The definition of child has varied from culture to culture and century to century. Most modern-day countries declare that a child is of legal age to marry between 18 and 21. For some countries, the age may be as low as 15. In ancient Jewish culture, girls were considered marriageable after they had completed puberty, but boys were not considered men in the fullest sense until age 20.
The book of Numbers reinforces the age of 20 for a man’s coming of age. Only the men 20 years old or more were counted as eligible to serve in the army (Numbers 1:18). Among the clans in the tribe of Levi, the Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites, men were not considered eligible for temple service until the age of 30 (Numbers 4:3, 23, 30). Levites who served as priests were eligible at the age of 25 (Numbers 8:24–26). Given these age requirements, it seems reasonable to assume that God did not hold those younger than 20 responsible for adult decision-making. Thus, it would follow that 20 was the earliest age at which a man could normally marry.
Ezekiel 16 gives us a hint that a young woman was not considered ready for marriage until she had completed puberty. For some girls, that may have been 13 or 14, but for others puberty may not have been completed until age 16 or older. Ezekiel paints a picture of God’s relationship to His chosen people by comparing Israel with an orphaned girl in various stages of development. The Lord first sees her birth, then watches her grow up: “You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown. . . . Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you” (Ezekiel 16:7–8). The metaphor hinges on the fact that it is only after a girl arrives at physical maturity, sometime after (not during) puberty, that she is “old enough to love,” i.e., that she is ready for marriage.
However, the Bible does not state a particular marriageable age for either men or women. Much emphasis was given to a woman’s ability to conceive and bear children. Women were most likely younger than the men they married, perhaps even significantly so. A woman remained in her father’s household until marriage, and fathers considered it their responsibility to find suitable husbands for their daughters. Marriage was about more than just the couple getting married; it also had to do with preserving the familial tribes and making provision for future generations. Among royalty in many ancient cultures, including in Israel, marriage also had to do with agreements between countries, with women being given to kings as wives to indicate agreement between nations or rulers.
For the typical family, marriage was about provision and procreation. The father was responsible for a daughter until her husband became the responsible party. Both fathers and suitors took this obligation seriously. The husband-to-be was to give a dowry to his bride’s family to demonstrate his commitment. We see an illustration of these traditions in the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel (Genesis 29:16–27). Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, and he worked without wages for her father for seven years as a dowry. But Rachel’s father, Laban, did not want his younger daughter to marry before the older. So he tricked Jacob and, on the wedding night, gave him Leah instead of Rachel. Laban also gave Rachel to Jacob in marriage a week later, for which he required Jacob to work an additional seven years.
We also see in the account of Jairus’s daughter that a girl of 12 was still considered a little girl (Mark 5:21–43). Twice in this passage, the daughter is referred to as a “little girl” (verses 23, 41). So, even though she was most likely entering puberty, the daughter of Jairus was still considered a child and not ready for marriage.
Marriage is a solemn commitment, and when the Bible speaks of it, it is always between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:7). The Greek and Hebrew words used when discussing marriage imply mature men and women, never child brides. Every culture has its own traditions and age requirements, and young people in ancient times were better prepared for marriage at earlier ages than they are today, when adolescence is often pampered and protracted. Any culture, ancient or modern, that weds little girls to older men is essentially legalizing child abuse, and such practices are not condoned in Scripture.