Summary: An in-depth look at Marriage in the First Century and the dominant interpretations of the Foolish versus Wise Bridesmaids.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt 25:1-13 ESV)
The Parable of the Ten Virgins has created much debate as to its meaning. The three elements that are agreed to by most commentators are that the historical setting is a first-century Jewish wedding, the bridegroom is Jesus Christ, and the parable describes His return.
The Greek word for “virgins” is ‘parthenos’ which means, in context, a female beyond puberty and not yet married. It has also been translated as ‘bridesmaid’ because there are two Hebrew words (‘amah’ and ‘shiphchah’) that covey the idea of service, handmaid, attendant, maid, or handmaiden in a wedding (see Gen 16:2, 29:24-29, 30:3,7-18; Ex 2:5; 21:20,26; Lev 25:6; Ezr 2:65; Job 19:15; Nah 2:7; Isa 24:2; Ps 123:2; Eccl 2:7).
There was a custom among the Jews to have a loyal friend and personal companion (best man) to help the groom, called the “friend of the Bridegroom” (Heb: shoshbin). The bride had companions called bridesmaids who were unmarried virgins to help her prepare for the groom (see Judges 14:20). Being one of the bridesmaids was a great honor. (Note: John the Baptist was called “a friend of the Bridegroom” because he prepared the way for the Messiah [Jesus] (John 3:29-30).
THE WEDDING CEREMONY
In the time of Jesus, marriages were always arranged. In ancient Israel, the marriage covenant (Heb: b'rith) was part of the civil law, and legal papers were written that defined the rights of the husband and wife. The festivities could last several days. The most significant emphasis of Jewish weddings was joy.
The groom would dress himself in festive garments on the wedding day, wearing a crown of gold, or silver, or flowers. The bride would have been bathed, purified, perfumed, richly clothed, adorned with many jewels by her bridesmaids, and would receive the blessing from her family and friends. She was also completely covered with a veil as she waited for the groom.
The groom and his friends would then go from his house from an unknown place at an unspecified time to the bride's father's house and claim the bride from her parents. The never-married women of Israel would be outside waiting along the way in the evening with their oil lamps lit, until the loud warning cry, "Behold the Bridegroom is coming, go out to meet Him," and they would meet him and proceed to the entrance of the bride's father's house. The bridesmaids would leave the bride, with whom they have been staying, and go out to meet the groom with torches.
The bride and groom would return to his house for the marriage ceremony (Heb: Chuppah, which means canopy), feast, and festivities, followed by a procession that would begin after nightfall, dancing, flowers cast about, and singing songs with joy and gladness. There were many friends and relatives, some of which traveled long distances. There would be great rejoicing and celebration late in the evening on the streets and when they arrived for the feast.
The bride was crowned and carried by the crowd on a piece of furniture through the streets. Everyone in the procession was expected to hold their own torch, either a lamp with a small oil tank and wick, or a stick with a rag soaked in oil on its end, which would require occasional re-soaking to maintain the flame.
Once they entered the house, the doors were shut tight, and the feast began with great dancing and celebration lasting as long as seven days. The ruler of the feast was responsible for all preparations and benedictions. Guests were given unique festive clothing to wear. The groom and bride were treated as king and queen and also wore garments of celebration. They would watch the festivities, drink wine, and even join in the dancing.