THE LEVIRATE AND GOEL
INSTITUTIONS IN THE
With Special Attention to
the Book of Ruth
DONALD A. LEGGETT
hvhy rxry twx
IT is with deep gratitude that I take this opportunity to
publicly acknowledge many who have played a key role
in the completion of my work.
It was through training received at Reformed Episcopal
delphia, that I was first introduced to the Free University. A
scholarship received from the University was an impetus to-
taking the step of coming to
unfamiliar language. I am grateful for the happy years which
was able to spend in
1960-1964, while pursuing my studies. I would like to single
out Rev. and Mrs. Jacob Vos, fellow-students at the Free
University in those early years, who were tremendously help-
ful to my wife and me and who remain to this day our closest
Leng family who extended many kindnesses to us. Drs. Van-
noy and his family graciously allowed me to share their home
in the closing phases of my work.
Research for my thesis was carried on in numerous librar-
ies. Special mention should be made of the libraries of the
I am grateful to Queen's University,
erous use of their facilities. It was my pleasure to make two
visits to the Tyndale House,
and to be able to take advantage of their research facilities.
Lastly, I would not wish to omit mention of the extensive
help which I have received from the library personnel at the
This thesis would never have been completed without the
grant of a sabbatical year by
I am also grateful for the stimulation received in my part-
involvement at the
year. How can I ever thank those students of mine and their
wives who gave me substantial support during that year and
who have been a constant encouragement to me! To the
Postma, Males, Pointner, Barber, Smith, Stoute, McPhee,
larly, to Dr. and Mrs. C. Wellum and Dr. and Mrs. E. Higbee,
the congregation of
To Professor Dr. N. H. Ridderbos, I wish to express my
thanks for his wise counsel and competent criticism of my
work. For the considerable time which he has given in its
supervision and for the high standard of biblical scholarship
which he has exemplified, I remain in his debt.
Finally, I wish to thank my wife and children for their
part in my thesis. Through the loving encouragement of my
wife, I was enabled to persevere in my work. She willingly
assumed the added responsibilities of typing and proofread-
ing to her already busy life. The children too have known
what it is to sacrifice vacation time and other things in the
interest of "the thesis." As a family we are thankful to God,
who has enabled us to finish this work. To Him be glory
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE LEVIRATE AND GOEL INSTITUTIONS IN THE OLD
TESTAMENT (EXCLUSIVE OF THE BOOK OF RUTH)
1. THE LEVIRATE IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST 9
THE LEVIRATE IN
The Levirate Incident, Gen. 38 29
The Levirate Law, Deut. 25:5-10 49
The Persons Involved, Deut. 25:5 42
The Purpose of the Levirate, Deut. 25:6 48
The Ceremony of Refusal, Deut. 25:7-10 55
3. THE GOEL IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST 63
Parallels to the Goel-Redemption of Property 63
Parallels to the Goel-Redemption of Person 68
Parallels to the God-Redemption of Blood 71
THE GOEL IN
Goel-Redemption of Property, Lev. 25:23-28 83
Goel-Redemption of Person, Lev. 25:47-55 98
God-Redemption of Blood, Num. 35; Deut. 19:
1-13; Josh. 20:1-9 107
Restitution to the Goel, Num. 5:8 138
THE LEVIRATE AND GOEL INSTITUTIONS IN
THE BOOK OF RUTH
5. THE DATE AND PURPOSE OF THE BOOK OF
The Date of the Book of Ruth 143
Arguments for a Pre-Exilic Date 143
Arguments for a Post-Exilic Date 146
Argument from Purpose 147
Argument from the Place of the Book in
the Canon 152
Argument from Language 154
Argument from the Social and Legal
The Purpose of the Book of Ruth 163
The Interesting-Story Purpose 164
The Exemplary Purpose 165
The Theological Purpose 166
The Davidic-Ancestry Purpose 168
The Legal Purpose 170
6. NAOMI AND THE LEVIRATE 173
7. NAOMI AND THE GOEL 181
The Discovery of a Goel, Ruth 2:20 181
The Approach to Boaz, Ruth 3:1-9 188
Preparations for the Visit, Ruth 3:1-4 188
The Appeal of Ruth, Ruth 3:7-9 192
The Response of Boaz, Ruth 3:10-15 201
EXCURSUS: THE INITIATIVE OF NAOMI
8. BOAZ AND THE GOEL
The Administration of Law at the Gate, Ruth
4:1, 2 209
The Double Responsibility, Ruth 4:5, 10 222
The Refusal of the Goel and the Ceremony of
the Shoe, Ruth 4:6-8 249
9. OBED 255
Naomi's Goel, Ruth 4:14 255
Naomi's Son, Ruth 4:16, 17 260
Boaz' Son, Ruth 4:21 265
10. SUMMARIZING CONSIDERATIONS ON THE
LEVIRATE INSTITUTION IN
Representative Views 271
Recapitulation and Conclusion 287
11. SUMMARIZING CONSIDERATIONS ON THE
GOEL INSTITUTION IN
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BOOK OF RUTH 292
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL ABBREVIATIONS 299
IN recent years attention from different quarters has been
to the subject of the goel.1 in
important publications can be named. In 1940 Stamm
published his work Erlösen und Vergeben im Alten Testa-
ment, which established that the verb lxg was a term taken
from the sphere of family law, as over against hdp which
belonged to the domain of commercial law.2 In 1947 the
stimulating work of Daube, Studies in Biblical Law, was pub-
lished, in which considerable attention was devoted to the
study of the goel concept and to the verb lxg. Daube made
additional contributions to these topics in his later writings;
in particular in his 1956 work, The New Testament and Rab-
binic Judaism, and in the work published in 1963, The Exo-
dus Pattern in the Bible. He presented very penetrating
studies of the goel and opened serious discussion on the sub-
ject of Yahweh as the Divine Goel. He suggested that the
functions of the human goel in
some instances to Yahweh, although he acknowledged that
there were many general references to Yahweh as Goel where
specific nuances could not be inferred. By studying the spe-
cific functions of the goel, Daubecame to the conclusion
that "lxg primarily suggests the return of men or things into
their own legitimate place. . . The word simply denotes the
1. Throughout the course of this study the active participle of the verb lxg,
"redeem," will be transliterated simply with the word goel and the noun hlxg,
"redemption" with the word geullah.
2. J. J. Stamm (p. 45) concludes: "hdp ist ein Terminus des Handelsrechtes,
welcher einfach den Loskauf durch Stellung eines Gegenwertes ausdrückt. lxg ist
ein familienrechtlicher Begriff, der stets eine vor dem einzelnen Rechtsgeschäft
zwischen dem Loskaufenden und dem Losgekauften bestehende, durch die Zuge-
hörigkeit zu einer Sippe gegebene, Beziehung voraussetzt." Stamm dealt with
Jahweh as Goel in pp. 31-44 and made one passing remark on the goel in Ruth
(cf. p. 28).
rightful getting back of a person or object that had once
belonged to one or one's family but had been lost."3 Daube
proposed therefore that lxg means "to recover."
Jepsen concurred in the main with Daube in his article
written in 1957. He wrote: "Go'el war der, der Besitz,
Freiheit und Leben der Sippe und ihrer Glieder wiederherste
len sollte. . . . Ga'al bedeutet danach: das, was eine Sippe an
Leben, Freiheit und Besitz verloren hat, wiederherstellen.. . .
Die Mittel der Wiederherstellung, der ge'ullah, sind verschie-
den: Blutrache, Heirat, Rückkauf . . . immer aber ist das eine
Ziel, die verlorene Lebenskraft der Sippe wiederzugewinnen."4
An opinion in general agreement with that of both Daube
and Jepsen was Snaith's, who in 1961 argued that "primarily
the root [lxg] is used with reference to the enforcement, the
restoration of a right or claim that has lapsed. . . . Generally,
whenever person or property is freed by purchase, the verb is
G'L if it is reverting to the original owner. . . . The idea of
reversion is essential to the root.”5 The goel is the agent
involved in securing this reversion to the original owner.
An article evoking wide interest on this subject was that
of Johnson, who in 1953 advanced the idea that the basic
idea underlying the varying activities of the goel was that of
protection. "When a kinsman is slain or dies childless, or
when he is forced to sell himself into servitude or to part
with his property, there is a breach of continuity, and the
normal life of both individual and society is upset. Disorder
has been introduced into the life of each, and in the case of
the corporate unit as in that of the ordinary individual, any
weakness or disorder, whether brought about by actual physi-
cal death or not, involves a certain loss of vitality and it is the
function of the lxeGo to "protect" the life or vitality of both
the individual and the kin-group and thus preserve their
3. D. Daube, Studies in Biblical Law, 1947, pp. 3940.
4. A. Jepsen, "Die Begriffe des Erlösens im Alten Testament," Solange es
"Heute" heisst, Festgabe fur R. Hermann, 1957, p. 159.
5 N. H. Snaith, "The Hebrew Root G'L (1)," ALUOS, 3, 1961-62, pp. 60,
standing in society by keeping intact their essential unity or
Johnson pointed out that lxg in several places means
"defile," and argued that the verb lxg, "to defile" may not
be divorced, as is commonly done, from lxg, "to redeem, to
lay claim to." In both cases the basic idea is that of "covering
up" an object. He seeks support for his opinion from Job
3:5, which he translates: "Let darkness, let utter blackness
cover it; Let a cloud settle upon it; Let the o'er-shadowings
of day bring terror to it." By a process of semantic polariza-
tion the original thought of covering was employed both in
the sense of protection from degradation as well as in the
sense of causing degradation or defilement.7 Johnson's opin-
ion on the root meaning of the verb did not receive wide-
spread support8 although the article as a whole was a worth-
while contribution to the growing material on the goel in
Within more recent years, Holmgren,9 Baltzer,10 Stamm
(for the second time),11 Ringgren,12 Stuhlmueller,13 and
6., A. R. Johnson, "The Primary Meaning of lxg," SVT, 1, 1953, pp. 71, 72.
7. A. R. Johnson, op. cit., pp. 72-74. RSV translates the verb vhlxgy in Job
3:5 with "claim" as does the NV, "beslag op hem leggen"; KJV translates with
8. Johnson's argument has been accepted for example, by A. Guillaume,
"Unity of the Book of Job," ALUOS, 4, 1962-63, pp. 26-46, and R. de Vaux,
Ancient Israel, 1961, p. 21, who comments that the root "means 'to buy back, or
to redeem,' ‘to lay claim to,’ but fundamentally its meaning is 'to protect.' " It is
disputed, in my opinion correctly, by J. Blau, "Uber Homonyme und angeblich
Homonyme Wurzeln," VT, 6, 1956, p. 243. Blau argues that the verb vhlxgy in
Job 3:5 is parallel with the verb vhwrdy in Job 3:4 in an abc bca parallelism, in
which case the thought is, God need not claim the day, for the darkness shall
claim it for its own. wrd is used in a sense similar to lxg in Genesis 42:22 and
Psalm 9:13 (12) which supports Blau's argument. Cf. also K. Koch "Der Spruch,
‘Sein Blut bleibe auf seinern Haupt,' und die israelitische Auffassung vom vergos-
senen Blut," VT, 12, 1962, p. 410 n.l.
9. F. Holmgren, The Concept of Yahweh as Go'el in Second Isaiah, unpub-
Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary,
10. D. Baltzer, Ezechiel und Deuterojesaja (BZAW, 121), 1971, pp. 84-99.
11. J. J. Stamm, "lxg," THAT, 1, pp. 383-397.
12. H. Ringgren, "lxg," TWAT, 1, pp. 884-895.
13. C. Stuhlmueller, Creative Redemption in Deutero-Isaiah, 1970, pp. 97-
Sklba14 have published materials relevant to the topic of the
root meaning for the verb has receded somewhat into the
background and more emphasis has been given to an exami-
nation of the usage of the terms.
It was my intention initially to seek to handle the topic
the goel in
of Yahweh as Divine God. It soon became apparent that such
a task was precluded by the sheer quantity of materials in-
It also turned out that in the literature cited above rela-
tively little was being said about the goel in the book of
Ruth. Yet of the forty-four usages of the substantive goel,
nine occur in Ruth; and of the fifty-one occurrences of the
verb lxg in the qal form, twelve are found in Ruth.15 In the
face of these statistics and the paucity of material to be
found in the general works cited above dealing with the goel
in Ruth, it seemed that a study which specialized in the role
of the goel in Ruth was needed. Further research into the
literature brought to light a considerable number of articles
and other small works which discuss the specialized questions
arising from the book of Ruth. These individual questions all
have a bearing on the basic problem of how the marriage of
Boaz as goel to Ruth is to be related to the levirate16 law of
Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which requires only the marriage of
"brothers dwelling together." It is necessary, therefore, as
well as, we trust, useful to devote considerable space to pre-
senting this literature and to sketching the views taken by
various authors.17 In addition, a thorough study of the levirate
14. R. Sklba, "The Redeemer of
15. Cf. G. Lisowsky, Konkordanz zum Hebräischen Alten Testament, pp.
299, 300 and J. J. Stamm, "lxg," THAT, 1, p. 383.
16. The term "levirate" is derived from the Latinword levir meaning "a
17. The commentary of W. Rudolph, Das Buch Ruth, Das Hohe Lied, Die
Klagelieder, KAT, 17, 1962, provides considerable literature as does especially the
article by H. H. Rowley, "The Marriage of Ruth," in The Servant of the Lord,
Ruth. Some authors write that the book of Ruth has essential-
ly nothing to do with levirate marriage,18 some find it neces-
sary to coin the special term "ge'ullah marriage"19 to define
the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, and others are convinced that
this marriage is to be properly reckoned as a levirate mar-
riage.20 The strong majority of scholars seek to fit the data of
the book of Ruth concerning the levirate-type marriage into a
phase of the levirate development within
seems, therefore, that the book of Ruth is crucial to the
of the levirate and goel institutions in
Tentatively, two conclusions affecting methodology were
reached. In the first place, the commonly accepted methodol-
ogy of tracing the historical development of the levirate by
dating Ruth either before or after Deuteronomy was con-
cluded to be faulty. In the second place, it was decided that
the narrative sections of the Old Testament which tell of a
levitate situation (Gen. 38; Ruth) should be given as serious
consideration and weight in the study of the levirate
tion as the levirate law of Deuteronomy 25.
In addition to studying the levirate institution as the
background for the goel activity in Ruth it was deemed
imperative to examine the sections of the Old Testament law
where the duties of the goel are prescribed, to see if any
correlation might exist between these duties and the levirate
type-marriage undertaken by the goel, which was not pre-
scribed in the Old Testament laws.
In the examination of the goel and levirate institutions in
ancient Near East was felt to be of interest and importance.
19652, but many significant articles appeared in more recent times. See chapter 1
nn. 2, 4.
18. Cf. for instance, K. Dronkert, Het Huwelijk in het Oude Testament,
1957, pp. 68, 69.
19. L. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud, 1942, pp. 86,
20. Cf. the definition of the levirate given by J. Mittelmann in chap. 2, n. 1.
Finally, because the book of Ruth occupies the central part
of this study, it is necessary to give special attention to the
question of the date (in spite of the first of the above-named
conclusions affecting methodology) and the purpose of the
book of Ruth.
Part One discusses the levirate and goel institutions in the
Old Testament (excluding Ruth) with their Near Eastern
counterparts. Part Two, after dealing with the date and the
purpose of the book of Ruth, focuses the reader's attention
upon the light this book sheds on these important institu-
the levirate in Ruth 1:11-13. Chapter 7 is a study of the data
in Ruth 3 which centers on Ruth's night-time encounter with
Boaz. An excursus tackles the question, Why did Naomi take
the initiative and send the widow, Ruth, to Boaz instructing
her to request marriage from him on the basis of his being a
goel? Chapter 8 directs attention to Ruth 4: 1-8, the account
of the completion of Ruth's request by Boaz in his meeting
with the nearer kinsman and the subsequent shoe transaction
ceremony. Chapter 9 centers on Obed, who is called Naomi's
goel in Ruth 4:14, Naomi's son in Ruth 4:16, 17 and Boaz'
son in Ruth 4:21. Part Three is given over to our conclusions
on the levirate and god institutions, which have been drawn
through integrating the results of the general study in Part
One with those of the specific study of the book of Ruth in
THE LEVIRATE AND
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
(EXCLUSIVE OF THE BOOK OF RUTH)
The Levirate In the
Ancient Near East
IN 1947, H. H. Rowley wrote, "The simple story of Ruth
abounds in problems for which no final solution can ever
be found, since the materials for this solution are denied
us."1 Anyone who seeks to penetrate beneath the surface of
the book recognizes the validity of this remark. We may be
grateful, however, that Rowley's essay has gone considerable
lengths toward clarifying the issues, if not in providing a
"final solution." Since the publication of his article a signifi-
cant number of attempts have been made to solve the legal
complexities of the book.2 Burrows has well summarized the
problem in the book of Ruth by saying, "We have in Ruth a
combination of three institutions which are not elsewhere
1. H. H. Rowley, "The Marriage of Ruth," HTR, 40, 1947, p. 77 = The
Servant of the Lord, 1965, p. 171. All references to Rowley's article will come
from the latter.
2. Since the appearance in 1947 of Rowley's comprehensive discussion of
the marriage of Ruth, the following articles more directly connected with the
legal problems in the book have appeared: S. Belkin, "Levirate and Agnate Mar-
riage," JQR, 6, 1969-70, pp. 284-287; J. R. Porter, "Legal Aspects of Corporate
Personality," VT, 15, 1965, pp. 375-377; D. R. Ap-Thomas, "Book of Ruth,"
ExpT, 79, 1968, pp. 369-373; D. R. G. Beattie, "Kethibh and Qere in Ruth 4:5,"
VT, 21, 1971, pp. 490-494; H. A. Brongers, "Enkele Opmerkingen over het
Verband tussen Lossing en Leviraat," NedThT, 2, 1947, pp. 1-7; W. McKane,
"Ruth and Boaz," GUOST, 19, 1961-62, pp. 29-40; E. Robertson, "The Plot of
the Book of Ruth," BJRL, 32, 1950, pp. 207-228; Th. and D. Thompson, "Some
Legal Problems in the Book of Ruth," VT, 18, 1968, pp. 79-99: Th.C. Vriezen,
"Two Old Cruces," 0TS, V, 1948, pp. 80-91; D. Weiss, "The use of hnq in
connection with Marriage," HTR, 57, 1964, pp. 244-248; B. M. Wambacq, "Le
Mariage de Ruth," Melanges Eugene Tisserant, I, 1964, pp. 449-459. See also J.
Schoneveld, De Betekenis van de Lossing in het Boek Ruth, 1956.
10 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
found together. Levirate marriage, redemption, and inheri-
tance are all familiar to the reader of the OT, but only here
do we encounter a transaction which involves all three of"
them."3 The background for our study of the activity of the
goel in the book of Ruth must be the Old Testament institu-
tion of levirate marriage.4 Since the law of the levirate was
not an uncommon feature of ancient Semitic jurisprudence, a
summary of levirate marriage in the ancient Near East will be
There is general agreement6 that the CH contains nothing
comparable to levirate marriage, though Neufeld suggests that
3. M. Burrows, "The Marriage of Boaz and Ruth," JBL, 59, 1940, p. 445.
For a detailed list of the legal difficulties encountered in the book, cf. W.
McKane, op. cit., pp. 31-32.
4. Th. and D. Thompson, op. cit., p. 79, remark, "The interpretation of
Ruth depends on the understanding one has of the levirate." For an extremely
list of literature discussing levirate marriage in
Rudolph, Das Buch Ruth, Das Hohe Lied, Die Klagelieder, KAT, 17, 1962, pp.
60-61. In addition to the works cited therein, cf. J. R. Porter, op. cit., pp.
375-377; S. Belkin, op. cit., pp. 275-329; 1. Mattuck, "Levirate Marriage in Jewish
Law," Studies in Jewish Literature in Honor of Kaufmann Kohler, 1913, pp.
210-222; 0. Baab, "Marriage," IDB, 1962; D. Jacobson, The Social Background
of the Old Testament, 1942, pp. 290-300; Morgenstern, "The Book of the
Part II," HUCA, 7, 1930, pp. 159-185;
the Ancient Near East," BA, 11, 1948, pp. 30-31; G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles,
The Assyrian. Laws, 1935, pp. 240-249; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1961, pp.
37-38; H. Schaeffer, Social Legislation of Primitive Semites, 1915, pp. 57-65.
5. E. A. Speiser, "The Biblical Idea of History in its Common Near East
Setting," Oriental and Biblical Studies, ed. J. J. Finkelstein and M. Greenberg,
1967, p. 188, correctly writes, "The Bible is first and foremost a unique distilla-
tion of history. Now no process of this kind and magnitude can unfold in a
vacuum. The people of the Bible, who were to make history in more ways than
one, were neither politically nor culturally isolated from other soci-
eties.... Hence the ultimate achievement that is the Bible cannot be properly
understood, still less appreciated, except in terms of the setting in which this
work originated, and of the initial values which it went on to transfigure and
transcend." Some indication of the pervasiveness of this custom may be gleaned
by consulting, E. Westermarck, History of Human Marriage, 3, 1925, p. 208 and
J. Scheftclowitz, "Die Leviratsehe," ARW 18, 1915, 250 ff.
6. R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 38; E. M. MacDonald, The Position of Woman as
reflected in Semitic Codes, 1931, p. 23; M. Burrows, "Ancient Oriental Back-
ground of Hebrew Levirate Marriage," BASOR, 77, 1940, p. 7 (hereafter cited as
"Background"); G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 246. Generally this
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 11
the institution may have been outgrown in Hammurabi's
days, or even before his time. He affirms that such a wide-
spread custom could not have been unknown to the Baby-
lonians although he acknowledges the conjectural nature of
his conclusion.7 MacDonald concludes that "the Babylonian
woman gained by its abandonment, both in personal freedom
and economic relief, for her support was definitely arranged
for in giving her the usufruct of her husband's property dur-
ing her lifetime, and she was not forced to be dependent
upon the precarious existence of her husband's male relatives,
or, failing them, upon the charity of her own kin or the
absence of reference to levirate marriage is attributed to the practice of adoption
girls. Cf. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 5; D. Mace, Hebrew Marriage, 1953, pp.
117; S. Belkin, op. cit., p. 276. E.
Speiser, "People and Nation of
JBL, 79, 1960, p. 161, writes, "There is not a single attested case of adoption in
whole of the Hebrew Bible, in marked contrast to
hand, the levirate, much though its hold may have been loosed through progres-
sive urbanization, is never completely eliminated." This difference, he attributes
a differing role of the family in relation to the state. In
family played a part, inevitably, but its autonomy was severely restricted by
political and economic considerations. Though blood was thicker than water,
bread and taxes rated still higher. That is why adoption, which tends to loosen
blood ties, became such a prominent factor in Mesopotamian society; contrari-
wise, the institution of the levirate, which stands guard over blood relationship,
took hold in
position in Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, 1968, p. 58 n. 31. For a contrary
on adoption within
JBL, 30, 1931, pp. 186-200. A. Phillips, "Some Aspects of Family Law in Pre-
spread practice of adoption throughout the ancient Near East, that it was also
and was a unilateral act of the adopter. It would also explain why no mention of
adoption occurs in the legal sections of the Old Testament, for as a part of family
law it did not concern the community at large, and therefore no resort was made
to the courts." R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 52, writes, "We may conclude that the
notion of adoption, in the juridical sense, was known in Old Testament times, but
had little influence on daily life; it was unknown in later Jewish law."
7. E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage Laws, 1944, p. 49 (hereafter cited
as AHML). Cf. also H. D. Bracker, Das Gesetz Israels, 1962, p. 36.
12 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
community at large."8 Despite occasional9 attempts at identi-
fying comparable laws, the consensus of scholarly opinion is
no such institution as the levirate existed in
would seem to be the case that the misfortune of having no
son was solved through adoption customs.10
A far better case can be made for the presence of the
dispute. The generally accepted date for the MAL, which are
closely related to the CH, is from 1500 to 1100 B.C.11 MAL
§30, 33, and 43 from Tablet A have the most direct bearing
on the question of the levirate. Meek cites MAL §30 as a law
which the Assyrian code held in common with the levirate
law in Israe1.12 It reads: "If a father has conveyed (or)
brought the betrothal-gift to the house of his son's (prospec-
tive) father-in-law, with the woman not yet married to his
son and another son of his, whose wife is living in her father's
house, died, he shall give his dead son's wife in marriage to
his other son to whose father-in-law's house he brought (the
8. E. M. Macdonald, op. cit., p. 12. C. Lattey, The Book of Ruth, 1935, pp.
XXII, XXIII, writes, "In the ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi a widow is
allowed under certain conditions to keep or inherit property from her husband
(nos. 150, 171); this fact and the absence of any mention of the Goel appear to
indicate a more developed social system than that of the Pentateuch or of the
Book of Ruth."
9. Friedrich Delitzsch,
Eheformen bei den Indogermanen, 1937, p. 101, made reference to an unpub-
lished Sumerian inscription, which he believes may contain a reference to the
levirate. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 50, remarks, "If so thorough an expert on Baby-
lonian law as Koschaker knows of no further proof for the existence of levirate
marriage than this doubtful inference no more reliable evidence is available at the
10. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 5; G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit.,
11. T. Meek, "The Middle Assyrian Laws," ANET, 19693, p. 180, dates the
tablets at the time of Tiglathpileser I in the 12th century though he states that the
laws themselves may well go back to the 15th century. G. R. Driver, and J. C.
Miles, op. cit., p. 12, place the laws between 1450-1250. Cf. also E. F. Weidner,
"Das Alter der mittel-assyrischen Gesetzestexte," Archiv für Orientforschung, 12,
1937, p. 50.
12. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, 19602, p. 63.
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 13
gift). . ."13 On this law he comments, "The Levirate was to
be enforced even though other marriage plans had been made
for the deceased man's brother."14 Driver and Miles however,
do not regard this as a case comparable to the Hebrew levi-
rate, since the girl is not a widow in the strict sense. The
marriage transaction has been legally completed but the bride
has not yet been given to her husband. She is the "assatu" of
her dead bridegroom, living with her father. "This, however,
does not seem to be a case of the levirate, as there is nothing
showing a legal duty on the second son to marry her apart
from the duty to fulfill his father's wish.”15
Burrows and Neufeld dispute the conclusion of Driver
and Miles and contend that the law does constitute a genuine
case of levirate marriage. The point under dispute between
them is the fact that the widow is living in her father's house,
while under the authority of her father-in-law. Two possibili-
ties present themselves. One would be to explain the presence
of the woman in her father's house as an "errebu" marriage,
whereby the husband enters his wife's father's family, receiv-
ing only partial powers of a husband over her.16 While this
13. T. Meek, ANET, p. 182.
14. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, p. 64. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 51, agrees re-
marking, "It seems to follow from §30 of M.A.L. that a father-in-law can give his
son's widowed bride—she is a bride although the text speaks of an Assatu—to
another of his sons for whom he had already acquired a bride before the death of
his previous son. In these circumstances the bride of the second son might become
a second wife to her original bridegroom who has in the meantime married his
widowed sister-in-law, or perhaps she could be given to another son by her pro-
spective father-in-law." Cf. also, M. Burrows, "Background," p. 12.
15. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 247. They further add (p. 173):
"Here there is nothing to show whether the marriage of this girl who is described
as the assatu of the dead son was a completed marriage, but it is almost incon-
ceivable that it was so. For as she is still in her father's house, she is presumably of
tender age, and moreover it would be expected that, if the marriage had been
completed, she would have had issue, as no one would marry or at any rate keep a
barren wife; but no issue is mentioned in the text."
16. M. Burrows, "Background," pp. 3, 5, 11-12. Cf. also M. Burrows, "The
Complaint of Laban's Daughter," JAOS, 57, 1937, pp. 259-2761M. David, Vorm
en Wezen van de Huwelijkssluiting naar de Oud Oostersche Rechtsopvatting,
1934, pp. 4 f., 19 (hereafter cited as Vorm en Wezen); T. Meek, Hebrew Origins,
tites," ArOr, 18, 1950, pp. 124-130.
14 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
would explain her presence in her own family, it does not
seem likely under such circumstances that her father-in-law
would have any control over her or responsibility toward
her.17 It is more likely that the law is concerned with widows
who have returned to their father's homes before or after the
death of their husbands and the design of such a law is to
establish the right of the father-in-law even where the widow
is seeking to get out from under his control.18 There is, in
any event, no mention of sons or of lack of sons in the law.
Because of this Neufeld, who sees levirate marriage in this
law, acknowledges that some sections of the MAL refer to
the levirate custom in a rather confused manner.19
MAL § 33 has a bearing as well on a possible levirate
still living in her father's house, her husband died and she has
sons, (she shall live where she chooses in)20 a house of theirs.
(If) she has no (son, her father-in-law shall marry her to the
son)21 of his choice ... or if he wishes, he may give her in
marriage to her father-in-law. If her husband and her father-
in-law are both dead and she has no son, she becomes a
widow; she may go where she wishes."22
Four cases seem to be in view.23 The first is that of a
widow with at least one son. In such a situation she is to live
with her son(s). The second is where there are no sons, but
17. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 12.
18. Ibid. Cf. E. Neufeld, AHML, pp. 51, 52.
19. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 51.
20. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 228, restore the missing words in
the same fashion as Meek, "It seems then that 11.58-9 contained words to the
effect that the woman may live with her sons and, of course, be supported by
21. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 228, restore the text again in the
same fashion as Meek, reasoning that the case here in view is where the woman
"has no sons or only infant eons. For the statement in the last paragraph setting
out what happens if she has neither sons nor father-in-law, coupled with that in
11.65-66 to the effect that under certain circumstances she is given in marriage to
her father-in-law, makes it practically certain that the mutilated lines dealt some-
where with the case in which she had no sons but had only a father-in-law."
22. T. Meek, ANET, p. 182.
23. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 13.
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 15
the dead husband is survived by brothers as well as his father.
Here the law states that the father-in-law of the widow may
give the widow to his son, as we saw in MAL §30. The third
case is where there are no sons or brothers, but where the
father-in-law is living. Because of the brokenness of the text
there is some question of interpretation. Driver and Miles
comment, "The lines preceding the statement that she may
be given to her father-in-law are missing, so that it is impossi-
ble to be certain that they did not deal with the case in which
she had no sons or with that in which she was inchoately
married."24 How then are we to understand the statement "if
he wishes, he may give her in marriage to her father-in-law"?
In other words, Who gives the woman to her father-in-law?
We have seen that MAL § 33 is one of the laws regulating the
situation where the woman is living in her father's house.
Driver and Miles infer from MAL §43, "that if there are no
brothers of a deceased husband of an age to marry his wife,
she reverts into the power of her own father.”25 Burrows
agrees that the subject of the clause "if he wishes, he may
give" is the woman's father. He is of the opinion, however,
that "there must be some significance in the fact that the
clause allowing the woman's father to give her to her father-
in-law is preceded by the condition, 'or if he pleases.' This
suggests that the missing portion of the text just preceding it
allowed the father the option of retaining his daughter in his
own household if he so desired. In other words, the wife's.
father even in an errebu-marriage had no responsibility for
her support when her husband died, leaving no sons, but
might either keep her at home or give her to her father-in-
24. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 247. They use the phrase
"inchoately married" to describe the situation in which the marriage transaction
has been completed, but the bride has not actually gone over to the husband. "In
the Assyrian laws there appear to be three classes of widows; the first is the
completely married wife who has sons, the second is the almattu, who has neither
grown-up sons nor father-in-law, and the third is the inchoately married bride who
has lost her husband and of course has no sons"; op. cit., p. 246.
25. G. R Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 229.
16 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
law. In that case, the permission granted to the father-in-law
to give the widow to one of his other sons in the second set
of circumstances, may have been similarly conditioned upon
her father's consent."26
The fourth situation mentioned in,. MAL §33 regulates
the case where there are neither sons nor father-in-law. In this
case "she may go where she wishes." She is free to dispose of
herself as she sees fit, particularly now in her right to remarry
whom she will.27
From MAL §33 Neufeld affirms that "one may deduce
caution that in
tive of the existence of children of the widow, who can be
married by her own father-in-law where, for example, her
husband has left no brothers. Whether the father-in-law mar-
ried his daughter-in-law if there was issue remains an open
Another law possibly touching on the
is MAL §43. It reads: "If the seignior either poured oil on
(her) head or brought betrothal-presents (and) the son to
whom he assigned the wife either died or fled, he may give
(her) to whichever he wishes of his remaining sons from the
oldest son to the youngest son who is at least ten years old. If
the father died and the son to whom he assigned the wife also
died, but the dead son has a son who is at least ten years old,
he shall marry (her), but if the grandsons are younger than
ten years, the girl's father, if he wishes, may give his daughter
(to one of them), or if he wishes, he may make an equitable
return (of the gifts)."29 Here we see the case where a daugh-
ter has been conveyed from her father's house and has come
26. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 13.
27. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., pp. 224, 225: "This phrase obvi-
ously permits her to remarry but probably connotes something more than
this.... She is free from both paternal and marital control, and this freedom
includes the right to marry whom she will."
28. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 52. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, p. 64, comments on
MAL §33, "In the light of this law we can see the justification for Tamar's
trickery whereby she was enabled to marry her father-in-law, Judah."
29. T. Meek, ANET, p. 184.
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 17
under the authority of a man who is to give her to one of his
sons. The son to whom she has been given disappears or dies
before the consummation of the marriage. The father may
then give her to another of his sons. If the bridegroom's
father is dead, a son of the bridegroom not younger than ten
years of age shall take the bride. If there are no such sons the
girl's father may either give her to any sons of the bride-
groom younger than ten, for whom she shall have to wait, or
return the gifts he received.
Does this law, in any sense, reflect the Hebrew levirate?
Once again there is a divergence of opinion among scholars.
The negative position is taken by Driver and Miles, who main-
tain that there is no right or duty placed upon the brother of
the deceased comparable to the Hebrew duty of the levirate.
Furthermore, they note that this law clearly reflects a case of
an inchoately married bride, which would set it apart from
the Hebrew levirate, which governs the widow without chil-
dren.30 Neufeld, on the other hand, rather confidently af-
firms from this law that the Assyrian levirate was extended
under certain circumstances beyond the brothers and father
of the deceased, and contends that though it deals with a
bride, it must also apply to a wife.31
The difficulty of evaluating the evidence for the levirate
scholars. The positions taken hinge upon how much impor-
tance is attached to the differences.32 Driver and Miles feel
that "these laws then contain no certain instance in which
the girl who is given to her brother-in-law had actually been
the full wife of the dead man. The evidence then in favour of
the existence of the Hebrew type of levirate is very slight, for
30. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 247. See n. 24,
31. E. Neufeild. AHML. p. 52 n. 1. “This law also deals a bride; how
much more must it apply to a wife?" M. David. Vorm en Wezen. p. 25 n. 14, also
argues that this law is a true reflection of the levirate marriage institution.
32. For an enumeration of the
differences, see E. Ring,
zm Lichte der neuentdeckten assyrischen und hethitischen Gesetzesurkunden,
1926, pp. 43-49.
18 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
the case where any inchoately married man or woman has
died and another brother or sister takes their respective
places is certainly not what is generally understood as the
Hebrew levirate."33 The laws which would seem to point to
the existence of the levirate are explainable in terms of the
Assyrian practice of buying a girl ana kallatuti, "for bride-
ship."34 Burrows, Neufeld, David, and Meek all speak of vari-
ous Assyrian laws as exemplifying real cases of levirate mar-
riage.35 To a certain extent—as we have seen, only to a cer-
tain extent—the differences between scholars are semantic,
since one may talk about "a real case of levirate marriage" as
Burrows and Neufeld do, and yet go on to carefully distin-
between the purpose of the levirate law in
compared with the purpose in Israel.36 One of the laws cited
33. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., pp. 247, 248. Their argument is
also based on several laws (§25, 33, 36, 45, 46), which "inferentially are opposed
to the existence of the levirate"; op. cit., p. 248. H. Bracker, op. cit., p. 36, states,
"Also von einer Leviratsehe der Witwen war in Assyrien keine Rede."
34. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., pp. 163, 174, 248. Commenting on
MAL § 30 they write, "The transaction then must resemble that in which a father
acquires another man's daughter 'for the purpose of a daughter-in-law (Bab. ana
kalluttim or kallatuti) in order to marry her to a specified son or, if that son dies,
to another of his sons"; op. cit., p. 175. H. Bracker, op. cit., p. 35, writes, "Die
Braut war eben nicht nur für ein spezielles Glied der Familie, sondern für die
ganze Familie zum Heiraten gekauft oder `adoptiert.' " For a similar custom at Nuzi
ZA, 43, 1936, pp. 152, 153 (hereafter cited as "Status") and A. F. Rainey,
35. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 12; E. Neufeld, AHML. p. 52, writes:
"The Assyrian levirate law can thus be summarized as follows: (a) It applied
whether the widow had sons or not; (b) it was in force even if there were no
marriage but only an engagement; (c) all brothers of the deceased husband arc
subject to the obligation; (d) failing brothers, the deceased's father marries the
widow; (e) failing brothers and father of the deceased, the levirate duty extended
to the grandchildren horn by another wife, and most probably also to children
thus begotten." For reference to Meek and David, see nn. 28 and 31.
36. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 12, as against G. R. Driver and J. C.
Miles, refers to MAI, §30 as a real case of the levirate practice. Yet when he
in terms of how this institution functioned in Assyria and
writes, "Except among the Hebrews and perhaps the Canaanites, levirate marriage
was not in the ancient Near East a means of securing a son for the dead. It was
rather a part of the whole system of family relationships, authority, and inheri-
tance"; op. cit., p. 15. This can also be observed as well in E. Neufeld, op. cit., p.
who writes, "1,o:irate marriage was a common feature in
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 19
by Driver and Miles as inferentially opposed to the levirate in
section of MAL §33 concerns the widow living in her father's
house who has no son and whose father-in-law is dead. The
widow is free to go where she wishes; that is, to marry whom
she will. For Driver and Miles, this law is the opposite of the
Hebrew levirate, which would not allow the widow a similar
freedom of choice if any male kinsman of her husband were
living.37 This objection presupposes that the marriage of
Ruth to the goel was a levirate marriage. At this point this
question can be set aside. Suffice it to say, that others might
not see MAL §33 as inferentially opposed to a levirate cus-
tom, since they would not speak of the marriage of a Hebrew
widow to a more distant relative as a levirate marriage.
More important than the inquiry into whether one should
should not speak of a levirate custom in
of the purpose of the levirate in
quite evident that the laws functioned dissimilarly in the two
places. In the Hebrew levirate, the emphasis is on the child-
less widow and the need for male progeny for the deceased.
A connection between the much desired male issue and the
succession to the family estate must be noted. So also the
inheritance.39 Yet as Ring has noted, "Der Unterschied aber
ist, dass in CA die Rücksicht auf den Toten and die berech-
tigte Forderung darauf, dass sein Name nicht aussterben
Hebrew has stamped the custom in
ter. There are many points of difference between the Hebrew levirate and the
Assyrian-Hittite levirate which are much more striking than their points of resem-
37. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 248, maintain that "a childless
widow could not do this by Hebrew law if she had either a brother-in-law or a
male kinsman of her husband."
38. G. Morgenstern, op. cit., p. 161, talks of the levirate
"an altogether new motif ... entirely without parallel in Semitic practice." Cf. n.
39. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 15.
20 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
möge, gar keinen Platz findet. Es handelt sich blos um das
Recht der ihn Überlebenden ihn zu beerben. Das assyriche
Levirat hat daher sicherlich bezweckt das Eigentum innerhalb
eines Geschlechtes zusammen zu halten, aber die Bestimmun-
gen über dasselbe haben nicht, wie es in Israel der Fall war, es
gleichzeitig und vor allem darauf abgesehen, dass der von
Anfang an mit dem Eigentume verbundene Name auch fer-
nerhin an dasselbe gebunden bleiben und auf diese Weise fort-
leben möge. In CA sind es nur die Interessen der Hinter-
bliebenen und deren erbrechtliche Forderungen gewesen,
denen bei der Leviratsehe Beachtung geschenkt worden
ist."40 One can conclude, then, that while there are formal
points of contact between the two practices, such as the role
of the father-in-law and the brothers of the deceased, there
are some rather basic differences. At least many of the cases
adduced from the Assyrian laws have reference to the incho-
ate bride and not to the widow. It is unclear in others wheth-
er children are present or not. Ring is correct in calling atten-
to the fact that in
the dead, to continue his name, whereas in
the exclusive focal point is the rights obtained by the family,
in the marriage contract, which brings the bride into her
husband's family. It is therefore understandable when Brack-
er concludes, "Kommt man vom ausserisraelitischen Levirat
40. E. Ring, op. cit., p. 49. H. Bracker,
op. cit., p. 36, writes, "In
Leviratsehe etwas sehr viel anderes. In
Versorgung oder Festhaltung der Witwe als eines gekauften Eigentums der Fam-
ilie, sondern darum, dass dem ohne Sohn verstorbenen Ehemann für dessen Land-
besitz, der in seinem Geschlecht forterben sollte, ein Erbe verschafft wurde....
Die Witwe ging in diesem Falle nicht wie eine Ware aus einer Hand in die andere,
sondern sie handelte selbstandig zu Ehren ihres verstorbenen Mannes und seines
Geschlechtes." I. Price "The so-called Levirate marriage in Hittite and Assyrian
Laws," Oriental Studies Dedicated to Paul Haupt, ed. C. Adler and A. Embler,
1926, p. 271: states, "The Assyrian laws uphold the sanctity of a betrothal on the
part of the parents of both parties with all the detail that a complicated society
would seem to require. If these features may be classed as a kind of levirate-
marriage, they omit those phases of the question, viz: posterity, property and
inheritance, that stand out so prominently in Hebrew legislation."
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 21
zum israelitischen, ist es, als ob man in eine ganz andere Welt
The Hittite law code42 contains one law, HC § 193, which
the levirate law in
wife, and the man dies, his brother shall take his wife, then
his father shall take her. If also his father dies, his brother
shall take his wife (and also) the son of his brother shall (take
her). (There shall be) no punishment."43
There are variations in translation arising from an imper-
fect text,44 which affect the order of responsibility in the
levirate marriage situation. There is agreement among schol-
ars that the first and second responsibility falls upon the
brother of the deceased and the father of the deceased. Opin-
ion is divided over the question of who assumes the responsi-
bility for marrying the widow if the father of the deceased
dies as well. Stated in another way, How are we to under-
41. H. Bracker, op. cit., p. 37. This conclusion is also arrived at by P.
Cruveilhier, "Le lévirat chez les Hébreux et chez les Assyriens," RB, 34, 1925, p.
542, "Si nous comparons entre eux le droit de Lévirat des Hébreux et celui des
Assyriens, nous constatons que leur ressemblance est plus apparente que
réelle.... En spécifiant que c'est uniquement, quand it n'y a pas de fils, que le
droit de lévirat doit s'exercer, le Deutéronome marque clairement que le but de
cette institution est d'assurer la perpétuité du nom et de l'héritage du défunt. En
négligeant au contraire la question de l'existence d' enfants, le Recueil de lois
assyriennes nous manifeste qu'un tel but n'a nullement préoccupé l'auteur de son
droit de lévirate." E. M. MacDonald, op. cit., p. 72, writes, "In Israel there was a
motive behind Levirate marriage, in
42. In connection with the dating of these laws A. Goetze, "State and
Society of the Hittites," in Neuere Hethiterforschung, ed. G. Walser, 1964, p. 27,
"It is quite clear that they go back to the
refinement of palaeography allows the statement that some of the law tablets that
have come down to us in Fact were inscribed during this early period (1800
43. E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws, 1951, p. 55.
father die, then his first brother, although married, may take her; there is no
penalty." J. Friedrich, Die Hethitischen Gesetze, 1959, p. 85, translates, "Wenn
ein Mann eine Frau hat und der Man stirbt, nimmt seine Gattin sein Bruder; dann
nimmt sie sein Vater. Wenn zweitens auch sein Vater stirbt und die Frau die er
hatte sein Bruder nimmt, ist kein Anstoss."
22 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
stand the reference to "his brother" who takes the woman
after the decease of the father? Does the phrase, "his broth-
er," refer to the brother of the originally deceased man or to
the father who has died?45 Price46 Ledersen,47 and Ring48
assert that a married brother of the deceased is the third in
order of responsibility. The distinction between married and
unmarried is inferred from the conclusion where it is express-
ly stated that in the instance of the latter assuming the obli-
gation of the levirate "There shall be no punishment."49
On the other hand, Koschaker50 Nöetscher,51 Burrows,52
and Neufeld53 understand the sequence as involving the
brother of the deceased, the father of the deceased, and the
45. The translation of A. Walther in J. M. P. Smith, The Origin and History
of Hebrew Law, 1931, p. 272, circumvents this problem by translating the dis-
puted lines, "If again also his father die and one brother of his take the woman."
This translation presupposes that the "his brother" has reference to the father's
47. J. Pedersen,
§ 193, "If a man marries a woman and then dies, then his brother may (or must)
marry her; secondarily, his father. When the father dies, a brother may (or must)
marry her, whatever his marital relations." He remarks (p. 548) on the concluding
section of the law, "The latter remark might point in the direction that the
first-mentioned brother is at any rate not under obligation to take over the
widow, if already married."
48. E. Ring, op. cit., pp. 137, 138, writes, "Eine besondere Eigentümlich-
keit ist die ausdrtickliche Vorschrift, dass ein verheirateter Bruder, wenn so erfor-
derlich, die Leviratspflicht erfüllen kann. Er kommt dadurch in die Lage in Biga-
mie zu leben, and vermutlich hat man bigamische Verbindungen innerhalb des
hethitschen Rechtsgebietes als nicht erlaubt angesehen, da besonders angegeben
wird, dass er nicht hestraft werden soil. Seine neue Verbindung wird nämlich als
eine durch besondere Verhaltnisse veranlasste ausserordentliche Massnahme
betrachtet, eine reine Ausnahme, welche das Gesetz, deshalb dulden kann."
should be carried out even if it involved polygamy of a brother of the deceased.
This proceeding was an emergency case and was not punishable under a law which
impliedly was in vogue at that time."
50. P. Koschaker, "Zum Levirat nach hethitischen Recht," RHA, 10, 1933,
51. F. Nötscher, Biblische Altertumskunde, 1940, p. 88 n. 2, comments,
"Der hethitische Levirat ist fakultativ, greift aber viel weiter als der israelitische.
Levir ist der Reihe nach der Bruder, der Schwiegervater and sogar der Bruder des
Schwiegervaters des Verstorbenen."
52. M. Burrows, "Background," p. 14.
53. E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws, 1951, pp. 191, 192.
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 23
paternal uncle of the deceased. Meeks54 and Gurney55 believe
the third party to he the nephew of the deceased.
It is not expressly stated whether this law is in operation
only if the widow is childless. Koschaker believes it is highly
probable that such was the case.56 On the other hand, Price is
of the opinion that the law "aims to provide a home for the
bereaved widow among the kinsman of her late husband or
husbands, and thus promotes humanitarianism in a wide
sense."57 Neufeld,58 Pedersen,59 Ring,60 Brongers,61 and
54. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, 1960, p. 63 n. 32. Cf. A. Goetze, ANET, p.
196, "If in turn also his father dies, one of his brother's sons shall take the wife
whom he had. There shall be no punishment."
55. 0. R. Gurney, The Hittites, 1954', p. 101.
56. P. Koschaker, "Zum Levirat nach hethitischen Recht," p. 80, remarks,
"Sie ist noch-einleuchtender, wenn der Levir auch die Aufgabe hat, für die Fort-
setzung der Familie und des Namens seines verstorbenen Bruders zu sorgen. § 193
gedenkt indessen dieser Voraussetzung nicht. Dass aber auch in diesem Punkte das
hethitische Recht der allgemeinen Regel folgte, lässt sich meines Erachtens in
hohem Grade wahrscheinlich machen." J. Morgenstern, op. cit., p. 163, draws the
parallel between Genesis 38 and this law and implies a similar purpose. 0. R.
Gurney, op. cit., pp. 101, 102, maintains that the law is "remarkably similar to
the Hebrew law of levirate rnarriage"; he argues that § 193 is not a full statement
the levirate. 57.
58. E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws, p. 192, writes, "The Law makes no refer-
ence to the question of issue of the original marriage of the deceased. It seems
certain, however, that this question does not affect the obligation of the persons
involved in the levirate duty. As long as the widow's age permitted her to give
birth to children, all the above persons were under an obligation to marry her."
59. J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 548, comments, "From the Hittite and Assyrian
it appears that the Levirate marriage was a common feature in
but the Israelites stamped this custom with quite a different character."
60. E. Ring, op. cit., pp. 138, 139, discusses the similarities and distinctions
between Hittite levirate law and the levirate in Deut. 25. Mention is made of three
similarities which take in the following points: both involve a moralistic responsi-
ilit make reference to the performance of the levirate by a brother of the
deceased; both, in contrast with the Assyrian legal system, know nothing of the
counterpart of the levirate in cases where the woman has died. The differences are
noticeable, including the absence of any mention of the dead person dying with-
out male issue and the prescribed sequence. The purpose of the institution is
dissimilar: "Darum ist es vermutlich nicht, so wie im israelitischen Recht, in erster
Linie die Sorge für das Fortleben des Namens des Toten gewesen.... Wahrschein-
lich ist die in Frage kommende Einrichtung bei den Hethitern mit dem ganz
allgemeinen Zwecke begründet gewesen, dass durch sie, ebenso wie im assyrischen
Rechte, gewisse Garantieen dafur gegeben werden sollten, dass das Eigentum
fortdauernd in der Familie als deren Besitz erhalten bliebe and nicht nötig hätte
in fremde Hände überzugehen."
61. H. Brongers, Oud-Oosters en Bijbels Recht, 1960, p. 129, remarks on
24 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
Meek62 draw a clear distinction between the practice of the
among the Hittites and in
One brief mention is made in the Nuzi texts of something
similar to the levirate. A brother giving his sister in marriage
for a purchase price agrees that if Hanaya, the husband, dies,
Ithipsharru, the husband's father, who purchased her, shall
give her to his other son.63 Gordon refers to this as "levirate
marriage in the crudest form."64 The purchase of a bride with
the attendant right of transfer to another son in case of de-
cease is similar to what we saw in MAI. §43. There is also the
case where, in a husband's will, provision was made to pre-
vent the wife from remarrying. The children were to strip her
and she was to go out naked. This has, ill any case, nothing in
common with the Israelite levirate, since the marriage in view
had already resulted in children.65
HL § 193, "We ontmoeten hier het instituut van het leviraat, dat ons ook uit het
bijbels recht bekend is (Deut. 25:5 vv.). Er is echter enige nuancering. Zo wordt
bier de kwestie of het huwelijk kinderloos was gebleven, niet aan de orde gesteld,
terwijl dit voor de bijbelse wet op het leviraat een conditie sine qua non is.
Bovendien schijnt de nadrukkelijke constatering dat een leviraatshuwelijk niet
strafbaar is, crop to wijzen dat het niet wcttelijk verplicht was."
62. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, p. 63 n. 32, denies, as Brongers, cf. our
preceding note, that the levirate was required among the Hittites. He bases this
conclusion on the final word in the law, "There shall be no punishment," and
remarks, "It is clear from this that the Levirate with the Hittites had become
quite obsolete; so obsolete and out of favor that a law had to be formulated to
make it legal if someone did follow it." For a different interpretation of the
statement "There shall be no punishment," cf. nn. 48, 49.
63. Text 441 in E. Chiera, Mixed Texts, Publications of the
School, V, 1934. Cf. C. Gordon, "Status," p. 163.
64. C. Gordon, "Fratriarchy in the Old Testament," JBL, 54, 1935, p.
230. He feels that "in the Old Testament, a secondary, sentimental and purely
fictitious phase of levirate marriage, to wit, that of supplying the deceased with an
heir, has evolved into its 'raison d'etre.' The whole institution, which was original-
ly the right of the levir, has developed into the widow's privilege."
65. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 54; C. Gordon, "Status," p. 163.
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 25
The evidence from
scholars are of the opinion that the levirate was known.66
One text possibly bearing on the levirate is an Akkadian doc-
ument uncovered at the excavation of the royal palace of
“To be effective immediately! Thus says Arihalbu, King of Ugarit:
“Whoever, after my death, takes (in marriage) my wife, Kubaba,
daughter of Takan (?) from my brother—
May Baal crush him,
May he not make great (his) throne,
May he not dwell in a (royal) house,
May Baal of Mt. Casius crush him!'”67
Due to its conciseness, there has been some difference of
interpretation,68 but a number of scholars arc convinced that
we have in this political testament of the Ugaritic King Ari-
halbu a reference to the levirate. According to M. Tsevat,
Arihalbu "drew up the document when he felt his end near
and he was not blessed with a son, for no man would provide
for the levirate of his widow as long as he might hope for a
This text then is a political testament with the unusual
added weight of the curse. Apparently, Arihalbu is anticipat-
ing a possible violation of the intended marriage of his broth-
er to his wife by some would-be aspirant to the throne. The
imprecations in the text are designed to thwart any attempt
66. R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 38; L. M. Muntingh, "The Social and Legal
Status of a Free Ugaritic Female," JNES, 26, 1967, pp. 108, 111; M. Tsevat,
and Monarchical Legitimacy in
237-243; A. van Selms, Marriage and Family Life in Ugaritic Literature, 1954, p.
67. M. Tsevat, op. cit., p. 237. His translation is from R. S. 16.144. J.
Nougayrol, Le palais royal d' Ugarit, III, 1955, p. 76, offers a similar translation
except in line eleven. Nougayrol renders: "(Sa) maison ne florira pas!" Tsevat:
"May he not dwell in a (royal) house."
