The clear teaching of Leviticus 18 is that marriage to a relative is forbidden. This brings questions concerning the Levirate marriage. In Leviticus 18, God instructs that marriage to a relative, either blood or affinity, is sin. In Deuteronomy 25:5-10, God commands the brother of one deceased to marry his brother’s wife and raise up seed in his name. W.H. Griffith Thomas recognizes the conflicting statements and says, “The law of Leviticus 18:16 was set aside for a special purpose in Deuteronomy 25:5.”
The Levirate marriage was an ancient custom sanctioned by practice in Genesis 38:8 f.f. and by law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and by example in Ruth 4:1-17. It also likely is being referred to in Matthew 22:23-33. The word Levir is Latin and means “a husband’s brother.” The term Levirate is man-given and does not refer to the tribe of Levi or the priesthood. However, the teaching is God-given and was binding upon the nation of Israel. The instructions were that a deceased man’s brother or nearest male kin was required to marry his brother’s widow and raise up a seed in his brother’s name. To refuse to do this meant public embarrassment to the one who refused.
It should be crystal clear by reading Deuteronomy 25:5-10 the purpose of the Levirate marriage was to raise up seed for the deceased. The marriage was not motivated by compassion for the poor widow left alone but for her deceased husband’s name. The marriage was not a result of love for the lovely widow but love for God’s law. For them to marry and not make every attempt to raise a seed for the deceased would have been a forbidden marriage of
Leviticus 18. For them to have seed and not have one for the deceased would have been a breach of purpose and not a Levirate marriage but a forbidden Leviticus 18 marriage of next of kin.
Levirate marriages were to preserve families from extinction and property from passing to strangers (Exodus 15:17-18). When the Promised Land was divided in the days of Joshua, it was always to stay in the families. The year of Jubilee canceled all debts, and the land returned to the families it originally was given to.
To be childless was a disgrace to a Hebrew. To have a large family was the greatest of all honors (Psalm 127 and 128). This was because one of the creation ordinances was to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” One unable to have children felt the rebuke of his neighbors (Genesis 3:1-2,23; 1 Samuel 1:6-10; Luke 1:25) and resorted to earnest prayer (Genesis 25:21;
1 Samuel 1:1-12, 26-28).
The general instruction is clearly taught that marriage to a relative is forbidden. The greatest prophet that ever lived was beheaded for his cry against this sin. However, a Levirate marriage did supersede the Leviticus 18 requirement for the greater need. The motive and purpose must be proper, or it too would be a forbidden relationship. The brother must die without a child. The wife must marry the deceased’s brother, if available, or next of kin. The first born must bear the name of the deceased that his name not be put out of Israel. If any of these conditions do not exist, it is not a Levirate marriage and is clearly forbidden.