A Levirate Marriage? Art Thou Thy Brother’s Keeper?

The Levirate Law www.womeninthebible.net Tamar and Judah from Horace Vernet

The Levirate Law
http://www.womeninthebible.net
Tamar and Judah from Horace Vernet

Recently, I listened to a minister discuss what is known as a Levirate Marriage, a marriage between the widow and the husband’s brother. Many Christians, especially those in the Western world, consider this a reprehensible action, but the Bible does provide specific examples, such as the tale of Tamar (in Genesis 38). We sometimes forget about the nations where a widow would no longer be valued (even by a widower) for in some countries a man will only take a virgin to wife. Levirate marriages have long been practice in societies with a “clan” structure. It is an exogamous marriage to strengthen the clan.

A Levirate marriage can prove a Godsend for those in a society where women possess no rights beyond being their husband’s chattel. The practice of can provide the woman and her children a form of protection. 

ATOMCrop3As I used a Levirate marriage as a plot device in A Touch of Mercy: Book 5 of the Realm Series, I was most interested in this discussion. I am also aware that not only is this practice acceptable in the cultures of Central Asia, Indonesia, and some African countries, but even in the Royal Houses of England, such was the situation. When Arthur, Prince of Wales, passed, Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, Arthur’s widow. In the late 1800s, Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, the fiancée of Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, married Albert Victor’s younger brother, George Frederick Ernest Albert (Prince George, Duke of York) the future King George V, when Albert Victor died of pneumonia.

In Deuteronomy 25: 5-6, we find, “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her./And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead. That his name be not put out of Israel.” [There are similar cross references to the concept of a levirate marriage found in Matthew 22:24; Ruth 4:5; Leviticus 20:21; and Genesis 38:8.]

According to Ronald L. Eisenberg of My Jewish Learning, “Levirate marriage is the obligation of a surviving brother to marry the widow of his brother if he died without having sired children (Deut. 25:5-6). The corollary is that the widow must marry a brother-in-law rather than anyone outside the family. The oldest of the surviving brothers had the first obligation to perform this commandment, which also allowed him to inherit all of his dead brother’s property.

“The explicit purpose of this commandment was to have the surviving brother produce an heir to perpetuate the name of his dead brother, so that it would not ‘be blotted out of Israel.’

“The literal meaning of the Biblical text implies that the firstborn child of a levirate marriage would be named after the dead brother, to carry on his memory. However, this is true only in the spiritual sense, for there was no requirement to name the newborn son after the dead brother.

“The duty of levirate marriage was obligatory only on one who was alive at the time of the death of his childless brother; it did not apply to one born after his brother’s death. Furthermore, both brothers must have the same father. If either of these conditions was not fulfilled, the childless widow was immediately free to marry anyone she chose.”

The Hebrew Bible obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn child being treated as that of the deceased brother, which renders the child the heir of the deceased brother and not the genetic father. However, if either of the parties refuses to go through with the marriage, both are required to go through a ceremony known as halizah, involving a symbolic act of renunciation of their right to perform this marriage. Jewish law (halakha) has seen a gradual decline of yibbum in favor of halizah, to the point where in most contemporary Jewish communities the former is strongly discouraged. (Wikipedia)

In my novel, I broke with this “rule” of marrying the widow of one’s brother by adding several twists to the plot. Aidan Kimbolt is the hero of this book. He is the minor son of Viscount Lexford, and he loves Susan Rhodes to distraction. However, his father sends Aidan off to war so Aidan may earn his fortune. In Aidan’s absence, his older brother marries Susan. Yet, as Fate would have it, Lord Andrew Kimbolt dies in a duel over his mistress, and Lady Susan is left with child. Viscount Lexford summons Aidan home from the war to marry Susan and secure the line of the viscountcy. [I shall not tell you more of the plot, but know that there are MANY secrets the hero must uncover in order to understand why Susan rebukes him and why she commits suicide after giving birth to a son, Aaron.]

An excellent source on this topic is the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 4, No. 10(1); August 2014. Levirate Unions in both the Bible and African Cultures: Convergence and Divergence. The Catholic University of Eastern Africa Kisumu Campus.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Levirate marriage, Living in the Regency, real life tales, world history and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Levirate Marriage? Art Thou Thy Brother’s Keeper?