68. Cf. M. Tsevat, op. cit., p. 239, for the particular views.
69. M. Tsevat, op. cit., p. 240. Also, L. M. Muntingh, op. cit., p. 108 and G.
Boyer, "La place des textes d'Ugarit dans l'histoire de l'ancien droit oriental," in
Le palais royal d'Ugarit, III, 1955, p. 300.
26 The Levirate In the Ancient Near East
to overthrow his purpose to secure the continuance of his
line in the kingship of Ugarit.70
Van Selms calls attention to two instances in the Ugaritic
texts where the daughter-in-law is mentioned as present in
the household of the master of the house (329:2, 3; 11, 12).
He feels that these are best explained by the supposition that
the daughter-in-law remained with the dead husband's family,
in which case it is probable that "we have here something we
could compare with the idea underlying the Levirate mar-
riage: once married into her husbancf's family, the wife is
regarded as belonging to that family, and on her husband's
death she remains in the care of her father-in-law. Perhaps he
detained her till the moment a younger son could marry
It would appear then that the levirate did operate in some
more on inference than on direct statement.72 Summing up
Ugaritic matrimonial law, Muntingh, who concurs with the
opinion that R. S. text 16.144 is a political testament of King
Arihalhu presupposing a levirate custom that there is
tdo little material to come to definite conclusions.73
70. M. Tsevat, op. cit., p. 241, points out that the concern of the king was
"a dynastic one: to retain kingship in his family, ideally to secure the uninter-
rupted hereditary line.... The brothers, far from entertaining suspicion of each
other, acted in the fullest accord. The document is written to guard the interests
of either brother as well as those of the dynasty." Ile then draws an interesting
parallel with David (II Sam. 12:8), Ahithophel (II Sam. 16:21), and Adonijah
(I Kings 2:13-25); in these texts the appropriation of the king's wives is connected
with taking over his office.
71. A. van Selms, op. cit., pp. 35, 36.
72. A. van Selms, op. cit., p. 36.
73. L. M. Muntingh, op. cit., p. 111. G. Boyer, op. cit., pp. 300, 301,
concludes, "mail sur la foi de ce seul texte nous ne pouvons affirmer que le lévirat
était de regle pour l'ensemble de la population. La famille royale a pu etre
soumise en matiere matrimoniale a des usages differents de ceux appliques au
reste de la population. Si on peut raisonner par analogic avec les institutions
hébraiques, le manage de la veuve de l'ancien souverain a pu jouer un role dans la
dévolution de la couronne." R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 38, tersely states that there is
for the levirate in
of the levirate is attested in the ancient Near East for
Hittites, Assur, and Nuzi. In Biblical law, the condition for the levirate is that the
The Levirate In the Ancient Near East 27
We have now finished our survey of the levirate in the
ancient Near East. With the exception of the one text which
contained the political testament of the Ugaritic King Ari-
halbu, the evidence suggests that the levirate was basically a
matter of inheritance, a means whereby a piece of property,
acquired through an act of purchase, is kept within the fam-
ily because of the value for the family This fact, in itself,
set it apart from the levirate in
to regard the operation of the levirate in
similar terms.74 Moreover, as has been pointed out, the em-
phasis in the surrounding nations is on the rights of the living
the dead may not be blotted out" (Deut. 25:6). Other pur-
poses may have been incorporated in the course of the his-
of this institution in
throughout on the need for a male descendant, and it is this
emphasis which we cannot find in the surrounding cultures.
In commenting on Hebrew law and its relation to other an-
cient Semitic law codes, Meek concludes, " . . .What they did
borrow, they made their own. It was no slavish imitation of an
uncreative people, but an imitation that improved what it took,
and in the end what it did take became definitely Hebrew and
did not remain Babylonian or Hurrian or Canaanite."75
husband has died without leaving a son; according to Koschaker it is likely that
applies to Hittite law as well. We may assume identical conditions for
as it was between
testament of king Arihalbu: "On this evidence alone it is not possible to argue for
the regular practice of levirate marriage as in Hebrew society. The fact that
marriage of a widow with any but her brother-in-law is here expressly forbidden
by special deed suggests that even if levirate marriage was regular in Ugaritic
society it was certainly not compulsory. Indeed, since this is a royal disposition
where the marriage of the king's widow might have possible political conse-
quences, to say nothing of the infringement of the 'divinity that doth hedge a
it may well be that levirate marriage in
74. See chap. 8, nn. 59, 104.
75. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, p. 81. D. Mace, Hebrew Marriage, 1953, p.
113, remarks: "Though it has parallels with the customs as it obtains in other
lands, the Hebrew levirate is essentially an inherent product of the culture to
which it belongs, and its antiquity marks it as having grown out of that soil." See
also nn. 36, 40, 59-61.
The Levirate In
MATERIALS for the study of the levirate custom1
in the Old Testament are somewhat meagre, con-
of three main passages: the story of
and Tamar in Genesis law given in Deuteronomy
25:5-10, and the book of Ruth. In this chapter consideration
is given to the first two passages.
The Levirate Incident, Genesis 38
In Genesis 382 we are told
and the birth of three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah.3 The ac-
1. For our purposes we shall operate with the definition of levirate given by
J. Mittelmann, Der altisraelitsche Levirat, 1934, p. 1, who says, "Die moderne
Rechtswissenschaft verwendet jedoch den Ausdruck Levirat für alle Falle, in
denen die Witwe einem Verwandten des Mannes zufällt, mag dies nun der Bruder
oder irgendein anderer Verwandter des Verstorbenen sein." We recognize that
some will strongly object to calling the marriage of Boaz and Ruth a levirate
marriage. Cf. S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, ICC, 19023, p. 285. K. Dronkert, Het
Huwelijk in het Oude Testament, 1957, pp. 67, 68, writes, "Strikt genomen
komen wij het leviraatshuwelijk in de practijk alleen tegen in Gen. 38 en als
wettelijke bepaling in Dent. 25:5-10. In het boek Ruth hebben wij niet te doen
met een leviraatshuwelijk.... Het geval Ruth heeft met het leviraatshuwelijk in
wezen niet veel te maken." L. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Tal-
mud, 1942, pp. 86, 140, prefers to use the term "geullah marriage" when refer-
ring to the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. While there may be some merit in using
different terms for the purpose of more precisely defining the distinctions within
the levirate development, most scholars would nevertheless employ the termi-
nology "levirate marriage" when referring to the marriage of Boaz and Ruth.
20), 1970, p. 18, states, "As for the insertion of 38 at exactly this point in the
story ... , one can only protest (a) between chapters 37 and 39 there is a natural
pause in the action, and (b) certain coincidental features of chapter 38 bind it to
37 and 39. Among the latter one may note the similarity between
in 38 and Jacob in 37: both are patriarchs; both are deceived, both are obliged to
give legal recognition to a piece of evidence."
3. S.R. Driver, Genesis, 192612, p. 326, finds two purposes in this narrative.
30 The Levirate In
count goes on to mention the marriage of Er, the firstborn,
Tamar and the subsequent death of Er.4
Onan to go in to Tamar, his brother's wife, and perform the
duty of a brother-in-law to her and to raise up offspring for
his brother: jyHxl frz Mqhl htx Mbyv (v. 8). Knowing that
the offspring of such a union would not be his, when he went
in to Tamar, he spilled the semen on the ground.5 For the
to explain the origin of
the duty of marriage with a deceased brother's wife. M. Burrows, "Levirate Mar-
should not be used in discussions on the levirate since it is not typical. "As an
illustration of possible variations it may he relevant, but for information as to
normal procedure it has little value." So also R. K. Harrison, I0T, 1970, p. 650,
and H. Brongers, "Enkele Opmerkingen over het Verband tussen Lossing en
Leviraat in Ruth IV," NedThT, 2, 1947-48, p. 4. S. Belkin, "Levirate and Agnate
Marriage," JQR, 60, 1969-70, p. 278, writes, "This story of Tamar reveals the
ancient practice of levirate, before the Sinaitic Revelation." W. McKane, "Ruth
and Boaz," GUOST, 19, 1961-62, p. 3, and E. Neufeld, Ancient Hebrew Marriage
Laws, 1944, p. 35 (hereafter cited as AHML) oppose Burrows. Neufeld argues
that the case of Judah and Tamar represents not merely a local law as distinct
from a general law, since "on comparison with the C. Hitt. and the M.A.L., it will
be seen that the duty of levirate marriage might devolve upon a father-in-law." D.
Mace, Hebrew Marriage, 1953, p. 96, maintains that Gen. 38 "provides us with an
interesting example of the levirate custom in action." L. Epstein, op. cit., p. 80,
calls Gen. 38 "the first case of levirate." D. Daube, "Consortium in Roman and
Hebrew Law," JurR, 62, 1950, p. 72 (hereafter cited as "Consortium") remarks,
"The narrative of Judah and Tamar confirms that the original and chief function
of levirate marriage was among brothers still under the rule of their paterfami-
lias.. . . This state of affairs must unquestionably be considered typical of levirate
4. In contrast to the case of Onan, no particular crime is mentioned; never-
theless, Er incurred the displeasure of the Lord and the Lord slew him. C. F.
DeVine, "The Sin of Onan," CBQ, 4, 1942, p. 334, maintains, "that both Iler and
Onan committed the same sin and so were killed by God." This conclusion he
bases on the similarity of expression (hvhy ynyfb fr) in Gen. 38:7 and Gen.
38:10 and the similar fates of the two brothers. Cf. n. 5. We cannot see that
similar wording used to describe Yahweh's verdict on an action constitutes proof
that the actions themselves were similar. G. Coates, "Widows Rights: A Crux in
the structure of Genesis 38," CBQ, 34, 1972, p. 462, is probably correct when he
writes, "Neither is 'Er's character a part of the narration. The exact nature of his
violation, the act that angered Yahweh, is not set out. It is irrelevant for the
developing plot. The only purpose of this stage is to explain that Tamar became a
5. S. R. Driver, Genesis, p. 328, believes that Onan was "hoping perhaps
selfishly to secure the rights of primogeniture in his father's family for him-
self...." D. Kidner, Genesis, TOTC, 1967, p. 188, writes, "The enormity of
Onan's sin is in its studied outrage against the family, against the brother's widow
The Levirate In
second time the story relates the reason behind his practice
which was "lest he should give offspring to his brother" (v.
9). What he did was displeasing to the Lord and the Lord
him. At this point,
father's house until Shelah, the younger son, grows up.6
to her, house father's house.7
and against his own body." The standard English translations fail to make clear
that this was his persistent practice. The repetitiveness of Onan’s, sin is a factor in
understanding the severe punishment which was meted out to him. Mx (v. 9)
should be translated "whenever." Cf. Num. 21:9; Judg. 6:3. CF. GKC §112,gg.
The NV brings out accurately the true meaning when it translates, "zo vaak hij tot
de vrouw van zijn broeder kwam." C. F. DeVine, op. cit., pp. 337-339, argues that
the principle cause of Onan's punishment was his violation of the natural law.
Secondarily, his evasion of the levirate duty was a factor. This conclusion he seeks
to support with several arguments. Emphasizing the hWf rwx in 38:10 he writes,
"What Onan did was to waste his seed on the ground; this constituted an offence
against the natural law, and for this was Onan killed." He goes on to suggest that
"it Onan were killed by God simply because he failed in the levirate duty, we
would be forced to admit that God punished Onan with severity beyond measure,
and in fact, beyond the measure of the law which He later gave to Moses." He
further argues that "if the penalty of death were inflicted on Onan simply and
solely because of his levirate failure then we fail to see why Juda did not suffer
the same penalty." Finally, he introduces reasons based on his belief that Er and
Onan committed the same crime (cf. n. 4). If both committed the same crime and
were visited by " the same fate and no levirate failure could be attributed to Er
"this leads to the conclusion that Onan was not killed, principally because of the
levirate failure but because he, like Her, did something wicked in the eyes of God.
This something is recounted in detail of Onan and suggested as regards Her."
Several things must be said in reply to De Vine. The meaning of hWf rwx cannot
be restricted to the spilling of the seed but must include the remaining clause "lest
he should give offspring to his brother" (Gen. 38:9b).
It is. speculative to presume that the brothers, Er and Onan, committed
similar crimes simply because in both cases it is stated they were evil in the eyes
of the Lord. Nor can an argument be based on the unusual punishment of Onan in
relation to his father, Judah, since the latter's levirate responsibility is open to
question. Cf. nn. 14-19: For these reasons we must reject DeVine's position.
6. Cf. MAL §43. J. Morgenstern, "The Book of the Covenant, Part II,"
HUCA, 7, 1930, p. 164, writes, "A certain parallelism with the Assyrian practice
exists in that the youngest brother had to reach a certain age, no doubt the age of
puberty, before his union with his brother's widow could be effected."
7. According to G. von Rad, Genesis, OTL, 1961, p. S53,
honesty "lay in considering this solution as really final for himself but in present-
ing it to Tamar as an interim solution." Cf. also A. van Selins, Marriage and
Family Life in Ugaritic Literature, 1954, p. 36: "In sending her hack to her father
he made it clear to her—though he did not actually say so—that he no longer
wanted her as a daughter-in-law. That looks like a legal figure for which we have
39 The Levirate in
The second and main part of the story
this time, become aware of his intent to be permanently rid
of her. When she sees that sufficient time had elapsed for
maturation and yet
(38: 14b), she resorts to a form of trickery, waylaying him in
the disguise of a harlot.8
When it becomes evident that Tamar is pregnant and
immediately decides that she should be burnt.9 However,
a proper name; a 'divorce' by the father-in-law! Nevertheless, when
hears that she is pregnant, he feels that his rights, or rather those of his son, have
been infringed (rather illogically we should think), but as he never formally in
words 'divorced' Tamar, he is still able to exert full authority over her."
8. According to Gen. 38a15,
But when his friend goes to recover his pledge (38:21) he-asks for the cultic
prostitute (hwdqh). The mention of the veil in 38:14 seems to point in the
direction of the latter. Cf. M. Astour, "Tamar the Hierodule," JBL, 85, 1966, pp.
1921-1121 Porter, "Legal Aspects of Corporate Personality," VT, 15, 1965,
pp. 370, 371, comments, "Heb. ZANAH, frequently, and perhaps more often
than not, in the Old Testament, has the technical sense of becoming a sacred
prostitute in the service of some female deity, whose worship would he con-
sidered apostasy to Yahweh. This is clearly the case with the use of the word in
the story of Judah and Tamar, Gen. XXXVIII 24, since twice the word there used
for prostitute is qedeshah, one devoted to a religious cult, and it is noteworthy
that the punishment for Tamar's prostitution is to be burning." See also C. Vos,
Women in Old Testament Worship, 1968, p. 97, who views the two words in
Genesis 38 as "virtua1synonyms." E. Speiser, Genesis, AB, 1964, pp. 299, 300,
affair on a higher social level." E. Good, Irony in the Old Testament, 1965, p.
irony, as does her, insistence on a pledge of payment, which prepares us for the
conclusion; we must also perceive the irony of the fact two words for 'prostitute'
used in the story.... Certainly the alternation of terms is not accidental.
is not about to inform strangers that he runs around after ordinary prostitutes
while anyone would assume perfect respectability in the search for a cultic prosti-
9. G. von Rad, op. cit., p. 355, writes, "
he thus reckons Tarnar as part of his family, though Tamar's act proceeded from
Cf. H. J. Boecker, Redejormen des Rechtslebens im Allen Testament, 1964, p.
147, comments, "In dem Ehebruchprozess gegen Thamar wird von Juda, dem
zustandigen Richter. caber die angeklagte Frau die Tatfolgebestimmung verhangt:
Jrwtv. S. Belkin, op. cit., pp. 279, 319, 320, feels that the story is significant in
ascertaining the legal status of the widow before the levirate is performed. From
the,mention of burning as punishment he concludes that her status was still that
The Levirate In
has obtained from
ly identifying him as the father of her child. Accordingly, she
in the right11 than he, because he has not given his son,
of a married woman. "Her marriage ties were not considered dissolved by the
death of her husband." S. R. Driver, Genesis, p. 330, holds that Tamar is treated
as the bethrothed of Shelah and consequently as ad adulteress. We should note that
burning is mentioned as the punishment of the priest's daughter who has com-
mitted fornication (Lev. 21:8, 9), death by stoning being the usual mode of
execution for adultery. R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1961, p. 36, believes that in
very ancient times it may have been that burning was also employed as a more
common means of execution. M. Astour, op. cit., pp. 190-195, in an attempted
reconstruction of the whole chapter, views Tamar in the role of a sacred prosti-
tute of the kind allowed to marry but not to have children. The explanation of
Tamar's burning then is that "she became pregnant while being a hierodule." His
drastic reconstruction of the data, however, is not convincing. Nor can we accept
the view of A. Phillips, Ancient Israel's Criminal Law, 1970, p. 129, who believes
reflecting this Babylonian type of punishment, which had been incorporated into
the Holiness Code."
10. According to D. Daube, Studies in Biblical Law, 1947, p. 6, the verb
rkn (cf. vv. 25, 26) sometimes has the technical meaning of the "formal finding
out of, and making a statement to the other party about, a fact of legal relevance;
be it one on which a claim might be based, or one on account of which a claim
must be abandoned, or one on account of which the other party's claim must be
admitted." In the story of Judah and Tamar there is "the submission of formal
evidence with a request to acknowledge it, and the acknowledgment." Cf. H. J.
Boecker, op. cit., pp. 126-128.
11. A. Jepsen, "qdc und hqdc im Alten Testament," in Gottes Wort und
Gottes Land, Festschrift H. W. Hertzberg, 1965, pp. 81, 82, calls attention to the
use of this term in the historical books (Gen. 30:33; 38:26; I Sam, 24:18; II Sam.
4:11; 15:4; 19:29; I Kings 2:32 and II Kings 10:9): "Bezeichnend ist das Vor-
kommen der Wurzel in den Geschichtsbuchern, wo es uberwiegend auf das Ver-
halten der Menschen zueinander angewandt wird. Aber es sind doch nur wenige
Stellen, die von der Gottesbeziehung absehen, wo nur der Unterschied der
Menschen in bezug auf ihre hqdc festgestellt wird oder vom ‘ordentlichen’
Gericht gesprochen wird. Zu allermeist wird deutlich, das qdc etwas mit Gott zu
tun hat." E. Gerstenberger, Wesen und Herkunft des apodiktischen Rechts, 1965,
pp. 115, 116, writes: "In der Familie, Grossfamilie oder Sippe ist der Vater die
Autoritatäperson, die im Zentrum des sozialen Geftiges steht.... Das Familien-
oberhaupt ist darum als der Urheber und Garant der das Sippenleben regulierenden
Prohibitive und Gebote anzusehen. Die Einschränkung seiner Rechte ist jedoch
dadurch gegeben, dass auch er sich innerhalb der ihm übergeordneen, durch Gott
geschutzten Rechte bewegt, die sich eben in der Familienordnung ausdrücken. So
Weiss sich Juda Gen. 38, 26 durch die 'höhere Gerechtigkeit' überführt...." It is
possible that the phrase ynmm hqdc expresses a contrast rather than a comparison
in which case we should translate, "she is in the right as compared with me." Cf.
GKC § 133 n. 2. H. J. Boecker, op. cit., p. 127 remarks, "So muss er öffentlich
34 The Levirate In
Shelah, to her. The incident ends with the affirmation that he
did not have intercourse with her again (38:26b).
In the levirate incident in Genesis 38, primarily three
things will he investigated: (1) the purpose of the levirate,
(2) the parties involved in its execution, and (3) the pressures
placed upon the involved participants to execute their re-
toward the deceased. It is evident from
command to Onan to go in to his brother's wife that the levitate
duty consisted of raising up offspring for the brother (Gen.
38:84). This is reiterated in the statement that Onan knew
the offspring would not be his own (Gen 38:9a) and in the
comment that "whenever he went in to his brother's wife he
spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring
to his brother” (Gen. 38:9b). This threefold reiteration
makes it abundantly clear that the child of such a union was
reckoned as the legal offspring of the deceased, and that such
was the purpose of the levirate as recorded in this story.
Property succession is not expressly mentioned as being in-
volved, though it may be possible to infer from the continued
adament refusal of Onan that such interests may also have
been at stake in this incident.12
feststellen, class Thamar im Recht hqdc er selbst aber im Unrecht (ynmm) ist." K.
Koch, Sdq im AT, Diss. Heidelberg 1953, p. 71, cited by H. J. Boccker, op. cit., p.
127, translates "Sic ist sdq-ich bin es nicht."
12. The relation between begetting a son for the deceased, and the property
succession is one of the thorny questions of the levirate. This question. becomes
most acute in the marriage of Boaz to Ruth, where the property transaction is
suddenly introduced in Ruth 4. J. Scheftelowitz, "Die Leviratsehe," ARW, 18,
1915, p. 255, maintains that Onan, "der das Erhe des verstorbenen Bruders
dauernd im Besitze haben wollte, darauf bedacht, dass diese kinderlos bliebe."
J. Mittelmann, op. cit., p. 13.
child which Onan would have raised, were he to perform the levirate, would not
have been reckoned as his. The inheritance of his deceased brother, too,—if there
had been any—would have belonged, it seems, to the new-born child. Surely, these
factors were deterrants to a willing moral performance of the levirate." Th. and D.
Thompson, "Some Legal Problems in the Book of Ruth," VT; 18, 1968 pp.93,
94, reason: "If Onan had openly refused the levirate obligation, then Tamar
would have been able to lake her own independence, as well as, we must suspect,
her dead husband's share of inheritance.... But when Onan ostensibly does ac-
cept his levirate obligation, Tamar is left without any way of proving her case.
Onan (and this is of what his sin consisted) was trying to steal his dead brother's
The levirate duty first devolved on Onan, the brother of
Er, whereupon it then was passed to Shelah. It would appear
that the widow was to wait until the young brother was able
to perform the levirate duty. The suggestion has been made,
on Ruth 1:11-14, that in ancient
born brother would have been obliged, as well, to marry the
widow.13 It is more disputable how we are to understand
sons with HL, § 193, many scholars believe that an obligation
to marry the widow of his deceased son rested as well with
the father-in-law.14 Such an inference, however, is debatable
and there have not been lacking those who would resist draw-
ing this conclusion.15 In discussing a possible father-in-law
and keep in lieu of a possible future son of Tamar's." Because the right of
inheritance was intertwined with the duty of the levirate, D. Mace, op. cit., pp.
106, 108, feels there were two kinds of abuses. "First, the heir might try to take
the property without marrying the widow.. The second possible abuse of the
law was that the brother, having taken over both the property and the widow,
might try to avoid his responsibility as levir by preventing the woman from
becoming pregnant, so that he might keep the property for himself. It is possible
that attempts of this kind were quite frequent; and the story of the tragic fate of
Onan may well have been a cautionary tale to warn others who were tempted to
employ a similar device."
13. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 35. M. David, Het Huwelijk van Ruth, 1941, p. 4,
writes, "Dit sluit evenwel niet uit, dat ook voor eventueel later geboren zonen van
Juda de verplichting zou kunnen hebben bestaan, na den dood van de oudste
broeders Tamar te trouwen.''
14. J. Wijngaards, Deuteronomium, BOT, 1971, p. 285, remarks, "Het is
zeer waarschijnlijk, dat de plicht om een mannelijke afstammeling te verwekken
oorspronkelijk niet alleen op de broers, maar zelfs op de schoonvader en andere
familieleden rustte." Similarly, E. Neufeld, op. cit., p. 36; D. Mace, op. cit., p.
103; C. Lattey, The Book of Ruth, 1935, p. XXVI; J. Morgerstern, op. cit., p.
163; J. Mittelmann, op. cit., p. 15; H. H. Rowley, "The Marriage of Ruth," in The
Servant of the Lord, 19652, p. 80; L. Epstein, op. cit., p. 100; G. A. Smith,
Deuteronomy, 1918, p. 287; Th. and D. Thompson, op. cit., p. 94; S. Belkin, op.
cit., p. 278. G. von Rad, op. cit., p. 354, believes that Tamar "can well have
15. J. Skinner, op. cit., p. 455, warns against concluding that it was the
father-in-law's duty to marry his son's widow under all circumstances. This would
ignore the exceptional nature of the circumstances which the writer wished to
portray. Cf. W. Caspari, "Erbtochter and Ersatzehe in Ruth 4," NKZ, 19, 1908,
p. 128, and D. Jacobson, The Social Background of the Old Testament, 1942, p.
F. Horst, "Leviratsehe," RGG,
4, 19603, p. 338, writes, "
36 The Levirate In
obligation two points in particular should be noticed: First,
the right than he, is explained16 in the words of the final
clause "inasmuch as I did not give her to my son, Shelah."
This acknowledged delinquence seemingly has to do with his
failure to give Shelah to her upon his maturation. It is not an
acknowledgment of his own failure to act personally on her
than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son, Shelah" go
beyond an admission of fault for not giving Shelah to Tamar.
He may as well be saying that since he had not given her
Shelah, "she had the right to obtain fulfillment of the duty
the levirate by him, if his sons failed."18
"she is more righteous," are an acknowledgment of his delin-
quence in his responsibility toward Tamar in not giving her
his grown son, but it could be that in the light of this omis-
sion the levirate was then his duty, which of course he also
had not assumed. Through her cunning artifice she had man-
aged to take what should have been hers but what was with-
held from her. Secondly, the son born to the union is reck-
(Gen. 46:12)19 to be
von Brüdern wie im Hethitischen der Schwiegervater leviratsehepflichtig wurde,
ist aus Gen. 38 nicht sicher zu entnehmen."
16. E. Jacob, TOT, 1958, p. 95, is far removed from the text when he
teous than himself he is saying that in the particular circumstances which are
being narrated she has acted according to the rules and customs of prostitution
while he himself has not respected them."
17. W. Rudolph, Das Ruch Ruth, Das Hohe Lied, Die Klagelieder, KAT, 17,
1962, p. 63.
18. G. R. Diiver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, 1935, p. 242. They
refer to MAL, A, §33, in their interpretation of the responsibility of the father-
in-law. Cf. also T. Meek, Hebrew Origins, p. 64.
19. J. Morgenstern, op. cit., pp. 182, 183, cites Gen. 46:12 as well as Ruth
4:1 1 b, 12 and 4:17b, 22 as passages which reflect a late post-exilic attitude where
the child is reckoned as belonging to the actual father and the institution is
merely regarded in terms of the inheritance of property. D. Mace, op. cit., p. 109,
argues that in both Ruth and Gen. 38, "the fundamental point of the custom
appears to have been overlooked in the telling of the story, because the children
born are described as belonging to their actual fathers and not to the deceased
husbands of their mothers." G. Coates, op. cit., p. 462, writes, "Implicit in
The Levirate In
to Er as would be expected if the father-in-law were regarded
in the story as having validly performed the levirate.
We have reason to conclude from this incident that there
was an order followed in the performance of the levirate.
