One of the ancient institutions that have persisted since archaic times is the levirate marriage. Here is a brief synopsis of the institution and its underlying rational.
Life of a widow in the ancient world was precarious at best. Having no inheritance rights, she was easily exploited and was frequently reduced to abject poverty and/or prostitution. Many ancient civilizations from India, Africa, to the Ancient Near East utilized the levirate marriage (from the Latin levir, a “brother-in-law”) as a means of protecting the brother’s wife from being exposed to poverty. Society expected the surviving brother of a deceased man (who lacked an heir) to marry the widow. It is interesting to note that according to the Kabbala (and Hindu folklore), the soul of the dead brother is re-incarnated in the body of child his wife is carrying.
The offspring from their marriage were considered children and heirs of the deceased. In a society that defined the importance of a woman in terms of her ability to bear and raise children, the levirate marriage enabled a woman to be fulfilled. This law served to guarantee the deceased brother’s wife a place in her husband’s family and protected her from exploitation. This law was consistent with the biblical ethos calling upon the community of God ‘to remember and care for “the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 10:14-19; 24:17-22; 27:19). During the early period of Israelite history, this practice was not considered optional, but a duty to be faithfully carried out .
For the brother-in-law, the levirate marriage was not without its downside. By observing the law, he could actually damage his own estate, for it could be either diminished as a result of siring a son who would co-inherit with him. Likewise, it would be his to take responsibility for the widow as well as managing his dead brother’s land, not to mention, and be financially responsible for his sister-in-law as his wife. However, families took great pride in providing care for all of its members—the duty to take care of the widow was considered to be a morally important duty–not to be casually disregarded. Continue reading “Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism”