Levirate Marriage

Levirate Law from Latin levir, "a husband's brother", the name of an ancient custom ordained by Moses, by which, hen an Israelite died without issue, his surviving brother was required to marry the widow......

Levirate Law from Latin levir, "a husband's brother", the name of an ancient custom ordained by Moses, by which, hen an Israelite died without issue, his surviving brother was required to marry the widow, so as to continue his brother's family through the son that might be born of that marriage (Gen.38:8; Deut.25:5-10; Ruth3&4:10). Its object was "to raise up seed to the departed brother."

Marriage with a brother's widow. This custom is found among a large number of primitive peoples. In some cases it is the duty of a man to marry his brother's widow even if she has had children by the deceased, but in most cases it occurs when there are no children, as among the Hindus. Among the Hebrews marriage with a brother's widow was forbidden as a general rule (Lev.18:16; 20:21), but was regarded as obligatory (Deut.25:5,6) when there was no male issue, and when the two brothers had been dwelling on the same family estate. The surviving brother could evade the obligation by the ceremony of Halizah. The case of Ruth is not one of levirate marriage, being connected rather with the institution of the Go'el; but the relations of Tamar with her successive husbands and with Judah are an instance (Gen.38). If the levirate union resulted in male issue, the child would succeed to the estates of the deceased brother. It would appear that later the levirate marriage came to be regarded as obligatory only when the widow had no children of either sex. The Septuagint translates "ben" (son) in the passage of Deuteronomy by "child," and the Sadducees in the New Testament take it in this sense (Mark.12:19).

Boaz continued,"When you acquire the field from Naomi, you also acquire responsibility for Ruth the
Moabite, the widow of the late heir, to raise up a family for the deceased on his estate." The redeemer
replied, "I cannot exercise my right of redemption... You do it in my place..." Now it used to be the
custom in Israel that, to make binding a contract of redemption or exchange, one party would take
off a sandal and give it to the other. This was the form of attestation in Israel. (Ruth.4:5-7).

By Talmudic times the practise of levirate marriage was deemed objectionable, and was followed as a matter of duty only. To marry a brother's widow for her beauty was regarded by Abba Saul as equivalent to incest. Bar Kappara recommends Halizah. A difference of opinion appears among the later authorities, Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Spanish school generally upholding the custom, while R.Tam and the Northern school prefer Halizah. The marriage was not necessary if the brother left a child by another marriage, even if such a child were on the point of death. A change of religion on the part of the surviving brother does not affect the obligation of the levirate, or its alternative, the Halizah, yet the whole question has been profoundly affected by the change from polygamy to monogamy due to the takkanah of Gershom ben Judah.

It has been suggested by Kalisch that the prohibition in Leviticus is of later date than the obligation under certain conditions in Deuteronomy, but it is equally possible that the Leviticus prohibition was a general one, and the permission in Deuteronomy only an exception when there was no male issue. J.F.Maclennan suggested that the existence of levirate marriage was due to polyandry among the primitive Hebrews, but this is rather opposed to the Hebraic conditions, for it would be against the interests of the surviving brother to allow the estate to go out of his possession again. There is, besides, no evidence of polyandry among the Hebrews.

Boaz then said to the elders and to all the people, "You are witnesses today that I ...also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, as my wife, in order to raise up a family for her late husband on his estate, so that the name of the deceased may not perish from his people and his place. Do you witness this today?" (Ruth.4:9-10)


© 2024 Duns Scotus Bible Centre. All rights reserved