#193. Is it prohibited for a man to take his brother’s wife OR not? (Lev 20:21 vs Deut 25:5)


Leviticus 18:6-19 and 20:17-21 are duplicate lists of all prohibited heterosexual relationships, and all of them detail sexual prohibitions between a variety of different family members. These sexual prohibitions are furthermore encased by priestly exhortations to be holy. “You shall make yourselves holy and you shall be holy, because I am Yahweh your god’ (Lev 20:7).

Thus, the list of sexual prohibitions is used to separate out those impure and unholy sexual unions. They are even invoked in the terms of sacred violations: you shall not “expose the nudity” of so-and-so. Not only does the Priestly writer label these sexual unions as a perversion, impurity, and an aberration, but he stresses that any man engaged in such unholy acts “shall be cut off from among the people.” It would seem that there is no atoning for such violations. The guilty person is excommunicated from both Yahweh’s people and his land (cf. #190).

The last sexual prohibition in chapter 20 is for a man who exposes his brother’s nudity.

“And a man who will take his brother’s wife: it is an impurity He has exposed his brother’s nudity. They will be childless.” (Lev 20:21)

The crime cannot denote adultery, since that has been treated earlier (#192), and is a much more severe violation. Rather the Priestly writer is directly refuting an earlier tradition that was preserved in Deuteronomy—namely, that in cases where a wife’s husband has died and there was no son, the dead man’s brother, the brother-in-law, may step in and marry his brother’s wife and bear seed for him (Deut 25:5). In fact, in the Deuteronomic tradition the brother-in-law is obliged to step in and marry his brother’s wife.

The Priestly legislation makes no exceptions; a brother-in-law cannot marry is brother’s wife. In fact it is more likely that P wrote to refute the earlier Deuteronomic code.

Again the differences between the Priestly writer’s condemnation of such acts, legitimated through the mouthpiece of his god Yahweh, and the Deuteronomist’s position, which is also expressed through the mouthpiece of Moses, and acknowledged as having been received by Yahweh at Horeb—that is a mere week before Yahweh recants the law in the now combined PD narrative!—are indicative of larger theological and religious differences between these two priestly rivals (see for example #152, #153-154, #172, #177, #178, etc.).

The Priestly writer’s focus was ritual, ritual purity, and maintaining that purity or holiness. The Deuteronomist’s brand of religion was secular rather than cultic or ritualistic. Its focus was on secular issues. So in the present case, having a brother-in-law come in and do the duty of a dead brother was only natural; such laws were meant to contribute to a more humanitarian or secularized society.

For the ritually focused Priestly writer the very act of a brother-in-law marrying his brother’s wife would have not only been unnatural but more so would have been seen as an act that defiled the dead brother and breached the conducts of purity as commanded by Yahweh, according to this author. To visualize this in the manner that the Priestly writer suggests: any man marrying his brother’s wife has just exposed his own brother’s genitalia! And this is a no no. The befitting punishment is childlessness and being cut off. The very fact that the punishment is that they should go childless clearly reveals that the Priestly writer, through the mouthpiece of Yahweh, was directly refuting the position of the Deuteronomist.

Recall that in the Deuteronomic law code, a brother-in-law marries his brother’s wife for the sole purpose of raising up his offspring! Thus against the Deuteronomist’s Mosaic law that requires a brother-in-law to step in and produce offspring for his late brother wife, the Priestly writer lashes back with a stern polemic—if a brother-in-law were to do such a thing, they will both be barren and excommunicated.

As noted previously, studying the Bible objectively reveals that such law codes were written by different elite guilds, and they reflect their differing beliefs, values, and worldviews. Such differences were then legitimated and authorized by placing them on the lips of this culture’s deity, Yahweh. But in fact, we see that both Yahweh and his laws were created and shaped by the pen of these elite scribes.

13 thoughts on “#193. Is it prohibited for a man to take his brother’s wife OR not? (Lev 20:21 vs Deut 25:5)

  1. This contradiction actually had dire consequences on European history. Henry VII’s son, Arthur Tudor, had married Catherine of Aragon but died shortly after. Instead Arthur’s brother, the future Henry VIII, wanted to marry her, so they applied to the pope (Julius II) for permission to disregard Leviticus 20:21.

    Eighteen years later when Catherine had failed to produce a male heir to the throne, Henry VIII could cite ca. 13 cases of abortions, stillbirths and dead infants to prove that their marriage had been illegal in the eyes of God, quoting Leviticus 20:21, ” They will be childless”.

    Henry VIII then wrote to pope Clement VII to have him acknowledge that his predecessor had made an error in overruling Leviticus 20:21. When Clement refused, Henry VIII tried a few other excuses, like claiming that Leviticus 20:21 was for all men, whereas Deuteronomy 25:5 only addressed Jews.

    When all else failed (and when his prospective wife got pregnant), Henry VIII declared that the Roman church had been wrong in thinking they could abrogate God’s law, so he broke all ties with Rome, executed a lot of “traitors” like Thomas More, founded the Church of England, and finally got his divorce.

