The Levirate Laws
The book of Ruth is one of the places in the Bible where the levirate laws find their fullest expression. In fact, readers can see the levirate laws in action throughout the whole story. Ruth’s story, however, has so many interesting twists and turns that readers really need to view her story in light of the levirate laws as they were first given in Deuteronomy. From this vantage point, readers should be able to understand Ruth with richer insight.
What are these strange arrangements called levirate laws? In some ways they provide for one of the most bizarre arrangements in the whole Bible. They are also one of the keys for unlocking and appreciating the story of Ruth with the greatest depth. In Jewish circles the practice prescribed in the levirate laws is known as yibbum. The more commonly known name levirate comes from the Latin, levir, which means “a husband’s brother.” Though the words sound similar, the levirate laws do not have anything to do with Levi, the tribe given priestly authority in the land. The levirate laws involve an ancient custom observed by the patriarchs and officially ordained by Moses in Deuteronomy 25:5–10:
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 may not be blotted out of Israel. But if the man does not want to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, ‘I do not want to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.’ And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal removed.’
This is the explanation: If an Israelite died without a child for his inheritance, then the his brother was required to marry the widow in order to keep the deceased brother’s name alive. The firstborn son of their union would inherit the deceased brother’s name and land. The objective was “to resurrect or to raise up children on behalf of the dead brother.” This is why their firstborn son would take the name and inheritance of his dead “father” instead of his biological father.
This is definitely one of those strange areas of Old Testament law, and it’s natural to wonder about its purpose. The first stipulation is that the brothers live together. This would mean that the brothers would be approximately close in age. This would imply that the brothers knew their obligations, and they might very well have been involved in the choice of the wife in the first place. Certainly if a younger brother knew that he may be required to marry his older brother’s wife, he would most likely be much more involved in seeing his brother make a wise choice. One can imagine that in this context a family would take care to ensure that their son’s wife was not a shrew. It is not difficult to imagine that a younger brother in particular would be determined to influence his older brother toward responsible choices in a spouse. One may also assume that the younger brother might be expected to acknowledge the union in some way, perhaps requiring some kind of an agreement in the marriage. In today’s culture, few of us have much to say when our sibling chooses a spouse. However, if we knew that we might be required to marry our sibling’s spouse, we would probably be much more attentive to their choice.
One can find the levirate laws in action in Genesis 38 in the account of Judah and Tamar. Here we see that the whole family, including the father, was on some level expected to support the levirate institution. Genesis 38 is not only important as a story involving the levirate laws, but it is also a story directly related to the story of Ruth.
From Genesis 38, it becomes clear that a younger brother does not have the legitimate option of ignoring his responsibilities. He must perform his obligations to God and to his family, or he must face humiliating consequences. We also learn in this story that the obligations extend outward from the immediate younger brother to the next in line as it relates to the family’s inheritance. Indeed, if there are no more younger brothers, then the duty extends outward from the immediate family, but there are fewer consequences for someone not in the immediate family who refuses to act as a levir. In other words, it appears that there is an option for more distant relatives, and duty is limited to the immediate family.
It is this distant relative’s option that Boaz exercises in Ruth. Boaz did not have a direct duty as the younger brother, which demonstrates that Boaz exercised his option out of love. In Deuteronomy 25, if the younger brother refuses to do his duty, he is publicly humiliated. His sandal is publicly removed, and the woman spits in his face. In Ruth, we see that this consequence does not exist for distant relatives; there is no shame for the distant relative who refuses to exercise his option. This fact accentuates the selfless quality of Boaz’s love for Ruth.
He Married Her
The law says that the younger brother “goes into her.” Some argue that the duty of the younger brother is simply to have sexual relations with the woman however many times it takes to produce a child. They limit his obligation to reproduction. After he produces an heir, she returns to widowhood, and he returns to his former ways. This may have been common in pagan cultures, but the Bible indicates that this union is consummated as a marriage. Given the legal obligation, the sexual union or consummation is all that is needed to initiate the levirate marriage. Here we see that as the younger brother has union with the woman, he consummates his relationship as a true marriage.
Granted, there is not a lot of fanfare or romance associated with this approach, but consummation seems to be the primary action that initiates or enacts the marriage. This explains why Ruth simply approaches Boaz to cover her, or have sexual relations with her, and in so doing he would have initiated the levirate marriage. This all comes together to indicate that the younger brother who is acting as a redeemer takes the woman as a true wife and not just for producing offspring. As redeemer husband he is obligated to care for her and love her. This is not just a sexual arrangement for producing male babies.
