Property and the Levirate Marriage

22 Nov
Levirate Marriage

from Google Images

Some Biblical critics take issue with scripture’s treatment of women, believing that women were held in contempt and considered more or less the property of the male, but this isn’t true.[1] In my last few blogposts we’ve seen that the idea that God, as understood through the Mosaic Law, was not misogynistic as he has been accused by some of the new atheists and other modern critics. Males and females are often addressed collectively in the Old Testament and treated equally as far as responsibility is concerned. Nevertheless, the obvious differences between the sexes also demand specific treatment, but the different ceremonies should not be understood as biased against women. Often the Mosaic Law defended the woman in a patriarchal culture, where the woman might be vulnerable to ill treatment.

It has been pointed out by some that the tenth commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17) lists women with men’s property. In other words scripture sees women as objects of ownership rather than as free human beings. Nevertheless, although it might be universally expressed even today that my wife is mine, it is equally true that I am hers, so the expression does not indicate ownership. Rather, it is an exclusive relationship. One might say that the argument against scripture in this regard amounts to quibbling with word meanings rather than overall context. For example, a few verses before the mention of the tenth commandment in Exodus 20:12 the woman is held in equal relationship with the male in that both are honored equally by their children. While other ANE cultures held that the son had authority over his mother,[2] this is contrasted in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 19:3) demanding the son venerate his mother and father alike. This idea is further addressed by the writer of Proverbs (Proverbs 1:8). Finally, the idea that a woman was considered property can be dismissed in that she was never sold in the Old Testament. Servants were sold, land was sold, livestock were sold, but a record that a man’s wife was ever sold under the Mosaic Law cannot be found.

Another instance where some critics object about how scripture treats women is the levirate marriage. The word levirate is derived from the Latin levir meaning brother-in-law. The marriage occurs when a husband dies without leaving a son for his heir. In such a case his brother had the right to marry his deceased brother’s widow and raise up a son in his stead to carry on his name. This arraignment may sound weird and unacceptable in our culture, but it wasn’t in the ancient ANE traditions, where marriages were often arranged by parents or other authoritative figures. The ancient Hittite law, for example, demanded that a brother must take his brother’s widow as his wife, but in ancient Israel, the brother (or nearest relative) could refuse. Scripture shows that, even before the Mosaic Law was introduced, the levirate marriage was practiced by the patriarchs (cf. Genesis 38:6-11), showing the practice was derived from the ANE culture in which they lived. Since there was nothing inherently evil about the practice, and since the Mosaic Law operated within the patriarchal customs of that day, God apparently saw no reason to expunge it in Israel. On the contrary within a patriarchal system the levirate marriage protected the woman in question, seeing she had a place in society of that day and provided for by her husband’s family. Certainly, Tamar in Genesis 38 didn’t believe the practice was demeaning, nor did Ruth when she asked Boaz to exercise his right to marry her under the Mosaic Law (Ruth 3:9).


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Richard M. Davidson: Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament; (Hendrickson, 2007) p. 250.

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Posted by on November 22, 2015 in apologetics


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