Bride Price and the Bible

A debate has recently sparked in Zimbabwe regarding perspective on Lobola in the wake of new marriage bill proposition. Many weighed in with various opinions into this, (Christians included). Its un fortunate that most of these opinions were based on a misunderstanding of the Bill. The government proposed a bill that says payment of bride price will no longer be regarded as a barrier in solemnizing marriage between two consenting adults if they satisfy other requirements of the law. It is important to note that the bill does not seek to abolish Lobola/Roora. This debate has raised the questions which the article will seek to answer: how should we view bride price, and dynamics related to it, in light of the Bible? Does God command it and or is it Christian?

First, an African marriage is an alliance between two families, not just the union of a man and a woman. The bond between the couple’s families grows with each gift given. The wife’s family is reminded of this bond every day by the sight of the cows or goats in their backyard (given by the husband of their daughter). The cattle take on relational value; the herd becomes a shadow family.

These terms, marriage payment and bride price, originated from foreigners who did not understand the meaning behind the practice. The more accurate terminology for dowry would be marriage gift. This marriage gift is also what we call roora in Shona, lobola in Ndebele. African theologian ,John Mbiti, explains that African words for the practice of giving the marriage gift are, in most cases, different from words used in buying or selling something in the marketplace. This marriage gift is, by definition, a token of gratitude on the part of the bridegroom’s people to those of the bride for their care over her and for allowing her to become his wife. The gift elevates the value attached to her, both as a person and as a wife. (1969, 140). At least, Mbiti highlights the original idea. The groom’s family agrees to a certain price for the bride, which once agreed upon transfers various marital rights to the groom, including procreation. Mbiti defined it as [1]a token of gratitude on the part of the bridegroom’s people to those of the bride, for their care over her and for allowing her to become his wife. At home the gift replaces her reminding the family that she will leave or has left and yet she is not dead. The gift legalizes her value and the marriage contract.

The institution of this practice is the most concrete symbol of the marriage covenant and security (1969 p. 140). It could be goats or cattle among others. Elsewhere, Mbiti talks about bride wealth in terms of exchanging gifts which are asked by the parents of the girl from those of the boy (1975, p. 107). African cultural anthropologist Aylward Shorter referred to bride wealth in terms of indemnity and compensation to the bride’s family for bringing her up and losing a productive and reproductive member of the family (1998, p. 90).He insists that [2]Bride wealth is not bride-price, women are not bought and sold it is a legal document signifying that the marriage has taken place and legitimates the children of the union (1998, 90).
The term dowry, also called the marriage payment or bride price, is filled with misconceptions. Often, it has been used inappropriately to mean the purchasing of a wife. Parents and guardians have also held to such a view, at least, in practice. The Bible tells us that man and woman, were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 ), that image cannot and shouldn’t be attached to commercial values by anyone.
Lobola is, therefore, one of the very few African practices that still enjoys acceptance by both Christians and non-Christians. What is the biblical point of view on bride price?

Biblical Perspective on Marriage and Bride Price
The biblical theology view of marriage is the leaving and cleaving of two heterogeneous individuals in a lifelong commitment (Genesis 2:24-25 )- and is between the two. The Bible tells us that God is the one who instituted marriage.
It is selfish capitalizing on marriage processes to enrich oneself. As Minister Ziyambi noted that Some guardians of brides hold out for the highest possible gain for themselves, while [3]others refuse consent to the formalization of marriage until the last cent of the marriage consideration is paid. This is, in part, the backdrop that excited the bill in Zimbabwe. God wants us to be selfless.

Descriptive & Prescriptive Bible Passages:
It is important to note the Bible has both prescriptive and descriptive passages. Descriptive passages are narratives of what happened, that maybe cultural, but not commanded. We may take principles from there. Prescriptive passages tell us what we ought to do. Prescriptive passages are imperative.

1. Bride price is not a condition for marriage but only as a penalty for rape. Exodus 22:16-17 : [4]“If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins. “Deuteronomy 22:28-29 : “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels[a] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Many confuse this with Lobola. This is wrong. You could still pay the bride price and still be denied the woman to be your wife by her father.

2. There was never ever a place in the Bible where God commanded the bride’s parent to present a price. It was the groom’s responsibility to bring whatever for the lady he wants to marry. For example, in the Bible was Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah. There was no monetary exchange or penalty between the two families. Affordable gifts were given to Rebekkah’s family by Abraham (but not demanded by Rebekkah’s family). Read Genesis 24:52-54 .

3. Payment of monetary bride price is a tradition and not a direct commandment from God. Some countries like India, a woman actually pays a dowry for the groom and not the other way round.In light of the above, I should highlight Jesus’ approach to culture. There are 3 basic views on Jesus in relation to culture: Jesus for culture, Jesus against culture and Jesus above culture. I should say that Jesus seeks to transform cultures, in all areas that are not aligned to godliness. The[5] “…but I say to you” formulas in Matthew 5:21 ,273 1 ,33 ,38 & 43 can testify. He does not seek to abolish culture and neither is he against culture. He is above culture. This therefore answers the question: is Bride price wrong or right? The culture of appreciating in itself is good while the greediness that changes the original idea of appreciation to commercialization of daughters’ wrong. Jesus seeks to transform our perspective that adulterates the marriage institution into the original plan of God. Whether you pay or don’t pay you do right. We need to allow God to speak to our culture. This is so he can tell us what he doesn’t like, even though we may not like what he(Christ) says. My argument is then that if some African traditions need to be abandoned, it would be because the Bible, rather than another culture, influenced the decision.

After this survey of lobola references in Scripture, we can conclude that the practice of lobola is neither specifically forbidden in the Bible nor is it specifically promoted. Lobola should neither be encouraged nor discouraged by the church leaving it as a family matter. If lobola is to be practiced today it should be practiced in a way that supports its original meaning (which was selfless) and that avoids the potential current abuses. It also should support and have as central, God’s original plan with the institution -certainly not of satiating greedy parents or enriching them, but of picturing the relationship of Christ and the Church in a selfless relationship. Believers who has payment of bride price as their cultural way of marriage may do so without any guilty feeling.

[1] Mbiti, John. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.
[2] Shorter, Aylward. 1998. African Culture: An Overview. Nairobi: Paulines Publications.
[3] Mr Ziyambi Ziyambi
[4] Bible :Deuteronomy 22:28-29
[5] Bible:Matthew 5:21 ,273 1 ,33 ,38 & 43

Wonder Satiya

Wonder Satiya serves as Fellowship Of Christian Union of Students (FOCUS Zimbabwe) staff worker in Harare. He is passionate about assisting students keep and grow their faith in lecturing halls and believers think as well as live out their faith in the market place. He is keen on exposing the nexus between Christian faith and leadership, economics, law, science, the arts and the academia. Wonder also assist as pastor at United Baptist Church of Zimbabwe in Harare.

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