Levirate Law

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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

Levirate LAW ( Lat. levir , ‘a husband’s brother’) regulated the marriage of a man with his dead brother’s widow. In the story of Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38) there is record of a marriage of this type, and at certain stages of civilization the Levirate marriage was a widespread custom.† [Note: Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage, London, 1891, pp. 510–514.] Among the Jews the law was laid down that ‘if brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child (son), the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother … shall take her to him to wife’ ( Deuteronomy 25:5). It almost seems, however, that the Levirate custom was not permitted by later legislation ( Leviticus 18:16;  Leviticus 20:21); but it has been suggested (1) that the forbidden marriage of that legislation was one between a man and the wife of his living brother;* [Note: Note to  Deuteronomy 25:5 ff. in Steuernagel, ‘Deuteronomium und Josua’ (Nowack’s Hdkom. zum AT, Göttingen, 1900).] and (2) that the custom consecrated in Dt. was the exception to the general law set forth in Leviticus.† [Note: Driver, Deuteronomy, p. 285; note to  Leviticus 18:16 in Dillmann, Exodus und Leviticus, Leipzig, 1897.] The object of the Levirate marriage ( Deuteronomy 25:6) was to secure that the firstborn of the new union should succeed in the name of the dead brother, whose name thereby might not be blotted out from Israel. In the earlier ages of Judaism there was no clear conception of personal immortality; and the Levirate law was doubtless framed so that there might be the survival through posterity of the name of the representative of a family.

For the statement of a problem regarding the resurrection, propounded to Jesus ( Matthew 22:23-33,  Mark 12:18-27,  Luke 20:27-38), the Levirate law was used by the Sadducees, who are described by the Synoptists as saying that there is no resurrection, and by Josephus ( Ant. xviii. i. 4) as holding ‘that souls die with the bodies.’ Regarding as obligatory only those observances which are found in the written word, they rejected those derived from the traditions of their forefathers. The Pharisees, on the other hand, accepted such traditions, and with them a belief in the doctrine of the resurrection (cf. Josephus Ant. xiii. x. 6). This doctrine, taught clearly in Daniel 12, was made popular in Jewish theological discussions by the Book of Enoch,‡ [Note: Charles, The Book of Enoch, p. 52 (Oxford, 1893).] and suggested the problem set forth by the Sadducees, who evidently sought by the authority of Moses to discredit a doctrine held by the Pharisees and taught by Jesus. In stating their problem they brought forward a case of seven brothers who one after the other married the same woman. It is not necessary to take the case as one of actual fact, since the phrase παρ ̓ ἡμῖν in Mt. may have been used merely for literary effect.

In each of the Synoptics the setting forth of the problem is prefaced by a statement of the Levirate law as spoken or written by Moses (Mt. has Μωϋσῆς εἶπε, but in Mk. and Lk. it is Μωϋσῆς ἔγραψεν ἡμῖν). In none of the three statements are the ipsissima verba of  Deuteronomy 25:5 used, and Mt. borrows the words ἐπιγαμβρεύσει καὶ ἀναστήσει σπἐρμα from the LXX Septuagint version of  Genesis 38:8.

The problem propounded by the Sadducees may be thus stated:—The Levirate law was enacted by Moses, and there was a case of seven brothers who in obedience to it married, one after the other, the same woman, who herself died after the death of the last of the seven. In the resurrection, since they all had her, whose wife shall she be of the seven? Jesus in His answer to the Sadducees did not discuss the justice or injustice of the Levirate law, or examine the purpose of Moses in decreeing it; but, asserting that they had erred, not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God, He showed them that in the resurrection men neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven; and then He proceeded to declare that belief in immortality is involved in our consciousness of the being of God.

J. Herkless.

Easton's Bible Dictionary [2]

 Genesis 38:8 Deuteronomy 25:5-10 Ruth 3 4:10

Holman Bible Dictionary [3]

 Deuteronomy 25:5-10

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [4]

LEVIRATE LAW. See Marriage, § 4.