Why was the levirate marriage important in Bible times?


by Shawn Brasseaux

The levirate marriage was the practice in ancient Israel whereby a widowed woman married her late husband’s brother. Such a union would produce at least one child to take the dead man’s place in the land. (“Levir” is Latin for “brother-in-law,” although, depending on the limitations of the situation, the woman could have even married her husband’s nephew, cousin, et cetera.) While we, of a different culture and time, consider this revolting, if we understand it as touching their conditions, there was nothing perverted or inappropriate about it.

In the Law of Moses, Deuteronomy chapter 25, the LORD God outlined the rules for this levirate marriage: “[5] If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. [6] And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel. [7] And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother. [8] Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; [9] Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. [10] And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.”

Blood lines were very essential in Israel, as land allotted to the 12 tribes was to stay within their respective tribes and not be transferred to other tribes. The death of a childless man meant his bloodline would cease, jeopardizing his inheritance, the estate possibly being lost to another tribe if his widow married a man of another tribe. If his surviving wife married his blood relative (brother, cousin, et cetera), however, the firstborn child of this new union would take the place of the deceased man. The birth of this new child, of the same bloodline as the man who died, would cause the inheritance/land to remain within the original family or tribe.

The classic example of a levirate marriage in Scripture is Ruth’s marital relationship with Boaz, her husband’s relative. Read the Book of Ruth for more information. Some bungled levirate marriages in the Bible are in Genesis 38:8-14—although this was long before the Law of Moses formally sanctioned such arrangements. By the way, the levirate marriage was the basis for the captious question the Sadducees posed to Jesus in an unsuccessful attempt to trap Him (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38).

Also see:
» Why was Moses ordered to be shoeless?
» Why did Israel have to keep so many strange laws?
» Who are the “lawyers” in Scripture?