Given the importance of marriage, the rituals marking it must have been both splendid and complex. But since everyone in biblical times knew how weddings should be celebrated, biblical authors do not bother to describe them in detail. So we are forced to build up a composite picture from bits of information scattered throughout the Bible and to fill in the gaps on the basis of customs attested in parallel cultures. This means that it is impossible to say how wedding ceremonies changed over the biblical period, and even some key aspects of the ceremony remain obscure.

The wedding itself represented the culmination of long discussions between the two families involved. When at last the issues of the “marriage present,” dowry, and the terms of the marriage contract were agreed, and both parties thought that the time was right for the bride to set up house with her husband, the wedding took place. In comparison with modern Western weddings, the ceremonies were more elaborate and took much longer.

Both bride and groom bathed, anointed themselves with oil and perfume and dressed in special clothes (Ps. 45.7–14). Jewelry and garlands were also worn. In the New Testament the kingdom of God is compared to a marriage feast, and it is possible that the white robes of the saints reflect the practice of wearing white at weddings (Rev. 19.8). Throughout the ceremony the bride was veiled (Gen. 24.65).

The bride was accompanied by bridesmaids (Ps. 45.14) and the groom had attendants too; the chief of these, the friend of the bridegroom, acted as best man (Judg. 14.20; John 3.29).

The public ceremonies began with the groom and his companions processing to the bride's home. After greeting her family, giving and receiving presents, and some drinks, all returned to the groom's house in a lively processional dance accompanied by music, and lanterns if night had already fallen (Ps. 45.15; 1 Macc. 9.39; Matt. 25.1–10).

Sometime before the meal was eaten, the marriage contract was read out and a public declaration made by the groom. One formula may be preserved in Hosea 2.19–20a; another is found in a fifth‐century BCE Aramaic document from the Jewish community at Elephantine in Egypt: “She is my wife and I am her husband from this day and forever.” Whether the woman had to make any declaration is uncertain. Then all the guests blessed the couple with words such as “May the God of heaven keep you safe and give you peace and prosperity” (Tob. 7.13).

There followed the wedding breakfast, a great meal attended by all the friends and relatives of the families involved. They too came in their best clothes; it was an insult to decline a wedding invitation or not to dress properly for the occasion (Matt. 22.7, 11–12). At the feast wine flowed freely (John 2.1–11) and songs were sung in honor of marriage and the wedded couple.

Finally, the evening concluded with the groom symbolically wrapping his cloak around the bride (Ezek. 16.8) and, escorted by the parents and bridal attendants, leading her to the specially prepared marriage chamber. Presumably this was usually an inner part of the bridegroom's house, though the word used (cf. Ps. 19.5; Num. 25.8) suggests a special tent. There at last the bride removed her veil and the marriage was consummated (Gen. 29.23–25).

This, however, was not the end of the celebration. Festivities continued for another week, or sometimes two. These consisted of eating, drinking, making music, and telling riddles (Gen. 29.27; Judg. 14.12–18). The Song of Solomon may reflect songs sung at these occasions.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament view marriage as an image of the relationship between God and his people. It is therefore appropriate that the prophets, Jesus, and the book of Revelation use the imagery of weddings to describe the end of time, when God will be united with his people forever (Isa. 25.6–9; Matt. 22.1–13; 25.1–12; Rev. 18.6–10; 21.1–4).

Gordon J. Wenham