Such an order went from the oldest to the youngest of the
brothers. Whether the father of the deceased was also legally
involved, in the event of the nonfulfillment of the levirate by
the brothers, is certainly debatable, though there are no in-
surmountable arguments that can be introduced against it.
From Genesis 38 it appears that the obligation to per-
form the levirate duty rested strongly upon the brother of
the deceased.20 The fact that Onan resorted to a secret act of
defiance suggests that no other recourse was available by
which he might have avoided his responsibility. God, himself,
the custom is protection for the widow's inheritance rights within the father-in-
law's family. The concern is not simply, for 'Er's future line; in, fact, the children
finally conceived within they frame of the story trace their paternity to their real
father, not to 'Er (cf. Numb. 26:19-20). The concern is for Tamar's future." This
is clearly contrary to the emphasis of Gen. 38:5, 8, 9 on giving offspring to the
deceased brother. It is not valid to give precedence to later geneological references
over the clear statements of the narrative. Because of the extreme difficulty in
interpreting the genealogies of the Bible, the inclusion of Perez and Zerah as sons
of Judah in Gen. 46:12 and Num. 26:19-20 should, not, in the absence of addi-
tional evidence, be regarded as a final evolutionary stage of the levirate. As a
possible example within a genealogy the use of both the real father as well as
the father by means of the levirate, note should be taken of Zerubbabel who is
called the son of Pedaiah (I Chron. 3:19) and the son of Shealtiel (Ezra 3:2, 8;
5:2; Neh. 12:1; Hag. 1:12, 14). W. Rudolph, Chronikbücker, HAT, 21, 1955, p.
29, writes: "Beide Angaben werden so auszugleichen sein, dass Fedaja, als Scheal-
tiel ohne Sohn starb, mit dessen Witwe eine Leviratsehe (Dt. 25:5ff) schloss, so
dass sein Erstgeborener Serubbabel physisch sein Sohn, rechtlich aber der seines
Bruders war." This is also considered to be distinctly possible by J. Myers,
I Chronicles, AB, 1965, p. 21. For an explication of some of the obscurities in
biblicalgenealogies, see A,Malamat, "King Lists of the Old Babylonian Period and
Biblical Genealogies," in Essays in Memory of E. A. Speiser, ed. W. Hallo, 1968,
pp. 163-172. See also, M. Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, 1969,
p. 30, maintains that this incident suggests a revolt on the part of Canaanite
society against an institution "economically and socially out of tune with the
times." In an attempt to justify compliance with the law the new interpretation
of "raising up seed" for the dead brother was advanced, but Onan refused such an
innovation, even though his evasion was punishable by death.
38 The Levirate In
severely punished21 this sin of "Lieblosigkeit gegen den ver-
in withholding Shelah similarly points to the seriousness with
which such duties were regarded. While it might appear to be
possible to argue that his failure to give his son to Tamar
betrays the opposite, such reasoning would not sufficiently
take into account the exceptional nature of the recorded
incident. Furthermore, we must not overlook Tamar,23 who
21. The lack of opportunity to opt out of this responsibility as well as the
severe punishment meted out by Jahweh may be evidence for the most ancient
phase of the levirate, at which time the levirate was an unavoidable obligation. We
cannot speak with "complete certainty on this point. It is instructive to note the
remarks of W. Rudolph, op. cit., p. 62, who writes, "Dass in der sehr alten
Erzahlung Gn 38 die Leviratspflicht ganz streng ist, ergiht sich daraus, dass Onan,
obwohl er möchte, sich dieser Pflicht nicht entziehen kann und dafür, dass er
geheime Sabotage treibt, von Jahwe mit dem Tode bestraft wird." Comparing the
obligation pictured here with that in the book of Ruth, he makes the following
significant statement: "Nun hängt dieser Unterschied in der Verbindlichkcit
offenbar mit dem Unterschied des Verwandtschaftsgrades zusammen: Der Bruder
musste, der entferntere Verwandte konnte; dass zwischen Gn 38 und Ru kein
Widerspruch besteht, folgt auch aus Ru I, 1 I ff., wo Noomi doch wohl als
selbstverständlich voraussetzt, dass, wenn sic Söhne hätte diese ihre Schwieger-
töchter pflichtgemäss ehelichen würden. Andererseits schliesst Gn 38 die
Anschauung vom freiwilligen ‘Levirat’ entfemterer Verwandter nicht aus, nur dass
dort kein Anlass war, davon zu reden."
Moreover, it may be that this severe punishment of Onan should be attri-
buted to the exceptional nature of the means employed to circumvent the obliga-
tion and the deception involved in such a procedure. The repetitive nature of
Onan's sin may also have been a factor. See n. 5.
22. H. Gunkel, Genesis, HK, 1, 19173, p. 413. He writes further, "Man
beachte die Gottesanschauung, die hier zu Grunde liegt: Jahves Augen sehen auch
das Geheimste, was kein Menschenauge schaut; und er beschutzt den, der sich
selhst nicht helfen kann: den Verstorbenen, desscn Recht man verletzt."
23 C. F. Keil, The Pentateuch, 1, 1864, p. 343, explains Tamar's conduct as
resulting not from lust but from "the innate desire for children." G. von Rad, op
cit., p. 357, on the contrary feels that "the question of whether she was moti-
vated more by the desire for a child than by her widow's duty is not raised in the
story." While one must agree that there is no express statement on Tamar's
motivation, there is also no reason to believe it to be anything other than that
with which the entire narrative is preoccupied, which is the duty of the deceased's
family to raise up seed to the dead brother. H. H. Rowley, op. cit., p. 181, is of
the opinion that of all the duties of the next-cif-kin that of performing the levirate
was the least pressing. In support of this opinion, he cites Judah's behavior in
disregarding the levirate as well as Tamar's in resorting to trickery rather than
appealing to public opinion. It is questionable, however, whether public opinion
would have been a feasible means of counteracting the kind of subterfuge em-
against Tamar. J.
The Levirate In
keenly felt her obligation to her dead husband and whose
persistence led her surreptitiously to seek for a son for her
One remaining point must be mentioned regarding the
levirate in Genesis 38. This duty, as we say, consisted of
raising up offspring to the dead brother. Such a purpose,
however, did not necessarily require a levirate marriage.
take Tamar as a wife. Furthermore, when Tamar had become
and subsequently was exonerated by
told that "he did not lie with her again" (Gen. 38:26b). For
this reason Belkin remarks, "In retrospect, one realizes that
this story reveals only the duty of levirate, but not necessar-
ily levirate marriage."24 If this is the case, one can see a
writes, "Israelitic women have looked up to her as an example, a woman who
knew how to show endurance and cunning and set aside all other considerations
in order to attain the great victory, namely to give the husband progeny." G. von
Rad, op. cit., p. 357, remarks, "Only Tamar is unmistakably praised by the
narrator." For rabbinic comment on Tamar, cf. M. Johnson, op. cit., pp. 159-162.
We cannot accept the verdict on Tamar expressed by E. Robertson, "The Plot of
the Book of Ruth," BJRL, 32, 1950, p. 226: "That Tamar had my legal justifica-
tion for her conduct I do not for a moment believe, yet Old Testament scholars
have displayed extraordinary ingenuity in attempting to provide her with one."
We prefer the verdict of D. Redford, op. cit., p. 18, who describes Tamar as "an
honorable woman faithful to the interests of her husband." This is also the verdict
of A. van Selms, "The Canaanites in Genesis," OTS, 12, 1958, p. 205, who
"For later generations in
of complete devotion to first task, the procuring of offspring."
24. S. Belkin, op. cit., p. 279; also G. R. Driver and J. C Miles, op. cit., p.
243. G. Coates, op. cit., p. 463, comments, "Not tantamount to marriage, the
duty of a brother-in-law (yabam) is only for production of a male heir. The
widow remains the wife of the dead brother (cf. vs. 8a: Go in to your brother's
wife)." Coates maintains that the goal toward which Tamar's scheme moves is the
conception of a child, not marriage. His conclusion (p. 465) is that "the widow
can look for marriage from the brother-in-law or whoever fulfills the levirate
custom. But she has the right only for conception." His reasoning concerning the
purpose of Tamar's deception may well be correct but his attempt to link Tamar
and Ruth together in similar strategies must remain unconvincing. Cf. 7 n. 31.
Cf. H. H. Rowley, op. cit., p. 186, "The woman was still considered as the wife of
the dead man, and the brother was merely a substitute for him for a single
purpose. Again, levirate marriage had reference only to a single birth. The broth-
er-in-law had completed his duty when he had provided the dead with a single
heir." He feels (p. 187 n. 2) that the case of Judah, who was married and with
children, is significant, confirming that "an institution whose only raison d'etre in
40 The Levirate In
parallel to the custom of niyoga mentioned in the laws of
Manu which reads: "But when the purpose of the appoint-
ment to cohabit with the widow has been attained in accor-
dance with the law, these two shall behave towards each
other like a father and daughter-in-law."25 Yet we must also
take notice of Genesis 38:14, "For she saw that Shelah was
grown up and she had not been given to him as wife"26 (xl
hwxl vl hntn). Such terminology, however, may have been
employed to emphasize that the "obligation of the levir_does
of its purpose." Later, however, (p. 192) he remarks, "it neither required nor
excluded full marriage."
25. E. Bühler, The Laws of Manu, Sacred Books of the East, 25, 1886, p.
339. Such a parallel is viewed by M. Burrows, "The Ancient Oriental Background
of Hebrew Marriage," BASOR, 77, p. 6 (hereafter cited as "Background") as
being too remote to be of any significance in interpreting the Hebrew levirate.
Similarly, J. Mittelmann, op. cit., pp. 10, 11. Th. and D. Thompson, op. cit., p.
95, mention the parallel in the laws of Manu as being far afield but valuable! They
maintain that "because of its closeness to incest, it was felt necessary to limit the
levirate relationship to what was necessary to fulfill its purpose. It was certainly
not considered equivalent to marriage.” Chamberlayne, Man in Society,
1966, p. 65, refers the laws of Manu on the basis of which he regards it as
probable that the levirate duty was finished when a single son was born.
26. The same phraseology is to be seen in Deut. 25:5. G. R. Driver and J. C.
Miles, op. cit., p. 243, argue that marriage is not required in the Deuteronomic
law of the levirate or in the Tamar incident. J. Mittelmann, op. cit., p. 11, writes,
"Weiter finden wir im A. T. an keiner den Levirat betreffenden Stelle ein Verbot
der Fortsetzung des Geschlechtsverkehrs nach der Zeugung des Leviratssohnes."
His reasons are interesting, in that they provide an example of the circular reason-
ing which is at times involved in this issue. Considering the data from Ruth as
implying levirate marriage, he is able to argue that the levirate duty involved
marriage for at least two reasons. One would be the clear statement of Ruth 4:13.
"So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife." The second is the goel' s reluctance
to redeem the property (for fear of impairing his own inheritance). This reluc-
tance may be reasonably explained, according to Mittelmann, on the grounds that
a number of sons will come from the union which, when combined with his own
sons, will lead to the dismemberment of his estate, ibid, p. 13. There can be little
doubt that in the book of Ruth we have a full marriage taking place between Boaz
and Ruth. For this reason, our discussion of whether the levirate duty involved
marriage or merely cohabitation for the purpose of procreation is of some rele-
vance in the analysis of the goel marriage in Ruth. If the levirate duty were merely
to produce a son, and were not a levirate marriage, this would be an addition-
al argument in favor of differentiating between the levirate duty and the goel
marriage in Ruth. Noting this, H. H. Rowley, op. cit., p. 192, remarks, "Indeed, if
in the case of a brother-in-law such marriage [full marriage] would have been
excluded, it is hard to see how Ruth's marriage could have been brought within
the framework of the levirate custom at all."
The Levirate In
not stop short at furnishing a son to perpetuate the name of
the dead, but extends to the future security and status of the
We must accept Rowley's plea for a greater flexibility in
our approach to the details of the levirate. He writes: "The
scanty evidence we have thus suggests that we ought to recog-
nize a much greater degree of looseness than some writers
allow Levirate marriage was not in early times limited to a
brother-in-law it neither required nor excluded full marriage;
it neither required nor excluded the unmarried condition of
the levirate partner."28
We have been discussing Genesis 38 as background mate-
rial for the goel marriage in Ruth. A comparison between the
two is drawn by the elders and people who say to Boaz,
"May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar
you by this young woman" (Ruth 4:12). We shall now pro-
ceed to Deuteronomy 25 which is generally regarded as the
key passage in discussions of the Hebrew levirate.
27. W. McKane, "Ruth and Boaz," p. 30.
28. H. H. Rowley, op. cit., p. 192.
42 The Levirate In
The Levirate Law, Deuteronomy 25:5-10
The Persons Involved In the Levirate, Deuteronomy 25:5, 6.
The law reads: "If brothers29 dwell together,30 (vbwy yk
vdHy MyHx) and one of them dies and has no son,31 the wife of
29. Many kinship terms in the Bible have both a specific and a more general
usage. See F. I. Anderson, "Israelite Kinship Terminology and Social-Structure," BT,
20; 1969, pp. 29-39. Hx accordingly, has the meaning of a blood brother of the
same parents, as well as the more general meaning of a blood brother of the
same clan, cf. Gen. 13:8; 19:7; 29:4; Lev. 25:25; Judg. 19:23. The later usage is
at the basis of the levirate as practiced by the Samaritans and the Jewish Karaite
sect. These groups held that the duty devolved not upon the blood brother but
the intimate friend, believing that the performance by the blood brothers of the
levirate violated the Levitical prohibition in Lev. 18:16 and Lev. 20:21. Cf. L.
Epstein, op. cit., pp. 89, 92. A. van Praag, Droit matrimonial assyro-babylonien,
1945, p. 109, remarks, "Si dans Deut. XXV 5-10, ‘la loi fondamentale du levirat',
le term frère avait un sens classificatoire, la clause que les frères doivent habiter
ensemble serait plus clairement un résidu de l'epoque patriarcale où les différ-
ents fils mariés d'un patriarche continuaient d'habiter, avec leurs femmes, chez
leur père; ainsi, les fils de ces fils, en grandissant ensemble, étaient regardés
comme des frères." He goes on to appeal to Lev. 25:25 and Ruth 4 to support his
opinion that Hx should be interpreted as brother in the wider sense.
30. Cf. J. C. De Moor, "Lexical Remarks concerning Yahad and Yahdaw,"
VT, 7, 1957, pp. 350-355. Cf. Gen. 13:6; Gen. 36:7; and Ps. 133:1 for vbwy
vdHy. J. Pederson, op. cit., p. 508, interprets the living together as meaning "in
the same town" since the matter is an affair of the city. E. Neufeld, AHML, p. 40,
writes, "The word 'together' no doubt means here living on the same family estate
at the same time." The rabbinic tradition took vdHy temporally; thus: when they
lived contemporaneously. Any later born son would be thereby excluded. A.
Ehrlich, Randglossen zur Hebraischen Bibel, 2, 1909, p. 323, writes, "bwy kann
an dieser Stelle nur heissen: da sein, lehen, und der Ausdruck den Fall ausschlics-
sen, wo der verstorbene Bruder nicht Zeitgenosse des lebenden war." He gives the
following explanation for interpreting vdHy temporally: "Der Grund dieser
Beschränkung unserer Vorschrift liegt auf der Hand. Denn im Falle der verstor-
bene Bruder starb, noch ehe der lebende zur Welt kam, ist die Witwe des erstern
im gewöhnlichen Verlauf der Dinge zur Zeit, wo letzterer die geschlechtliche
Reife erlangt hat, zu alt, um Kinder zu gebaren und so den Zweck der Leviratsehe
zu erfüllen. Dabei kann aber auch der Umstand mitwirken, dass das Verwand-
schaftsgefuhl gegen einen Bruder, den man nie gesehen und nie sehen konnte, fur
ein so grosses Opfer zu gering ist. Denn die Leviratsehe war seitens des Mannes ein
sehr grosses Opfer."
31. Nb; LXX: spe<rma. Josephus, Antiquities, IV, 8, 23, uses the term a
childless (a@teknoj) wife; so also Luke 20:28; Matt. 22:24; and Mark 12:19. The
is in some way connected with levirate, Neufeld's observation that "in interpret-
ing the word Nb in its relation to the levirate the state of the law of inheritance at
stages in the history of
valid (AHML, p. 45).
the dead shall not be married outside the family (hcvHh)32 to
a stranger; her husband's brother (hmby)33 shall go in to her,
and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's
brother to her (hmbyv). And the first son whom she bears
shall succeed to the name (Mw lf Mvqy) of his brother
is dead, that his name may not be blotted out of
The key phrase in our understanding of who is affected
by the law is the phrase "brothers dwelling together."34 It is
generally assumed that this law presupposes the existence of
the patriarchal family with the father as authority over his
wife and children, even over the married sons living with him
32. See Judg. 12:9 for a comparable use of this word. J. Mittelmann, op.
cit., p. 30, concludes from this word "dass hier die Rede ist von einem in örtlicher
Gemeinschaft lebenden Verwandten - Verbande, dem sämtliche Bruder mit ihren
Familien angehoren und aus dem die Witwe nicht ausscheiden soil." R. Meren-
dino, Das Deuteronomische Gesetz, (Bonner Biblische Beiträge, 31), 1969, p.
319, comments on hcvH: "Das Wort setzt eine scharfe Grenze zwischen der
Familie und den nicht dazu Gehörigen."
33. Mby, is used in Deut. 25:5, 7 to refer to the dead husband's brother:
hmby, is used in Deut. 25:7, 9 to refer to the brother's widow and further alone in
Ruth 1:15 where it refers to the widow of the brother of a wife's husband. J.
Vesco, "La Date du Livre de Ruth," RB, 1967, p. 243, cites this as a possible
linguistic argument for a late date for Ruth: "Si le livre de Ruth emploie ce nom
sans lui donner son séns précis mais en lui accordant une signification plus large,
n'est-ce pas l'indice que le livre de Ruth a été écrit, à une, époque où la législation
léviratique n'était plus d'un usage fréquent et où le vocabulaire de la parenté
devenait plus large?" See also, M. David, "The Date of the Book of Ruth," OTS,
1941-42, p. 62; C. Rodd, "The Family in the Old Testament," BT, 18, 1967, p. 20.
One need not assume imprecise usage in Ruth 1:15. For a similar usage which
parallels the twofold use of hmby, one can point to hdvd in Exod. 6:20, meaning
father's sister and in Lev. 18:14, meaning wife of father's brother. Hebrew has a
special verb for the performing of the levirate (Mby) which may be evidence of the
importance of the levirate duty; cf. S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, pp. 282, 283. For
discussion of the root cf.
ground," pp. 6, 7, following a suggestion of Albright's, calls attention to the
epithet "ybmt limm" for the goddess Anat in the Ras Shamra texts. W. Albright,
"Recent Progress in North Canaanite Research," BA, 70, 1938, p. 19 n. 6, sug-
gested that "ybmt limm" means "progenitress of the peoples." The word devel-
oped the meaning brother-in-law and sister-in-law because of their involvement in
yibbum, the levirate marriage. C.
"progenitress of heroes" may be a correct rendering of "ybmt limm." Th. and D.
Thompson, op. cit., p. 85, write, "We ought not to translate yibbum as levirate'
but as 'progenitor marriage' or the like. It is the progeny rather than any previous
relationship between the couple that is significant in this custom." Cf. J. Gray,
The Legacy of
34. Cf. n. 30.
44 The Levirate In
and their wives.35 Furthermore, it is commonly asserted that
this law is operative only where brothers are dwelling to-
gether.36 Mittelmann is representative when he writes, "Da
das Gesetz die Erfüllung der Leviratspflicht nur von zusam-
menwohnenden Brüdern fordert, ist der Gegenschluss ge-
rechtfertigt, dass nach dem Willen des Gcsetzgebers der nach-
geborene Bruder nicht der Leviratspflicht unterliegen soll, da
er mit dem Verstorbenen nicht zusammengewohnt haben
kann, dass ferner Brüder, die in verschiedenen Orten, Län-
dern oder Erdteilen wohnen, nicht leviratspflichtig rein
Our understanding of this phrase "dwell together" takes
on significance when the question is posed, "Is the levirate
connected with the laws of inheritance?" As we shall present-
ly see, the phrase "succeed to the name of the dead brother"
has some connection with the rights of inheritance.38 Should
35. R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1961, p. 20. He believes the proper word to
describe the Israelite family is bx tyb, "the house of one's father." T. Mitchell,
"Family," NBD, 1962, p. 415, regards Josh. 7:16-18 as instructive in understand-
ing the relation between the tribe, clan and house. "Conceptually the members of
a tribe can be pictured as a cone with the founding ancestor at the apex and the
living generation at the base." See also F. I. Anderson, op. cit., pp. 29, 30.
36. G. von Rad, Deuteronomy, 1966, pp. 154, 155; D. Mace, op. cit., p.
G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The
Assyrian Laws, 1935, p. 243;
"Levirate Marriage in Jewish Law," Studies in Jewish Literature in Honor of
Kaufman Kohler, 1913, p. 211; H. Schaeffer, Social Legislation of the Primitive
Semites, 1915, p. 59; S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, p. 282. According to L.
Epstein, op. cit., p. 88, "Dwelling together, which alone permits the levirate
situation, presupposes a patriarchal family structure, and where there is no patri-
archal family there is no levirate." This is in accord with the very strong distinc-
tion which he draws between levirate marriage and geullah marriage. Both existed
at the same time. "Brothers dwelling together performed levirate, when not dwell-
ing together, they performed the ge'ullah courtesy." Levirate marriage was rare
and came to an end with the breakdown of the patriarchal family.
37. J. Mittelmann, op. cit., p. 31.
38. In later Jewish writing the meaning of "to succeed to the name" is "to
inherit the property." According to Tannaitic tradition the child of the levirate
was the levir’s and the levir was the inheritor of the property, cf.
op. cit., p. 289. Such an understanding is contrary to the literal intent of the text
"and the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who
is dead." I. Mattuck, op. cit., p. 217, refers to the "forced interpretation" of rvkb
which "is made to mean that the duty of the marriage devolves first upon the
oldest of the surviving brothers." He adds: "The reason for transferring the inheri-
The Levirate In
we then see in the phrase "brothers dwelling together" an
additional indication that inheritance is an important factor
in the levirate? Epstein answers in the negative since he be-
lieves that "the levirate situation arises while the patriarch is
still alive and heads his corporate family. It is one of the sons
who has died childless and left a widow. There is no question
of disposing of an estate, because the patriarch is still alive. It
is a matter of conserving property right in the childless
widow and perpetuating the name of the deceased.”39 This is
the complete opposite of the opinion held by Driver and
Miles, who call attention to the absence in this law of any
inclusion of a duty on the part of the father (similar to the
case the brothers are sharing the inheritance.40 They see the
situation pictured in the phrase "dwelling together" paral-
leled in the MAL by the phrase "brothers who have not
divided the inheritance"41 which would indicate their living
on a joint estate.
Such a family pattern described in the phrase "brothers
tance from the son to the brother-in-law is the recognition of his right to inherit
his brother's property at the same time that he inherits the widow." S. Belkin, op.
cit., pp. 290, 291, explains the change remarking: "Our sages could not and
would not visualize that the son born from the levies seed should legally be
recognized as, the seed of the deceased.... If the levir's son exclusively inherited
the property of the deceased, the levirate union would ofttimes not be consum-
mated, due to the financial complexities inherent.... On this account the Rabbis
explained the biblical law, establishing therewith the legality of the natural father
(the levir) to be also the legal heir of the deceased's estate. Under these condi-
tions, the usual ground for objecting to the fulfilment of the levirate duty was
39. L. Epstein, op. cit., p. 86.
40. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 243. Cf. n. 18.
41. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 243. See Meek's translation of
MAL, B, §2, 3 (ANET, p. 185): "If one among brothers who have not divided
(the inheritance) took a life, they shall give him up to the next-of-kin; if he
chooses, the next-of-kin may put him to death, or if he chooses, he may spare
(him) (and) take his share. If one among brothers who have not divided (the
inheritance) uttered treason or ran away, the king (shall deal) with his share as he
thinks fit." A. F. Puukko, "Die altassyrischen und hethitischen Gesetze und das
Alte Testament," StOr, 1, 1925, p. 132, comments, "Die Wendung [the brothers
of an undivided estate] ist dieselbe wie Dt 25:5 wenn Brüder beisammen (d. h. in
der ungeteilten Hinterlassenschaft) wohnen."
46 The Levirate In
dwelling together" is indisputably ancient.42 Neufeld re-
marks, "Although the Deuteronomic levirate law had in view
a restriction of the levirate obligation, the way in which the
law is framed leaves little doubt that it bears the traces of an
ancient custom of Hebrew family law which was no doubt
out of date in Deuteronomic times.”43 Driver and Miles re-
flect on the consortium of brothers and ask why such a word-
ing is included in the Deuteronomic law. They see the phrase
"dwelling together" as reflecting the ancient situation where
inheritances were impartible. They maintain that "when the
law which now stands in Deuteronomy was originally laid
down, brothers generally did dwell together, and the Deuter-
onomic compiler has left the phrase where it is either per
incuriam or because he wished to restrict the custom as far as
possible."44 The latter explanation seems somewhat artificial,
since it is doubtful whether the lawgiver would deliberately
legislate a situation he knew to be virtually nonexistent in
order to restrict the practice of the levirate.45
Daube argues convincingly that in Deuteronomy 25, "the
legislation about levirate marriage, as conceived by its author,
dealt with consortium, brothers who on their father's death
remained together on the paternal estate.... In this case, if
one died without leaving children and the survivor refused to
raise seed for him in order that his place in the consortium
should be filled again, the widow could summon the traitor
before the elders.”46 As over against the situation reflected in
42. Cf. Z. Falk's review of R. de Vaux's Les Institutions de l'Ancien Testa-
ment, in JJS, 9, 1958, p. 202, where he comments on the levirate law, "Our
passage, however, seems to be based on an earlier law. It was formulated when
‘brethren dwelt together,’ i.e. during the patriarchal stage."
43. E. Neufeld, AHML, pp. 41, 42.
44. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 243.
45. Cf. A. Noordtzij, Het Boek Levitikus, KV, 1940, p. 16, who comments:
"Die onderstelde wetgevers waren toch zeker geen archeologen! Ze schreven toch
voor hun eigen tijd, wilden hun wetten toch door hun tijdgenooten gehoorzaamd
zien. En dan toch voorschriften geven, die in hun tijd ten eenenmale onuitvoer-
46. D. Daube, "Consortium," pp. 89, 90, J. Mittelmann, op. cit., pp. 30, 31,
is of a similar opinion when he remarks that "der Gesetzgeber bei der Form-
The Levirate In
Genesis 38, in which the father was alive, Daube maintains
that the Deuteronomic lawgiver refers to a situation in which
the estate had not been partitioned after a father's death but
the inheritance held in common. As evidence to support his
view that the phrase "brothers dwelling together" refers to
consortium, Daube cites Psalm 133:1. He finds references to
the consortium institution in early Hebrew law in the stories
36:6, 7) where the phrase "to dwell together" is found.
