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Levirate Law—in Confusion

The Sadducees confronted Jesus with a difficult question that appeared to be a theological puzzle. Actually the question was a red herring to engage Christ in a dispute the Sadducees and Pharisees had about the resurrection. The Sadducees argued that there was no resurrection of the dead, but the Pharisees believed the dead would live again (Acts 23:7-8).

To draw a statement from Christ supporting their belief, the Sadducees concocted a marriage situation that had one chance in a million of happening. Unlikely as it was that a Jewish woman would be married and widowed by seven brothers, the law did take care of that earthly scenario.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name not be blotted out of Israel (Deut. 25:5-6).

The Sadducees projected that such tangled affairs would create chaos in the resurrection. Which of the seven resurrected brothers was entitled to the woman who had been married to them all? Or from the woman’s perspective, which of the seven would she be bound to forever? The Sadducees assumed that laws governing physical life would govern eternal life—if there were such a thing. Their answer to the hypothetical confusion physical laws would produce in the resurrection was to reject the resurrection. Christ corrected their misunderstanding of life after death.

You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven (Matt. 22:29-32).

 Levirate Law Working Beautifully

The levirate marriage was an “alternate arrangement under specific bounds to make possible the retention of landed property throughout the families of Israel” and to protect “widows without children.”[1]  In the story of Ruth, the levirate law worked beautifully to protect a childless widow, and her deceased husband’s property. Boaz fulfilled the obligations of the levirate law when he married Ruth, Mahlon’s widow. As a near relative of the family, Boaz qualified for the duty of fathering an heir for Ruth’s deceased husband. He was also entitled to the property that would have been become Mahlon’s when Naomi died. From the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, a son was born who upheld Mahlon’s name and property rights.

And Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, from the hand of Naomi. Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have acquired as my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his brethren and from his position at the gate” (Ruth 4:9-10).

 Levirate Law not so Beautiful

Figures_Judah_Gives_his_Signet,_Bracelets_and_Staff_in_Pledge_to_TamarThe levirate law played a part in Boaz’s ancestry, going back six generations to Perez, one of the twin sons of Tamar (Matt. 1:3). Tamar (possibly a Canaanite woman) was married to Er, the firstborn son of Judah. Er died because of an unspecified wickedness that angered God, and Tamar was left a childless widow. In accordance with the levirate law, Judah told Onan, his second son, to impregnate Tamar and preserve the family line of his deceased brother. But Onan refused to beget children for Er. His callous disdain for Tamar displeased God. Onan died for his contempt of duty, and Tamar was widowed the second time.

Judah told Tamar to remain a widow until his third son Shelah was old enough to be married (Gen. 38:11). Then he sent Tamar away to her father’s house where she was no longer of much concern to him. Perhaps fearing that Shelah would meet the same unfortunate end as his brothers, Judah seemed in no hurry to facilitate this union.

When Shelah was grown and Tamar realized that “she was not given to him as a wife” (Gen. 38:14), she undertook a daring deception. Veiling herself as a prostitute, Tamar seduced her father-in-law, Judah. Not knowing whom he was impregnating, Judah, in a perverse twist of the law, fathered Tamar’s twin boys.

Observations

Twins were considered “a special blessing from the Lord”[2] and Tamar’s name is recorded in the lineage of the Savior. Some commentators refer to her as a “heroine of the faith—despite her origins and the nature of her actions.”[3] Other writers describe Tamar and Judah harshly. “It shocks our inner, finer feelings to see Christ’s lineage interwoven with such abhorrent degradation as we have in this chapter (Genesis 38). We cannot but wonder how Judah and Tamar have the distinction of mention in that sacred genealogy of Jesus Christ.”[4]

As a reader of this significant birth story, I am sobered. I wonder that commentators venture to make judgments. When Judah acknowledged that he caused Tamar’s pregnancy, God allowed his words—Judah’s words—to be the verdict of record: She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son (Gen. 38:26). —Mary Hendren

 


[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 150

[2] New King James Study Bible, Second Edition, Thomas Nelson, note on Genesis. 38:27.

[3] Same source, note on Genesis. 38:30.

[4] All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p.163.

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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