Levirate marriage is one response to the challenges that arose when an Israelite man died leaving a widow but no children. What becomes of a widow with no children to care for her? What becomes of a man’s “name” and property in the absence of direct heirs? Levirate marriage, as described in Deut 25:5-10, offers a solution to both questions: Let the dead man’s brother marry the widow and let the children, or at least the first child of this union, be “accounted” to the deceased.
In Ruth 1, Naomi references levirate marriage as she urges her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return to their families of origin: “Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? ... Even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown?” (Ruth 1:11-13). Naomi argues that even if she could bear sons who could enter into levirate unions, it would be unreasonable to ask Ruth and Orpah to wait until these sons were old enough to marry. Because Naomi’s sons are dead and she has no hope of bearing others, her daughters-in-law are free of any obligation to their husbands.
Scholars disagree as to whether the events described in Ruth 4 relate to the institution of levirate marriage (also known simply as “levirate”). Though according to Boaz the marriage will “maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (Ruth 4:10), the marriage of Ruth and Boaz does not seem mandated by the law in Deuteronomy, given that Boaz is not Ruth’s brother-in-law, nor does the genealogy in Ruth 4 credit Ruth’s son to her deceased husband’s line. In some ways, the transactions described resemble the redemption process for property outlined in Lev 25:25, where male relatives buy back property an impoverished kinsman was forced to sell. However, there is no indication in Leviticus that redemption of a kinsman’s property is in any way connected to marriage with the kinsman’s widow.
Ironically, biblical texts offer more evidence of levirate’s potential failures than of its successes. In Gen 38, Onan refuses to impregnate his widowed sister-in-law Tamar; after Onan’s death, a third brother is withheld from Tamar. Only by deceiving her father-in-law Judah does Tamar obtain the children she wants—from her father-in-law, not her brother-in-law! Deuteronomy itself acknowledges that a man who refuses to marry his brother’s widow can be publicly shamed but is then released from his obligation to the widow and his dead brother.
Although levirate is a strategy for preserving a man’s legacy and property by producing a posthumous heir for him, biblical men—Onan, Judah, the reluctant brother-in-law in Deut 25—seem to resist obligations to deceased kinsmen and their widows. It is the women—Tamar, Naomi, and Ruth—who seek to reintegrate widows into their late husbands’ families and pursue the engendering of children through levirate or levirate-like unions. Perhaps despite the Hebrew Bible’s emphasis on the aim of providing a “name” for a man who has died without children, the true goal of levirate was viewed as the protection of widows, a goal more passionately valued and pursued by women than men.
Dvora E. Weisberg
Associate Professor, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
Dvora E. Weisberg is associate professor of rabbinic literature and director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Her publications include several articles and a book on levirate marriage.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.
5When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a str ... View more
Elimelech's Family Goes to Moab
1In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the ... View more
11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?
12Turn back, my daughter ... View more
The Marriage of Boaz and Ruth
1No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz ... View more
10I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man's name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the de ... View more
25If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold.
Judah and Tamar
1It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah.
2There Judah saw the ... View more
1Suppose two persons have a dispute and enter into litigation, and the judges decide between them, declaring one to be in the right and the other to be in the w ... View more