Marriage in Ancient Israel
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 16 July 2012; Revised 24 July 2015
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.)
In the beginning God not only created the heavens and the earth, but He also created marriage. The first social institution began with the creation of Adam, then the woman whom God gave to him. The first two chapters of Genesis set forth the principles by which God intended marriage to be governed. For the foundational principles of marriage see my article Marriage By Design. The purpose of this article is to explore the process of marriage among ancient Hebrew and Jewish people, the prohibitions God mandated in the covenant with Israel and the provisions God made for special situations.
"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they will become one flesh." (Gen 2:24)
The Genesis text relates that from Adam God made male (Heb. zakar) and female (Heb. nekebah) (Gen 1:27). Yeshua reiterated this fact of creation in Mark 10:6-7 as if it were a matter of great importance. The significance of this straightforward statement is that male and female belong together. By biblical definition, then, marriage exists when a woman belongs to a man (Gen 2:21-22), which is manifest by the woman giving her consent followed by sexual consummation (Gen 24:67; 38:1-3). Marriage in the Bible is never considered as existing between persons of the same gender; indeed, same-sex relations are strongly condemned (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:24-27). In a sense marriage reenacts the original creation when both male and female were fused in Adam.
Stated another way God’s original intention was that every man have a wife and every woman to belong to one specific man for a lifetime. Yeshua reminded his critics that God created the institution of marriage; it was not the invention of Man. Thus, there is no requirement in Scripture for a government-sanctioned wedding as conceived in modern times to be considered married. Procedures and customs, of course, developed among ancient peoples to facilitate marriage, but these were determined by families, not government or religion. The principles given to Adam would have guided the marriage institution into patriarchal times and then God's covenant with Israel expanded and refined these principles with more definitive procedures to assure the proper treatment of women.
The Bible uses many words to describe the marriage relationship and process, which will be detailed in this article. In Genesis becoming married is described in terms of physical action, first as a man "taking (Heb. laqach) a wife," an idiomatic expression for consummation (Gen 4:19; 6:2; 11:29; 12:19; 20:2-3; 21:21; 24:4, 7, 40, 48). Marriage is also described as a woman being "given (Heb. nathan) as a wife," alluding to a father conveying his daughter to a man as a bride (Gen 29:19, 28; 34:8-9, 12, 14, 16). Yeshua used this same expression when he referred to the antediluvian generation as "giving in marriage (Matt 24:38).
Descriptive words also appear in the Torah for the marital relationship, the first being the Heb. verb construct b'ulat, lit., "to have a husband over" (Gen 20:3; cf. Prov 30:23; Isa 62:4), from the verb ba'al, "to marry, to rule over." Next is the Heb. verb chathan, "to make oneself a daughter's husband" (Gen 34:9) or "to form a marriage-alliance" (Deut 7:3), from which is derived the noun chathunnah, "a marriage, wedding" (SS 3:11). The first noun for marriage is Heb. onatah, "cohabitation," which occurs in Exodus 21:10.
The process of getting married in Hebrew and Jewish culture may be pieced together from various stories in the Bible and the Apocrypha, and instructions found in the Talmud. The Ketubot (Marriage Agreements) and Kiddushin (Betrothal) tractates in the Nashim (“women” or “wives”) portion of the Mishnah contain the most definitive information on laws that governed Jewish marriage in the first century. Nevertheless, while there were essential elements in ancient marriages, the extant stories illustrate that no two weddings were exactly alike, since the process was controlled by the parents and the parties - not priests, rabbis or government. In fact, as Bob Gundry says, "Our ignorance of ancient Semitic marriage customs exceeds our knowledge" (95), so care must be exercised in drawing spiritual or theological lessons from their practices.
Marriage often began with match-making, called shiddukhin or a “marriage proposal.” The initial proposal could come from the prospective groom (Heb. chatan) or the father of the groom. All the specific arrangements were handled by the parents of the bride (Heb. kallah) and groom (e.g., Gen 21:21; 24:2-5; 27:46 - 28:1; 34:3-6; 38:6; Jer. 29:6). A marriage would not take place without the consent of the bride (Gen 24:58; cf. 1Cor 7:39). Romance could be, but was not necessarily, a factor in the match (Gen 29:20; Judg 14:1-2; 1Sam 18:20).
