In Old Testament times, they dowry provided a way for a women to escape from a dangerous marriage. The role of a dowry was different from the modern understanding. A young man wanting to marry a young woman paid a dowry to her father as proof of his diligence, reliability and ability to support her.
He must pay a dowry for her to be his wife (Ex 22:16).The father retained the dowry, as a guarantee of his son-in-law’s good behaviour. (In some circumstance, he might loan the dowry back to the son and daughter to pay for a house or business, but he would retain ownership of it in trust for his daughter).
Abraham gave costly gifts to Rebecca’s mother and brother as a dowry for her marriage to Isaac (Gen 24:53). Jacob did not have a dowry to give Rachel’s father when he wanted to marry her. He was a dodgy character, so Laban demanded a big dowry to cover the risk. Jacob had to work without wages for seven years to earn the dowry Laban required.
A girl’s father decides what the dowry should be, depending on the reputation of the prospective suitor. When Shechem wanted to marry Jacob’s daughter Dinah he offered to pay a dowry.
Ask me ever so much dowry and gift, and I will give according to what you say to me; but give me the young woman as a wife (Gen 24:12).Saul was a jealous and foolish man, so he demanded a dowry of hundred dead Philistines as a dowry, when David wanted to marry his daughter Michal (1 Sam 18:25).
When a woman commits to a man and has his children, she puts herself in a vulnerable position. She loses her capacity to earn and by having children she reduces her attraction to potential husbands. The dowry protects her during this time of vulnerability. If they wife has to leave her husband and return to her father, he did not need to return the dowry, but could use it to provide for her financial support.
God recognised that marriage was risky for women and provided a way for them to escape if they were mistreated by their husbands. They could return to their father and know that financial support would be available. It also puts pressure on husbands to honour and respect their wives.
The concept of the dowry was corrupted by the world. It was twisted around and became a payment that a father had to pay to a man to get her to marry his daughter. This was a terrible devaluation of the value of women. It turned women into chattels that could be bought by the highest bidder. It provided no protection for the women once they were married.
Christians should restore true biblical dowry to marriage. It would encourage better behaviour by men, and provide better protection for women.