  2. I think the reasoning at work here is very sloppy; it presupposes that the original redactors and recipients of this work were too stupid to realize a contradiction. Why not, rather commonsensically, assume that the two commands can be reconciled, so long as context does not demand otherwise?

    For example, it seems obvious to me that what we have in Leviticus is a blanket prohibition, while what we have in Deuteronomy is an exception to that prohibition in a very specific circumstance: where one’s brother dies childless. I don’t understand how this constitutes a Biblical contradiction.

    1. ESG, thanks for your contributions. Granted this is not the best example of a contradiction out of the 193 now posted (see: #11, #28, #31, #46-47, #72-73, #76, #81, #93, #120-122, etc.). And I still firmly hold that when we get to the book of Deuteronomy we will see the most convincing and conscious examples of (re)writing contradictory stories, and even histories.

      But if we’re going to talk about presuppositions, your line of thinking already exhibits a couple of its own. First, you impose modern understandings of authorship, text, textual unity, etc. onto these ancient documents. Other Near Eastern law codes and the scrolls that they were written on also evidence contradictions. The writing technique adopted by many ancient scribes was to merely add onto the scroll, especially if that scroll was viewed as a repository for an elite scribal guild or readership, new laws without erasing former ones. You assume, in other words, that the redactors were creating a text, a narrative, per our understanding of text, narrative, authorship, etc, and therefore think that I think that these scribes were “stupid”—untrue. You’re assuming, therefore, that eliminating contradictions, or the inability to see contradictions, was a factor for these scribes in redacting the various Israelite traditions at their disposal—although certainly this seemed to have been the case in a couple of famous examples: the flood narratives (#14-18) and more so the crossing of the Red sea narratives (#120-122). But more apparent in these examples is the scribes’ insistence in preserving all of the text in each textual tradition that they were editing together. The same holds true in the case of Israel’s law codes, of which the Torah bears witness to three unique law codes (Ex 20-23, Lev 11-22, Deut 17-26), many of which do evidence contradictions. A good survey of this material is Doorly’s small gem, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law, 2002.

      Second, you work with a presupposition that a text’s context, who wrote it, to whom and why, and its relationship to other texts, etc. are irrelevant in assigning and assessing a text’s meaning. I would have to strongly disagree here, and voice the opposite—that understanding a text and that text’s meaning, especially an ancient text, must rest on a firm understanding of the text’s historical and literary context. You “harmonize” Leviticus and Deuteronomy without any firm knowledge of who wrote these texts, why, to whom, etc. This actually does disservice to the authors or scribal guilds of these texts, and I would furthermore argue, places the modern reader’s need for meaning above those of the author and the original historical and literary contexts that produced the text in the first place. The issues are complex, undeniably. On another note, we know from later biblical texts, Malaki, Ezra, and passages from Ezekiel for example, that the Levites who wrote Deuteronomy and the Aaronid priestly guild who wrote Leviticus were bitter priestly rivalries or guilds that had extremely different views on a number of issues (search the contradictions between these two books on the side bar). The making of the Torah in the 5th century BC was in the large a compromise struck between these two guilds.

  3. … the Yahwist’s story of Onan— Yahweh’s first murder!

    Not to pick nits, Steven, but even if we exclude those killed in the Great Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh killed Onan’s brother Er before killing Onan, because Er “was wicked in the sight of Yahweh” (Genesis 38:7). ;-)

    1. Yep, I was careless — opened my mouth before going back to consult the text! “And Yahweh killed him!” I just love the directness of the narrative.

      Dr. Leo, you can sign up your email on the sidebar under subscribe and receive…. well what once used to be daily contradictions. Alas, I have fallen behind….

  4. Some commentators claim that the law of levirate marriage (Deut. 25) was understood as the exception to the priestly legislation against marrying one’s sister-in-law. However, I think that another Priestly text, Numbers 27 (see also Nu. 36, Josh. 17), is relevant to the discussion. A man named Zelophehad died before having any sons, so his daughters made the case before Moses that they should get a land inheritance in their father’s name. Moses then took their case before “Yahweh,” who made this pronouncement in vv. 7-11:

    The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8You shall also say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as Yahweh commanded Moses.’

    Notice, too, that no appeal is made to the levirate-marriage law to say why that would not apply here.

    1. John,

      Nice find. Yes I would agree with you here, and it would seem that Numbers 27 presupposes Leviticus 20—in that the passage does not even acknowledge the possibility of levrite marriage, and because of that the issue of inheritance passes to the daughter.

      KW, I forgot about the Yahwist’s story of Onan— Yahweh’s first murder! Given that the Yahwist predates the Priestly source, this might buttress the claim that the Priestly writer in denying levrite marriage sought to annul an ancient custom — just a hunch.

  5. Interesting, I never realized this! The whole story of Onan was about his failure to fulfill his duty to marry his dead brother’s wife. Shame he didn’t live under the Priestly code. Then again, his story seems like it could be a cautionary piece of fiction, so perhaps we don’t need to weep for Onan.

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