The Levirate Law in Ruth
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 9:08am
HERE’S A QUESTION: “We’re studying Ruth in our SS class. I need some insight into the Levirate law. Did this cause a man to commit polygamy? Was it only the firstborn son who belonged to the dead brother/relative? If so, why is Boaz mentioned as Obed’s father?”
MY FEEBLE ATTEMPT TO ANSWER: This sort of question drives me to my handy Bible dictionaries, from which I have gleaned a few facts. First, “levirate” has nothing to do with Levi; this word comes from a Latin word for “brother-in-law,” namely, “levir.” Second, this practice did not necessarily originate within the chosen family; “it has been found to exist in many Eastern countries, particularly in Arabia and among the tribes of the Caucasus.” Its first mention in the Bible is Gen. 38:8, in reference to Onan, where it is sanctioned by God as applying to his people. It was incorporated into the Law of Moses in Deut. 25:5-10.
Did it cause a man to commit polygamy? The answer would seem to be yes, since no exception is given in the case of a living brother who may already be married. But in those days, polygamy was tolerated by God on the same ground that he tolerated divorce, i.e., “because of the hardness of your heart” (Matt. 19:8). (That latter part is my speculation.)
According to Deut. 25:6, it does seem that only the first-born son from the new marriage was named for the dead brother and became his heir. The actual father would still be responsible for raising this child, though, and any others that came from this new union. For all practical purposes he is part of the living brother’s family. For genealogical purposes, Boaz is Obed’s father.
In the case of Boaz, Obed, and Ruth, we should note that this situation is not strictly governed by the law of Levirate marriage, but is actually pursued more in line with the law of property redemption as found in Lev. 25:23-25. The following is taken from the ESV Study Bible, p. 476, commenting on the book of Ruth:
“The book of Ruth describes two legal institutions combined in one practice (which the Law of Moses does not require), namely, property redemption by a near kinsman and the ‘levirate’ marriage. Property redemption by a relative assured that land would not remain in perpetuity outside the family (see Lev. 25:23-25). Levirate marriage (from Latin levir, ‘husband’s brother’) involves a childless widow marrying her husband’s brother to provide an heir for the dead husband . . . . Differences in Ruth, as compared with these laws, reflect customs applicable to particular circumstances. Boaz, a close relative (but not the closest), redeemed the property (Ruth 4:9), married Ruth (4:10, 13), and fathered Obed (4:13, 17), who became heir to the property of the deceased.”