above the procession, and the whole joyful company would make the return journey with music, dancing, singing, and torches, to the groom’s house. This was known as the nissuin, or the ‘catching up’ of the bride. Once back at the groom’s home, the couple would go into the newly prepared bridal chamber to begin seven days of honeymoon-style consummation of their marriage just as the two of them, whilst their families and friends celebrated at the groom’s parents’ home. There, in private, the couple would share that second symbolic cup of wine, called the cup of consummation, and their long-awaited union would be complete.
Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.”Luke 22:20
You will have noticed that I have placed verses from the Last Supper between the paragraphs. This is no coincidence, because whilst the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, Jesus (whose Hebrew name is Yeshua – ‘salvation’), who led the retelling of the Exodus and the redemption for slavery in Egypt, gave the Seder a new and deeper meaning that had always been there, waiting for the right time to be revealed. There are four cups of wine that are shared at Passover, two before and two after the meal. They represent God’s four ‘I will’ statements from Exodus 6:6-7, like a ketubah contract for the bride, Israel. The third of these cups is called the cup of redemption. Redemption involves transferring someone or something from one owner to another – slaves could be redeemed with a price and set free – and the bride could be considered redeemed with the mohar as well; transferred from the household of her father to the household of her new husband. Likewise, Yeshua was redeeming us as our Passover Lamb from being under the sentence of judgement and death to being able to come into eternal life through faith, but it goes deeper than that. When He lifted up this third cup at the Last Supper Seder, He suddenly changed the language from slavery/redemption to the words of the betrothal ceremony, spoken to the bride by the bridegroom: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” Wine represented blood, without which no ancient covenant could be sealed, and the mohar that the Father paid in this case was the life of His Son, His blood, shed willingly because of His deep love for those who would become His bride. The disciples would have recognised this covenant and the betrothal language immediately, and understood that Yeshua was doing something very profound even though they didn’t fully understand it at the time.
The fourth cup at the Passover Seder is called the cup of consummation and represents the last ‘I will’ statement from Exodus 6:6-7; “I will take you as my people”. Jesus didn’t drink from this cup, saying that He would not drink it again until He was come into the Kingdom of His Father – more betrothal ceremony language. He then goes on to say that He is going away to prepare a place in His Father’s house, so that “where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3). He will bring us, His bride of believers, to be where He is…notice who gets transferred or moved – us! When He comes for us in the Rapture (or by the time you’re reading this, it will be when He came for us!), it will be in the ‘middle of the night’ as far as the wider world is concerned, and only the Father knows exactly when that will be.
This is the exact pattern of an ancient Jewish wedding ceremony – and we should expect no less because Jesus is Jewish and we as Gentiles have been spiritually brought into His Jewish people by faith in the God of Israel, to be part of His bride if we choose to accept His proposal. We have been caught up, like the bride into that special litter, along with the procession of His angelic hosts, to be married with Him in His Father’s dwelling, and we will remain there with Him in exclusive and beautiful fellowship for seven years before the next stage of history. More on that in the post on the Feasts of Israel. Obviously the consummation we have in this heavenly marriage is not a sexual one, but a spiritual one, and the intimacy we share is the deep emotional and spiritual intimacy that God wants with each person, and which was always designed to be the basis for physical intimacy in earthly marriage. Jesus made it very clear to His disciples that they knew what He was talking about and that the whole thing was based in love for the purpose of helping each person to believe:
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word: and my Father will love him and We will come to him and Our home with him….You have heard me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father’ because My Father is greater than I’. And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe.”John 14:23, 28-29, emphasis mine
There is so much more I could say on this, but I am trying to keep these posts an easily-readable length – but here is a PDF by Jewish Jewels, which expands on this in wonderful detail, and you can download it and keep it and read it at your own pace with all the Scripture references. May you be blessed and drawn to God, who loves you “with an everlasting love” – Jeremiah 31:1.