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Levirate marriage is a custom in which a widow marries her deceased husband’s brother.
The origin of this practice can be traced back to ancient times, with both cultural and religious contexts.
Derived from the Latin word “levir” which means “husband’s brother,” the tradition has been observed in various societies throughout history.
Most commonly associated with biblical texts, levirate marriages are often discussed in the context of the Yibbum and Halitzah practices in Judaism.
The rationale behind this custom can be linked to the protection and support of the widow and her children, ensuring continuation of the deceased’s lineage and inheritance rights within the family.
However, it is not universally practiced and may differ in terms of laws and regulations across various communities.
- Levirate marriage is an ancient custom involving a widow marrying her deceased husband’s brother.
- The practice finds its roots in biblical texts and has a strong cultural and historical connection.
- The primary purpose is to provide protection and support to the widow and her children, as well as continuing the deceased’s lineage.
Definition and Origin of Levirate Marriage
A levirate marriage is a custom in which the unmarried brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.
The primary purpose of such a union is to ensure that the first son born becomes the heir of the deceased brother, thus continuing his name and estate.
The term “levirate” has no connection with the tribe of Levi in the Bible. Its origin is derived from the Latin word levir, which means “a husband’s brother.”
The concept of levirate marriage is an ancient practice found in various cultures, and it is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (25:5-6).
The oldest surviving brother usually has the first obligation to carry out this responsibility, and this marriage can also result in him inheriting the deceased brother’s property.
In the context of Jewish tradition, a levirate marriage is called yibbum. If the widow and the brother-in-law choose not to go through with the levirate marriage, they must perform a ceremony known as halitzah, which releases them from the obligation to marry.
Biblical Sources and Examples
One of the earliest accounts of a levirate marriage in the Bible is found in Genesis 38.
This story involves Tamar, who was married to Er, the son of Juda. After Er’s death, Juda asked his second son, Onan, to fulfill his duty as a brother and marry Tamar.
However, Onan failed to comply with the levirate tradition, which led to his eventual death.
Tamar eventually conceived children through a complicated encounter with Juda, ensuring the continuation of her deceased husband’s lineage.
The Book of Ruth presents another prominent example of a levirate marriage.
After the death of her husband, Ruth, a Moabitess, sought out Boaz, her late husband’s relative, to be her “kinsman-redeemer” and marry her in order to save the land her husband had owned (Ruth 3:9).
Boaz eventually married Ruth, and they became the ancestors of King David.
In the New Testament, levirate marriage is also mentioned in Matthew 22, where Jesus is questioned by the Sadducees about the resurrection.
They present a hypothetical scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers in accordance with the levirate law, and they ask Jesus whose wife she would be in the afterlife.
Jesus rebukes them, emphasizing that the concept of marriage is not applicable in the resurrection.
Purpose and Rationale
The purpose of a levirate marriage in ancient Israelite society was to secure the family line and perpetuate the name of the deceased brother.
It was considered the surviving brother’s responsibility to marry his sister-in-law and provide an heir for his late brother.
The firstborn child from a levirate marriage would be given the name of the dead brother, effectively continuing his legacy within the tribe and ensuring that his name would not be blotted out from Israel.
The rationale behind this practice is deeply rooted in the importance of land and inheritance in ancient Israel.
The Israelites believed that land and property should remain within a particular family and tribe, so by entering into a levirate marriage, the widow and her new husband were ensuring that the deceased brother’s land would remain within the family.
Having children was also considered a critical aspect of life, as it provided continuity for the family line and offered support for parents in their later years.
Levirate marriage functioned as a social safety net for widows, protecting them from poverty and destitution.
In the absence of children, a widow could be left without support and in a vulnerable position.
The levirate marriage allowed this woman to maintain a sense of dignity within her late husband’s family and provided an opportunity for her to have children and participate in family life.
Yibbum and Halitzah
If the surviving brother refuses or the widow does not wish to marry him, an alternative ritual known as halitzah or chalitzah may be performed to release both parties from the obligation of levirate marriage.
Halitzah, derived from the Hebrew root meaning “extract”, refers to the removal of the brother’s shoe as part of this ceremony.