Many Christians have fallen prey to the Western romantic myth that assumes there is one right mate for every person selected by God. Jewish culture has a similar belief that matches are made in heaven. The unequal balance of men and women in the world should have disproved this idea, but it persists. While God’s sovereign involvement may be evident in the marriages of those in the Messianic line, there is no evidence of God’s direct involvement in other marriages. In Scripture God never directed any man to marry a specific woman, but He did give guidance on the selection of mates. In reality God gives His people freedom to choose (cf. 1Cor 7:39).
Under Torah an Israelite man could marry any woman he wished (except to those listed in the Prohibitions section below) and even have more than one wife. (See the section Special Provisions below.) He was free to choose with one other proviso. For all Israelites God required that no marriage cause property to transfer from one tribe to another, as illustrated in the ruling given for the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 36:6-9). 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.
In the Torah the next step in the marriage process after the proposal or agreement between parents is betrothal, from the Heb. verb aras, to betroth (Ex 22:16; Deut 20:7; 22:23, 25, 27, 28; 28:30; 2Sam 3:14; BDB 76), which the LXX renders with the Grk. mnēsteuō, lit. “to woo and win” (BAG). Later in Israel's history the Heb. noun kelulah, "betrothal," appeared, derived from the same root as kallah (Jer 2:2). Interestingly, the LXX renders kelulah with Grk. teleiosis, "completion, perfection." Talmudic Hebrew introduced the noun erusin, derived from aras, to mean "betrothal" (Kidd. 9b). In the Besekh the practice of betrothal is mentioned in two ways, first in the literal sense of Miriam betrothed to Joseph (Matt 1:18; Luke 1:27; 2:5) and second, in a figurative sense by Paul speaking of his match-making efforts to "betroth" the Corinthian congregation to Yeshua the Messiah (2Cor 11:2).
Prior to Moses a man would take a wife at will by obtaining her consent and then taking her into his tent or house and having intercourse in private. From that point on she was his wife (e.g., Gen 25:1; 38:1-3; Ex 2:1). With the introduction of betrothal a man would acquire the bride of his choice in the presence of witnesses (cf. Ruth 4:9-11). According to the Mishnah (Kidd. 1:1), a woman could be acquired [in marriage] in three ways: by money or its equivalent (Gen 29:18; 34:12; Ex 21:11; 22:16), by deed (Gen 24:3-4; Judg 14:2; Ruth 4:9-10), or by intercourse (Deut 22:28-29). A deed was almost always involved because marriage included a transfer of property.
Jewish betrothal is not like the Gentile concept of engagement, which is only a promise of marriage. The betrothal stage was also called kiddushin, “sanctification,” and meant that from that point the woman belonged to the man. The word kiddushin comes from the same root word as kadosh (“holy”). Just as kodesh (holy things) are forbidden to all but those for whom they are designated, so too does this woman become forbidden to all men but to whom she has now been designated. Betrothal made the woman a legal wife and her status could only be changed by divorce or death. Betrothal was usually accomplished by the groom giving a coin or ring to the prospective bride and her acceptance of the token accomplished kiddushin.
By the first century tradition had standardized the betrothal period to not exceed twelve months for a virgin or thirty days for a widow (Ket. 5:2). (In contrast Jacob and Rachel waited seven years.) The betrothal period was one of preparation. The bride would prepare her marriage “outfit,” which included her clothing, jewels and ornaments. The groom would make arrangements for the wedding dinner and prepare the bridal chamber (the huppah). Sometimes this could require adding on a room to the house of the groom's father if the groom did not have his own house. The bridal chamber would have to be decorated appropriately to be suitable for the bride.
There was always a risk that during a long period of separation, the woman would discover that she wanted to marry another man, or the man would disappear, leaving the woman in the awkward state of being married but without a husband. On the other hand, the couple might decide they didn’t want to wait a year in order to live together. After betrothal the bride might be taken to her husband's house and the nuptials celebrated either immediately or later (cf. Gen 24:49-67; Judg 14:5). There were two other important goals to accomplish during the betrothal period: the preparation and giving of gifts and preparation of the marriage contract.
