Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 20 August 2011; Revised 4 September 2016
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations. Bibliographic data for other works cited may be found at the end of the article.
Grammar: The meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB."
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament) and incorporate other appropriate Hebrew and Jewish terms. (See the glossary.)
"When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. But if the man does not desire to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, `My husband's brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband's brother to me.'" (Deut 25:5-7)
Levirate marriage refers to the duty of a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother in the event his brother had produced no male heir. The term "levirate" comes from the Latin levir meaning "husband's brother" and translates the Hebrew word yabam, which occurs only in the passage above and Genesis 38:8. Levirate marriage, called yibbum in Judaism, is a custom whose origin lies in antiquity, long before God issued a regulation concerning the practice. God preferred that men marry women within their tribe, as illustrated in the specific ruling given for the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 36:6). The reason was simple. The land of Israel had been apportioned among the tribes and then within each tribe further apportioned to the clans. Marriage wasn't just about romance but maintaining the tribal name and the land associated with the name.
Ordinarily a man could not marry his brother's wife (divorced or widowed, Lev 18:16; 20:21), so the conditions necessitating the marriage only applied when the deceased brother had ein ben ("no son," TLV), i.e., no male heir at all. The Hebrew word ben, which occurs over 5,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, basically, but not exclusively, means "son" (BDB 119). When used as an expression in the plural, benim may mean children or descendants generally. The LXX translates ben in the Deuteronomy passage with sperma (seed or child), which may indicate a child of either sex, and the Sadducees in the Besekh seem to take it in this sense (Mark 12:19) as does the first century Jewish historian, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, IV, 8:23).
Some versions translate ein ben with "childless" or "without children" (CJB, DRA, JPS, JUB, KJV, NJB, OJB) as if the Heb. word was zera ("seed" or "descendant"). The entire context requires the interpreting ein ben as lacking a male heir. Otherwise, what is the point of the first son born to the marriage of the widow and her brother-in-law being given the name of the deceased brother? In yibbum the biological father becomes a surrogate for the first son, but every other child born to the union would be his. The primary purpose of the yibbum law was to preserve the dead man's name in Israel and insure that assets belonging to him and the widow remained in the family to be passed on to the son. Caring for widows and assuring their security is a continual theme throughout the Bible. God insisted that the family shoulder the responsibility of its widows rather than burdening the community as is common in modern times.
The act of assuming the marriage responsibility for the deceased brother is a serious Torah requirement. If the brother-in-law refused to perform the duty of marrying the widow in order to produce an heir for his deceased brother, then the widowed sister-in-law had to perform the ceremony of chalitza and publicly disgrace her brother-in-law by removing his shoe before the village elders and spitting in his face. From that moment on, he would be known throughout Israel as "the house of him who has his shoe loosed" (Deut 25:10; TWOT 1:359f). Failure to perform the duty did not result in any criminal kind of penalty or require atonement, but he would have to live with the social disgrace. The requirement of yibbum was expected even if the surviving brother already had a wife, polygamy being an acceptable practice in the Torah. In addition, traditional Jewish interpretation also required the ceremony if the widow declined to marry the brother-in-law.
God's instruction implied, as actual biblical cases illustrate, that if there was no male sibling or the nearest male sibling refused his duty then the next male relative in the line of consanguinity assumed the responsibility to perform the duty of a yabam. In context the yibbum law pertains to the family clan and God intended that families take care of their widows. The verb "live" means to dwell or inhabit but does not necessarily mean under the same roof. The Hebrew word rendered "together" also means in union, united or all together. The commandment was given during the wilderness wanderings and looked forward to the day when the clans of Israel would each have their apportioned land across the Jordan.
The Talmud supports the practice of yibbum as a matter of duty, but carefully limits its application. For example, a priest could not marry a widow (Lev 21:14). If a man had a male heir by another wife, then yibbum was not expected. The marriage restrictions of Leviticus 18 still applied and Rabbis identified fifteen categories of widows that a man was not allowed to marry: his daughter, the daughter of his daughter and the daughter of his son; the daughter of his wife, the daughter of her son and the daughter of her daughter; his mother-in-law, his mother-in-law's mother, and his father-in-law's mother; his maternal sister, his mother's sister, his wife's sister and his maternal brother's wife (Yebamoth 2a).
Over the centuries yibbum waned in favor in Judaism because it became associated with the practice of polygamy. About A.D. 1000 a rabbinic assembly convened by the Ashkenazi Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (960-1040) issued an edict prohibiting polygamy for a thousand years, thereafter known as "the ban of R. Gershom. The ban of Gershom was adopted because of pressure from the predominant Christian culture, which viewed polygamy as barbaric. The concession did not ease antisemitism nor did it end Jewish polygamy.
Sephardic Jewish communities in the Moslem countries of the East did not acknowledge Gershom's edict. The famous 12th century Sephardic legal scholar, physician, and philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) supported Talmudic tradition and reiterated laws regulating plural marriage in volume four of his Code called The Book of Women. In Jewish law today yibbum is not permitted and therefore the ceremony of chalitza must be performed in front of a ten man Beth Din (court of Jewish religious law).
