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.
As 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.