Gift-giving was an integral part of marriages in Bible times. Three types of gifts might be made, depending on the ability of the parties: mohar, mattan and shiluhim.
Mohar. The mohar, sometimes called “bride-price,” was a payment from the groom or the father of the groom to the bride's father. (See Gen 34:12, “bridal payment.”) The mohar was an obligation of custom, and later incorporated in the Torah (Ex 22:16-17). The mohar helped to cement the bond between the families, gave the husband authority over his wife, and made the contract binding on both parties. The mohar also served as a means of compensating the family for the financial liability of raising a daughter as well as being an expression of the young man's love for his bride.
Prior to Torah there was no customary value of the mohar. It could be whatever the father of the bride demanded (cf. Gen 34:12). The Torah prescribed a minimum mohar of 50 shekels (Ex 22:15-16; Deut 22:29). The mohar could be paid by other means than currency, such as “precious things” (Gen 24:53), labor (Gen 29:20), real estate (Josh 15:16-17), service to the nation (1Sam 18:25) or grain (Hos 3:3).
Mattan. The mattan was a voluntary offering of a gift or gifts from the groom to the bride. (See Gen 34:12, “gift.”) Social custom made the mattan expected, but it was never considered a legal obligation. The value of the mattan could vary greatly depending on the prosperity of the groom. Biblical examples may be found in Genesis 24:22, where Eliezer gives "articles of silver and articles of gold, and garments," to Rebekah and Genesis 34:12, where Shechem offers any amount of mattan for Dinah that her family would demand.
Shilluchim. The shilluchim (lit., "parting gifts," 1Kgs 9:16) were gifts given to the bride by her father and taken when she left for her new home. Shilluchim corresponds to the traditional dowry. These gifts were often considered a daughter's share of inheritance in her father's possessions and were intended to help equip the bride for her new life. Examples of paternal gifts may be found in the stories of Rebekah (Gen 24:59-61), Leah and Rachel (Gen 29:24, 29), Achsah, daughter of Caleb (Josh 15:18-19; Judg 1:14-15), an Egyptian princess who married Solomon (1Kgs 9:16), and Sarah in the book of Tobit (8:21).
Prior to the actual taking of the bride (nisuin) the groom had to prepare and present a completed marriage contract, called ketubah (lit. "document"), to his wife. Unlike a betrothal deed that might only specify the mohar and shilluchim, the ketubah specified the bride's dowry and contained a number of clauses that has traditionally outlined a husband's obligation towards his wife, including clothing and conjugal rights. The word ketubah comes from the root kaf-tav-bet, meaning writing. References to these obligations can be found in Exodus 21:10-11, although no mention is made of a document. The intertestament book of Tobit, however, mentions a scroll that was prepared at the marriage ceremony of Tobias and Sarah by the bride's father Raguel (Tobit 7:14).
The origin of the ketubah is unknown, but by the first century it was a standard feature of marriage. In effect, the ketubah replaced the mohar due to the reality that many bridegrooms could not raise the bride-price at the time needed. The ketubah was a mechanism to delay payment of the mohar when the wife would need it most and the husband had the means. The settlement amount, specified in the Mishnah and payable on the husband's death or divorce, was 200 zuzim (Hebrew silver coins) for a virgin bride or 100 zuzim for a widow (Ket. 1:2). This amount was the equivalent of financial support for a year. The ketubah became a lien against his property and security for the wife. Often the ketubah was prepared by a rabbi.
The ketubah would be read aloud in the company of witnesses before nisuin took place, just as Moses did with the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Ex 24:3). The signing of the ketubah shows that the bride and groom see marriage as more than a physical and emotional joining, but as a legal and moral commitment according to biblical law and custom. The acceptance of the ketubah by the bride signaled her readiness to proceed with the second and final stage of the marriage process.
