Levirate marriage (Genesis 38)

Illustration: Boaz and Ruth

The “duty… as a brother-in-law” mentioned in Genesis 38:8 refers to the social and legal obligations of the levir (Latin for “husband’s brother”) to marry his widowed sister-in-law in the event his brother had died and left her childless.

This otherwise forbidden marriage arrangement (see Leviticus 18:16, 20:21) secured the inheritance of the deceased husband and perpetuated his name (see Deuteronomy 25:6), thus reflecting the common desire among ancient Israelites to maintain a presence in the land after their deaths in the persons of their offspring.

In addition, this arrangement provided “social security” for the childless widow, who was effectively helpless and socially disadvantaged in the ancient Near East. The Hittites and Assyrians also practiced levirate marriage.

In the event the deceased husband had no brothers (Ruth 1:10-13), or if they had declined to fulfil their duty (Genesis 38), other relatives might elect to assume the responsibility of the levir. It appears that this regulation was more strictly applied during the patriarchal period than it was several centuries later under the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This is not surprising, since Genesis 38 narrates a period in Israel’s history when “being fruitful” and “multiplying” were critical to the young nation’s existence. Consequences for a brother-in-law’s failure to fulfil his duty in these early days were severe (e.g. Onan’s death in (38:8-10). Tamar, in desperation, used her father-in-law to provide a legitimate heir. It is possible that her culture regarded her acts as legally justified; by analogy, Hittite law stipulated that should the brother of a deceased man also perish and so be unable to fulfil his duty to the widow, she should marry her late husband’s father.

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