The halitzah ritual takes place in a rabbinical court, in the presence of elders or witnesses, as required by Jewish law.
The process begins with the widow declaring that the brother-in-law refuses to raise up a name for his deceased brother.
Following this declaration, she removes his shoe, spits on the ground, and recites a specific verse (Deuteronomy 25:9-10).
This symbolic act marks the official release of the man and woman from the levirate marriage obligation, allowing them to marry others outside the family.
Cultural and Historical Background
In ancient Israel, levirate marriage was practiced as a socio-cultural norm, ensuring that the widow and her children were taken care of.
This custom is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, specifically in Deuteronomy 25:5-6, which states that if a man dies without having sired children, his surviving brother is obliged to marry his widow.
The objective of this union was to continue the deceased husband’s lineage and protect the family’s inheritance.
The oldest surviving brother had the primary obligation to fulfill this commandment and inherit the deceased’s estate.
The Sadducees, an ancient Jewish sect during the Second Temple period, followed the practice of levirate marriage as dictated by the Torah.
They were a significant religious and political group from the 2nd century BCE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
During that time, they played an essential role in the development of religious laws in ancient Israel.
While the concept of levirate marriage may seem outdated, its roots lie in the noble goal of providing for the deceased husband’s family.
The practice respects the brotherly bond and ensures the preservation of the deceased’s name and inheritance.
However, it is essential to bear in mind that the custom was shaped by the socio-cultural context of ancient Israel, which may not align with modern beliefs about marriage, gender roles, and other aspects of family life.
Levirate marriage is also mentioned in the context of the debate on resurrection.
In the New Testament, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, used the concept of levirate marriage to challenge Jesus.
They presented a hypothetical scenario in which a woman married seven brothers, each dying without children, and questioned whose wife she would be in the resurrection.
Jesus clarified that there would be no marriage in the resurrection, stating that the situation did not apply (Matthew 22:23-32).
Alternate Forms of Levirate Practice
One alternate form of levirate practice is sororate, which is the opposite of the levirate custom.
In sororate marriage, a widower is expected or obligated to marry his deceased wife’s sister if the wife passed away without any children.
Similar to levirate, sororate marriage aims to maintain strong family bonds and provide support to the bereaved family members.
The Nuer people of South Sudan have their own unique form of levirate practice.
In their custom, if a man dies without having any male children, his widow is assigned a male relative from the deceased husband’s kin.
This new husband is not necessarily the deceased husband’s brother. This male relative then assumes the duty of a husband and bears children with the widow.
The children born will consider the deceased man as their father, which helps to maintain the lineage of the deceased man’s family.
Interestingly, among the Nuer people, remarried widows are not only expected to have children with their new husbands in levirate marriages but also to maintain the deceased husband’s family and manage his properties.
This cultural practice endorses continuity in lineage and supports the bereaved family through companionship and property management.
Responsibilities and Consequences
The surviving brother has the responsibility of marrying the widow, thus providing her with a spouse and an opportunity to have a child.
This child would inherit the deceased brother’s property and carry on his name. The eldest surviving brother has the first obligation to perform this commandment.
However, levirate marriage is not obligatory if the widow already has children from her late husband.
In some cases, the widow and surviving brother do not wish to enter into a levirate marriage. Instead, they may perform a ceremony called “halitzah” to release them from the obligation.
This ritual involves the widow removing her brother-in-law’s sandal, symbolizing that he will not carry on his deceased sibling’s responsibility.
The levirate marriage custom prevents the widow from marrying an outsider, as the priority is to keep the deceased man’s lineage within the family.
This practice also has the effect of preserving land and property within the family, promoting stability and continuity within the community.
It is essential to note that while levirate marriage shares some similarities with polyandry (a form of marriage where a woman has more than one husband at the same time), it is not the same practice.
Levirate marriage only occurs upon the death of the spouse, whereas polyandry occurs when the woman is still married to her spouse.
Levirate marriage outlines the roles and responsibilities of the surviving brother and the widow, with the primary objective of producing an heir and preserving the deceased’s memory.
While it serves multiple cultural and social functions, it also has consequences and alternatives that allow for the continuation of the family lineage.