It is not entirely clear if this practice allowed for having two wives, bigamy, but it seems, rather, to exclude it. In other words, what would be the obligation of the younger brother if he is already married? Does he still have to maintain his duty as a levir? Since the law in its context points to the younger brother who remains in his father’s house, this younger brother is almost certainly single. It is reasonable to assume that if this younger brother were outside the house, then he would be married and no longer in line for this duty.
Furthermore, Leviticus 18:18 forbids a man from marrying his wife’s sister. This would seem to forbid a man from taking his brother’s wife if he is already married, in that his brother’s wife would be his wife’s sister. This text in general discouraged taking a second wife. However, the levirate law is an exception in so many ways that we can’t be exactly sure. We do know that God’s laws never encouraged bigamy or polygamy in any other ways. Therefore, it is very doubtful that the younger brother would be obliged to keep this law if he were already married—making this an extreme exception. As noted, the younger brother’s place in his father’s house implies that he is single. There is difficulty in understanding certain aspects of such laws, and since God hasn’t given us a great number of details, we could conclude that he wants us to focus on the principles more than the details.
From start to finish in Ruth, the levirate laws provide the needed remedy for our widows. They not only provide the remedy for the immediate and particular problem of Elimelech’s death, but they also provide a more powerful remedy for the family of David more broadly. In fact, the rather uncomfortable story of incest in Genesis 38 provoked the crisis we have in the story of Ruth. These two stories are connected in many important ways.
In Genesis 38 the reader learns that Judah had three sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah’s firstborn son was the covenant representative for the family. However, he died. Following the levirate laws, Judah gave his next son, Onan, to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Like his older brother, Onan angered the Lord, and God killed him.
There are many strange commentaries that have attempted to use Onan’s sins as an example of how God hates birth control. Some argue that this story proves God’s disapproval of other related sexual activities. This is simply not the case. We are not forbidden to exercise godly dominion over reproduction any more than we are forbidden to exercise godly dominion in every other area of our lives.
Onan’s sin was not birth control but a stubborn, selfish refusal to fulfill his obligations to his older brother—and thus to God. Moses teaches us that Onan rejected God and was in essence attempting to steal the inheritance for himself. Onan sought to steal the inheritance and refused to produce a son who would take his brother’s name and receive the inheritance. When we interpret this passage, we must use the levirate laws as the context and not our own personal views on birth control. Context always governs our interpretation of Scripture.
The Reason for the Law
Deuteronomy states explicitly that the purpose for this law was that the name of the deceased man may not be blotted out of Israel, to preserve the name of the deceased brother in the land. According to Deuteronomy 25:6, the firstborn son of the levirate arrangement took the name and all the inheritance of the deceased older brother. This means that the arrangements provided by the law were not focused on the land alone as a part of the inheritance but on the name as well. While it is true that the firstborn son inherited the land portion, this was not the complete focus of the levirate law.
Preserving the name is the focus of the levirate law. The story in Genesis 38 also reminds us that God’s people were to keep the levirate law even before the land was given to Israel. This means that the obligations in the levirate laws pre-date the land portions of the Torah.
The land was given as a stewardship for the families. The family name was attached to the land, and thus it was important because it related to this stewardship. In the Bible a name refers to the total person, and it has far-reaching implications in Old Testament literature. A name represents the whole of who someone is theologically. This is why we are told to pray in Jesus’ name. We pray to him and all that he is as our Lord and Savior.
When we are baptized, we are baptized into his name. We are, as such, placed in union with the name of our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).
In the Old Covenant, all that a person was and all that he had was summed up in the name; it was everything. This is not the case today in the New Covenant. We are not concerned about names in the same way that our forefathers in the Old Testament were concerned. This is one specific way Jesus has changed things for us.
For instance, I have great hope for my sons. I pray that they will carry on my family name with honor. But there is a radical difference between my hope for a good reputation and the Old Testament longing to give birth to Messiah. We are no longer hoping for Messiah to come from our own families. Consequently, we don’t tend to name our children in the same way as our Old Testament fore-bearers. Recently I baptized Winston Christopher Emerson. I love that name. It reminds me, of course, of one of my favorite historical figures, Winston Churchill. It also has a rather aristocratic ring to it. It sounds noble. However, his name is not the name in which we hope. It is in the name of Jesus that we hope today. We have a new name.
My father and I talked recently about our namesakes. My dad’s name is Lloyd Charles Jackson; I am Lloyd Charles Jackson, Jr.; and my son is Lloyd Charles Jackson, III. We jokingly hope that all the problems associated with our family will get better with each generation. Perhaps there will be some kind of a growth in purity. However, as Christians, we do not ultimately hope in our family’s name but only in the name of Jesus. Do you see how the preservation of the Old Testament names were pointing to the name of our Savior Jesus?
Levir and Kinsman Redeemer
Since the family’s name was so important, what would happen if all the sons died, like in Ruth’s story? What happens to a family when there is no younger brother? What does the family do when there aren’t any more sons? As noted earlier, the responsibilities extended outwardly to the father’s brother’s family. In other words, cousins apparently had a voluntary responsibility to stand in the place of the younger brother. This is what happened in the story of Ruth. Incidentally (or not so incidentally), this family member who stood in the place of the younger brother was called the redeemer. You often see the word translated kinsman redeemer.
The Redeemer or Goel
You can begin to see how the levirate laws are important in the book of Ruth. In Ruth 2:20, Naomi states that Boaz is a redeemer, recognizing that Boaz is a redeemer for the household. The redeemer had a few standard duties in the ancient world. Perhaps the most important one charged him with the responsibility to seek justice in the case of a family member’s death. If a family member were murdered, then the redeemer was charged with tracking the murderer and bringing him to justice. If the murderer had not sought refuge in the cities of refuge, then the redeemer was to kill the murderer. In fact, his job was to chase the murderer and avenge the death before the murderer could reach the city of refuge. This was the duty of the goel, or kinsmen redeemer. Naomi says that this man Boaz is our goel, avenger of blood, redeemer.
The goel was the one who was responsible to buy a person back who had been sold into slavery. If a person were forced to sell his land, it would be the goel’s job as the redeemer to buy back the land. The redeemer, then, was the man who took the place of one who was unable fulfill his covenant responsibility. He was the one who legally performed for another that which he was unable to do for himself. A person’s inability could be due to slavery, debt or perhaps, as is the case in our story, death. The redeemer fulfilled other family responsibilities such as acting as a levirate husband.
The goel, or redeemer, had the responsibility to care for justice and righteousness for his family. His job was to make things right on behalf of his family. As we delve deeper into the meaning of the kinsman redeemer, we not only gain deep insight into Boaz and his actions, but we will also ascertain something of the richness of Christ’s redemption and love for his people.
All of these seemingly strange and uncomfortable laws and arrangements are difficult to reconcile with our present social and cultural norms. However, they begin to make sense when we read them with Christ and his covenant promises in view.
One of the reasons we have so many problems understanding is that we fail to put the whole Bible together as one book. One of the many ways we see the Old and New Testaments fitting together is through typology.
Typology is when Old Testament teachings point forward. They are sometimes called shadows of the future. These types or patterns of things to come often lead straight to Jesus. This approach not only helps to make sense of some of the Old Testament teachings but actually brings them to life for us. As we come to understand the Old Testament, it becomes a beautiful and inspiring part of our lives.
When we read the Old Testament, we can and should ask some interesting theological questions regarding types. For instance, was there ever an older brother who represented the whole of humanity in the Bible? The answer is yes; his name was Adam. He was the older brother. Adam was the covenant head or federal representative. Adam was the older brother who refused to do his job. He fell from the estate wherein he was created by sinning against God. Consequently, he died: “He was cut off from the future by death. In Adam and in his name there was no hope of any future for his descendants.” 1
Because of the fall into sin, all of Adam’s descendants were cursed and unable to fulfill their calling. None of Adam’s descendants were able to fulfill the cultural mandate. This mandate included the idea of living with a sense of purpose towards the future—being fruitful and multiplying. Adam was supposed to fill the earth and to subdue it. When he sinned, he died, and therefore he could not fulfill his purpose; in Adam all hope was lost.
God had promised Adam that the future hope of salvation would come through his seed. But because of sin, Adam died and couldn’t fulfill his task; he could not produce such seed. Without any posterity, no savior would ever be born. Therefore, someone new, a younger brother, was needed to take his place. A new covenant representative would be needed to fulfill Adam’s role as covenant representative—Jesus the Christ.