  1. vvaught512 says:

    Your posts are always so interesting!

    • Many thanks, Vikki. In the Regency, we often see references to men not being allowed to marry his late wife’s sister, but not so much his brother’s widow. The doctrine that such marriages were illicit was reflected in the Table of kindred and affinity in the Anglican (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer. Prohibition of marriage between certain degrees of kindred outlawed what is known as incest; prohibition between degrees of relationship by marriage (affinity) as opposed to blood (consanguinity) seems to have reflected an analogous taboo. At least one novel, Felicia Skene’s “The Inheritance of Evil; Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister” (1849) addressed the topic in polemic fictional form. Under ecclesiastical law, a marriage within the prohibited degrees was not absolutely void but it was voidable at the suit of any interested party. Matthew Boulton married his deceased wife’s sister in 1760. He advised silence, secrecy and Scotland, although they married in London; the marriage was opposed by her brother. Similarly Charles Austen, the younger brother of Jane Austen, married his deceased wife’s sister in 1820 and remained married to her until he died in 1852.

  2. About that Henry VIII business, isn’t levirate the argument he used to say the marriage was invalid?
    Also it is the rule that the BiL must marry the widow if there have been no children that the scribes tried to used to trip up Jesus about the afterlife.

    • This was a response on EHFA to the post. I think it answers some of your questions, Caro. “Levirate marriage was instituted in Israelite times for two reasons: if a man died childless, his name died with him, and that was intolerable. Hence his brother-in-law was supposed to impregnate his widow, the offspring being considered the son of the original husband, not the brother-in-law. The best known example of this was detailed in the book of Ruth. The other reason was that every sincere Israelite was devoutly looking for the Messiah, and hoping he would come in their line, so having offspring was a privilege. This too showed up in Ruth, as the offspring led to David, a forebear of the Messiah. (Matthew 1:5,6) http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1102013251

    • This comes from Unam Sanctam Catholicam: Leviticus vs. Deuteronomy: ” best resolution for these two verses – the one adopted by St. Augustine and also St. John Fisher in the Henry VIII case (but also Ambrose, Chrysostom and Aquinas) – was that Leviticus was to be interpreted maximally as forbidding a man to marry his brother’s wife under any circumstances – whether she was a widow or not – with one exception: if that brother had died without issue. This interpretation has the benefit of being true to the context of each Scripture, does not rob Leviticus of its binding nature but gives full room for a man to fulfill the obligation of Deuteronomy. Thus, Deuteronomy can be seen as the one exception to the general rule laid out in Leviticus.” To read the complete article from a scholar working on his senior thesis, visit http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2009/06/perhaps-this-is-inspired-by-research-i.html

  3. junewilliams7 says:

    Suicide?? Now that’s a twist. No HEA for our hero and the baby? I just assumed a couple – man and widowed sister-in-law – could go over to Scotland to marry, to get around the English law. No?

    • I am always about the HEA, June. The hero finds a woman who is better suited for him and the baby remains his ward. Aidan Kimbolt is one of my favorite characters in the series. Such was the reason I could not hook him up with Satiné Aldridge after book 3 of the Realm series. She was not good enough for him; neither was Susan Rhodes.
      Austen’s brother Charles married his widow’s sister, but the joining was looked down upon.
      The doctrine that such marriages were illicit was reflected in the Table of kindred and affinity in the Anglican (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer. Prohibition of marriage between certain degrees of kindred outlawed what is known as incest; prohibition between degrees of relationship by marriage (affinity) as opposed to blood (consanguinity) seems to have reflected an analogous taboo. At least one novel, Felicia Skene’s “The Inheritance of Evil; Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister” (1849) addressed the topic in polemic fictional form.
      Under ecclesiastical law, a marriage within the prohibited degrees was not absolutely void, but it was voidable at the suit of any interested party. Matthew Boulton married his deceased wife’s sister in 1760. He advised silence, secrecy and Scotland, although they married in London; the marriage was opposed by her brother. Similarly Charles Austen, the younger brother of Jane Austen, married his deceased wife’s sister in 1820 and remained married to her until he died in 1852.

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