Daube gives several reasons for believing that the law operates
in the situation where the father is dead. "If the lawgiver had
in mind the ordinary case where the paterfamilias is still alive,
(1) the expression 'if brethren dwell together and one of
them die' would be strange, and one would expect something
like 'If a man take a wife for his son and this son die. . . .’
(2) Similarly, the expression 'her husband's brother shall
go in unto her and take her to him to wife' would be strange,
and one would expect something like 'the paterfamilias shall
send her husband's brother in unto her and give her unto
(3) If the paterfamilias were still alive, one would expect
him to be strong enough to force the remaining brother to
marry the widow even if he did not wish to do so. . . .
(4) At least, one would expect the paterfamilias to play
some part in the proceedings laid down in the case of disobe-
dience on the part of the survivor."47
Daube appears to be arguing for the original Sitz im Leben
of the levirate law and his argument is cogently presented.
The application of the levirate law to additional cases (where
the father is alive or where the father is dead and the brothers
separate, taking their own inheritance portion) is a later
ulierung des Gesetzes in erster Linie an Brüder gedacht haben, die als Bauern in
fortgesetzter Erbengemeinschaft auf dem vdterlichen Grund and Boden gemein-
sam Leben." Similarly, H. Brongers, Oud-Oosters en Bijbels Recht, 1960, p. 199.
47. D. Daube, "Consortium," pp. 72, 73. Cf. also Daube's review of L.
Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud in BiOr, 3-4, 1947, pp. 32-35.
48 The Levirate In
development "when the primitive consortium had become
obsolete and forgotten."48
At the beginning of our discussion of the phrase "broth-
ers dwelling together," we noted that most scholars assume
that the levirate law operates only where brothers are dwell-
ing together; that the law provides the exclusive conditions
under which the levirate duty was to be in effect, but it is
questionable whether the levirate law is to be understood in
such a fashion; that is, as prescribing exhaustively the situa-
tion in which the levirate operated. Rather, as Th. and D.
Thompson state, "When Deuteronomy speaks of brothers
dwelling together, it is not specifying the limits under which
the law is binding. It is describing the typical situation under
which the law would normally be used."49 The law is then
legislating how the responsibility toward the deceased and
the deceased's widow customarily operated. Normally, the
brother50 of the deceased, being the nearest of kin and best
suited to act for the deceased, will be called upon to raise up
seed for the deceased. However, it should not be understood
as if the levirate was performed only under the conditions
and through the specific parties mentioned in the Deutero-
The Purpose of the Levirate, Deuteronomy 25:6.
We must now enter into the very heart of the levirate
marriage institution and to the crucial question of its purpose
as construed by the Deuteronomic legislation. In particular,
we must inquire into the meaning of Deuteronomy 25:6.
There it is stated that the first-born of the levirate union
48. D. Daube, "Consortium,". p. 90. H. H. Rowley, op. cit., p. 175 n. 3,
objects to Daube's position and remarks, "This would seem to distinguish the
marriage of Ruth too sharply from levirate marriage, and would make the refer-
ences to Deut. 25:5-10 and Gen. 38 in the book of Ruth hard to explain."
Rowley's objection does not sufficiently take into consideration, however, that
Daube is arguing for the primitive life setting contained in the phrase "brothers
49. Th. and D. Thompson, op. cit., p. 90.
50. J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 78: "When the brother is mentioned as the one
to take this obligation upon himself, it is because he is the nearest of kin to the
The Levirate In
"shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that
name may not be blotted out of
meaning of the phrase Mw lf Mvqy? What is meant by the
statement of purpose "that his name may not be blotted out
widow's accusation against the levir is that "he refuses to
his brother's name in
lxrWyb Mw vyHxl). In the halisah ceremony the brother-in-
law who rejects his duty is referred to as the one who is not
willing to build up his brother's house (v. 9). We must en-
quire into these statements relating to the distinctive purpose
the levirate in
cording to Deuteronomy, the purpose of the levirate was to
provide the dead man with a son," which in Israelite think-
deceased and best suited to act in his name, just as he is the man from whom it is
most fair to exact the fulfillment of this duty."
51. It is difficult to believe that in v. 5 "son" is not the intended meaning
despite-any apparent conflict with Num. 27. However, M. Kline, Treaty of the
Great King, 1963, p. 117, writes, "In view of the provision of Numbers 27:4 ff.,
there would be no need for the levirate marriage if the deceased had daughters.
Hence the AV seems preferable to RSV in rendering in verse 5 no child, rather
than no son." Cf. also R. K. Harrison, IOT, 1970, p. 650, "The levirate law did
not apply if daughters had been born, and regulations for the inheritance of such
individuals constituted an early concern of codified Hebrew law (Num. 27:1 ff.)."
Cf. S. Belkin, op. cit., p. 280, for a similar interpretation. G. A. Smith, Deuter-
onomy, 1918, p. 287, on the contrary, remarks: "P, by allowing daughters to
inherit (Num. xxvii 1-12), abolished part of the need for Levirate marriages; but
obviously, D knows nothing of P's law: for his own is limited to sons: This is
generally the position taken by those more inclined to see development within the
laws of the Pentateuch. L. Epstein, op. cit., p. 81, states: "Leviticus and Numbers
at times ignore the levirate institution and at times legislate it out of exis-
tence.... If a man dies childless, according to the ruling of the Book of Numbers,
his estate goes over to the brothers or uncles, as if a levitate institution did not
exist at Critical scholars see historical development in the institution and
successive biblical legislation in respect to it." A. Geiger, "Die Leviratsehe,"
Jüdische Zeitschnft für Wissenschaft and Leben, 1, 1862, pp. 19-39, believes that
the two biblical statements are explainable on the basis of the divergent geo-
graphical locations of the lawgivers; levirate being, according to Geiger, known
only in the south. The author of the Numbers 27 tradition, which revolves around
the daughters of Zelophehad who was of Manasseh, would have been from the
north and either did not know of or was free to ignore the southern tradition of
the levirate. This argument is rejected by J. Mittelmann, op. cit., p. 37, whose
interpretation of the two passages in Num. and Deut. follows the common critical
source approach. In the Exile, the Israelites came under Babylonian influence.
"Die Folge des exilischen Rechtsangleichungsprozesses war eine Vereinheitlichung
50 The Lervirate in
ing was extremely important. The son. born of the union
between the levir and the widow is reckoned- as belonging to
the deceased.52 The phrase Mw lf Mvqy, obviously does not
and Reformierung des judaisch—israclitischen Rechtes, die manche Spuren in der
Queue P. des Hexatcuches hinterlassen . . . Die Tatsache, dass gerade P., also
eine Quelle aus dem ausgehenden 6. Jh., mit grosser Emphase das Tochtererbrecht
predigt, lasst darauf schliessen, dass es sich hierbei fair die judäischen Exulanten
um etwas Neues handeln muss, das mit grossem Nachdruck befohlen und gut
begrUndet werden muss, um Wurzel schlagen zu konnen." Several things should be
said about this matter. First of all, it is evident that some of the Pentateuchal laws
show traces of a process of development. A clear example is the further amplifica-
tion of the law of Num. 27 in Num. 36. J. Weingreen, "The Case of the Daughters
of Zelophchad," VT, 16, 1966, pp. 519, 520, maintains that in this incident we
a significant pointer toward legislative procedure in
law may emerge out of the ruling of a judicial authority in a case of unprece-
dented circumstances, for which the law had made no provision." He argues that
"such phenomena, surely, would not be unusual in any ancient organized society
and may be seen as manifestations, through evolving law, of social growth and
widening experience." We acknowledge that the laws of the Bible are divinely
revealed, yet given in concrete historical circumstances, and therefore accept the
principle of development where the Bible points in that direction. Cf. W. H.
Gispen's interesting discussion of development within the Pentateuchal laws, "De
Soepelheid der Mozaische Wet," GTT, 57, 1957, pp. 106-111. In the case under
discussion, however, the Old Testament legal traditions are being interpreted in
the light of the Wellhausen source analysis with a post-exile date for the P docu-
ment. This dating has recently come under some suspicion, cf. e.g. Y. Kaufman,
in Oriental and Biblical Studies, ed. J. Finkelstein and M. Greenberg, 1967, pp.
123-142 = Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, ed. M. Haran, 1960, pp. 29-45.
Apart from these considerations, we note that not all are agreed that the incident
in Num. 27 demonstrates that the so-called P document did not know or dis-
approved of the levirate. N. Snaith, "The Daughters of Zelophehad," VT, 16,
1966, p. 126, holds that "the story of the daughters of Zelophehad has actually
nothing to do with the general rules and laws as to the inheritance of property,
but that primarily it is a story told to account for the fact that the tribe of
held land to the west of the
know all of the specifics for which this law was enacted it could be covering a
situation where a wife without a son had predeceased her husband, where the wife
remained without a son after levirate marriage or a case where the deceased's
brother had refused to marry the widow. See J. S. Wright, "Marriage," NBD,
1962, p. 789.
52. Since the biblical statement is that "the firstborn is to succeed to the
name of the deceased" in any levirate union, such a unique arrangement would
apply only to the firstborn son. It is difficult to understand the ground on which
I. Benzinger, "Marriage," EB, 1903, p. 2950, sees a "not unimportant altera-
tion" between Gen. 38 and Deut. 25. He remarks, "In Gen. 38:9 all the children
(not only the first son) are to he reckoned to the dead man." Surely, frzh in
Gen. 38:9 does not refer to a plurality of offspring. On the relation of frz in
Gen. 38 to 7: in Deut. 25:5, L. Epstein. op. cit., p. 97 n. 55, remarks that seed
The Levirate In
mean that the child shall assume, in the literal sense, the name
of the deceased since this was not so in either of the two
incidents of the levirate narrated in the Old Testament (Gen.
38, Ruth 4). Pedersen explains the phrase when he writes, "If
a man, after having contracted a marriage, dies without sons,
then he dies entirely. It is this blotting out of life which is to
be avoided. His nearest of kin, the brother, must perform this
office of love in order to protect him from extermination.
The wife, whose object in life it is to bear him a son in whom
his life is resurrected, must be enabled to do her duty to-
The desire for children and in particular for male children
was very strong in Old Testament times. Barrenness was a
dire misfortune (I Sam. I ) and it was considered to be the
highest blessing from God to have sons (Ps. 127:3-5). "Give
me children or I die," was the distressed plea of the wife
Gen. 30:1). In many places the Old Testament makes a con-
nection between having descendants, particularly sons, and
"is only a general expression for offspring and may be used even when one has in
mind only sons," pointing to the employment of the term seed in connection
with circumcision in Gen. 17. Since the phrase hwxl vl hHqlv, Deut. 25:5, points
in the direction of a more permanent marital, union, it would be likely that either
children would be produced. The most natural explanation of the term firstborn
would also suggest other children and permanent marriage, though Rowley argues
that "when the law of Deuteronomy speaks of the firstborn child it is not implied
that the union would normally continue and that there would be other children
who would take the name of the dead man, but rather that levirate marriage was
only, concerned with a first birth"; op. cit., p. 187.
53. J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 78. See also A. R. Johnson, The One and the
Many in the Israelite Conception of God, 19612, p. 3: "Thus, to the Israelite,
when the time comes for that dissolution of the personality which is known as
death, it is in this particular 'extension' that he may continue to live most power-
fully. Hence the extermination of the name is regarded as the greatest disaster
which can befall a man, and various measures are adopted to preserve his memory.
The need of male offspring for this particular purpose finds typical expression in
the legislation providing for the so-called levirate marriage...." W. Rudolph, op.
cit., p. 62, commenting on the meaning of the phrases under discussion, writes,
"Dieses Wertlegen auf die Erhaltung des Namens ist bei dem Fehlen einer Aufer-
stehungshoffnung durchaus begreiflich, so dass wir es nicht notig haben, nach
einem anderen als dem im AT angegebenen Motiv fur den Levirat zu suchen...."
J. R. Porter, op. cit., p. 377, states, "The principal aim of the Levirate marriage,
as the Biblical texts plainly show, was that a son might be born who would take
the dead husband's name and so keep him alive."
52 The Levirate In
the continuation of the name (I Sam. 24:22; II Sam. 14:7;
18:18; Isa. 56:5; 66:22; Jer. 11:19; Ps. 45:17 f.; 109:13). It is
proper to conclude from this that in
was connected with ancestor worship,54 but it seems evident
the descendants, and especially sons in
viewed as the ones who keep in remembrance the name55 of
In addition to the idea of the continuance of the name of
the father through his son, more must be said about the
concept of "succeeding to the name." From additional pas-
sages now to be mentioned it seems likely that "succeeding
to the name" must be linked as well with inheriting the prop-
erty.57 Genesis 48:5, 6 makes mention of Jacob's adoption of
and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph born in
before Jacob's arrival. This privilege is restricted to the two
54. M. Burrows, "Levirate
that it is "entirely likely that the levirate had some connection with ancestor-
worship among the Hebrews." I. Benzinger, "Family," EB, 1903, p. 1502, calls it
"the essential consideration in levirate marriages." For a critique of this idea, see
55. On the distinctive Israelite understanding of the name, see G. von Rad,
Studies in Deuteronomy, 1953, pp. 37-44; J. A. Motyer, "Name," NBD, 1962,
pp. 861-864; J. Pedersen, op. cit., pp. 245-259; Th. and D. Thompson, op. cit.,
56. H. W. Robinson, "The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality,"
BZAW, 66, 1936, pp. 49, 52, has sought to explain the levirate in terms of his
concept of corporate personality. The levitate is the result of
unique "unitary group conception." This is defined as follows: "The whole group,
including its past, present and future members might function as a single individ-
ual through any one of the members conceived as representative of it." The
extension into the future of the living group is "best illustrated by the dominant
aspiration of the Hebrew to have male children to perpetuate his name, the name
that was so much a part of himself that something of him died when his name
ceased." The application of the corporate personality concept to the levirate law
is questioned by Porter, op. cit., p. 377, who writes, "Here indeed, as also with
the obligation of blood-revenge, there is a very strong awareness of the solidarity
of the family, but this is based on ties of kinship and the bond of property and
does not require the postulate of 'corporate personality'...."
57. W. Rudolph, op. cit., pp. 62, "Nur spielt neben der Erhaltung des
Namens auch noch der Gedanke an die Erhaltung des Grundbesitzes mit." J. R..
Porter, op. cit., p. 377, affirms that the principal aim of the levirate was to
continue the deceased's name and life in a son but goes on to say, "Closely linked
with this, as is implied in Deut. xxv 5, and the story of Ruth, was the object of
preserving the family property intact." For a contrary view, cf. H. H. Rowley, op.
The Levirate In
sons: "and the offspring born to you after them shall be
yours; they shall be called by the name of their brothers in
their inheritance" (v. 6). In other words, later born sons will
not form tribes of their own, with a special inheritance, but
will be incorporated into Ephraim and Manasseh. Here it
appears that "being called by the name" includes being made
a partaker of the inheritance.
Numbers 27 points to a direct connection between Mw
and the family property. The daughters of Zelophehad asked
Moses, "Why should the name of our father be taken away
from his family, because he had no son? Give to us a posses-
sion among our father's brethren" (v. 4). When a decision is
rendered to meet this situation58 we see that the daughters
are to be given possession of an inheritance among their
father's brethren (v. 7).
This same idea is also found in Ruth 4:10. Boaz remarks,
"Also Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have
acquired to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead
in his inheritance (vtlHn lf tmh Mw Myqhl), that the name
of the dead may not be cut off among his brethren."
It thus appears that through the levirate, the name and
the estate of the deceased were continued in the son of this
union, who was considered to be the son of the deceased. As
such, he was the one who ultimately came into possession of
his father's property. Undoubtedly this would be a duty of
love on the part of the deceased's brother, who would stand
cit., p. 185, "There is no reference ta property in the law of levirate marriage in
58. R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 166, writes, "If a man dies without male heirs,
the land is bequeathed to his daughters (Nb 27:7-8), but they must marry within
their tribe, so that their portion may not be transferred to another tribe (Nb
36:6-9). If the owner dies childless, the inheritance reverts to his brothers, his
or his nearest kinsman (Nb 27:9-11)." According to
321-324, this episode in Numbers 27 and 36 "is the reflection of agnate marriage,
meaning marriage within the family, tribe or clan." This is to be sharply distin-
guished from the levirate and was not obligatory. These laws provided that
daughters inherited the property, where there were no sons, when they married
within the family tribe. They are reflected with some significant variations in the
marriage of Tobias to Sarah, mentioned in the book of Tobit.
54 The Levirate In
to gain personally in case his dead brother remained without
children.59 It is important to recognize that the levirate duty
entailed a sacrifice of love. From the examples of Onan and
the god in Ruth, as well as from the ceremony whereby the
refusing brother is shamed, we have confirmation that some
responsibilities were rejected where love had grown cold.
However, because of the close bond of kinship which united
the Israelite clan, the levirate law was one of the concrete
ways in which the law of love within the Israelite family
often came to expression. The levirate had in view, then, the
raising up of descendants for the deceased, but, in addition,
was designed to prevent the alienation of the family
59. According to J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 91, to maintain the name implies
the continuation of the deceased's life, but includes as well the taking over of his
property. "It always expresses an office of love on the part of the brother. If he is
actually the natural heir, it is clear that it is a great sacrifice on his part; for then
he might let the deceased be blotted out and take over the inheritance for himself
and his progeny.... The presupposition is that it is really a great sacrifice he is
making." Cf. D. Mace, op. cit., pp. 106, 108. We must assume that the property
of the deceased was under the control of the levir until such time as a male child
was born and able to assume control. If the levir was married and had children by
a first wife and had additional children from the second, difficulties in his estate
may well have resulted. See J. Morgenstern, op. cit., pp. 174-175.
60. D. Mace, op. cit., p. 105, remarks, "We may therefore suppose that even
where its primary purpose was limited to the propagation of a son to the de-
ceased, as among the Hebrews, it may at the same time have subserved the ends of
inheritance." This dual purpose is also affirmed by G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles,
op. cit., p. 243; 0. Baab, "Marriage," IDB, 1962, p. 283; C. Steuernagel,
Deuteronomium and Joshua, HK, 1900, p. 92. Sometimes an effort is made to
distinguish between primary and secondary purposes. Cf. R. de Vaux, op. cit., p.
38: "The essential purpose is to perpetuate male descent, the 'name,' the 'house,'
and therefore the child (probably only the first child) of a levirate marriage was
considered the child of the deceased man.... A secondary, but similar, purpose
was to prevent the alienation of family-property." A few scholars believe that the
levirate serves an additional purpoSe;i:e., to provide for the care and protection of
of the widow in society. If such were the case, then the levirate duty must be
understood as involving full marriage, not merely cohabitation for the purpose of
impregnation. D. Mace, op. cit., p. 108, calls this nothing more than an "inciden-
tal element." L. Epstein, op. cit., pp. 79, 80, describes it as a later development.
E. Neufeld and I. Mattuck see it as the primary and fundamental object of the
levirate. Cf. E. Neufeld, op. cit., pp. 29-33, 46, 47. I. Mattuck emphatically
repudiates the idea that the maintenance of the dead man's estate could have been
the central purpose in the legislator's mind. The central purpose can be discerned,
The Levirate In
The Ceremony of Refusal, Deuteronomy 25: 7-10.
We must now examine the ceremony in Deuteronomy
which followed the refusal of the levir to fulfill his duty to
the widow. We have seen from Genesis 38 that there were
occasions when the duty of the levirate was evaded by the
brother-in-law. The Deuteronomic law recognized that there
would be those who refuse to perform the duty, although the
reasons for such refusal are not directly mentioned.61 The
prescribed ceremony may be an indication that it was felt to
be in the interests of both parties to exert some pressure so
that evasions of this pious duty would be kept at a minimum.
It is true that in this, as in all the laws of God, obedience is
the response of love, and love cannot be coerced. Neverthe-
less, some pressure can be beneficial. This law recognizes the
very real possibility of that to which Genesis 38 points as
well: the levir's rejection of his responsibility. It would be
wrong to see in the halisah ceremony merely a legalization of
this rejection. We should not imagine that the law is designed
to provide the brother-in-law with the occasion for escaping
his duty.62 Rather, the intention of the ceremony is primarily
he asserts, by asking the question "Whom did the law benefit?" The widow alone
benefited by it, as can be seen also from the story of Tamar and Ruth. Taken in
combination with the humanitarian concern in Deuteronomy for widows and
orphans, the combination of these arguments can lead to no other conclusion
than that the purpose of the law is to benefit the widow. This purpose is also the
explanation for the lawgivers' preoccupation with an heir. Where there was a son
surviving the husband, the widow's maintenance was secure. Thus Mattuck, op.
cit., p. 214, concludes that "by the law of levirate marriage, Deuteronomy sought
to ensure the welfare of the childless widow by obtaining for her through a son a
claim on her deceased husband's property." Mattuck's opinion has been echoed in
recent times by W. Williams, Archeology in Biblical Research, 1966, p. 159. Cf.
also the position of H. Brongers in chap. 5, n. 95.
61. The phrases used in v. 7 to describe the brother-in-law's response to the
widow do not touch on the specifics in back of the refusal as is the case in Gen.
62. Cf. J. Morgenstern, op. cit., p. 166: "The performance or non-
performance of this duty was naturally a matter of strictest secrecy, known only
to the two of them. And of course, if the brother-in-law had no desire to perform
this duty, there was obviously no need nor occasion for him to make the matter
56 The Levirate In
to protect the widow, not the unwilling brother.63 It will be
well, at this point, to investigate the procedure which the law
stipulates in the circumstance of refusal of duty. The first
step taken by the widow is to go up to the gate to inform the
elers64 of the levir's uncooperative stand, and thereby make
formal declaration of the brother-in-law's refusal. When due
attention is paid to the woman's initiative, it does not appear
likely that the law was intended to furnish the deceased's
brother with an escape mechanism, for "if the purpose of this
mispat was the protection of the brother-in-law from the
necessity of performing a formal duty disagreeable to him,
the first condition thereof would hardly have been to compel
the sister-in-law to comply with a provision which must have
been extremely distasteful and humiliating to her; namely to
voluntarily take the initiative and go before the legal authori-
ties of the town and make formal charge of neglect of duty
against her brother-in-law in regard to a matter of extreme
privacy and delicacy."65
64. There are references to judicial procedures taking place at the gate
throughout the Old Testament. In Deut. the phrase "elders of his occurs in
19:12; 21:3; 4, 6, 19, 20; 22:15, 18; 25:8. We shall encounter one of the most
important examples of the every day operation of justice at the gate in Ruth 4.
important incidents furnishing examples of judicial process in
incidents mentioned in Judg. Jer. 26 I Kings 21; cf. F. I. Anderson "The
Socio-Juridical Background of the Naboth Incident,” JBL, 85, 1966, pp. 46-57.
One of the pioneering works on judicial procedure appeared in L. Köhler's work,
Der Hebräische Mensch, 1953, pp. 143-171. For additional literature on the sub-
ject of elders in the Old Testament, cf. J. L. McKenzie, "The Elders in the Old
Testament," Biblica, 40, 1959, pp. 522-540; J. van der Ploeg, "Les Anciens dans
l'Ancien Testament," Lex Tua Veritas, Festschrift für Hubert Junker, ed. H.
Gross and F. Mussner, 1961, pp. 175-191; C. Umhau Wolf, "Traces of Primitive
and Going at the City Gate," BASOR, 144, 1956, pp. 20-23; G. Evans, "Coming
and Going at the City Gate, a discussion of Professor Speiser's Paper," BASOR,
150,1958, pp. 28-33; D. A. McKenzie, "judicial Procedure at the Town. Gate," VT,
14, 1964, pp. 100-104. For a recent full scale treatment, cf. J. Salmon, Judicial
unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
65. J. Morgenstern, op. cit., p. 166, E. Neufeld, op. cit., p. 42, makes the
statement, "To enable the levir to escape from his levirate obligations, the law
recognized the ceremony of Halizah," but this does not adequately take into
account the woman's initiative within the proceedings.
The Levirate In
The woman's initiatives make it likely that her interests
were being protected by this procedure. The plight of the
widow is a prominent theme in the Old Testament66 and we
have already seen that some scholars suggest that it was the
principal motive behind the levirate.67 If the widow waited a
reasonable period without any sign that the brother-in-law
was disposed to perform his duty toward her, she might, as a
final measure, seek to be free from .his authority and to either
return to her own father or make her own way.68 This cere-
mony would then constitute a kind of release similar to the
bill of divorcement.69
66. F. C. Fensham, "Widow, Orphan and the Poor in Ancient Near Eastern
Legal and Wisdom Literature," JNES, 21, 1962, pp. 129-139:
68. Based upon analogies with some Near Eastern and Bedouin circles,
where a widow and her children have the right to return to the house of her
father., F. C. Fensham, op. cit., p. 136, asks, "What about the levirate marriages?
Was this marriage only contracted when the widow had no remaining family
ties?" He does not believe that the levirate was in effect only where the woman
had no family ties and gives two reasons: "The married wife was bought by her
husband from the house of her father.... After her husband's death his family
had the right to keep her in the family or else they would suffer damage. This is
the basis of levirate marriage...." A second reason is found in the Tamar-Judah
incident which demonstrates that there is "one case in the Old Testament where
the levirate took place in spite of family ties." In my opinion there is some truth
in Fensham's first reason, but his formulation is not quite right, cf. the discussion
of the verb hnq, used in connection with marriage in chap. 8, "The Double
Responsibility," as well as chap. 8, n. 104. The levirate incident in Gen. 38 is
sufficient evidence, however, to support the position that the levirate was opera-
tive regardless of whether members of the woman's house were alive.
69. We have seen from the Tamar incident (cf. n. 9) that the widow was
considered to be married to Shelah even though she was not given to him. I.
Mattuck, op. cit., p. 216, remarks, "The widow becomes the wife of the brother-
in-law at the death of her husband. There are no preliminaries neces-
sary.... When, however, he refused to retain her as his wife a ceremony of release
was prescribed. This could be nothing else than a form of divorce." Cf. also, E.
Neufeld, AHML, p. 48, who believes it, to be highly likely that "the widow
became the legal wife of the brother-in-law immediately on, and by virtue of, the
husband's death, and her new husband received, together with this automatic
acquisition of a wife, the right to disclaim her and dissolve the union which had
been thrust upon him." R. Yaron, "Ad Secundas Nuptias Convolare," in Sym-
bolae Ivredicae et Historicoe Martino David Dedicatae, 1968, p. 265 n. 2, com-
ments in a somewhat different vein, "Biblical law (Deut. 25:5-10) provides that
she is to become the wife of a brother of the deceased, unless a ceremony of
‘unshoeing’ has taken place, which dissolves the tie between the widow and the
brothers of the deceased."
