Are engagements required before a marriage can take place?


I see the Scripture and proof that sex does not make the marriage and that there is fornication without marriages being made in the act.  However, I was reading the other day and came across a person who said that we are to let the Bible define marriage.  He pointed out that God's definition in the Old Testament was that people are bound at engagement, citing Mary and Joseph and Old Testament laws referencing engaged people as married. He also stated that our current engagement practices are wrong (I guess perverted from God's intentions) and should be like that of the Bible. He then quoted I Corinthians 7 for marriage definitions and said that the New Testament is quiet on this subject because it is talking to Jews and assumes that everyone should already know that engagement is binding. What about the Gentiles?

My questions to you are these: Were the Old Testament laws and engagement practices God's definition and should still be viewed as such or were they a Jewish cultural thing -- that is, to have two covenants for marriage (engagement and home taking)?  Does God accept different cultures' viewpoints and customs (e.g. our engagement in the US is really more of a next phase or step in courtship and is viewed as breakable if the people see that their marriage would have been a disaster had they gone to the "altar")?  Can you say that God knows when we intend to be married (because He knows our hearts) and that in engagement we have not agreed to be husband and wife from that point on -- that is, that we intended to be husband and wife on the day of our wedding? 

In trying to think on this with some common sense, I have asked myself, "Does God expect us to be Jewish?"  But then the flip side is, this may not be a "Jewish custom." This may be a "custom" of God.  Ideally, we would be able to do this anyway so there is no question.  Unfortunately, there are many of us who have not (regrettably and repentantly) and we need to know the truth lest we displease God.  We also can't break marriages if it is not the will of God either lest we displease Him on the other side.  There is the whole other aspect of breaking an oath.  When you ask someone to marry you and you agree to do that, have you made an oath?  We are to be people of our word.  I am dizzy with thought, fear, and desire for righteousness.  I do not know what the Lord wants me to do. I love my husband very much.  We have three wonderful children whom we are desperately trying to raise in Lord.


I can understand a desire to be right before God, but I'm puzzled that you say you love your husband and family and yet are searching for ways to undermine that very marriage. It may not be your intention, but that is what you are doing and I can't see it creating a healthy relationship between you and your husband.

I do agree that the Bible is the best source for definitions. In this particular case, I gave you the clearest definition from the Scriptures the last time we talked, but you skipped over it: "Yet you say, "For what reason?" Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; Yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth" (Malachi 2:14-15). Two people become husband and wife when the Lord witnesses their covenant of marriage. This is the same thing Christ said. "And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."" (Matthew 19:4-6).

A "Will you marry me?" followed by a "Yes!" does not constitute a covenant. It is a promise to create a marriage covenant in the future, but it is not, in itself, a marriage. Such a promise should be treated seriously and should not be broken arbitrarily. That an engagement can be broken is seen in the example of Joseph and Mary. "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly" (Matthew 1:18-19). The divorce of a married couple is not something that could be done secretly. But this was the ending of an engagement. Joseph could end the engagement quietly.

Another example is found in a man deciding to marry one of his slaves. "If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her" (Exodus 21:8). If a man breaks his engagement to the woman, he forfeited his right to sell her to a non-Israelite, instead he must allow her to be bought back by her family. But notice that the possibility of breaking the engagement existed.

Now, if engagements were required before a marriage, we would expect to find it throughout the Bible. However, consider the marriage of Isaac. Abraham sent a servant back to his home town to find a wife for his son -- Isaac wasn't involved. This servant found Rebekah and asked if she would agree to marry his master's son. She agreed. This doesn't constitute an engagement because only one of the two parties were involved. She travels down to where Abraham and Isaac lived. "Then Rebekah lifted her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from her camel; for she had said to the servant, "Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?" The servant said, "It is my master." So she took a veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (Genesis 24:64-67). That's it. There is no mention of a covenant, but since Rebekah became Isaac's wife, it is implied due to Malachi 2:14. But we also find no mention of an engagement either. The passage implies that they married the same day that they met.

Obviously Adam and Eve did not have an engagement (Genesis 2:24).

During the days of the Judges, the tribe of Benjamin allowed homosexuality to exist in their borders. This upset the rest of Israel so greatly that they attacked Benjamin and nearly wiped out the tribe. When they were done, they realized that there were only 600 men left -- no women or children. Worse, they had vowed that they won't give their sons and daughters to marry anyone from Benjamin. Thus the tribe stood to die out. Realizing that one group hadn't been present when the vow was made, they located 400 women to be wives, but they were still 200 short. They decided to let the men with out wives to "steal" women from a festival were virgin women gathered and pretend that they didn't notice. Thus they could claim they didn't give the men wives since they "took" the women. "Therefore they instructed the children of Benjamin, saying, "Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin. Then it shall be, when their fathers or their brothers come to us to complain, that we will say to them, 'Be kind to them for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war; for it is not as though you have given the women to them at this time, making yourselves guilty of your oath.'" And the children of Benjamin did so; they took enough wives for their number from those who danced, whom they caught. Then they went and returned to their inheritance, and they rebuilt the cities and dwelt in them" (Judges 21:20-23). I doubt that these 600 women had an engagement period before their weddings.

While the Mosaical Law acknowledges the existence of engagements and the consequences for some sins varied based on whether an engagement existed (e.g. rape in Deuteronomy 22:22-29). There is no command saying an engagement must take place. It was a recognized practice that had implications on life.

Yes, an engaged couple was sometimes called husband and wife. But this isn't because the engagement made them husband and wife. They were referred to as husband and wife because of the seriousness people placed upon a person's word. If two people promised to marry then you could be almost absolutely certain that they would marry. But they weren't married. Why? Because the laws that treated an engaged person differently from an unengaged person also treated an engaged person differently from a married person. Being engaged is not the same as being married. We can see this in the rules given to men serving in the military. "And what man is there who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man marry her" (Deuteronomy 20:7).

When we read through the Bible, we see bits and pieces of people's customs for marriages, but we don't find details. The actual vows two people said are not recorded. The parts of a wedding ceremony are hinted at, but we don't read about the actual ceremony. What little we find seems to indicate some variations between the ages and cultures covered by the Bible. It leaves us to conclude that the core of what constitutes a marriage is the covenant made before God to be husband and wife. The rest is up to the individuals involved.