Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” And no one dared to ask him any more questions. (NIV)
You might be wondering what the deal is with this seven brother deal and the widow of the one being passed from one to the next among the other six. It was really a thing. It is called levirate marriage. It is a product of patriarchy. It is also a product of clan culture, both of which apply to our ancient Hebrew brothers and sisters. It was commanded in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a married man who is part of an extended family household dies with no son produced in the marriage, the brother of that man is to marry the widow. There are several stipulations. The widow must not marry outside the family. Second, the first son of that union is technically the son of the first husband— the deceased brother—and shall carry on his name. And finally, there is a way out, if the brother doesn’t want to carry out the duty, but it is the way of shame. In an honor culture, the way of shame is not often taken, even though it is an option. In a way, it is an option that is given in such a way as to make sure it will not be opted for.
Levirate marriage does a couple of things. In a round-about way, it ensures the widow is cared for. Mostly though, its purpose is to give at least an opportunity for a legacy to a man who died before having that chance. In a time when the vulnerability of life was very obvious, when a person could die of a toothache, it was important to have protections built into society. This was not exclusive to Hebrew culture. Many patriarchal cultures practice a variation of this custom. It is a protection for the dead man’s name and legacy, but in its round-about way, it is a protection for the widow. It made sure she was not left out of a family she had married into, where the ‘in-law’ is often treated as an ‘out-law.’ God’s mandate serves to move society beyond simply looking out for each one’s own interests to being aware of the interests of those who have no voice; the dead and the dispossessed. It is a step in the humane direction, but from our vantage point, it still looks barbaric.
It is true that this practice is heinous to me. The practice of one’s wife being a piece of property that can be inherited along with the dead man’s estate is repugnant, but it is in the ground our religion has been planted in. Over the years, however, it is something that has been genetically modified out of the branches of the faith still alive. It wasn’t practiced at all by Christians who were taught that leaders in the church were to be monogamous (1 Timothy 3:2-12) and married to only one woman.
In Jewish circles, by the Middle Ages, it was controversial. Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish Torah scholars (who lived in the 1100s) taught that levirate marriage should be practiced according to the Torah, but his chief rival, Rashi (short for Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki) did not believe it was helpful and taught that both the man and the woman should be released from its practice. His way won out, and levirate marriage is outlawed in the State of Israel and generally among Jews around the world. This is an example of how the Spirit works to bring our practices out of our barbarian past to a more humane present. It takes a long time for change to take place, but God is patient with the human race. God will not push us faster than we can bear the upheaval change causes in human communities. The human race is not uniformly humane even yet. I can tell you, we still have a ways to go.
Levirate marriage shows us how far we have come, though too. So I pause to give thanks that we, along with the rest of humanity, are on the journey. It is my hope and prayer I can be part of the life-force that moves society one degree closer to humane.
Blessings to you,
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.