Did a man in ancient Israel have to marry his brother’s widow if he were already married?

Q. You state in one of your posts that Levirate marriage applied to brothers who were married (as well as those who were single). Do you have an example or statement of that fact in the Bible? If not, where does this idea come from, as I am not able to confirm it one way or the other?

A good example can be found in the book of Ruth. Boaz is willing to marry Ruth so that she can have a son who will carry on the name of her late husband, a son who can also care for Naomi, who would be his grandmother, in her old age. But Boaz knows that there is someone more closely related to Naomi who needs to be asked about this first. He approaches this man at the town gate, and he replies that he can’t marry Ruth “or I will ruin my own inheritance.” What does that mean? One translation puts it this way, which I think is quite accurate: “I might harm what I can pass on to my own sons.”

In other words, this man must already be married with a family. But he can’t afford to have additional children in a Levirate second marriage because he doesn’t have enough land and other resources to pass on to Ruth’s children in addition to the ones he already has. On this basis he is released from the obligation and Boaz, who seems to have sufficient means, marries Ruth and helps her start a new family.

We can see a direct connection to Levirate marriage here by the way the other relative removes his sandal and gives it to Boaz. While the book of Ruth explains that this was “the method of legalizing transactions in Israel,” there’s some further background. The book of Deuteronomy also connects sandal removal with a man declining or refusing to marry his brother’s widow. It says: “If a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.’ Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, ‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.’ That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

However, in the case of Ruth, it’s recognized that the other relative is a man of good will but limited means. So Ruth doesn’t remove his sandal (or spit in his face!). Rather, he removes it himself, and it is graciously accepted.

If men who were already married were not expected to fulfill the duties of Levirate marriage, Boaz would never have brought this man up or dealt with him in the first place.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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