1 Gardalmaran

Levirate Marriage Definition Essay

Bible passages describing eight family/marriage types.

Part 1:
Two common types: nuclear & levirate

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  • "Scripture defines marriage as a faithful, lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. That is a value that believers are not free to dismiss." Jimmy Barrentine, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa, 2007. 1

  • "If everything is marriage then nothing is marriage." Benigno Blanco, vice-president of the Spanish Family Forum. 2

  • "We are in a transition between a new consciousness and old definitions. The new consciousness will win but as with every human struggle to emerge from ignorance, there will be casualties long after the issue is decided." John Shelby Spong speaking about same-sex marriage.

  • "I guess I just don't understand how people can be so passionately hateful about something that won't affect their lives one bit." 'Stew,' from a culture wars forum, also speaking about same-sex marriage.. 3

Family types mentioned in the Bible:

We have seen hundreds of articles, postings, blogs, etc. on the Internet referring to "biblical marriage" or "marriage in the Bible" as being a union of one man and one woman. Surprisingly, many were written by pastors, priests or ministers. But a close reading of the Bible shows that there are at least eight different marriage/family styles mentioned in the Bible without criticism:


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Of the eight types of marriages mentioned in the Bible, many were non-consensual and some would have involved continual rapes. The first two types shown in the above graphic are described here:

  • Type 1: The standard nuclear family: God is recorded as promoting the this type of marriage in Genesis 2:18: Referring to Adam, "...the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him." (King James Version - KJV) "Help meet" also appears in the Jerusalem Bible. It is translated "helper" in many other translations (e.g. Amplified Bible, An American Translation, James Moffatt Translation, New American Standard Bible, New Century Version, New International Version, New World Translation, Revised Standard Bible, Young's Literal Translation.) The Living Bible, New Living Translation, and Today's English Version use a phrase like "a suitable companion to help him."

    The original Hebrew word, when used to refer to humans, implies a partnership of two equals, rather than a relationship between persons of unequal status. "Co-worker" or "equal partner" might be a better translation. The Contemporary English Version, New American Bible, and Revised English Bible use the more accurate term "partner" indicating an equal status between Adam and Eve.

    Genesis 2:24 describes how a man leaves his family of origin, joins with a woman. They consummate the marriage, and live as a couple. There were quite a few differences between the customs and laws of contemporary North Americans and of ancient Israelites. In ancient Israel:

    • Inter-faith marriages were theoretically forbidden. However, they were sometimes formed most notably by Solomon.

    • Children of inter-faith marriages were considered illegitimate.

    • Marriages were generally arranged by family or friends. They did not result from a gradually evolving, loving relationship that developed during a period of courtship.

    • A bride who had been presented as a virgin and who could not be proven to be one was stoned to death by the men of her village. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21) There appears to have been no similar penalty for men who engaged in consensual pre-marital sexual activity.

  • Type 2: Levirate Marriage: The name of this type of marriage is derived from the Latin word "levir," which means "brother-in-law." It is called "yibbum" in Hebrew. This involved a woman who was widowed without having borne a son. She would be required to leave her home, marry her brother-in-law, live with him, and engage in sexual relations. If there were feelings of attraction and love between the woman and her new husband, this arrangement could be quite agreeable to both. Otherwise, the woman would have to endure what was essentially serial rapes with her former brother-in-law as perpetrator. Their first-born son was considered to be sired by the deceased husband. Before the details of conception were determined, such a belief made a lot of sense. It lives on in some version of Sharia law among Muslims which state that a woman can conceive any time up to seven years after engaging in intercourse.

    In Genesis 38:6-10, Tamar's husband Er was killed by God for unspecified sinful behavior. Er's brother, Onan, was then required by custom to marry Tamar. Not wanting to have a child who would not be considered his, he engaged in an elementary (and quite unreliable) method of birth control: coitus interruptus. God appears to have given a very high priority to the levirate marriage obligation. Being very displeased with Onan's behavior, God executed him as well.

    Ruth 4 reveals that a man would be required to enter into a levirate marriage not only with his late brother's widow, but with a widow to whom he was the closest living relative.

    Deuteronomy 25:9-10 describes a process called "halizah" whereby a man can refuse to marry the widow in a levirate marriage. The widow spits in his face, and takes one of his shoes. He is humiliated from that time onwards by being referred to within his community as "the one without a shoe." As one might expect from the low status of women in ancient Hebrew society, there was no mechanism by which the widow could opt-out of a levirite marriage.

