Proposals of Marriage in the Hebrew Bible

Ernest Davis

This is a list of every time in the Hebrew Bible that X proposes to Y that A should marry B (X and Y can be the same as A and B.) I am not including the cases where a wife offers her slave as a concubine.

There are 10 proposals of marriage in Tanakh (3 in Genesis, 4 in Samuel, 1 in Kings, 2 in Ruth): To make it known how varied and strange are the ways in which people interact.

The English translations below are by Robert Alter.

Eliezer proposes to Laban and Bethuel that Rebecca should marry Isaac.

Genesis 24:49

ועתה אם ישכם עושים חסד ואמת את אדוני הגידו לי ואם לא הגידו לי ואפנה על ימין או על שמאל
And so, if you are going to act with steadfast kindness toward my master, tell me, and if not, tell me, that I may turn elsewhere.
The classic arranged marriage. The bride is off stage. The groom is hundreds of miles away. The marriage is arranged between an agent of the father of the groom and the father and brother of the bride. The bride and groom have never set eyes on each other (this is the only example in this collection where that is true.) Acceptance of the proposal is viewed as a kindness that the bride's relatives are doing for the groom's father.
Bride's role: Rebecca is not asked for her consent to the marriage, but the decision of whether to leave immediately or stay a while is left up to her. She decides to leave immediately.
Upshot: Rebecca and Isaac are married.

Jacob proposes to Laban that Jacob should marry Rachel

Genesis 29:18
ויאהב יעקוב את רחל ויאמר אעבדך שבע שנים ברחל בתך הקטנה
And Jacob loved Rachel and he said "I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter."
Marriage arranged between the groom and the father of the bride.
Bride's role: Completely passive.
Condition: Seven years unpaid labor. The terms are proposed by the groom.
Upshot: After seven years, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, the elder sister. Jacob works another seven years, and finally gets to marry Rachel.

Hamor and Shechem proposes to Jacob and his sons that Shechem should marry Dinah

Genesis 33:8-12.
וידבר חמור אתם לאמור: שכם בני חשקה נפשו בבתכם. תנו נא אותו לו לאשה. ... ויאמר שכם ... ותנן לי את הנערה לאשה
And Hamor spoke with them saying, "Shechem my son, his very self longs for your daughter. Pray give her to him as wife." And Shechem said ... "give me this young woman as wife".
Prospective groom and his father propose to father and brothers of prospective bride. However, this comes after the groom has raped the bride.
Bride's role: Completely passive. Victim of rape.
Condition: The groom, his father, and all the townspeople are required to circumcise themselves.
Upshot: While the town is recovering from the mass circumcision and incapacitated, the brothers of Dinah murder the entire town.

Saul proposes to David that David should marry Merav

1 Samuel 18:17
ויאמר שאול אל דוד: הנה בתי הגדולה מרב אתה אתן לך לאשה אך היה לי לבן חיל והלחם מלחמות השם
And Saul said to David, "Here is my eldest daughter, Merab. Her shall I give you as wife, only be a valiant fellow for me, and fight the battles of the Lord."
Prospective bride's father offers bride to prospective groom. However, Saul's real intention is that David should get killed fighting the Philistines.
Bride's role: Completely passive.
Condition: David should continue to fight valiantly (which he is doing in any case).
Upshot: David declines, saying that he is unworthy of the honor. His real motivation is not clear, but the obvious explanation is that he and Michal are already romantically involved.

Saul proposes to David that David should marry Michal

1 Samuel 18:21
ויאמר שאול אל דוד: בשתים תתחתן בי היום
And Saul said to David, "Through the second one you can be my son-in-law now."
Prospective bride's father offers bride to prospective groom. However, Saul's real intention is that David should get killed carrying out the condition.
Bride's role. The Bible states explicitly that Michal loves David. Michal is the only named woman in Tanakh who is described as loving a suitor or husband. (The first-person singers in Song of Songs are amorous but anonymous; the generic "Woman of Valor" of Proverbs 31 has many fine qualities, but loving her husband is not mentioned as one of them.) A dozen or so years later, Michal comes to despise David. David's feelings are not stated.
Condition: Saul requires that David must kill 100 Philistines and circumcise their corpses.
Upshot: David kills 200 Philistines and circumcises their corpses. David marries Michal.