When you approach the Old Testament like this, you see immediately that the levirate laws are fulfilled in Christ. The name of the faithful no longer belongs to this or that family name, but to Jesus. Thus, we no longer have the same concerns about our family names and how the land is connected to those names. We have a new name in Christ: we are Christians.
Jesus Christ is the kinsman redeemer who replaced Adam as the new covenant head of his people. Jesus does for his people what Adam was unable to do for them. God had predestined for his people to be saved, and the fall of Adam was not going to frustrate his will. This theme is woven beautifully into the fabric of the book of Genesis. Indeed, this is true throughout the entire Bible, but especially in Genesis. As a theme it resurfaces, especially in regard to Jacob and Esau. God makes us understand that the older brother will not be the one who saves his people.
And not only this, but when Rebekah also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Romans 9:10–13).
Have you ever wondered about the number of Bible stories that focus on the relationships between brothers? Have you also ever wondered why God intervenes in his sovereignty to ensure that we see his sovereign work in salvation in these stories? Not only do these stories teach predestination, but we witness the older brother’s inability to do what another one (a younger brother) will need to do for him.
God reveals that all of man’s efforts to gain salvation are impotent; they are dead. Only God provides salvation, and he does so through the younger brother who brings new life. When Adam sinned, he died and was disqualified as the covenant representative; Eve was widowed without any hope for the future. As the younger brother, Christ fulfills what Adam could not do as the older brother. Christ as the new covenant representative raises up a seed for Adam. This was in fact the gospel promise made in Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
Christians not only fulfill the cultural mandate, but they become partakers with Jesus in the victory over the wicked one. The promise was that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent: “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen” (Romans 16:20).
The hope of Messiah who would come through the seed of the woman was maintained in the levirate marriage. Consequently, the levirate laws are no longer relevant to the new covenant. Christ has come, and we are no longer under any of the typological shadows that pointed to his coming.
Christ’s name is now the only name that must be maintained. Today Christians no longer are under any obligation to maintain their name. While most people desire to maintain their family line, it is not a religious necessity. Yes, we want our family name to be of good repute. Yet we have no biblical mandate to maintain our own particular name through a male heir.
While we should desire to have a godly reputation for our family, it is also possible to fall into the trap of idolizing our family’s name. Some people seek immortality through their children and desire to live forever in the names of their children. This is a common practice with pagans. God has given us a natural desire for eternal life, and pagans pervert this desire as they dream of immortality through their children.
We have no hope for salvation through our own names. In Christ, no death may ever cause our inheritance to die. Because of the resurrection, we have eternal life in the name of Christ. Indeed, our name is Christian. This is the name of our inheritance, and this is the hope for the future. In Christ, we have permanence, and our name will never be blotted out. Christ’s name is our name.
If we don’t have any children to maintain our inheritance, it no longer matters in a covenantal sense. Christ our Savior is the name into which and by which we are saved. He is the promised seed and the husband. He is the younger brother; the second Adam. As Messiah, Christ is both of these at the same time.
Christ becomes for his church the husband who saves her. The first husband, Adam, died, but in Christ, the second Adam, we are made alive. Christ is the true husband, and in Christ we are called to fulfill what Adam could not fulfill. We now possess the land of Adam, which is the whole earth. The picture of this hope was given partially in the levirate laws. We have it now fulfilled completely in Christ. We depend on Jesus, the younger brother, to do everything for us and for our children that we could never do ourselves.
The levirate laws, like so many of the Old Testament laws, reminded the people that God would provide a redeemer as a means of saving his people, even in the face of death. Salvation would not come through men’s own efforts or the efforts of their children; it would be through God alone.
1. Jim Jordan, audio series, Ruth.
Questions for Consideration
1. What is the origin of the name levirate?
2. Give a summary of the levirate laws and where they are found in the Scriptures.
3. What were the duties of the younger brother?
4. What was the primary purpose of this arrangement?
5. Why was God angry at Judah’s sons in Genesis 38?
6. What was important about a name in the Bible?
7. What was the role of the kinsman redeemer, or goel?
8. How does the redeemer’s role relate to the levirate laws?
9. What are the many ways that Jesus fulfills this role for us?