Consummation and Celebration
The wedding ceremony, if there was one, might have consisted of sharing a cup of wine and presenting the ketubah. Local custom and the wishes of the parents often dictated the elements to the ceremony. Rabbis did not officiate at weddings nor was there an exchange of vows. The father of the bride would simply place his daughter’s hand in the hand of the groom and declare she was his to take (Tobit 7:13). Marriage was then finalized by the groom taking the bride into a room (huppah) or his house for consummation, called nisuin. The Hebrew word nisuin (“elevation”) comes from a verb that means to lift up, to carry or to take. Nisuin does not occur in the Tanakh, but is found in the Talmud (Kidd. 9b, spelled nissu'in). The wife has left her father’s authority and now belongs fully to her husband, just as Eve belonged to Adam when God presented her to him.
What happened in the way of celebration obviously depended on the financial ability of the families and local custom. The festivities may have been preceded by a procession (1 Macc 9:37) consisting of the bridegroom in festive attire and accompanied by his friends (Judg 14:11). They might go to the home of the bride, and then she, dressed in her bridal garments (Ps 45:8-15; Isa 49:18; 61:10; Jer. 2:32), and accompanied by her companions (Ps 45:15), would be led to the house of the groom's parents (Judg 14:10). The procession was enlivened with songs by, or in praise of, the bride and bridegroom. In any event none of the Bible marriage stories mention a bridal procession. In contrast Yeshua's parable of the ten virgins describes the virgins going out to meet the bridegroom (Matt 25:1-12).
Whether a procession was conducted a feast was certainly held to celebrate the nuptials (Gen 29:22; Judg 14:10; Tobit 7:15; Matt 22:2; Luke 12:36; 14:8; John 2:1-2). By custom the wedding feast would generally last a week, while the bridal days extended over a full month in order to receive gifts. The mention of the marriage celebration in conjunction with the third day in John 2:1 alludes to a particular marriage custom. According to the Talmud a man's first intercourse could not be on the Sabbath (Kethuboth 5b-7a). So, for the marriage of a virgin the bridegroom would prepare for the marriage feast three days at his house, beginning on the first day in the week (our Sunday), continuing on the second day in the week (Monday), and then the third day in the week (Tuesday). On the fourth day (Wednesday) he would consummate the marriage with her. Another reason for this schedule is that the courts of justice were in session two days in the week, the second day (Monday) and the fifth day (Thursday), so that if the husband had a claim as to the virginity of his bride he could go to the court early on the morning of the fifth day to make his complaint (Kethuboth 1:1; 2a, 3b).
An important person or persons at the wedding celebration was the "friend of the bridegroom," refers to the "companions of the bridegroom" (cf. Judg 14:11; 1 Macc 9:39; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34; John 3:29). The singular form probably alludes to the equivalent of "best man." The companions of the bridegroom (Heb. Shoshbenin) would bring him gifts and rejoice with him and then their services and gifts were reciprocated on the occasion of their marriages (Baba Bathra 144b, fn. 20; Kethuboth 12a). In addition, they remained with him at all times and even brought him to the bridal chamber when it was time for consummation and later verified the tokens of virginity. Thus, they could be called upon as witnesses to attest to the bridegroom's integrity and the bride's virginity.
From the beginning God intended that sexuality find its expression solely within the covenant of heterosexual marriage. God's Word condemns specific sexual acts or behavior as sinful and subject to the wrath of God:
● Adultery, which refers to sexual relations between a married woman and a man not her husband (Ex 20:14; Lev 20:10; Deut 5:18; 22:22-24; Prov 6:24-32; Jer 29:23; Hos 2:2; Luke 18:20; Rom 7:3; 13:9).
● Bestiality, which refers to sex acts with an animal (Ex 22:19; Lev 18:23; 20:15-16).
● Homosexual acts, which refers to sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender (Gen 13:13; 18:20; 19:4-7; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:26-27, 32; 1Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5; 1Tim 1:10; 2Pet 2:7; Jude 7).
● Incest, which refers to sexual intimacy between persons related by blood. (Lev 18:6. See the next section.)
