Levirate Marriage (in the Bible)

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The term levirate marriage, from the Latin levir meaning husband's brother or brother-in-law, refers to marriage between a widow and her deceased husband's brother. If a married man died without a son, his brother was to marry the widow. The practice is reflected in three Old Testament texts: Gn 38.611, the Book of Ruth, and Dt 25.510.

The purpose of the law in Deuteronomy was to prevent loss of family property by the widow's marrying outside the clan. The law applied only to the case of brothers who had lived together and worked common property. The levirate marriage would insure issue to the deceased and pass the inheritance to the firstborn of the new union. Later, levirate law applied only if no child was born, since daughters could inherit (Nm 27.8; 36.67). If the brother-in-law refused to marry, his sister-in-law took off his sandal publicly and spat in his face because he refused to build up his brother's house (Dt 25.710). In Ruth, in default of a brother-in-law, other relatives had the duty of marrying the widow in order of nearness of kinship to her. Both widow and relative could refuse to marry in this case without disgrace (Ru 3.10; 3.13).

In Mt 22.2328; Mk 12.1823; Lk 20.2733, the question put to Christ about a widow's marrying seven brothers reflects the levirate law. Though not found in the Code of Hammurabi, the custom was known also among the Assyrians and Hittites. Here death during engagement also brought the law into effect [J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament (Princeton 1955) 182; 196].

Bibliography: p. cruveilhier, "Le Lévirat chez les Hébreux et chez les Assyriens," Revue biblique 34 (Paris 1925) 524546. m. burrows, "Levirate Marriage in Israel," Journal of Biblical Literature 59 (Boston 1940) 2333. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 3738.

[r. h. mcgrath]