Lot and his daughters
"Then the firstborn said to the younger, our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of the earth. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him that we may preserve our family through our father. (Gen 19:31-32)
The earliest story of a union emulating the principles of yibbum is the account of Lot impregnating his two daughters after the destruction of Sodom. The daughters had been betrothed (Gen 19:14), which is the sense of the Hebrew (Keil, I, 149) and in biblical times constituted a legal marriage. Why the sons-in-law did not go with Lot and their wives is not explained. In any event after their husbands were killed the daughters took matters into their own hands. The motive for their union was not lust, but probably fear that no man would have them, assuming them to be cursed because of coming from the cursed city of Sodom.
Since Lot was the nearest male relative, the reasoning of his daughters to become pregnant by him is understandable and completely in accord with ancient custom. Among the Persians, Medians, Indians, Ethiopians and Assyrians, marriage was allowed with a daughter (Keil 1:595). The marriage restrictions given to Israel in Leviticus 18 regarding intimate relations and marriage within prohibited degrees would preclude a father-daughter marriage (Lev 18:6), but God's laws are not applied ex post facto, or retroactively. Lot and his daughters cannot be charged with sin as evident from the fact that Scripture contains no censure of them and Peter clearly identified him as a righteous man (2Pet 2:7).
Judah and Tamar
"Then Judah said to Onan, Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law [Heb. yabam] to her, and raise up offspring for your brother. (Gen 38:8)
In this story Judah, son of Jacob, had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah arranged a marriage for Er to a woman named Tamar. But, Er was evil, so God put him to death. The nature of Er's evil is not explained, but his conduct must have been egregiously wicked for God to act with summary judgment. In due course Judah expected Onan to marry Tamar in order to continue Er's name. Judah's decision demonstrates that following the custom was not based on the character of the deceased. This story emphasizes that the duty of yibbum predated the Sinai covenant, and as a principle of law that has existed from the beginning (cf. Matt 19:4), yibbum may not be impugned.
Onan did not want to produce an heir that would belong to his dead brother. The reason is not explained, but one might give him the benefit of the doubt and assume Onan considered it offensive to name a child of his flesh after an evil man. Even more probable is that Onan knew that he could not perpetuate his family through a first-born son with Tamar. Just as grievous is that not only would Er's property be conveyed to the first-born, but Onan's own inheritance as well. If Onan had already married and had a first-born son there would have been no problem. Onan could have taken Tamar as a second wife and completed his duty.
Onan did not refuse Tamar her conjugal rights, but at the critical moment of intercourse he ejaculated his semen on the ground rather than into his wife. As a result, God was displeased with Onan and put him to death for refusing to do his marital duty, not because his semen made contact with the ground. With two dead sons Judah became afraid that the same consequence would befall his son Shelah who was still a lad. Perhaps Judah knew that Shelah was of the same moral character as his two brothers. In any event Judah's fear denied Tamar her due.
Once Shelah was fully grown and Judah denied the marriage, Tamar put a plan in motion. She disguised herself as a harlot and waited in a place she knew that Judah would pass. The fact that Judah could be enticed by someone he viewed as a harlot says much about his own character. In the end when Tamar was discovered to be pregnant by Judah, he was forced to admit his error. Thus, Tamar obtained the security and justice that Judah had withheld from her. While it is easy to condemn Judah and Tamar by the later law that forbid sexual union between a man and his daughter-in-law (Lev 18:15; 20:12), Tamar is clearly the object of sympathy in the story and as with Lot and his daughters there was no sin.
Boaz and Ruth
"Then the women said to Naomi, 'Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.'" (Ruth 4:14)
Rabbinic scholars do not regard the case of Ruth and Boaz as a yibbum marriage per se, being connected rather with the institution of the go'el, meaning next of kin and therefore redeemer. In ancient Israel any duty which a man could not perform by himself had to be taken up by his next of kin, as well as any rights possessed by a man which lapsed through his inability to perform the duties attached to such rights, could be and should be assumed by the next of kin.
The go'el duty was applied especially to parcels of land which any Israelite found it necessary to sell (Lev. 25:25). Another duty of the go'el was to raise offspring for his kinsman if he happened to die without any. The relative nearness of kin is not very definitely determined in the Hebrew Scriptures. The brother appears to be the nearest of all, after whom comes the uncle or uncle's son (Lev. 25:49; Num 36:11).
Boaz was Ruth's kinsman by marriage. He wasn't her brother-in-law since Naomi had only two sons and both died in Moab. Ruth 4:3 describes the relation of Naomi's husband Elimelech to the unnamed relative and Boaz as "our brother" (Heb. ach), which is used in the Tanakh of a sibling (same father and mother), half-sibling (same father), but also other blood relatives as uncle or cousin, and even a member of the same tribe. Given that Boaz points out that the unnamed relative is closer in consanguinity than he (Ruth 3:12), then the unnamed relative could be a sibling of Elimelech, making him an uncle to the husband of Ruth and a cousin to Boaz.
