Q: #499. What was a Levirate Marriage?
By: Steve Shirley
A: We see what is called a "Levirate Marriage" explained in (Deut 25:5-10). The word "Levirate" comes from the Latin word "levir," meaning "husband's brother." A Levirate Marriage would occur when the husband of a woman died (making her a widow), and they had not had a child together. The brother (oldest / unmarried assumed) of the deceased was then to marry the widow, and have a child with her. "The firstborn" offspring of this marriage would become the legal heir of the name and property of the deceased, thereby keeping the 'family name" from being "blotted out of Israel," and the property from passing to "a stranger outside the family." Since God forbid any Israelite to permanently give up their ancestral land (Num 36:7-9)(Lev 25:23-28)(1 Kin 21:3)(Ezek 46:16-18), Levirate Marriage would help prevent this.
***Note: Some Bible versions say "the first son" instead of "the firstborn" in (Deut 25:6), but since God said in (Num 27:1-8) that a daughter could also inherit the name and property of a deceased father, "firstborn" (son or daughter) is likely the correct translation.
A Levirate Marriage also had a secondary value in that it would provide the widow with a husband, as well as a child (or children) to care for and protect her.
As mentioned in (Deut 25:7-10), a "brother-in-law" could refuse to marry the widow. If he did this, it was considered a lack of love and respect for his deceased brother. He was to be publically disgraced and humiliated by the widow (she was to "spit in his face"), and his reputation amongst the Israelites would be severely damaged. (***Note: Tradition says that "spit in his face" was actually spitting on the ground in front of his feet.)
It should be noted that "Levirate Marriage" does not appear to be a "law" from God. It was simply a practice of the Israelite people in Old Testament times. There are two instances of Levirate Marriage being practiced in the Old Testament, and one occurred in Genesis, hence showing that it preceded the "law."
***Note: In the "law," God actually forbid a man from from marrying his brother's wife (Lev 18:16)(Lev 20:21). However, this likely meant "while the brother was still alive." If not this, then the "law," may not have applied to instances of Levirate Marriage.
The two instances of Levirate Marriage in the Old Testament can be found in (Genesis 38:1-30) with Tamar and Er/Onan (quite an interesting story!), and in the Book of Ruth, with Ruth and Boaz. Levirate marriage is also mentioned in the New Testament in (Mt 22:23-33)(Mk 12:18-27)(Lk 20:27-38).
***Note: Notice that in the book of Ruth, Ruth's deceased husband had no surviving brothers to carry out the Levirate Marriage. Therefore, in this instance, a close relative of Ruth named Boaz took it upon himself to fulfill this duty. It should also be noted that Ruth/Boaz, and the firstborn son of this marriage (Obed) are in the lineage to Jesus (Mt 1:5)(Lk 4:32)(Ruth 4:17-22). A term that is sometimes used for what Boaz did for Ruth is called a "kinsman redeemer." History shows us that other cultures also practiced Levirate Marriage.