● Lust, which refers to the selfish or prurient coveting of another person with whom one is not entitled to have relations (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21; Matt 5:28; Rom 1:24; 1Cor 6:10; Eph 5:5; 2Tim 2:22; 1Pet 2:11).
● Prostitution, which refers to procuring or providing sex for money (Gen 38:24; Lev 19:29; 21:9, 14; Deut 22:21; 23:17-18; Matt 19:9; 1Cor 5:11; 6:15-16).
● Sensuality, which refers to a wide range of behaviors including prurient displays of the nude human body, voyeurism, debauchery, animal lust, unrestrained living, acts of indecency that shock the public, readiness for any pleasure without regard to what others may think (Ex 20:26; Deut 23:14; Matt 5:28; Rom 1:27; 13:13; 1Cor 6:18; 2Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:5; 1Pet 4:3).
● Transvestism, the practice, especially of men, of wearing clothing usually associated with the opposite sex for prurient or psychological gratification. Related to this is the intent to physically adopt a gender other than one’s birth gender (Gen 1:27; Deut 22:5; 1Cor 11:14-15).
All of these offenses threaten the welfare of marriage, family and the community. God called His people to abstain from all forms of immorality as befitting a life of holiness (Rom 13:13; 1Cor 6:18; 10:18; 2Cor 7:1; Eph 5:3; 1Thess 4:3; Heb 12:15-16).
Prior to the commandments given to Moses there were no restrictions on marriage for God's people. The first generation of men after the creation of Adam obviously married their sisters and then cousins. Abraham married his paternal half-sister (Gen 20:12-13). Lot was intimate with his daughters and fathered their sons (Gen 19:30). Jacob married two sisters, both of whom were his cousins (Gen 29:10, 21-28). Judah had relations with his daughter-in-law (Gen 38:6-26). Amram married his aunt (Ex 6:20) and that union produced Moses. Other cultures at the time of Moses permitted similar unions between close relatives. In Egypt it was lawful to marry sisters and half-sisters. With the Persians, Medians, Indians, Ethiopians and Assyrians, marriage was allowed with mother, daughter and sister. The Greeks and Romans abhorred all such marriages.
The Torah laws against incest are introduced in Leviticus 18:6 with the general prohibition, "None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness." "Blood relative of his" literally means "flesh of his flesh," i.e., what is of your body (as illustrated in the specific prohibition of Lev 18:10). The primary intention of the statutes that follow, all directed to men, is to prohibit marriage to the named women since in the Torah sexual intercourse creates marriage obligations. (See also Leviticus 20:11-21; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20-23).
The general prohibition forbids father-daughter relations. The Leviticus restrictions go on to prohibit sexual relations with the following specific women: (1) mother, (2) father’s wife, (3) sister, whether father’s daughter or mother’s daughter, (4) son's daughter, (5) daughter's daughter, (6) daughter of father’s wife, (7) father's sister, (8) mother's sister, (9) wife of father's brother, (10) son’s wife, (11) brother’s wife [except when yibbum applies; see section below], (12) a woman and their daughter together, (13) daughter of wife's son, (14) daughter of wife's daughter, or (15) a woman and her sister as a rival [while both living].
In order to enforce these marriage restrictions God also decreed that any children of such unions, as well as adulterous unions, would be prohibited from ever entering the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:2). Under the New Covenant the accident of one’s birth plays no role in determining participation in the Kingdom of God (John 1:11-13). The specific prohibitions were necessary because of the allowance for polygamy. In contrast to modern marriage restrictions of many states, the Bible does not forbid a man to marry his first cousin (e.g., 1Chron 23:22), step-sister (no blood parent in common) or niece.
Before Israel entered the Promised Land God decreed that Israelites were not to intermarry with the seven indigenous tribes under God's wrath (Deut 7:3; Josh 23:12). The restriction on kings to avoid multiplying wives (Deut 17:15-17) was primarily directed at multiplying wives of the wrong type, that is, women that practiced idolatry. The pagan tribes were to be destroyed, but Israel failed in its mission and intermarriage with idolatrous people succeeded in fostering rebellion against God. Israelite men could marry foreign women if they identified with the God of Israel and cast their lot with God’s people, such as the Cushite woman Moses married (Num 12:1), Rahab (Josh 6:23-25; Matt 1:5; Heb 11:31) and Ruth (Ruth 1:16; Matt 1:5).