58 The Levirate in
The elders, upon being presented with the widow's state-
ment, attempt to persuade the brother-in-law to fulfill his
responsibility. They speak to him, but beyond that they can-
not go. If, in the face of their entreaties, he remains adamant
and refuses to enter into the levirate union with her, no more
can be done, for it appears that the elders had no power of
compulsion, only that of persuasion.
The culmination of the widow's initiative took place in
the events of the ceremony itself, in which she went up to
the levir in the presence of the elders, pulled off his sandal
(vlgr lfm vlfn hclHv) and spit in his face (v. 9). During this
time the woman recited the formula, "So shall it be done to
the man who does not build up his brother's house" (v. 9).70
His house is subsequently referred to as the house of the one
who had been unsandalled (v. 10).
From the appellation "the house of him that had his
sandal pulled off" (v. 10) can be seen the seriousness with
which this lack of affection for the dead brother was con-
ceived. The label attached to the house of the recalcitrant
brother perpetuated the remembrance of this unkindly act
toward the brother, and must have been deeply felt by the
offender and his house. Nor should one lose sight of the fact
that this is the only law in the Pentateuch with a punishment
consisting of public degradation.71
70. D. Daube, "Consortium," pp. 77, 78, writes, "The guilty party is public-
ly disgraced, with the words 'So shall it be done unto that man that will not build
up his brother's house.' It is interesting that much later, in the case of Mordecai,
who is to be publicly honored, the formula employed is ‘So shall it be done unto
that Man that the king delighteth to honor.' Clearly, ‘So shall it be done unto that
man' was the customary opening of public exaltation or degradation...." R.
Yaron, "Forms in the Laws of Eshnunna," RIDA, 9, 1962, p. 152, refers to Deut.
25:9 and Esther 6:9-11 as examples of proclamation forms in the Old Testament
"in which the proclamation is not in anticipation of an occurrence, but in conse-
quence. . . . In both cases an element of public policy is discernible: in the former
a person is held up for contempt, so as to discourage others from behaving in such
a reprehensible manner; in the latter the person rewarded is made an example to
71. D. Daube, "Repudium in Deuteronomy," in Neotestamentica et
Semitica, Studies in honor of M. Black, 1969, p. 236. D. Daube, "Consortium,"
pp. 78, 80, 81 affirms, "No doubt a man branded as 'he that bath his shoe loosed'
The Levirate In
Some have seen the ceremony of the shoe as a form of
divorce, noting the Bedouin divorce formula, in which the
husband says, "She was my slipper and I have cast her off."72
Mattuck suggests that there is a reversal of normal procedure,
whereby the woman "takes off his shoe instead of allowing
him to throw it at her. This would no doubt be an act of
contempt toward the man because it signified that she freed
herself from him rather than that he as the superior discarded
Hoffner cites a Hittite parallel to the case of "the man
whose sandal has been removed" which "demonstrates that
the connotation attributed to this action by Deuteronomy is
by no means either isolated or late but completely at home in
was avoided by the better citizens, excluded from higher offices and not much
trusted in any business transactions.... A breach of trust by one brother vis a vis
the other, even if it does not amount to a proper crime, is a grave moral offence.
It deserves public censure ... ; hence the public degradation of the faithless
consors in Deuteronomy." This law is cited by Daube, as part of the evidence for
his contention that "Deuteronomy contains a notable shame—cultural ingredi-
ent," "The Culture of Deuteronomy," Orita, 3, 1969, pp. 27-28, 35-36. J. Peder-
sen, op. cit., p. 91, speaks of the levir's refusal as "a serious ignominy."
72. W. Robertson Smith, Marriage and Kinship in Early
105. S. Nystrom, Beduinentum and Jahwismus, 1946, p. 57, remarks on this
custom, "Vermutlich dürfte irgendein Zusammenhang zwischen diesen Sitten bei
Beduinen und Israeliten bestehen." He reconstructs the ceremonies, with the first
stage based on the Bedouin custom leading to a final stage presented in Deuter-
onomy. "Ursprunglich zog der Betreffende den Schuh ziemlich verachtungsvoll
vom Fusse und warf ihn von sich mit den Worten: Sic ist mein Schuh, ich habe sie
fortgeworfen.... 'Schliesslich vcrgass man den Sinn der Sitte fast ganzlich, und
nun war es auf einmal die Frau, die dem Manne den Schuh vom Fusse zog, und die
ganze Zeremonie wurde zu einem Hohn ihrerseits," ibid. p. 58. Cf. J. Nacht,
"The Symbolism of the Shoe with Special Reference to Jewish Sources," JQR, 6,
1915-1916, p. 6: "In disputes the term shoe designates an insult in the highest
degree. Thus the Arab women in their mutual quarrels and altercations call to one
another: "My shoe upon thy head." T. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the
Old Testament, 1969, p. 450, cites what he calls "a curious interpretation ad-
vanced by some Jewish authorities to the effect that the drawing off of the shoe
was a mourning custom. When the potential heir refused to 'raise up seed' for his
deceased brother the latter was indeed dead, and the widow signified this by
drawing off the levir's shoe." He rejects this explanation maintaining that the true
explanation lies in the fact that "the shoe was a symbol of authority; the cere-
monial removal of it therefore indicated that such authority had been surren-
60 The Levirate In
the legal literature of the late second millennium B.C."74 It
comes from the Hittite protocol for the royal guard. "If a
guard deserts (his post) and carries off a lance from the
postern, and the gateman catches him in the sin, he (the
gateman) shall remove his (the guard's) shoe" (I BoT I 36:
He concludes: "From the text before us we can see that
all four of the above factors in Deuteronomy 25 arepresent
in the Hittite passage. (1) The guard has been remiss in the
performance of his duty; (2) one of his shoes is removed by
the man who apprehended him in the flight from duty;
(3) the gateman thus acts as a witness against him; (4) the
action constitutes a public stigmatization."'
We conclude then that the ceremony of the shoe symbol-
izes that the woman is free, no longer bound by her dead
husband's family.77 Having been rejected, she is now in full
control of her affairs. In addition, it may be that in taking off
the shoe in the presence of the elders,78 she was barring the
74. H. Hoffner, "Some Contributions of Hittitology to Old Testament
Study," TB, 20, 1969, p. 43.
75. Ibid. p. 44.
77. R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 169, "He is dispossessed of the right he had over
78. The judicial proceedings in Ruth 4 and Deut. 25 are commented on by
H. J. BOecker, op. cit.,–"Die Funktion des im Tor versammelten he-
braischen Gerichtsforums besteht nicht nur in der Schlichtung und Beendigung
von Streitfallen der verschiedensten Art. Bei erb-, familien- und sachenrechtlichen
Vorgängen ist oft eine offizielle Bestätigung für die sachgemässe Ahwicklung eines
Rechtsgeschäftes erforderlich. Als die offizielle Vertretung der Bewohnerschaft
des Ortes hat das Gerichtsforum auch eine notarielle Funktion wahrzunehme:n."
He draws a comparison between the phrase "I am not able to redeem it" (Ruth
4:6) and the levir's words "I do not wish to take her" (Deut. 25:8). He remarks
(pp. 160, 161), "Zu dieser Verzichterklärung [Ruth 4:61 ist Dt. 25:8 zu ver-
gleichen, wo in der deuteronomischen Bestimmung uber die Leviratsehe eine
ahnliche Formulierung mitgeteilt ist, mit der rich der zur Leviratsehe Ver-
pflichtete vor der Ortsgerichtsbarkeit von seiner Verpflichtung losen konnte." The
widow's words are understood as an "Anklagerede." "Denn die Witwe versteht das
Verhalten des Schwagers als eine gegen ihren verstorbenen Mann gerichtete
unkorrekte Handlungsweise, die vor dem Gericht geklart werden soll," ibid., p.
163. No defense against the charges is supplied in the context of the Deutero-
nomic law though in the living legal process itself, such would have been normal
procedure as Ruth 4:6 makes evident. After their seeking to reason with the
The Levirate In
brother from any further right to her dead husband's estate.79
If this is so, it is apparent that the juridicial procedures
outlined were not ineffectual symbolic acts intended simply
to insult the brother. The element of insult is not lacking,80
as the related act of spitting81 also makes clear. Too often,
unwilling brother-in-law without result, "haben die Ältesten die ihnen bei fami-
lien-bzw. sachenrechtlichen Verfahren zukommende Funktion zu erfüllen, Zeugen
und Bürgen eines zwischen zwei Partnern rechtskräftig abgeschlossenen Vertrages
zu sein," ibid., p. 164. D. Daube, "Consortium," p. 81, remarks: "In the proce-
dure laid down in Deuteronomy, though the State, the elders, plays an important
role, yet the actual disgracing measures—the halisa and the pronouncement 'So
shall it be done,' and so on—are taken by the aggrieved widow.... The State
regulates, makes possible and takes note of the infliction of infamy on the faith-
less partner, but the decisive action is still left to the victim."
79. H. J. Boecker, op. cit., p. 164, writes, "Indem diese Zeremonie ‘vor den
Altesten’ vollzogen wird, verliert der Schwager rechtskraftig alle Erbrechte am
Grund und Boden seines Bruders." J. Scheftelowitz, "Die Leviratsehe," ARW, 18,
1915, p. 255: "Der Schuh wird ihm ausgezogen zum Zeichen, dass dem Bich
Weigernden das Recht auf das Eigentum des Bruders genommen ist.... Der
Schuh gilt nämlich als Symbol des Rechts, des Besitzes." Similarly, G. R. Driver
and J. C. Miles, op. cit., p. 244, L. Epstein, op. cit., p. 114. D. Mace, op. cit., p.
104, writes, "There is reason to believe that he lost the property by refusing to
marry the widow on the one hand, and he also lost it by begetting a child by her
the other." M. Burrows, "Levirate Marriage in
opposed to this, maintaining that "in Deuteronomy 25, as a matter of fact, there
is no indication that the brother-in-law was the heir, or that he would be the heir
if there were no levirate marriage. If this is to be assumed, in view of the fact that
there was no son to inherit the estate, it is at least noteworthy that the penalty
imposed for refusal to take the widow does not include forfeiture of the inheri-
tance." As we have been saying, many see the forfeiture of the inheritance im-
plied in the ceremony of the shoe. Th. and D. Thompson, op. cit., p. 93, consider
it possible, not only that the brother was debarred, but that the widow assumed,
through these proceedings, her dead husband's estate. "The primary right taken
by the widow, in taking the shoe, is the right to her dead husband's estate." This,
they believe, is more probable in the light of Gen. 38. "If Onan had openly
refused the levirate obligation, then Tamar would have been able to take her own
independence, as well as, we must suspect, her dead husband's share of the inheri-
80. D. Jacobson, The Social Background of the Old Testament, 1942, p.
298, goes too far when he says that the symbolic act of untying the shoes "was
not in the nature of a disgrace to the man, but simply a sign of the conclusion of a
commercial transaction by which property passed from one to another." Cf. n.
81. References in the Old Testament to the act of spitting in one's face are
few. The only other use of the verb employed in our passage is Num. 12:14 where
in response to Moses' prayer to the Lord for Miriam's healing the reply comes "If
her father had but spit in her face should she not be shamed seven days?" Other
Old Testament references confirm the highly shameful effect of the act of expec-
62 The Levirate In
however, the meaning of the ceremony of the removal of the
shoe has been seen merely as an act by which the brother-in-
law is disgraced for being derelict in his duty.
toration. Cf. Isa. 50:6 and Job 30:10. According to later Jewish interpretation,
the woman spits before the elders. The halisah document given to the woman,
certifying the legality of her release, included the phrase "the spittle on the floor
as seen by the Court." By this later period the ceremony of halisah was no longer
considered to be a disgrace but contrariwise in some instances superior to the
performance of the levirate. The highly disgraceful act of spitting in the face was
removed; cf. S. Belkin,i., pp. 327, 328, who points to Yebamoth 39b. J.
Pedersen, Der Eid bei den Semiten, 1914, p. 96 f., believes that spitting in the
face was intended as a curse upon the uncooperative brother.
The Goel In the
Ancient Near East
BEFORE beginning an examination of the Old Testa-
ment laws in which the duties of the goel are pre-
scribed it will be helpful to bring the light of extra-
biblical materials to bear upon our subject. In doing so,
however, it must be noted that the Hebrew root lxg has.not
been found thus far outside the Old Testament.1 Thus as we
look for parallels to this concept in the ancient Near East we
still be seeking evidence which suggests parallel functions to
of the goel in
Parallels to the Goel-Redemption of Property
For something resembling the Old Testament property
redemption , law in Leviticus 25:23-28 attention should be
directed to §39 of the Laws of Eshnunna which reads: "If a
man became impoverlshed2 and sold his house--the day the
buyer will sell, the owner of the house may redeem."3 This
law has been discussed by several scholars. David remarks,
"Weliswaar kent de Bijbelse wet, en wel Leviticus XXV vs. 25
v.v. een recht van ‘lossing’ voor onroerend goed, derhalve
ook voor huizen. Maar dit recht bestaat volstrekt en onvoor-
1. J. J. Stamm, “lxg," THAT, I, p. 383. Outside of the Old Testament the
root appears only in an Amorite personal name, Ga'ilàlum, cf. H. Huffmon,
Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts, 1965, p. 179.
2. A. Goetze, "The Laws of Eshnunna," AASOR, 31, 1956, p. 108, notes
the correspondence between the verb eneium with the verb jvm in Lev. 25 which
he calls "the exact equivalent in Hebrew law." Cf. chap. 4, n. 4.
3. R. Yaron, The Laws of Eshnunna, 1969, p. 41. The translation of A.
Goetze, ANET, p. 163, is similar to that of Yaron.
64 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
waardelijk, is dus niet, zoals in §39 van de nieuw-gevonden
wet, afhankelijk van het feit, dat de koper van plan is het
gekochte veld of huis van de hand te doen.”4 There is, how-
ever, still more Old Babylonian material. Greenberg writes:
"Old Babylonian legal writings contain a law (Eshnunna 39;
Pritchard Texts 163) and a number of contracts showing the
right of an owner of real property to redeem it after he had
been forced by financial need to sell it. One of the contracts
suggests that the right may have existed even when the prop-
erty was not up for sale (as in Lev. 25:25-32)."5
Concerning the price paid for redeeming the property
nothing can be stated with certainty. Whether it was the
original price paid by the buyer or whether the law allowed
for the improvement of the property or possible changes in
land value, and thus for more than the original sale price, is
Yaron asks whether redemption as envisaged in the Laws
of Eshnunna was a continuous liability, in other words,
whether the first owner lost right to subsequent recovery
of the property when it passed into the hands of a third party
of redemption. He answers in the negative since if so "the
through his failure, due to lack of funds, to exercise his right
provisions concerning redemption would have been all too
4. M. David, Een nieuw—ontdekte Babylonische wet uit de tijd vóór Ham-
murabi, 1940, p. 15. H. Brongers, Oud-Oosters en Bijbels Recht, 1960, p. 31,
comments on § 39, "Hier hebben we een geval dat in de verte aan het bijbelse
begrip lossing herinnert en toch niet hetzelfde is. In de eerste plaats behoeven hier
nog geen familie-belangen in het spel te zijn. De bepaling ligt geheel en al in het
sociale vlak.... Een belangrijk verschil met Lev. 25:25 vv. is echter dat bier het
recht volstrekt en onvoorwaardelijk bestaat en dus niet, zoals in dit artikel,
afhankelijk is van het feit dat de koper van plan is het gekochte huis van de hand
5. A. Greenberg, "Sabbatical Year and jubilee," EJ, 14, 1971, pp. 577, 578.
Cf. R. Yaron, op. cit., p. 153, who comments on §39: "No time limit for redemp-
tion is mentioned, but the occasion to exercise the power depends on the buyer's
intention to alienate the property. As long as the buyer holds on to it, he is secure
in his possession. It is probable, however, that the parties were free to make
6. R. Yaron, op. cit., pp. 153, 154.
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 65
easy to circumvent, by the simple device of a fictitious trans-
fer, following immediately upon the true original sale."7
The right of redemption regardless of the original buyer's
intention to sell is implied in Khafajah text, 82, which men-
tions a field belonging to Kalarum: "Whenever he (Kalarum)
will acquire money of his own, he may redeem, the field. He
cannot redeem the field with money belonging to another
person."8 There is an important restriction herein mentioned,
in other words, Kalarum may redeem his field but he must
not borrow the money for that purpose, but rather it must be
his own.9 The examples, thus far cited, seem to be generally
similar to that section of Old Testament property redemption
law which allows the impoverished Israelite, if able, to re-
deem his property (Lev. 25:26b).
A possible example of the family right of redemption in
"Wegen 28 GAN Feldes vom Gefilde der Stadt Amurri, des
des Ibni-Ramman, des Kaufmanns, klagte
Siri, der Sohn des Etiru, vor den Richteren also: Das Feld,
welches ich von meinem väterlichen Hause erworden babe,
haben Ibku-Sala und sein Bruder, die Söhne des Samar-nasir,
dem Kaufmann Ibni-Ramman für Geld verkauft Addatu
und Basisu, die SOhne des Kaufmanns Ibni-Ramman, brachte
man vor die Richter.... Am Eingang (?) von Sippar werden
sie und gemass der Besitztafel des Samar-nasir und des Ibku-
Annunitu wird Arad-Sin sein Haus empfangen und zu seinem
7. Ibid., p. 154.
8. R. Harris, "The Archive of
pp. 96, 97. According to Harris (p. 36), "the archive of Tutub (modern Khafajah)
is the first known example of an Old Babylonian official archive."
9. According to Harris (pp. 96, 97), the purpose of the final clause was to
exclude outsiders from acquiring the fields cheaply. "The field has obviously been
undersold and the buyer wishes to protect himself against the possibility of a
third party robbing him of his profit." R. Yaron, op. cit., p. 153, explains the
restriction in the final clause as resting on a legal notion "widespread in ancient
systems of law: the ownership in property acquired with a third person's money
rests in that third person, not in the actual buyer. Consequently, repurchase of
the field with money belonging to an outsider would not result in true redemp-
tion, merely in the substitution of a new alienee for the earlier one."
66 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
Felde hinzu nehmen."10 This text deals with a case brought by
Arad-Sin against Ibni-Ramman. A field which had belonged
to Arad-Sin's father, through unknown circumstances had
come into the possession of Samas-nasir, who had sold the
field to Ibni-Ramman. This text suggests that the court recog-
nized, in this instance at least,11 the right of a descendant to
regain the possession of the family property which happened
to have fallen into a stranger's hands.
Babylonian sale documents often12 contain a statement
which excludes the, seller from making a,claim upon theprop-
erty. Schaeffer cites a text wherein a piece of property was
sold by Nannar-idinna and Sin-bani his brother, to Ilushu-bani.
After a description of the property the text reads, "He has
paid the money. . . . They are content. They shall not say,
‘We have not received the money'—they have received it be-
fore the elders. At no future time shall Nannar-idinna and
Sin-bani make claim upon the field. If their brothers or sisters
should make claim, then Nannar-idinna and Sin-bani shall pay
an indemnity. By Shamash, Marduk and Zabium (the king)
they swore!”13 The right of redemption is not directly men-
tioned in this text, but rather the text basically contains
solemn assurances that the sale price has been paid. However,
from the clause excluding the sellers and their brothers and
sisters from making claim upon the field it is perhaps possible
to conclude, as Schaeffer has done, that "the right of buying
10. B. Meissner, Beitrage zum altbabylonischen Privatrecht, 1893, p. 42.
11. B. Meissner, op. cit., p. 126, remarks, "Nun behauptet Arad-Sin dass
dieses Feld in Wirklichkeit ihm gehöre, and in der Gerichtsverhandlung wird es
ihm auch wirklich zugesprochen; jedoch ist, wie gewöhnlich bei solchen Prozess-
verhandlungen, gar kein Grund für die Handlungsweise der Richter angegeben."
12. R. Yaron, op. cit., p. 153 n. 33, writes, "Such a clause [by the owner
his right of redemption] is very frequent in documents from
iptiru ul manzazanu S'imu gamru—'not (subject to) redemption, not (given as a)
pledge, complete sale.' " Cf. also E. Ginzberg, "Studies in Biblical Economics,"
JQR, 22, 1931-32, p. 376.
13. The text was originally published by Daiches, "Alt babylonische
Rechtsurkunden aus der Zeit der Hammurabi Dynastie," in Leipziger Semi-
tistische Studien, I, 1907, p. 38 n. 5, and cited in H. Schaeffer, The Social
Legislation of the Primitive Semites, 1915, pp. 72, 80.
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 67
back such property must have existed on the seller’s side.
otherwise neither he nor his closest relations would have been
called upon to obligate themselves not to interfere with the
transaction.”14 On the basis of the evidence from Old Baby-
lonian sale documents as well as from §39 of the Laws of
Eshnunna, Stamm makes the statement: "Die ge’ulla als
Recht oder Pflicht, verlorenen Familienbesitz and versklavtc
zurückzukattlen, war nicht
Das babylonischc Recht kennt sic sowohl hinsichtlich ver-
kauften Landes als Ruch hinsichtlich verkaufter Personen,
wobci im Bab. das Verbum pataru 'lösen, auslösen' die Stelle
des hebr. g’l einnimmt.”15
Schaeffer even goes as far as suggesting that it is possible
to infer the goel’s right of preemption16 but this of course is
only an inference. The available evidence suggests a general
correspondence between Israelite and Babylonian law. This is
what we may expect in the light of the historical nature of
Old Testament revelation, but as in so many other points of
nificant differences in the laws as well. Again, this is to be
expected if we do not ignore the fact that the Old Testament
is a historical revelation.
First, the laws of property redemption in Leviticus open-
ate where proporty is lost to the family on account of pover-
ty. In Leviticus 25 it is not simply a case of a regular sale of
property, but one necessitated by dire economic condi-
Sometimes this was also the case in
Eshnunna § 39, also the quotation of Greenberg, n. 5), but
we have the impression that it was not so in every case.
14. H. Schaeffer, op. cit., p. 80.
final clause which excludes the seller or his descendants from attempting to
repurchase the land as follows: "Likely attempts at redemption of family estates
were common occurrences previous to this date and more or less sanctioned by
custom; and the law is now trying to get away from this procedure."
15. J. J. Stamm, "lxg," THAT, I, p. 385.
16. H. Schaeffer, op. cit., p. 79.
17. Cf. chap. 4, "Goel-Redemption of Property."
68 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
Secondly, the property redemption laws in Leviticus 25
are based on Yahweh's ownership of the land," and it is this
fact which provides the motivation for the specific outwork-
ings of the laws.
Parallels to the Goel-Redemption of Person
In the ancient Near East persons may be said to be in
need of redemption either as a result of a legal transaction or
through captivity in war.19 Legal transactions may be of two
basic kinds; either of sale or of seizure due to defaulting on a
debt. When we think of redemption necessitated by a legal
sale transaction several possibilities must be considered,
that is, either self-sale or the sale of children by parents,
or of a slave by his master.20 In Leviticus 25:47 ff. we have a
situation involving voluntary self-sale and subsequent re-
demption either by the seller himself or his goel. We shall
therefore confine ourselves to Near Eastern evidence bearing
on this rather than on texts relating to the other redemption
regained her freedom by paying ten shekels to her owner. We
would call attention to Schorr number 28, which reads:
"Dusubtum, die ‘Gottesschwester’ des Gottes Suzianna, die
Tochter des Dugga, hat der Istar-rabiat, ihrer Sklavin, Freilas-
sung gewährt. Ihre Stirn hat sie gereinigt. Die Auflösung (?)
ihrer Sklavenschaft hat sie erklärt. Eine Urkunde über ihre
18. Cf. chap. 4, "Goel-Redemption of Property," and nn. 12-17. J. J.
Stamm, "lxg," THAT, I, p. 386, writes, "Die Eigenart der isr. ge'ulla gegenüber
der babylonischen liegt ihrer Beziehung zu Jahwe."
19. R. Yaron, Redemption of Persons in the Ancient Near East," RIDA, 6,
1959, P. 155 (hereafter cited as "Redemption of Persons"). For documentary
evidence on redemption from captivity, cf. R. Yaron, "Redemption of Persons,"
pp. 159, 171.
21. CH § 119 and §281 are cited by R. Yaron, "Redemption of Persons,"
pp. 157-159, and J. J. Stamm, "lxg," THAT, I, p. 385, as examples of extra-
biblical material bearing on the redemption of slaves by their masters.
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 69
Reinigung hat sic ihr ausgefertigt. Istar-rabiat hat der Dusub-
tum, ihrer Herrin, 10 Sekel Silber eingebracht."22
Several Babylonian documents mention loans transacted
for the purpose of redemption. One is Schorr number 52
which reads: "1/3 Minc 4 Sekel [Silber], Zehnt (abgabe), hat
er es zu seiner Auslosung gegehen. Zur Zeit der Ernte wind er
Getreide dem (Gotte) Samas geben."23
Schorr interprets this to mean that Kisusu has borrowed
money in order to redeem Anum-abi. The money is given to
the person in bondage that, he may be able to redeem him-
self.24 Since there is another old Babylonian document which
we shall be examining which clearly mentions a case of bor-
rowing for the purpose of redemption, this interpretation
may be correct. However, Yaron believes that "this is unnec-
essarily complicated: payment to the person having another
in his power would be expected." "Zu seiner Auslösung (ana
ipterisu)" refers, according to Yaron, to the redemption of
Kisusu From Anum-abi.25
A clear case of redemption by a relative can be seen in
Khafajah text 88 which reads: "17 shekels of silver for the
redemption of Hagaliga his father, Zagagan has received (as a
(loan). (But.) he had no silver (with which to repay the loan),
(so) he sold himself to the enum priest....,”26
Here can be clearly seen the case of a son acting in fulfill-
ment of his responsibility toward his father. The son borrows
22. M. Schorr, Urkunden des altbabylonischen Zivil and Prozessrechts,
1913, pp. 52, 53.
23. M. Schorr, op. cit., p. 84.
24. Ibid. A similar interpretation is given by R. Harris, op. cit., p. 99, "In a
the Samas temple ... he gave (the money) to Anum-abi for his (the latter's)
25. R. Yaron, "Redemption of Persons," p. 170.
26. R. Harris, op. cit., p. 99. Harris believes (p. 43) that "self-sale was not a
socially accepted institution, for the contract states the circumstances which led
to the sale."
70 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
the needed funds, but being unable to repay the loan, he sells
himself into bondage.27
Mention should be made of legal documents from Mari,
published by G. Boyer, particularly text 77: "Hatni-iluma,
citoyen de . . . , relevant de Sin-mustal, que Napsi-Dagan, son
frère, a li [bé] ré; Gahsu, citoyen de Sasran, que Talli, son
père, a libéré. L'argent de leur li[bé] ration Bunuma-Addu a
recu. . . .9/28
This text is complicated by the combination of what
appears to be the unrelated redemption of two people. Yaron
ventures the opinion "that the document is merely a receipt
evidencing the payment of the redemption money to Bunu-
ma-Addu. The two men ransomed were strangers to Mari, and
on their release may perhaps have been furnished with proper
documents stating that fact. Since the present document was
found in Mari that suggests that it may have been executed
for some third person, a resident of that city, who had as-
sumed responsibility for the payment of the ransom money.
