Marriage in the Bible – Part 2: On Marrying Your Brother’s Wife

In honor of my first wedding anniversary, I have a special week of posts about marriage in the bible. Monday was marriage in the creation story, a simple story of man-meets-woman, man-falls-from-grace-with-woman, woman-is-forced-to-serve-man-for-eternity.

Don’t worry, I’ll get to polygamy in a bit, but Genesis is also famous for one other type of “biblical marriage”, Levirate marriage. Everyone knows the story of poor Onan: forced to marry his brother’s widow, but he doesn’t want to impregnante his sister-in-law-turned-wife and “spills his seed” on the ground. God does the only sensible thing and kills him.

Read on for more!

And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. And Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him And Judah said unto Onan: ‘Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.’ And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did was evil in the sight of the LORD; and He slew him also.

Genesis 38:6-10

Onan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This story is also famous for where we get “onanism”, the sin of masturbation, though this story appears to describe a man who “pulls out” rather than refuses to have sex with his brother’s wife. The penalty for masturbation from Leviticus 15:16 was “uncleanliness until you take a bath”, not death. The story of Tamar continues to a rather satisfactory (for her) conclusion, but that will have to wait for another day.

The story of Onan must have been confusing to early biblical scholars because the rules described in this story appear to be so unpleasant. Detueronomy 25 tries to build some clarification around this, though Onan could only wish that he had received the lesser punishment described here:

If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel. And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate unto the elders, and say: `My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him; and if he stand, and say: `I like not to take her’; then shall his brother’s wife draw nigh unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say: `So shall it be done unto the man that doth not build up his brother’s house.’ And his name shall be called in Israel The house of him that had his shoe loosed.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10

Rather than being smote to death by God, you get spat at, lose a shoe, and get called names. Not so bad. One critical distinction here of course is that Onan appeared to agree to his brotherly duty, rather than shirking it. I have a feeling he didn’t realize the punishment for his crime.

Oddly, Leviticus appears to contradict this rule:

And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.

Leviticus 20:21

However, in that case, it appears that you cannot take your brother’s wife while she is still living. After he’s dead,

Judah and Tamar
Judah and Tamar (source: Wikimedia Commons)

it’s compulsory. Let’s hope that no one ever considered that when pining for his brother’s keeper, so to speak…

While this rule says nothing about marriage love, it says a lot about the importance of inheritance in biblical times. The risk of not having a son to inherit his father’s lands must have been great, to risk this sort of arrangement. But this must have had a secondary benefit: the widow would have been cared for by her brother-in-law. While this “care” could possibly have been described as “rape”, if she wasn’t interested in the arrangement, it almost certainly ensured that she would not be forced to fend for herself on the street. And naturally it only worked if you allowed polygamy. But, more on that later.

Up Next: Polygamy, when a man loves a woman, and another woman, and another woman…

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