This topic continues with the description of six other family types in Part 2

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In the recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings on whether states have a constitutional right to ban (or refuse to recognize) same-sex marriages, the conservative justices seemed to be preoccupied with the definition of marriage. As Chief Justice Roberts stated, in response to advocate Mary Bonauto, “Every definition that I looked up prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as a unity between a man and a woman as husband and wife. Obviously, if you succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.”

Whereas this and similar comments made during the hearing are perhaps true on their surface—marriage in the past has not been defined as a relationship between same-sex couples—such comments are misleading, suggesting that the definition of marriage has been unchanged “for millennia,” or disingenuous. For example, later in the hearing, Justice Ginsburg corrected the historical record when she noted that in the recent past, “Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down.” The so-called “traditional definition of marriage,” used in conservative arguments, rarely takes into account the status of the marriage partners, or the character of the marriage, both of which have changed and evolved with changing culture and values.

Often behind the traditional definition of marriage is the biblical tradition where, it is claimed, marriage was created by God between one male and one female, citing Genesis 2:24. Although this is not a definition of marriage per se but rather an explanation for why men and women join together in the social union we call marriage, the text may serve to justify heterosexual marriage. But what is the status of the partners and the character of the marriage? The immediate biblical context of this passage only gives a few indications: marriage is presented as the alternative to the man being alone; the woman is created to help the man; and the husband will rule over his wife. (Ephesians 5:22 simply says, “wives, be subject to your husbands.”) Elsewhere in the biblical tradition, marriage should be within the extended family, tribe, or people; is arranged by the fathers; and is the result of an economic exchange. Is this the traditional marriage that the justices are concerned to defend? It is marriage between one man and one woman, but the wife is subordinate to her husband, has little or no choice to whom she marries, and certainly does not marry for love.

But this understanding of marriage is not the only definition endorsed by the biblical tradition. There are numerous examples of marriages between one man and two or more women (Jacob, Elkanah, David, Solomon, and others). Polygyny was widely practiced in the biblical world, as it is today in the Middle East, among those who can afford it. The biblical tradition endorses such polygynous unions and only expresses concern regarding marriage to foreign women and the possible favoritism toward one son based on favoritism toward one wife.

Related to polygynous marriages are marriages that involve concubines or slave-wives. Abram takes Sarai’s slave-girl Hagar for a wife, and Jacob takes Rachel’s slave Bilhah and Leah’s slave Zilpah for wives. David had at least ten concubines. These wives are tantamount to the man’s property; they are used for sexual and procreative purposes, and may be discarded at will.

The Levirate marriage also treats the wife like property. If a man dies before he produces a child, his wife, who belongs to her husband’s family because of the economic exchange that resulted in the marriage, is given to one of her husband’s kinsmen. Although the Levirate marriage provides some measure of economic and social security for the widow, she is forced into a marriage to fulfill a marital obligation (to have children).

Generally, the Bible warns against Israelite men marrying foreign women, largely because foreign women will continue to worship foreign gods and lead their husbands astray (as is the case with Solomon). But when a woman is captured in war, the Israelite man may marry her as long as he gives her a month to mourn her dead family. The man has taken possession of her through war. By a similar logic, if a man rapes an Israelite virgin, he must pay her father the appropriate bridewealth and then marry her. Unlike the foreign father who is killed in war, the Israelite father must be compensated as if he had arranged the marriage. In both cases, the woman has no say.

These examples of marriage in the biblical tradition illustrate the fluidity of the institution. To 21st-century Americans, these biblical understandings or definitions of marriage are strange and oppressive, but they are expressions of the culture and values of the biblical world. And as the culture and values of the society changed, so did its understanding of marriage. Society continues to change. In 2004, when gay marriage first became legal in Massachusetts, 61 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Today, gay marriage is legal in 37 states, and public opinion polls have ranged as high as 63 percent in favor. With such changing values, should we not expect the definition of marriage to also change? It always has.

Our weekly feature Then and Now harnesses the expertise of American religious historians who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans. It's published in partnership with the Kripke Center of Creighton University and edited by Edward J. Blum and John D. Wilsey.

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