Injunctions for Priests
Descendants of Aaron, particularly the High Priest, were given specific guidance as to whom they could not marry and whom to marry. A common priest might marry a widow, but could not marry a harlot or a divorced woman (Lev 21:7). A high priest was forbidden to marry a widow, divorced woman, a harlot or a foreign woman. The high priest was specifically required to marry a virgin of his own people (Lev 21:13-14).
The purpose of such stringent rules for the high priest was to prevent defilement for those who would represent the people before God. Violating these rules by any priest would result in loss of priestly privileges. While a Levite might have more than one wife (cf. Ex 2:21; Num 12:1; Judg 19:1; 1Sam 1:1-2), the high priest was forbidden to perform yibbum (Yeb. 6:5).
Besides the general expectation of marriage set forth in God's instructions to Adam (Gen 1:28) and Noah (Gen 9:1), the Torah imposed marriage obligations in three specific situations.
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry for virgins” (Ex 22:16-17; cf. 1Cor 7:36).
“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days” (Deut 22:28-29).
God established justice guidelines in the event that a man seduced a woman rather than contracting marriage in the customary manner or forced a woman to have sex against her will. A woman subjected to intercourse in an open field was presumed to have been violated unless witnesses could testify she gave consent. A woman subjected to intercourse in the city was presumed to have been seduced, inasmuch as she did not cry out, unless witnesses testified she had indeed been violated (cf. Deut 22:23-27).
Since no woman could be compelled into the marriage against her will the woman could refuse marriage to the seducer or the violator. In either situation the offender had to pay an amount of money to the father. For seduction the amount would be the customary amount of a dowry the bride brought into the marriage, thus relieving her family of this responsibility. For rape, the offender had to pay the specific fine of 50 shekels of silver for the loss of virginity. If there were other injuries the offender could be fined and beaten as punishment (cf. Lev 24:19-20; Deut 25:1-3).
If the woman was still living under her father’s authority, the father could refuse to give her in marriage to the man in either situation. However, in neither case could the man refuse to marry the woman he had taken advantage of if she and her father agreed to the marriage. In other words, the offender could be made to take on lifetime responsibility for the woman and any child conceived from the union.
God gave this law to insure justice for the woman in a culture where men only wanted to marry virgins. Since the basis of the law is that the woman was unmarried at the time of being seduced, the same marriage obligation would exist for seducing a widow or divorced woman, except there would be no need of a father’s consent. David’s marriage to the widow Bathsheba is an example of following the spirit of this law out of a sense of responsibility for his child she bore (2Sam 11:27). Ironically, God chose their son, Solomon, to succeed David to the throne.
Yibbum (Levirate Marriage)
“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)
Yibbum, commonly known as 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 (“brother-in-law”), which occurs in the Deuteronomy passage. Yibbum is a divine-ordained custom practiced in antiquity, long before God issued the regulation to Moses concerning the practice.
The conditions necessitating the marriage only applied when the deceased brother had no male heir. The first son born to the marriage of the widow and her brother-in-law would be given the name of the son’s legal father, making the biological father a surrogate. 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 thereby insure that assets belonging to him and the widow remained in the family to be passed on to the son. Caring for the widows and assuring their security is a continual theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God insisted that the family shoulder the responsibility of its widows rather than burdening the community as is common in modern times. It may be that the constant prophetic theme of doing justice for widows in the Tanakh occurred because of the failure of men to do their lawful duty.
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 widow 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.” Failure to perform the duty did not result in any judicial punishment or require atonement, but he would have to live with the social disgrace.
For more information and background on this subject see my web article Levirate Marriage.
“If a fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property, then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative has sold” (Lev 25:25; cf. Ruth 2:1; 3:2; 4:14).