After Naomi's arrival home Boaz takes Ruth under his protection. Naomi realized her dead husband had property that she could sell to obtain security for her and Ruth, plus gain a husband for Ruth at the same time. Of course, as a Jewish proselyte Ruth would have to marry within Naomi's tribe (cf. Num 36:1-7). However, the land had to remain within the clan and would have to be purchased by a relative. So, in this story the law of property redemption and yibbum become intertwined.
When Boaz discovers Naomi's plan, he is willing to marry Ruth, but he has to resolve the matter of legal entitlement that belongs to the nearer relative. The uncle elects not to marry Ruth, probably because he already had a wife, but no son, and he did not want to invest capital in property he would gain no benefit from and be forced to bequeath his own inheritance to the first-born of Ruth. Boaz was then free to acquire the property and Ruth.
It is very possible that Boaz had a wife or concubine and even children since an unmarried man of his age and prominence would have been unusual (cf. Ruth 3:2). Wives are only mentioned in Scripture for a reason. In reality the story of Ruth is told to provide background to the story of David. Boaz's character stands in stark relief with his uncle. Boaz was not concerned about the impact on his estate but doing justice for Ruth, which makes him a giant of a man in the annals of Scripture.
Teaching of Yeshua
"Teacher, Moses said, 'If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.' Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.'" (Matt 22:24-28)
The fact that certain Sadducees pose the hypothetical situation of seven brothers having married a widow after each of them died demonstrates that yibbum was still practiced by the Jews in the first century. If Yeshua was opposed to the duty mandated by the Torah that he himself gave to Moses, he failed to take any action to overturn the law. It would have been strange for Yeshua to criticize the practice since, in the flesh, he directly descended from the unions of Judah and Tamar (Matt 1:3) and Ruth and Boaz (Matt 1:5). Instead the Lord's concern was to correct the basis for the Sadducee rejection of the resurrection, as well as to clarify the nature of resurrection in relation to marriage. We might assume that the silence of Yeshua on the application of yibbum law affirmed its continued practice, but he had no legal authority to make such a decision.
"Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God . But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; for some have already turned aside to follow Satan. If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed." (1Tim 5:3-4, 8, 14-16)
The apostle Paul, a Messianic Jew, offers a lengthy exposition on the care of widows to the young Jewish pastor Timothy. The care of widows was an important duty in Israelite society and the apostles insured that believing widows received the care God intended (cf. Acts 6:1-5). Congregations in the apostolic era had a significant Jewish constituency. In the passage above Paul gives instructions not only to pastoral leadership and the congregation, but male heads of families. Paul rules that widows over 60 would be supported by the congregation only if there were no family members to assume the duty (1Tim 5:4-10). This is general guidance for believers with blood relatives who are widows (i.e., mother, grandmother, aunt).
Paul's instruction concerning widows in verses 14-16, however, is very similar to the Torah obligation of yibbum, that is, marrying the widow of a brother without a male heir. Paul expresses a strong desire that young widows (those of childbearing age) receive security from their families. While he does not specifically invoke the Deuteronomy rule, it is not unthinkable that in his Jewish understanding he would expect the nearest male relative to take on the responsibility in accordance with the yibbum law. This interpretation is supported by the fact that "anyone" of verse 8 is masculine, as is the adjective "his own" (Grk. oikeios), which lit. means "his family."
Paul adds a requirement not found in the Torah. In verse 16 he commands that young widows to be provided support by their family, which could refer to either blood relations or relations by marriage. Paul's concern is that families do their duty by their loved ones so that the congregation would not be overly burdened. The instruction opens with a specific person (Grk. pistē, fem. of pistos, "believer") being commanded to provide the support. The command to "assist" implies having the financial means to do so. The instruction could be taken in three ways.
First, the gender of the Greek word could be viewed as immaterial since its corresponding word in Paul's native language of Hebrew is also feminine and it has a general usage. The KJV assumes this view and introduces the verse with "any man or woman that believeth," which reinforces the generic application. Second, the instruction may apply to wives of Jewish men with yibbum duty. Yibbum is a strong expectation in Torah, and if the obligated man decides to accept the widow as a wife, his existing wife cannot overrule that decision. Third, Paul may intend that if the nearest male relative with the yibbum obligation is not a believer, then the nearest female relative who is a believer will assume the responsibility. Actually, all three applications could exist at the same time. In any event, this instruction for care of widows is an apostolic command which has the full authority of Yeshua behind it.
Christianity has generally regarded the yibbum law as a quaint practice at best, but Judaism still recognizes the practice as long as it does not involve polygamy. The application of yibbum among Gentiles would not be expected since it was part of God's covenant with Israel. In any event, justice for widows has been God's concern since ancient times. Therefore, congregations in the Body of Messiah should carefully consider biblical instructions on care of widows.
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