Since the relatives have indeed paid up, as expected, the pres-
ent document will establish the fact that the creditor has no
claim against the surety who is not named."29
Finally, we would call attention to MAL, A, §48, which
reads: "If a seignior, whose debtor's daughter is living in his
house as (pledge for) a debt, asks her father, he may give her
to a husband, (but) if her father is not willing, he may not
give (her). If her father is dead, he shall ask one of her broth-
ers and the latter shall speak to her (other) brothers; if a
brother says, 'I will redeem my sister within one full month,'
if he does not redeem her within one full month, the credi-
tor, if he wishes, may declare her quit (of all claim and) give
her to a husband. . . ."30
27. R. Yaron, "Redemption of Persons," p. 170. R. Harris, op. cit., p. 42,
writes, "We find that the enum—priest purchased people only under special cir-
cumstances, namely, when a debt to the enum—priest could not be paid."
28. G. Boyer, ARM, VIII, 1958, p. 113.
29. R. Yaron, "Redemption of Persons," p. 172.
30. T. Meek, ANET, p. 184.
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 71
This law concerns the proper giving in marriage of a
debtor's daughter held in pledge by the creditor of the girl's
father. The creditor must obtain the permission of the girl's
father before she can be given in marriage. Driver and Miles
comment, "Nor presumably can her father give her in mar-
riage unless he redeems her or makes some arrangement with
his creditor whereby her husband takes over his debt."31
With the death of the father, the brothers do not retain their
father's right to prohibit the marriage. They do have, how-
ever, a limited right of redemption for one month, and if
they do not redeem their sister within that period the credi-
tor may free her and marry her to whom he will.32
Parallels to the Goel-Redemption of Blood
Though there is considerable evidence in the ancient Near
East for the exercise of blood-vengeance,33 there are only a
limited number of specific references to the performance of
the duty of blood-vengeance by a relative.
There is a difference of opinion as to whether blood-
was practiced in
Hammurabi.34 Whatever the answer to this question, it is true
31. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, 1935, p. 278.
33 Cf. J. Jolluck, Blood Vengeance among the Israelites in the light of its
unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
1966, p. 140-188; vanOeveren, De Vrijsteden in het Oude Testament, 1968,
34. These differences are to be seen in the varying opinions of M. David and
G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles. M. David, "The Codex Hammurabi and its Relation
to the Provisions of the Law in Exodus," OTS, 7, 1950, p. 169, writes, "With the
Babylonians the whole penal law is regulated by the state; law courts of the state
acted autonomously and saw to it that the laws were observed. No traces whatso-
ever are to be found of blood-vengeance." See esp. David, n. 71. G. R. Driver and J.
C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, 1935, p. 33, on the contrary write, "As neither the
Babylonian code nor the Assyrian laws deal generally with the offence of murder,
it must be supposed that it still came under the rules of the ancient blood-feud as
among other Semites; and it is remarkable that this custom is not regulated by
legislation as is the case with the Hebrews. The desire indeed and right of the
family to seek vengeance dies hard and the state, even though it may disapprove,
dares not interfere, at any rate until the central authority is very strong." It is
their opinion that "if the blood-feud was recognized in the time of Hammu-rabi it
72 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
to say that there are no specific references to any relative35
who performs a duty comparable to that of the avenger of
who is involved in the duty of blood-vengeance. We would
call attention first of all to MAL, A, §10, which reads: "[If]
either a seignior or a lady entered a(nother) seignior's
[house] and killed [either a man or a woman, they shall
give] the murderers [to the next-of kin] , and if he chooses
he may put them to death, or [if he chooses] he may spare
(them but) take [their property] . [However, if] the murder-
ers have nothing at home [to give] , either a son or [a daugh-
ter] . . . in the house . . . belonging to . . ."36
In the place where Meek translates: "the next-of-kin,"
the text is corrupt. Meek restores: “the master of life," and
translates: the "next-of-kin."37 Driver and Miles write: "The
person who has this choice can hardly be anyone else than
the 'owner of the life' (Ass. bel napsate), of whom mention
has just been made, or 'the owner of the dead persons' (Ass.
bel mitute) as the avenger of blood is called in one Assyrian
document."38 The Assyrian document where the term bel
was probably limited to cases of intentional killing...." The Babylonian Laws, 1,
1952, p. 314. Cf. further B. van Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 24-31.
35. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, p. 33, refer to § 153 of
Hammurabi as the "sole case" of murder mentioned in the Babylonian code. It
reads: "If a seignior's wife has brought about the death of her husband because of
another man, they shall impale that woman on stakes." T. Meek, ANET, p. 173.
Driver and Miles, op. cit., p. 33 n. 3, explain the law as follows: "The wife does
not herself commit the murder at all but 'causes him to be murdered' (Bab.
usdik), namely procures another, presumably the lover on whose account the
crime is committed, to kill her husband; the law deals with her offence alone, i.e.,
procuring his death, while it leaves the punishment of the actual murderer to the
36. T. Meek, ANET, p. 181.
37. Ibid. Cf. also H. Brongers, Oud-Oosters en Bijbels Recht, 1960, p. 138,
who restores with "naaste bloedverwant." He feels that it is clear "dat hies de
bestraffing van een moord nog niet tot de competentie van de rechter behoort,
maar aan de naaste bloedverwant wordt overgelaten...."
38. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, p. 34. They add,
"Another possibility is to supply 'the owner of the house' (Ass. bel bitu), who of
course would usually be identical with the bel napisate or bel mitute, and this is
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 73
mitute is found is text 660 in Kohler and Ungnad. It reads:
"Siri ist der Eigentiimer der Toten, (bel mitute) die Silim—ili
getötet hat. Vor ihnen (d.h. ‘vor den obengenannten Leuten')
wird entweder sein Weib oder sein Bruder oder scin Sohn-
wer es auch sei, der sich erhebt, —die Toten ersetzen."39
Driver and Miles comment on text 660: "The murderer has
to deliver up his wife, brother, or son to the 'owner of the
dead persons' (Ass. bel mitute), and whoever of them is sur-
rendered 'makes good, i.e. compensates for, the dead persons'
(Ass. mittite us'allum), and presumably the murderer is put to
death if he fails to deliver a substitute."40
MAL, B, §2 refers very clearly to the next-of-kin's re-
sponsibility in the area of blood-vengeance. It reads: "If one
among brothers who have not divided (the inheritance) took
a life, they shall give him up to the next-of-kin; if he chooses,
the next-of-kin may be willing to settle [and] take his
From both these texts it is apparent
was one who could be called the avenger of blood, who was
authorized to take the life of the murderer. However, the
Assyrian law knows of the alternative of compensation in
exchange for the life of the murderer. An arrangement could
be made for taking some form of goods belonging to the
guilty party or, failing that, it is likely that the murderer had
to surrender a son or daughter.42 This, it will be seen, is
strikingly different from the Old Testament law (Num. 35:
31), which allows only the life of the murderer to be taken
rather than any kind of substitute.43
There is no mention of the avenger of blood in the Hittite
given in the transcription since it is a shorter phrase and seems therefore to suit
the gap shown in the autographed text...."
39. J. Kohler and A. Ungnad, Assyrische Rechtsurkunden, 1913, pp. 388,
40. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, pp. 35, 36.
41. T. Meek, ANET, p. 185.
42. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws, p. 35, cite MAL, A,
§ 2, 50, 55 as evidence of vicarious punishment in
43. See chap. 4, n. 159.
74 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
laws, but this does not mean that blood-vengeance was non-
existent among the Hittites.44 Of importance is the Edict of
Telipinus, which mentions "the lord of blood." It reads:
"The rule of blood is as follows. Whoever commits a deed of
blood, whatever the 'lord of blood' says—if he says 'Let him
die,' he shall die; but if he says 'Let him make restitution,' he
shall make restitution: the king shall have no say in it."45 It is
likely that the "lord of the blood" is comparable to the goel
of blood. He is the head of the family of the murdered victim
or one of the heirs of the murdered victim."
Of importance, as well, is a letter written by Hattusilis III
to the Babylonian king Kadasman-Enlil II, in which the Hit-
king complained of the murder of his merchants in
when a case of murder occurred among the Hittites the mur-
derer was given over to the relatives of the victim. The text
reads: "Betreffend das, was mir mein Bruder geschrieben hat:
44. Cf. B. van Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 31-38. The homicide laws in the Hittite
code ( § § 1, 2, 3, 4) make a clear distinction between killing in anger and killing
accidentally. Cf. R. Haase, "Zum Tatbestand der vorsätzlichen Tötung eines
Menschen in der hethitischen Rechtssammlung," BiOr, 18, 1961, pp. 14-16.
There is also a possible correspondence between the statement found in the
laws, "but if his hand (alone) is at fault," and Ex. 21:13, cf.
The Hittite Laws, 1951, p. 1 n. 4, and B. van Oeveren, op. cit., p. 34 n. 14. There
is also a formal correspondence between HL §6 and Deut. 21:1-9 which specifies
procedures to be followed to discharge the guilt of innocent blood when a mur-
dered man is found in the fields and his murderer is not known. Cf. B. van
Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 35, 36 and 0. R. Gurney, The Hittites, 19542, pp. 97, 98.
45. 0. R. Gurney, op. cit., p. 98. Gurney (p. 216) dates Telipinus from
46. Ibid; B. van Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 37, 242; E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws,
p. 130 n. 6. Cf. also, M. San Nicolò, Reallexikon der Assyriologie, 2, 1938, s. v.
"Blutrache" who remarks, "Die Vergeltung der Bluttat liegt in den Hamden des
‘Blutsherrn' (des Oberhauptes der Familie oder des Erben des Getotenen). Dieser
bestimmt, ob der Mörder sterben soil oder ob er mit der Zahlung des Wergeldes
die Tat sühnen darf. Die staatliche Intervention wird dabei ausdrücklich abge-
lehnt." This is disputed by E. P. Matter, Die Bedeutung der Hethiter für das Alte
Testament, 1936, pp. 26, 27, who writes: "Nach dem Edikt des Telepinui gab es
einen obersten Gerichtshof, an dessen Spitze als Präsident der ‘Blutsherr’ stand.
Der Entscheidung dieses Gerichtshofes musste sich der Konig beugen, and nie-
mand durfte urn Intervention bei ihm einkommen." V. Korosec, "Die Kollektiv-
haftung im hethitischen Recht," ArOr, 18, 1950, p. 190, interprets the "Bluts-
herrn" as a judge.
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 75
‘Meine Kauficute pflegt man im Lande Amurru, im Lande
Seele. Wenn der König hurt, class irgend jemand eine Seele
getötet hat, so nimmt man den Mörder dieser Seele gefangcn
und liefert ihn den Brtidern des Getöteten aus..."47
It would appear then that among the Hittites the blood-
feud existed, and the relative of the murdered party played a
role in avenging the death of the victim. However, as was the
means of a money payment or possibly by the substitution48
Of the life of someone other than that of the murderer.
Again, it must be emphasized that such a possibility is ex-
pessly forbidden in the biblical regulations (Num. 35:31).
We shall conclude our study of parallels, to the goel-
redemption of blood with a survey of the customs of the
pre-Islamic nomadic Arabs.49
when a kinsman kills another kinsman. In such an event, the
slayer is either formally excluded from the kin-group or is the
47. Text K Bo, I, 10, 14-25 as found in R. Haase, Der privatrechtliche
Schutz der Person und der einzelnen Vermögensrechte in der hethitischen Rechts-
sanzmlung, 1961, p. 28. Haase dates the Hittite king Hattu.S"ig III from 1298-
1266. Cf. also E. Neufeld, op. cit., p. 130 n. 66.
48. Vicarious punishment was practiced in Assyria, cf. n. 42. Commenting
on the phrase "Let him make restitution" 0. R. Gurney, op. cit., p. 98, writes,
"The practice of giving 'persons' as part of the composition for manslaughter is
remarkable. The expression is that generally used for slaves. Perhaps such slaves
were slain at the tomb of the deceased, as in some other ancient societies."
49. B. van Oeveren, op. cit., p. 50, correctly observes that it is sometimes
difficult to precisely date some of the Arabic customs on blood-vengeance. Cf.
also M. J. L. Hardy, Blood Feuds and the Payment of Blood in the Middle East, 1963,
pp. 13, 14. For additional literature on blood vengeance in Arabia, cf. D. S.
Attema, Arabia en de Bijbel, Exegetica, 3:4, 1961, pp. 54-56; S. Nystrom,
Beduinentum und Jahwismus, 1945, pp. 31-40; J. A. Montgomery, Arabia and the
Bible, 1934; II. Schaeffer, op. cit., pp. 80-84; W. Patton, "Blood-Revenge in
Arabia and Israel," AJT, 5, 1901, pp. 703-731; W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and
Marriage in Early Arabia, 19032; 0. Procksch, Über die Blutrache bei den
vorislamischen Arabern, 1899. S. Nystrom, op. cit., p. 34, stresses the importance
of the Bedouin custom of blood-vengeance for understanding the practice in
Israel. "Eine voile Erklarung für die Stärke der Pflicht fur Blutrache, Licht über
dunkle Punkte in der Ausübung dieser Pflicht schenkt tins der Vergleich mit den
Gesetzen der Blutrache bei den Beduinen."
76 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
subject of a judicial execution by the community.50 The obli-
gation of blood-revenge arises in cases of homicide in which
the common blood of a kin has been shed by one of a differ-
ent kin. In this instance, the slaying of a man of another tribe
is not viewed as a moral issue,51 for sacred blood is that of a
kinsman alone. The principle that the shedding of the blood
of an individual within the group is the shedding of the blood
of the community is stated by Smith: "All the members of
the group regarded themselves as of one blood. . . . A kindred
group is a group within, there is no blood-feud. If a
man kills one of his own kin, he finds no one to take his part.
Either he is put to death by his own people or he becomes an
outlaw and must take refuge in an alien group. On the other
hand, if the slayer and slain are of different kindred groups, a
blood-feud at once arises, and the slain man may be avenged
by a member of his own group on any member of the group
of the slayer."52
In addition to motives of kinship, blood-vengeance in
tribal god have been violated, and he joins the dead man's kin
in seeking vengeance. His displeasure will cause him to break
off communion with them, should they not avenge the shed
blood. Moreover, the spirit of the dead must be propitiated."53
It is true that in many cases the religious motive was lost
50. W. Patton, op. cit., pp. 703, 704, 730.
51. Ibid., p. 704; M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., pp. 20, 21.
52. W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., p. 25. According to Smith blood-revenge
is the primary test of kinship. He writes (p. 26), "The ultimate kindred group is
that which always acts together in every case of blood-revenge."
53. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 704. On pp. 712, 713 he writes, "The spirit of an
man ... finds no peace in the grave until the
bird,' which hovers at the head crying, 'Give me to drink,' has been satisfied...."
M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 18, speaks of the tribal structure as well as the religion
of the period as sources of equal potency in the encouragement of the blood-feud.
He remarks, "The soul of the murdered man was imagined to flutter around the
tomb in the form of an owl, crying with thirst and unable to find rest until
vengeance, was taken. If that vengeance was not pursued, some form of blood guilt
was thought to fall upon the remaining kin."
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 77
sight of and was replaced by the more natural motives of
private passion and tribal hostility.54
As to the question of responsibility for blood-revenge, it
appears that the obligation to avenge a death rested basically
with the raht which included descendants to the fifth genera-
tion.55 Among the males within the raht the heaviest respon-
sibility rested upon the brother and son of the deceased.56
There are instances of the father of the victim assuming the
responsibility,57 though this was perhaps not common.58 If,
for any reason, a brother or the eldest son did not assume his
role as avenger, the duty passed to the younger sons, and
eventually to the sons of a brother.59
Procksch concludes, "So dürfen wir sagen, class die Blu-
trache der Regel nach Angelegenheit des raht, also Familien-
rache war and zwar so, dass der n'ächste Verwandte auch der
nachste Blutracher ist.... Die Bluträcher waren also schon
damals die Familienglieder. Erst wenn diese die Rache nicht
Ubernchmen wollen, wird diese zur Pflicht des Stammes. Des
Stammes (hajj) eigcntliche Sache ist der Krieg, der Familie
(rapt) Sachc die Blutrache."60
54. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 704, quotes a saying of the Bedouins, “I will
have my revenge if I should be cast into hell for it.' "
55. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 705; M. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 16.
56. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 705, believes that though the brother and eldest
son of the deceased were nearly equal in their responsibility, "the greater respon-
sibility rested upon the brother rather than the son. These two were the first heirs
of a man, as well. In fact there seems to be some kind of relationship between
these two things, inheritance and blood-revenge. This is suggested by the sharing
of brother and son, not only in the inheritance, ... but in the bloodwit, where
that was accepted instead of revenge." 0. Procksch, op. cit., p. 26, comments,
"Daraus entsprang denn auch fur den Bruder in erster Linie die Pflicht der Blut-
rache." According to M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 17, however, "the apparent
order was sons, brothers, cousins and uncles...."
57. 0. Procksch, op. cit., pp. 27, 28.
58. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 705.
59. Ibid., p. 706.
60. 0. Procksch, op. cit., pp. 28, 29. So also, W. Patton, op. cit., p. 707; J.
M. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 17; S. Nystrom, op. cit., p. 35. H. Schaeffer, op. cit., p.
81, writes, "The duty of retaliation was an immediate concern of the 'family' and
not of the community at large. It was only when the 'family' was in no position
to carry out the obligation that the duty fell to the lot of the tribal group to
which 'the family' belonged." The opinion of W. Robertson Smith, op. cit., pp.
78 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
The avenger of blood is referred to as the wali or as the
waliy-ad-damm. Wali is the term applied as well to marriage
and inheritance.61 Schaeffer asserts that "the functions of the
Hebrew goel . . . are assumed to a very large extent by the
wali of Arabic literature."62
So pressing63 was this duty that it was considered legiti-
mate to use any ruse or strategy to deceive the one who was
to be put to death, though apparently it was not permitted to
strike a man in his sleep.64 According to Hardy, "at the
moment of striking the mortal blow the avenger had to cry
aloud that he was taking vengeance for his murdered kins-
man, so as to inform any witnesses that this was a judicial
killing and not itself an unjustified attack."65
Vengeance threatens not only the killer himself but any
member of his tribe as well.66 Certain restrictions were ob-
served in an attempt to curtail the disastrous results of the
exercise of unbridled revenge. Slayers were safe from the
26, 27 varies somewhat from the above position. He writes, "In Arabia this group
[kindred group] was not the family or household, not the relatives of the slayer
and the slain within certain degrees of kinship as we reckon kinship, but a definite
unity marked off from all other groups by the possession of a common group-
name. Such a group the Arabs commonly call a hayy.. . . The call to vengeance is
no doubt felt more strongly by the father, the son or the brother of the
slain.... But this has nothing to do with the principle of the blood-feud. No man
who is within the group can escape responsibility merely because he is not a close
relation of the slayer or the slain.... Kinship then among the Arabs means a
share in the common blood which is taken to flow in the veins of every member
of a tribe...." Cf. also B. van Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 51, 52, 242, and R. de Vaux,
Ancient Israel, 1961, p. 11. Note should be taken of the remarks of W. Patton,
op. cit., p. 709, who acknowledges that it is impossible from the available evi-
dence to trace the stages of the institution of blood-vengeance in Arabia.
61. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 706; H. Schaeffer, op. cit., pp. 82, 83; See n. 56.
62. H. Schaeffer, op. cit., p. 80.
63. D. S. Attema, op. cit., p. 55, remarks, "Men ervoer dit als een wet,
waaraan onvoorwaardelijk gehoorzaamd moest worden, en als een plicht die tot
geen prijs mocht worden nagelaten."
64. M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 19.
65. Ibid., S. Nystrom, op. cit., p. 36, remarks, "Doch ist es sowohl bei
Arabern wie bei Israeliten meistens dass der Bluträcher, ehe er seinem
Opfer den Todesstoss versetzt, kundtut, für wen er die Blutrache fordert." He
cites Judg. 8:18-21 as an illustration of his point.
66. D. S. Attema, op. cit., p. 55, writes, "Zij moesten er zorg voor dragen
dat de moordenaar of een van zijn naaste verwanten met de dood gestraft werd."
The Goel In the Ancient Near East 79
avenger during holy months. There were also places of asy-
lum.67 An unusual custom was the protection provided by a
woman who placed her cloak-over a threatened man.68 The
most widely employed practice was that of seeking the pro-
tection of a powerful tribe.69 Such measures, however, did
not effectively prevent the recurring vendetta.70 The blood-
feud could have been arrested by handing the murderer over
but "since there was no moral judgment of the deed, there
was no decisive motive for surrendering the murderer. As a
practical means to solve this problem, resort was had to the
payment of compensation."71
We have seen that the practice of compensation in the
Near East, excluding Israe1,72 was common. In
a weak tribe would likely settle the blood-feud by payment
of blood-money. Yet there are cases of weak tribes waiting
for protracted periods of time in order to execute ven-
geance.73 The choice of exacting vengeance or receiving com-
pensation belonged to the offended kinsman.74 On occasion
men resorted to the oracle for an answer to the vengeance or
67. Cf. B. van Oeveren, op. cit., pp. 55-57.
68. M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 20. Cf. also W. Patton, op. cit., pp. 713-715.
69. M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 20.
70. W. Patton, op cit., p. 768, writes, "When the tribe took part in blood-
feud, the common result was a war which ever increased-the fend between parties,
because every man killed began–a-new quest for revenge." D. S. Attema, op. cit..
p. 56, writes, "Men bemerkt hier duidelijk waartoe de bloedwraak leidde. Daaruit
ontstonden vaak hele bloedveten tussen de stammen, hele clans werden sums
71. M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., pp. 21, 22.
72. See chap. 4, n. 159 and below nn. 79 and 80.
73. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 710; D. S. Attema, op. cit., p. 55.
74. M. J. L. Hardy, op. cit., p. 22. Cf. however, W. Patton, op. cit., pp. 715,
716. He affirms that in some instances an arbitrator was used. "He might be of
one of the two tribes involved. He decided whether the bloodwit offered or the
revenge insisted on by the other party should prevail; and in cases of dispute as to
the amount of the bloodwit he occasionally settled the sum."
75. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 714. He cites the case (p. 714) "of one man who
sought the oracle, and who, not getting the answer he desired when he wished to
know whether he should avenge the blood of his father or accept an alternative,
threw the arrows at the image and cried out: 'You wretch!' If your father had
been killed, you would never have forbidden me to avenge him."
80 The Goel In the Ancient Near East
Patton suggests that compensation as a method of settle-
ment was "theoretically just as complete a satisfaction and as
honorable an adjustment as the execution of vengeance. Prac-
tically, however, the question of tribal honor enters in at this
point. . . . One condition of the acceptance of blood-money
was that a full acknowledgment of the ability of the accept-
ing party to accomplish revenge should be made. The slayer
was delivered up to the avenger. He entered the avenger's tent
saying: "Here I am; kill me or accept ransom." By saying this
he renounced his claim to the protection of the tent and
might have been slain. Actually, however, it was not often
the case that one who did this was slain. The purpose of the
renunciation is merely to satisfy the avenger's pride, and this
purpose of the act is always respected by the latter."76
Certain differences between
ment on a killing outside of the kin group.77 The same can-
be said to be true in
avenger of blood enacts vengeance not only upon the perpe-
trator of the evil deed (this may or may not be the case) but
upon any of the kin members of the murderer. This is forbid-
den in the Old Testament.78 A final difference is that of
compensation, which was excluded by the Israelite law,79
compare Numbers 35:31.
76. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 715.
77. Cf. W. Patton, op. cit., p. 730, who calls the absence of any moral
feeling toward the killing of a man of another tribe "the most striking difference
between the blood-revenge of the Old Testament and that of the Arabs."
78. B. van Oeveren, op. cit., p. 242, writes, "Was de moordenaar onbereik-
baar, dan moest een lid van zijn familie worden gedood. Dit laatste wordt in de
Mozaische wetgeving uitdrukkelijk verboden, Deut. 24:16."
79. S. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform
and Biblical Law, (SVT, 18) 1970, p. 82, correctly states: "Composition is appli-
cable only in a system which is motivated entirely by economic presuppositions:
the family has suffered a loss, thus payment in kind must be made and is accept-
able. In the Bible, however, homicide is an unpardonable offense, since it is
considered to be, in addition to everything else, a flouting of the divine will;
hence, no matter nor manner of composition is acceptable."
The God In the Ancient Near East 81
It is clear from our discussion that blood-vengeance was
practiced by many peoples in the ancient Near East in addi-
tion to the Israelites. As has already been pointed out, such
similarities should occasion no particular surprise in the light
of the historical nature of biblical revelation. In the final
analysis, the basic difference in outlook and in operation
of God;80 see further our discussion of the Old Testament
data in chapter 4 under "Goel-Redemption of Blood." No
compensation for the life of the murderer was possible, for
he had shed the blood of one made in the image of God.
However, it was only the murderer's life which was to be
taken. A clear distinction between premeditated and acci-
dental slaying was laid down in Old Testament law. More-
the goel of blood in
motives of personal vengeance, was intended to be the instru-
ment of divine justice with a mandate from Yahweh, the
Ultimate Seeker of the blood of the murdered victim. An
attack upon man made in .the image of God was an attack
upon the Lord, himself.
80. On the differences between Israelite and Near Eastern laws of homicide
cf. M. Greenberg, "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law," Yehezkel Kauf-
mann Jubilee Volume, 1960, pp. 5-28. The main differences between biblical and
cuneiform law, according to Greenberg, are that compensation of any kind is
ruled out and vicarious punishment is excluded in the biblical law. There is also a
striking distinction between biblical and cuneiform law in the treatment of of-
fenses against property. Greenberg (p. 18) writes: "This unparalleled leniency of
biblical law in dealing with property offences must be combined with its severity
in the case of homicide, just as the leniency of nonbiblical law in dealing with
homicide must be taken in conjunction with its severity in dealing with property
offences. The significance of the laws then emerges with full clarity: in biblical
law life and property are incommensurable; taking of life cannot be made up for
by any amount of property, nor can any property offense be considered as
amounting to the value of a life. Elsewhere the two are commensurable: a given
amount of property can make up for life, and a grave enough offense against
property can necessitate forfeiting life.... A basic difference in the evaluation of
life and property separates the one from the others. In the biblical law a religious
evaluation; in nonbiblical, an economic and political evaluation, predominates."
Cf. chap. 4, n. 159.
The Goel In
Goel-Redemption of Property, Leviticus 25:23-28
THE law of property redemption in Leviticus 251
forms an important part of the Old Testament
on the role of the goel in
law which most directly relates to the interpretive problems
of the book of Ruth.2 Despite the difference between the
property transaction in Ruth and the law of property re-
demption in Leviticus 25, it is generally accepted that in the
book of Ruth we have an application of the property re-
demption law which is formulated in Leviticus 25. The law in
Leviticus 25:25-28 states, "If your brother3 becomes poor,4
1. Lev. 25 forms part of the so-called Holiness Code, which is taken by some
scholars as being very late. On the question of the separate existence of such a
code, cf. W. H. Gispen, Het Boek Leviticus, COT, 1950, pp. 17-27. For more
recent discussions on this subject, cf. H. G. Reventlow, Das Heiligkeitsgesetz.