Abigail proposes to David that he should marry her

1 Samuel 25:31
והיטב ד' לאדוני וזכרת לאמתך
Then the Lord will do well with my lord, and you will remember your servant.
The demure wording of this notwithstanding, what it clearly actually means is "When my disgusting husband Nabal is dead, let's get married." ("Disgusting" is not my editorializing; Abigail is quite specific about it.) Thus the (already married) prospective bride is proposing to the groom.
Bride's role: It's Abigail all the way. She arranges the meeting, and, after dissuading David from murdering "everyone that pisses against a wall" (David's phrase) in Nabal's household, she ends her long speech (8 verses) with this modest proposal.
Upshot: Nabal does die ten days later. David sends his servants to propose to her. She accepts with the wording, "Look, your servant is but a slavegirl to wash the feet of my lord's servants," and they get married. But it's hard to imagine that she did much foot washing. The Bible describes her as having "a good mind and lovely looks" and she pretty clearly could take care of herself. I recommend the discussion of this story in the notes to Robert Alter's translation and in Certain People of the Book, by Maurice Samuel.

Tamar proposes to Amnon that he should marry her

2 Samuel 13:13, 16
דבר נא אל המלך כי לא ימנעני ממך ... ותאמר לו על אודות הרעה הגדולה הזאת מאחרת אשר עשית לשלחני
"And so speak, pray to the king, for he will not withhold me from you." ... And she said to him, "Don't! this wrong is greater than the other you did me, to send me away now."
I am not happy about including this, but it does come within my definition. Tamar says the first quote above when Amnon is raping her; she says the second after he has finished and is throwing her out of his room. It is not at all clear how this could possibly work, since he is her half-brother. The first sentence could be a ruse to get away from him; but the second must mean seriously that, having raped her, he is now obliged to marry her.

Bathsheba proposes to Solomon that Adonijah should marry Abishag

1 Kings 2:21
ותאמר יותן את אבישג השונמית לאדוניהו אחיך לאשה
And she said, "Let Abishag the Shunamite be given to Adonijah your brother as wife."

This is the strangest of the collection. Adonijah, who earlier attempted to seize the throne from Solomon as the successor to King David, wants to marry Abishag who was a nurse (more or less) for King David in his old age. Whether Adonijah is actually in love with Abishag or whether this is a political maneuver is hard to guess. He asks Bathsheba, King Solomon's mother, to intercede for him. Bathsheba obligingly does that, presenting it as her own idea and as a favor to her, but Solomon sees right through it, interprets it as a political maneuver, and has Adonijah executed.
Bride's role: Passive and off-stage throughout. There is no indication in the text that Abishag was in any way involved in this, knew about it, had any opinions about Adonijah, or any regrets about his being executed.
[Adonijah] seems to have had a talent for doing the foolish thing with a maximum of foolishness, as though anxious not to be misunderstood.
--- Maurice Samuel, Certain People of the Book

Ruth asks Boaz to perform levirate marriage with her.

Ruth 3:9
ותאמר אנוכי רות אמתך ופרשת כנפך על אמתך כי גאל אתה
And she said, "I am Ruth your servant. May you spread your wing over your servant, for you are a redeeming kinsman."
Ruth is a widow without child, and therefore by the law of levirate marriage, the nearest male relative was obliged to marry her so as to produce an "heir" to her late husband. Ruth is reminding him of this.
Bride's role: Ruth takes all the initiative: She goes and gleans in Boaz's field and she goes to Boaz when he is asleep and lies with him; and then she asks him to marry her.
Upshot: In a rather garrulous speech, Boaz praises her merits; says that there is a closer relative who would have priority in the requirement of levirate marriage; but promises to marry her if the other relative does not. In the event (next proposal), the other relative refuses, so Boaz marries her.
Thanks to Sam Fleischacker and my sister Abby for important corrections here.

Boaz suggests to an unnamed relative that he (the relative) should marry Ruth

Ruth 4:5.
ומאת רות המואביה אשת המת קנית להקים שם המת על נחלתו
You will also acquire Ruth the Moabite to raise up the name of the dead man on his estate.
Boaz reminds the unnamed nearer relative of his responsibility.
Bride's role: Completely passive, as far as this proposed marriage goes.
Upshot: The unnamed relative refuses to marry Ruth, and undergoes the Halitza ceremony which is the alternative.

Two General Comments

There's a lot of violence here. 5 of the 10 episodes involve someone, or many people, being killed, or proposed to be killed.

None of these conform to the model of proposal that was standard, at least in literature, from at least Shakespeare's time until recently: A man asks a woman to marry him; she has the choice to accept or decline. On the other hand, only the first one, of Isaac and Rebecca, conforms to the model of the purely arranged marriage, in which neither bride nor groom is involved and their feelings are not at all consulted.

A propos of the Book of Ruth: the colloquy between Ruth and Naomi at the end of chapter 1 is the only part of Tanakh that passes the Bechdel test