The marriage of Ruth and Boaz followed the process of yibbum, but the purpose was not merely to carry on the name of Elimelech. The primary concern was to insure Ruth’s security by buying Elimelech’s property, which was the duty of a 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. The go'el duty was applied especially to parcels of land which any Israelite found necessary to sell (Lev. 25:25). Another duty of the go’el was to produce 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 would be the nearest of all, after whom comes the uncle or uncle's son (Lev 25:48-49; 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. Boaz was a member of Elimelech’s clan, probably a cousin to Naomi's sons. After Naomi’s arrival home Boaz takes Ruth under his protection. Naomi inherited property from her dead husband since they had no children and this property represented her security. However, Naomi wanted Ruth to have a husband and security, and since Ruth had essentially become a Jewish proselyte, then she would have to marry someone in Naomi’s tribe. Naomi devised an ingenious plan. She decides to sell the inherited property knowing that one of her male relatives must buy it in order to keep it in the clan. Whoever redeems the property must take responsibility for her and Ruth. So, in this story the law of property redemption and yibbum become intertwined.
When Boaz discovers Naomi’s plan, he realizes there is a relative closer in consanguinity to Ruth than him. The other relative elects not to marry Ruth, probably because he did not have a son and did not want to risk investing capital in property he would gain no benefit from and be forced to bequeath his own inheritance to the first-born of a Moabite. Boaz was then free to acquire Naomi’s property and Ruth. Boaz’s unselfishness and willingness to invest in the future for Ruth’s sake makes him a great hero in the annals of Scripture.
There is irony in the story. If only one of Naomi’s sons had died the other son would have had to marry Ruth and they might never have left Moab and Ruth would not have been in the genealogy of Yeshua.
Polygamy was sanctioned by Torah and commonly practiced among ancient Israelites and Jews in the apostolic era (Sanh. 2:4; Yeb. 44a; Josephus, Ant. XVII, 1:2; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, §134). See my article on Polygamy. Scripture sometimes identifies mates of polygamous men as concubines (Heb. pilegesh). The normal Hebrew word for wife is ishshah. In Jewish society a pilegesh was a legitimate wife, though of lower rank than the principal wife, which is indicated by the references to a pilegesh as wife (Gen 25:1; 30:4; 35:22; 2Sam 12:11; 16:22; 1Chron 1:32), a pilegesh's husband (Judg 19:3), the pilegesh's "father-in-law" (Judg 19:4), and the pilegesh's "son-in-law" (Judg 19:5). In Israelite culture the cohabitation of a pilegesh with a man constituted legitimate marriage.
Because of her status a pilegesh was entitled to the same care and respect accorded any wife (Gen 16:3; 30:4, 9). In fact, King David was so moved by the maternal love of Rizpah, the pilegesh of Saul, that he had her children buried in the family sepulcher (2Sam 3:7; 21:8-14). In Gentile nations a concubine was at best a kept mistress and at worst a sex-slave that could be hired out to friends or brothels by her owner. However, an Israelite pilegesh was not to be violated or harmed by another man. Thus Jacob never forgave his eldest son for violating Bilhah (Gen. 35:22, 49:4). According to the story of Gibeah, 25,000 warriors of the tribe of Benjamin lost their lives on account of the abuse and death of a pilegesh (Judges 20). To engage in intercourse with the king's pilegesh was tantamount to usurpation of the throne, as Abner did with Rizpah (2Sam 3:7) and Absalom did with his father David's concubines (2Sam 16:21-22).
The real difference between a pilegesh and the principal wife in ancient times had to do with property. A man did not have to pay a bride-price for a pilegesh nor did she have a dowry. Rabbinic law later determined that a man was not required to provide a pilegesh a formal betrothal (kiddushin) or a ketubah (marriage contract) (Sanh. 21a). The practical effect of not having a marriage contract is that the pilegesh was not assured of an amount to be settled on her should her husband die or divorce her. In modern times a pilegesh might be likened to a common-law wife.
The divinely created institution of marriage is the foundation of society. While some of the marriage practices in Israelite culture may seem strange or even archaic, they strongly influence the instruction on marriage given by Yeshua and the apostles. The example of the patriarchs and the instruction of the Torah still provide important guidance for living in a biblically faithful manner. The command to "be fruitful and multiply" has not been rescinded.
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