Formgeschichtlich Untersucht, 1961, and W. Thiel, "Erwägungen zum Alter des
Heiligkeitsgesetzes," ZAW, 81, 1969, pp. 40-73. J. van der Ploeg, "Studies in
Hebrew Law," CBQ, 13, 1951, p. 39, comments, "There can be no doubt indeed,
that most of the contents of the Law of Holiness must be very old, and must have
been practiced in ancient times." Cf. also, H. Brongers, Oud-Oosters en Bijbels
Recht, 1960, p. 191. As far as the content of Lev. 25 itself is concerned there is
good reason to see a reflection of very ancient practices. The antiquity of the laws
indebtedness in Lev. 25:35-54 has been demonstrated by
"Leviticus and the Critics," Oriental and Biblical Studies, ed. J. Finkelstein and
M. Greenberg, 1967, p. 135, (hereafter sited as “Leviticus and the Critics") who
has cited parallels from Alalah and Nuzi and remarks, "The cuneiform analogues
demonstrate, among other things, that the long passage in Leviticus had its roots
in life rather than in cultic speculation. These roots, moreover, reach far back into
2. See chap. 8, "The
3. jyHx should be taken in its wider meaning of fellow clan-member.
4. A similar verb can be found in the Ugaritic texts which C. Gordon, UT,
1965, p. 433, translates "to be vanquished." The verb jvm is unique to Lev. 25
84 The Goel In
and sells part of his property,5 then his next of kin shall
come6 and redeem what his brother has sold. If a man has no
one to redeem it, and then himself becomes prosperous7 and
finds sufficient means8 to redeem it, let him reckon the years
since he sold it and pay back the overpayment9 to the man to
whom he sold it; and he shall return to his property. But if he
has not sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what
he sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until
the year of jubilee;10 in the jubilee it shall be released,11 and
he shall return to his property."
Basic to the laws of land tenure in the Old Testament is
the conviction that Yahweh is the true owner of the land.12
apart from its use in Lev. 27:8. In Lev. 25, the laws concerned all begin similarly:
jyHx jvmy yk. H. G. Reventlow, op. cit., p. 141, regards them as part of an indepen-
dent complex of laws, "der nur sachliche Beziehungen zur Einrichtung des
Halljahrs besitzt.... Hier finden wir Bestimmungen sozialer Art, die sich einer-
seits mit der hlxg, von Land (v. 25 ff.) und Mensch (v. 47 ff.), andererseits mit
bundesgemässem sozialem Verhalten gegenuber armen Mitbürgern (v. 35 ff.) und
Schuldsklaven (v. 39 ff.) befassen."
5. vtzHxm--the most general term for property in the Old Testament as over
against hlHn and hwry which refer to inheritance. Cf. the unusual usage in Lev.
25:45, 46, where the word refers to persons rather than to property.
6. xbv—here used as a technical term meaning to appear on behalf of, to be
responsible for. Cf. K. Elliger, Leviticus, HAT, 4, 1966, p. 355.
7. vdy hgywhv—to reach, to be able to afford. Cf. Lev. 25:47, 49.
8. vtlxg ydk—KB, "sufficient to his redemption." Cf. Lev. 25:28:
vl bywh yd —KB, "enough for repurchase."
9. Jdfh—that which remains over. The word is used in connection with food
(Ex. 16:23) and people (Num. 3:46) as well as money (Lev. 25:27).
10. lbvy —the word means ram (Josh. 6:5) or ram's horn (Ex. 19:13). The
year of the lbvy was inaugurated with the blowing of the ram's horn.
11. xcy—a technical term for release. Cf. Lev. 25:28, 30, 31, 33, 41, 54.
12. In addition to the fundamental notion of Yahweh's ownership of the
land, Lev. 25:38 stresses Yahweh's redemptive intervention at the Exodus as a
for the economic laws in
Land," in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, 1966, p. 85, believes
that "the fundamental notion expressed in Lev. xxv 23 is very ancient, and had
significance in ancient
conception that the great sacral sabbatic year was appointed." Against this cultic
notion, von Rad contrasts the historical outlook involved in the promise of the
land made to the patriarchs. The two are "of a totally different order.... The
theological statements in the Hexateuch concerning the land derive from two
basically quite distinct viewpoints," ibid., pp. 88, 89. Von Rad denies that the
cultic notion was originally derived from Canaanite sources and was a later devel-
opment than the more ancient historical conception of the Yahwist. He remarks,
The Goel In
"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is
mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with me" (Lev.
25:23).13 Because the land was conceived of as belonging to
Yahweh, religious and moral considerations were involved in
questions of land ownership and transfer.14 One of the out-
workings of this idea of God's ownership of the land was that
no Israelite could lose his property permanently.15 These
"The notion that Yahweh is the true owner of the land can be traced back to the
very oldest commandments of Yahweh, and was evidently current at a time when
syncretism with the features of Canaanite religion had not even begun to appear,"
ibid., p. 88. Cf. also G. von Rad, OTT, 1, 1962, p. 300. On the concept of
Yahweh's ownership of the land, cf. R. North, Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee,
1954, pp. 158-175. Cf. also A. Alt, "The Origins of Israelite Law," in Essays on
Old Testament History and Religion, 1966, p. 128 n. 118. See also below, nn. 13,
13. For references to the divine ownership of the land in the Old Testament,
cf. Josh. 22:19; Jer. 16:18; Ezek. 36:5; Hos. 9:3; Ps. 85:2(1). This concept was
unique to Isreal. For data from the
ancient Near East and particularly
where there seems to be a strong emphasis on the land belonging to the Deity, cf.
A. M. Brown, The Concept of Inheritance in the Old Testament, unpublished
all the Biblical passages which refer to Yahweh's inheritance of the land either in
of the whole area of Canaan or in terms of the concept of
ownership, a view held by other Near Eastern cultures and particularly evident in
Ugaritic literature, with the more specifically Hebraic concept of Yahweh's in-
volvement in history. This involvement was the existential vehicle for expressing
around which that history was enacted."
14. K. H. Hervey, "Land Tenure in the Old Testament," PEQ, 1954, p. 5,
out that there were actually two competing schools of thought in
concerning land ownership and related problems. "The one saw the land as be-
longing to Yahweh, and demanded—in His name—the application of religious and
moral considerations to land ownership and transfer. To the other, dealing in land
was partly business, partly governed by certain customs (and no doubt laws)
which were influenced by those prevailing amongst the surrounding peoples. The
two principles were impossible to reconcile...." F. Horst, "Das Eigentum nach
dem Alten Testament," in Gottes Recht, 1961, p. 205, writes, "So gewichtig and
beachtlich dieses religiose Eigentumsverstandnis ist, so ist es doch nicht das im
Alten Testament alleinbestehende and vorherrschende gewesen. Ein anderes, rein
profanrechtliches Eigentumsverstandnis steht daneben."
15. On. the term ttmcl, in Lev. 25:23 cf. J. E. Hogg, "The Meaning of
ttmcl in Lev. 25:23-50;" AJSL, 42, 1925-26, pp. 208-210. In place of forever"
or "in perpetuity" he suggests "without right of redemption" or "in derogation of
the seller's right of redemption," ibid., p. 210. F. Horst, op. cit., p. 220, under-
stands the word as meaning "mit unwiderruflicher Gultigkeit." J. J. Rabinowitz,
Biblical Parallel to a Legal Formula from
"In a large number of conveyances of property it is stated that the transfer is
86 The Goel In
laws were intended to ensure the freedom of the small land-
these regulations lies in the fact that by blocking, speculation
in landed property they make it easier for that peasant class
which springs from the soil to preserve its independence.”16
In addition, as Brown remarks, "the fact that the Israelites
were legally prohibited from making any permanent sale of
their property would be a constant and sometimes frustrating
reminder to them of their link with the divine provenance of
their possession and the divine sovereignty of the real owner
of the land."17
Three separate situations are contemplated in Leviticus
25:25-28. All involve the selling of a portion of property due
to extreme poverty. In verse 25 the law envisages the recov-
ery of the land through the intervention of the goel. In verse
26 the law allows for the possibility of the land being recov-
ered by the seller who finds himself, at a later date, financial-
ly able to repurchase his property.18 Such a situation may
made in perpetuity, the formula being samid adi dariti . . . . This formula is strik-
ingly similar to vytrdl. . . ttymclof Lev. xxv 30." Rabinowitz sees this as speak-
ing "volumes against those who would assign a late date to the sections of Leviti-
cus relating to the year of the jubilee."
16. W. Eichrodt, TOT, 1, 1961, pp. 96, 97, who goes on to remark, "The
basic idea of this law constitutes a consistent and energetic attempt to guarantee
the independence and liberty of each individual Israelite."
17. A. M. Brown, op. cit., p. 214. According to Brown, this law "involved
more than the integrity of the social structure of an ancient society. In the
biblical material, the, law is linked toYahweh's gift of the land and to the sove-
relationship between, Yaliweh and
18. D. Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible, 1963, p. 85, (hereafter cited
as Exodus Pattern) regards this section which allows the impoverished person to
free his land as a later development and writes, "That these clauses contemplating
a decisive financial improvement in the affairs of the impoverished man are a
relatively late amendment is evident from the way they are stuck on to the
principal legislation; they are an afterthought." In Studies in Biblical Law, 1947,
p. 44, (hereafter cited as Studies) Daube calls the provision allowing redemption
by the impoverished person himself "a Biblical innovation" which had not existed
in prebiblical legislation. His position is controverted by E. Neufeld, "Socio-
Economic Background of Yobel and Semitta," RSO, 33, 1958, p. 77 (hereafter
cited as "Socio-Economic Background"). He writes: "We have evidence that, e.g.,
by paying the amount of ten shekels to her mistress. Such cases were obviously
not frequent, but the practice of allowing the impoverished man himself to buy
The Goel In
take place where the impoverished person has no goel. The
absence of a goel19 does not imply the absence of the relative
as such but of one with the necessary means20 and willingness
to act for the impoverished debtor. A third situation can be
seen from verse 28. Here the property is sold and there is no
goel to recover the property, and the impoverished man is
not able to repurchase the land. In this case, it remains with
the buyer until the year of jubilee,21 when it returns to the
one who had been forced to sell his possession.
back his freedom or property, and the rules governing such a practice existed long
before the Biblical legislation." Cf. also, J. de Moor, "De vrijkoop van slaven in
het Oude Nabije Oosten," Vox T., 34, 1963-64, pp. 74, 75. See chap. 3, "Parallels
to the Goel-Redemption of Person."
19. Cf. A. B. Ehrlich, Randglossen zur hebraischen Bibel, 2, 1909, p. 92.
The goel's duty was not absolute, cf. Ruth 3:13. It is this fact which lies behind the
phrase lxg vl hyhy xl yk, v. 26a. K. Elliger, op. cit., p. 355, commenting on
writes, "schwerlich= überhaupt vorhanden ist, eher= in der Lage ist." E. Neufeld,
"Socio-Economic Background," p. 77, remarks: "In reality, therefore, the debtor
could be saved by the ius redemptionis when his go’el was a wealthy person and
was willing to fulfill his social obligation."
20. W. H. Gispen, Het Boek Leviticus, COT, 1950, p. 360, comments, "Met
lxg is hier bedoeld een verwant, die rijk genoeg is, om to lossen."
21. For a thorough study of the, year of jubilee in the Old Testament, cf, R.
North, Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee, 1954, and the extensive article by E.
Neufeld cited in n. 18. R. North, op. cit., pp. 176, 189, maintains that "the
ultimate significance of the jubilee was as a bankruptcy law. . . . The Hebrew con-
viction 'Land must remain in the family' involves as its corollary 'The bankrupt
must be rehabilitated.'" North (pp. 207, 210) argues that "the legislator intended
the 50-year respite for once: a single fresh start for the bankrupt Israelite. He does
not exclude the desirability of its repetition at fifty-year intervals forever after.
Indeed, it may be said that he virtually prescribes this insofar as the economic
situation would show continuing need of such measures.... Thus the fifty-year
release prescribed once for all by the lawgiver is now carried along on the books as
a legislated ideal." North (p. 212) suggests a 12th century origin for the jubilee
law and remarks: "The jubilee law presumes an agrarian economy of primitive
simplicity. . . . The jubilee law was not the original composition of an author, but
a rearrangement of existing Semitic economic and calendar usages by an authority
of the Occupation era." R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1961, p. 177, believes that
"the Law of jubilee was a late and ineffective attempt to make the sabbatical law
more stringent by extending it to landed property, and at the same time to make
it easier to observe, by spacing out the years of remission. It was inspired by
ancient ideas, and made use of the framework of an archaic calendar. . . . But it
a Utopian law and it remained a dead letter." So also
Biblical Economics," JQR, 22, 1931-32, p. 368. E. Neufeld, "Socio-Economic
Background," p. 122, reacts strongly against the view that the Jubilee laws are
principally the imaginary work of the exilic period. "Its main elements, such as
the inalienability of land, the ius redemptionis, the release of slaves, the penta-
88 The Goel In
In summary, we see that either the land reverted to its
original owner through the activity of the goel, or the recov-
ery was effected through the original seller when he acquired
sufficient means, or the land was released at the jubilee year.
We must now examine in more detail the situation en-
visaged by the law of Leviticus 25:25. It seems clear from the
Old Testament that no Israelite would have parted with his
inheritance except under the direst circumstances. It was
when he became hopelessly in debt22 and was forced to relin-
quish his property that the need arose for the goel to act.
Several questions present themselves under closer scrutiny of
this law. First, it may be asked whether the property has
already been sold and is therefore to be obtained by the goel
from the buyer. In the light of the two other cases in Leviti-
system, are part and parcel of the real life factors of ancient
framework and, therefore, it cannot even remotely be regarded as a utopian idea."
Neufeld (p. 118) argues for the antiquity of the ideas involved in the jubilee and
believes that the "recurrent application of these institutions was an endeavour to
safeguard the preservation of old socio-economic forms by regularly repeating a
new economic programme and thus arresting and suppressing the development of
city life and its economy." A. Jirku, "Das Israelitische Jobeljahr," Reinhold
Seeberg Festschrift, 2, 1929, p. 178, maintains "dass der Gedanke des Jobeljahres
discussing the real and practical character of the laws in the Pentateuch J. van der
Ploeg, "Studies in Hebrew Law," CBQ, 13, 1951, p. 171, comments, "The law of
the Jubilee must be an ancient law meant to be kept in a society of still simple
social and economic structure." S. Stein, "Laws on Interest in the Old Testa-
ment," JTS, N. S. 4, 1953, p. 164, believes that the jubilee regulations along with
the ordinance of the sabbatical year "can best be understood as belonging to a
group of half sedentary people who were on the point of settling permanently but
who, for the time being, were assured of their livelihood by their pastoral mode of
life." J. Lewy, "The Biblical Institution of Deror in the Light of Akkadian Docu-
ments," Eretz Israel, 5, 1958, p. 29, remarks, "The Biblical legislation relating to
the 'proclaiming' of releases reflects and perpetuates the influence which the
states of the
Akkadian in setting fixed intervals for release. Lewy maintains that this "is like-
wise indicative of the ancientness of the principles transmitted to us in Lev.
25:10 ff. For such a regulation which offered the advantage of making the procla-
mations of releases independent of an absolute ruler's arbitrariness ... was obvi-
ously imperative in states not headed by a monarch." Cf. also M. Noth, Leviticus,
OTL, 1965, p. 185. For a more recent treatment of this subject cf. R. Westbrook,
"Jubilee Laws," ILR, 6, 1971, pp. 209-226.
22. M. Noth, op. cit., p. 187, writes, "The separation from the 'property'
was caused by a sale of the stake in the soil—made necessary as a rule by debt."
The Goel In
cus 25:26-28 this would appear to be the case. It is obvious
in these that the property had passed out of the control of
the original owner. In the one instance, the property was
recovered by the seller, himself, when he came into sufficient
means, and in the other it reverted to the original owner in
the jubilee year. These latter cases have been cited by the
majority of scholars to support the idea that in Leviticus
25:25 the goel, intervenes to recover the property which has
already been lost to the family. On the other hand, we shall
see that in the two applications23 of the property redemption
law (Ruth 4, Jer. 32) we do not find the repurchase of an
already sold, property, but a prior right to purchase a prop-
erty which is being offered for sale.24 For this and other
reasons, some have argued that it is the right of preemption
which is legislated in Leviticus 25:25. Thus Buhl comments
on this verse: "Freilich liegt hier die gewöhnliche Auffassung,
wonach es rich urn den Rückkauf eines schon verkauften
Grundstiickes handeln insofern etwas näher, als man
23. While there are only two passages in which we find a direct and obvious
application of the laws of property redemption, it should be noted that a more
obscure reference to such may be found in Ezek. 11:14-20. In Ezek. 11:15
following the MT (jtlxg), rather than the LXX (jtvlg), as the RSV transla-
tion "your fellow exiles" does, we find the term "the men of your redemption."
This is best explained by the previous double mention of the word "your breth-
ren" (jytx). NV therefore renders Ezek. 11:15: "Mensenkind, het zijn uw
uw broeders, uw verwanten en het ganse huis
wie de inwoners van Jeruzalem zeggen: blijft verre van den Here, aan ons is dit land
in bezit gegeven." W. Brownlee, "The Aftermath of the Fall of Judah according to
Ezekiel," JBL, 89, 1970, p. 393, portrays the following situation: "What is re-
ferred to is the obligation of the OW to redeem or to hold in custody the
property of the near kinsman. Some of Ezekiel's kinsmen have been sent into
exile, and Ezekiel, if anyone, should have the right to occupy their vacated
property. However, persons without any natural right are crowding in and with
great glee are taking possession. What they say by their attitude, though not
perhaps in explicit words, to the unfortunate exiles is, 'Get you afar from
Yahweh, this is ours!' Instead of replying in the same selfish vein, 'No, this is
mine, since it belonged to a brother of mine,' Ezekiel directed himself rather to
the underlying spiritual assumption that exile meant expulsion from the presence
of Yahweh (v. 16)."
24. There can be little doubt that such is the case in Jer. 32. Ruth 4 is
subject to dispute, but,the majority of scholars maintain that Naomi is offering
property for sale in Ruth 4:3. Cf. chap. 8, "The
90 The Goel In
auf die Analogie von v. 47f., wo ein schon verkaufter Sklave
zurückgekauft wird, verweisen könnte. Aber trotzdem ist
diese Auffassung auch hier unrichtig, wie der Wortlaut deut-
lich lehrt. Es heisst nämlich, dass der Goel zu dem verarm ten
Israeliten kommen soil um seine Geulla—Pflicht zu erfüllen,
wahrend es widrigenfalles natOrlich heissen müsste: er soll zu
dem gehen, der das Feld gekauft hat. Erst v. 26 handelt von
dem, was geschehen soil, wenn der arme Israelit thatsächlich
seinen Besitz verkauft hat."25 Buhl translates verse 25, "wenn
dein Bruder verarmt und etwas von seinem Grundbesitze ver-
kaufen muss, so soil sein nächster Verwandter zu ihm kom-
men und das lösen, was er verkaufen will."' His argument
largely revolves around the phrase vylx brqh vlxg xbv. Else-
where he comments, "The consecutive perfect rkmv can just
as easily signify if he must sell, and that this is in fact the
thought in this place is clear from the statement: 'his re-
deemer shall come to him,' while at the redemption he must
go to him who had previously bought the property."27 It is
only the law in Leviticus 25:26 which presupposes that the
property has already been sold.28
25. F. Buhl, Die Socialen Verhaltnisse der Israeliten, 1899, p. 61 (hereafter
cited as Verhältnisse).
26. F. Buhl, Verhältnisse, p. 62.
27. F. Buhl, "Some Observations
on the Social Institutions of the
ites," AJT, 1, 1897, p. 738 (hereafter cited as "Social Institutions"). A similar
argument is introduced by R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 167, who writes, "If an
Israelite falls into distress and has to sell his land, his nearest go'el comes 'to his
house' (generally omitted by translators) and buys what he has to sell." J. Kohler,
"Gemeinderschaft [sic] und Familiengut im israelitischen Recht," Zeitschrift für
Vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, 17, 1905, p. 218, distinguishes between
"Erbenretrakt" and "Wiederkaufsrechts." He complains that Lev. 25:25 is often
inaccurately translated. The proper meaning is, "wenn dein Bruder verarmt und
etwas von seinem Landgut verkauft (verkaufen will), so soil sein Löser, der Ver-
wandte, zu ihm kommen und den Verkauf (die zu verkaufende Sache) seines
Bruders losen. Das will heissen: er soil rechtzeitig eintreten und durch den Kauf
der Sache, welche in Gefahr steht, aus der Familie zu fallen, der Familie das
comments that the law mentioned in Lev. 25:25 relates to "the redemption of a
field which is on the point of passing out of the family." However, cf. his transla-
tion of the law, ibid., p. 83.
28. F. Buhl, Verhältnisse, p. 61. Similarly, J. Kohler, op. cit., p. 221.
The Goel In
This interpretation has the advantage of harmonizing
with the two situations in the Old Testament which apply the
property redemption in law, and it is certainly desirable to give
adequate emphasis29 to the specific applications of biblical
law. "There is some question, however, whether Buhl's inter-
pretation of the crucial phrase is correct. It may be that vylx
should be taken with brqh rather than with the verb as is the
case in passages such as Leviticus 21:2, 3 and Numbers 27:
11.30 If so, then xbv stands alone and is probably a technical
term31 signifying he entrance of the goel as the one who
defends and guarai tees the well being of his kinsman, wheth-
er in person or in property. As such, the principal support for
Buhl's argument di appears.
According to Rudolph, "Aus dem Wortlaaf von Lev. 25,
25 geht nicht eind'utig hervor, ob der Besitz schon verkauft
ist oder erst zum Verkauf steht (rkmm ‘zu Verkaufendes’
oder ‘Verkauftes’? , d. h. ob es sich urn Vorkauf oder um
Rückkauf handelt.” He goes on to add, "Ich glattbe, dass die
Ausdrucksweise a sichtlich unbestimmt ist, urn beide Mö-
glichkeiten einzuschliessen.... Das Normale war wohl der
Vorkauf; aber für den Fall, dass keiner der Löser augenblick-
lich bci Gelde war, sollte der Rückkauf nicht ausgeschlossen
It seems more likely that Leviticus 25;25 is,dealing origi-
nally with the recovery by the goel of a piece of property
inch had already been sold by an impoverished Israelite.
This will allow us to understand the verb lxg in verse 25 in
the same way as in verse 26. However, it is clear from Jere-
miah 32 that the goel function included the preemption as
29. Citing the two instances of property redemption in Ruth 4 and Jer. 32,
R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 1 .7, remarks, "These are the only concrete cases recorded
in the Bible and it is in t eir light that the law of Lv. 25:25 must be interpreted."
30. Cf. Z. Falk's review of R. de Vaux' Les Institutions de l'Ancien Testa-
ment in HS, 9, 1958, p. 03.
31. Cf. n. 6.
32. W. Rudolph, Das Buch Ruth, Das Hohe Lied, Die Klagelieder, KAT, 17,
1962, pp. 63, 64.
92 The Goel In
well as the redemption of property. The latter is probably the
original function from which the prior right of purchase (pre-
emption) duty originated.33
A second question which must be considered in connec-
tion with Leviticus 25:25 is the purpose behind such a law.
Does the goel act in order to return the property to the one
who has lost it or is the property retained by the goel himself?
Pedersen expresses himself very strongly on this problem
when he remarks, "The law contains no sentimental34 regula-
tions that the kinsman should assist the needy by keeping the
property for his person. If he has not the strength to keep it
for himself, he must lose it. The centre of gravity passes from
him to a relative; he loses in importance what the relative
gains, but the family, as family, lose nothing."35 Pedersen
sees a fundamental difference between the workings of the
property redemption law and the jubilee year law. The first
“provides for the property, so that, if it comes to one who is
inefficient and cannot hold it, it is directed into other chan-
nels of the stream of kindred. . . . The object of the law of
the yobhel year is, by might and main, to preserve the prop-
erty for the person into whose hands it has come, whether he
is worthy or not."36
33. Z. Falk in JJS, 9, 1958, p. 203, writes, "The go'el always demands
something back from a foreigner, be it the blood of his clansman, his body, where
he has sold himself into slavery, or his real property. The original meaning
(geullah) is, therefore, redemption rather than pre-emption, though the latter
right may have arisen quite early."
34. Cf. the strictures made by R. North, op. cit., p. 166, against Pedersen's
use of the term "sentimental."
35. J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 84. So also, F. Buhl, "Social Institutions," p.
738. W. McKane, "Ruth and Boaz," GUOST, 19, 1961-62, p. 35, supports the
view of Pedersen that the goel acquires the land for himself in order to keep it in
the family. His agreement is based on the phrase jl hnq in Jer. 32:8.
36. J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 88. This same divergence of purpose is seen by
Buhl, "Social Institutions," p. 738, as being present within Lev. 25:25-28. Cf. also
R. de Vaux, op. cit., p. 167. J. Pedersen, op. cit., p. 88, asks, "If the property, in
any case, must return to the original owner, why then should a relative in the
meantime go and buy it?" This establishes to his satisfaction that the law of
redemption "was made entirely unnecessary by the law of the yobhel year." Such
reasoning ignores two things: first, that the land only reverted back to the one
who lost it after fifty years. This is a sufficiently long period to supply a reason
The Goel In
One of the mot stimulating discussions on geullah law in
the Old Testamen comes from Daube.37 He maintains that
the account of the Exodus was patterned after familiar legal
concepts. It was “construed as an application of the social
laws, as a 'recover' by God of an enslaved son, relation or
friend or of property fallen into the hands of strangers. Un-
der the social regime of Old Testament times, an enslaved
son, relative or friend who was redeemed, 'recovered,' by the
person nearest to him came into the power of the redeemer;
and similarly, family land redeemed by a member of the
family became the redeemer's property. . . . Just so, in the
view of the Old Testament writers, the Hebrews, as a result of
their redemption from thraldom by God, became his sub-
jects—as sons or slaves—or his property. . . . Liberation by
God, in analogy to 'recovery' prescribed by the social laws,
means, not liberation pure and simple, but a change of mas-
ter. It means a passage from a distressing, foreign and arbi-
trary yoke to contentment and security under the rightful
authority."38 Daube affirms that the property redeemed by
why a relative should "in the meantime go and buy it"; second, that these laws
were not simply economically motivated but also religiously oriented. It is the
religious and moral factor of the union of person and property which we see in
the story of Naboth and which is at the basis of the prophetic condemnations of
Isaiah (5:8) and Micah (2:1, 2). The moral principle of the union of the person