Levirate Marriage


Meaning: Marriage with a brother’s widow. (From Latin levir, husband’s brother).This custom is found among a large number of primitive peoples, a list of which is given by Westermarck (“History of Human Marriage,” pp. 510-514). 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. 21), but was regarded as obligatory (Deut. 25:7, 56) 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 Ḥaliẓah (taking of a brother-in-law’s shoe by widow of brother who has died childless, releasing him from having to marry her). The case of Ruth is not one of levirate marriage, being connected rather with the institution of the Go’el (next of kin, redeemer); 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; comp. Josephus, “Ant.” iv. 8,23).

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. 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 ḥaliẓah, yet the whole question has been profoundly affected by the change from polygamy to monogamy… From various sources

Numbers 27:1-11, 36:6-9 provides an exception if there was no male heir. In order to assist women in such circumstances, levirate marriages provided economic stability and social respectibility through marriage and having children. Additionally, the practice also provided a means by which a “son” if the deceased could inherit the dead man’s property, insuring that family land (a powerful symbol and significant economic matter) remained in the family to provide aged parents with economic security… The levirate principle underlies the accounts of Tamar (Gen 38) by which this account reflects pre-Mosaic practice during the dispensation of Abraham.” From Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, Holzapfel, Pike and Seely. P. 189.

Note: Islamic law did at one time enforce the levirate. In central Asia, levirate marriages were widely practiced among the nomads. Called polygyny (the man having two or more wives at the same time). Levirate marriages also were common in most African countries.

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