Biblical Studies Levirate Obligation in the Hebrew Bible
Benjamin Kilchör
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0296


Levirate obligation (from Lat. levir, “brother-in-law”) designates the duty of a man to marry the sonless widow of his deceased brother. The term levirate refers to the legal case in Deuteronomy 25:5–10, where the brother-in-law lived in an undivided inheritance with the deceased husband of the widow. A son who is born as the result of a Levirate marriage should not be regarded as the son of his biological father, but as the son of the deceased who is entitled to inheritance, in order to then take over the inheritance of the deceased, which would otherwise remain with his brother. Two biblical narratives are related to Levirate: In Genesis 38, Judah intends to prevent a Levirate marriage between his daughter-in-law Tamar and his last living son, which leads Tamar to seduce Judah, her widowed father-in-law. In the book of Ruth, there is no levir left, and Ruth’s father-in-law has died. But Boas, a kinsman of the family, marries Ruth and buys the property of her former husband’s family, whereby the law of redemption (Hebr. go’el) from Leviticus 25:25–28 plays a role, so that this house will endure in Judah.

General Overviews

A concise study of all texts on Levirate in the Old Testament is provided in Mittelmann 1934. Its importance lies in the fact that it made it clear that Deuteronomy 25:5–10 does not so much introduce Levirate marriage as a new legal institution but rather presupposes common law practice and deals with a borderline case of brothers who live in an undivided inheritance. Leggett 1974 is a more extensive study and may be regarded as the most fundamental overview in English on Levirate, including a discussion of ancient Near Eastern parallels. The most comprehensive study to date is Kellermann 2015. Mathias 2020 discusses the institute of Levirate marriage on the larger context of progeny and perpetuation of the family line. Baelo Álvarez 2017, Davies 1981, Manor 1984, and Weisberg 2004 are journal articles with an introductory character, all of them asking what connects Deuteronomy 25:5–10 with Genesis 38 and Ruth.

  • Baelo Álvarez, Manuel. “Levirate Marriage & Adoption in the Old Testament: Socio-Legal Role.” Estudios Bíblicos 75 (2017): 407–419.

    Special focus on the socio-legal aspects.

  • Davies, Eryl W. “Inheritance Rights and the Hebrew Levirate Marriage.” Vetus Testamentum 31 (1981): 138–144, 257–268.

    DOI: 10.1163/156853381X00028

    Short discussion on the aim of Levirate in ancient Israel, considering ancient Near Eastern parallels.

  • Kellermann, Ulrich. Eheschliessungen im frühen Judentum: Studien zur Rezeption der Leviratstora, zu den Eheschliessungsritualen im Tobitbuch und zu den Eheschliessungen der Samaritanerin in Johannes 4. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015.

    Comprehensive study on marriages in ancient Judaism, including an extensive section on Levirate obligation. While the main focus is on the reception history of Deuteronomy 25:5–10 in ancient Jewish sources (including the New Testament), Deuteronomy 25:5–10 and possible older traditions of Levirate are included. On Levirate, pp. 3–116.

  • Leggett, Donald A. The Levirate and Goel Institutions in the Old Testament: With Special Attention to the Book of Ruth. Cherry Hill, NJ: Mack, 1974.

    Contains an overview of Levirate and Goel in the ancient Near East, including source texts in translation. Discusses all relevant texts from the Old Testament in the first part; the second part is dedicated to the book of Ruth.

  • Manor, Dale W. “A Brief History of Levirate Marriage as It Relates to the Bible.” Restoration Quarterly 27 (1984): 129–142.

    Brief overview of the Old Testament texts, including paragraphs on the rabbinic era and the New Testament discussion.

  • Mathias, Steffan. Paternity, Progeny, and Perpetuation: Creating Lives after Death in the Hebrew Bible. London: T&T Clark, 2020.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780567691828

    Basic study on progeny and perpetuation of the family line in the Hebrew Bible, including anthropological and gender-critical perspectives. On Levirate, pp. 192–222.

  • Mittelmann, Jacob. Der altisraelitische Levirat: Eine rechtshistorische Studie. Leipzig: Teicher, 1934.

    Fundamental study for the discussion of Levirate in the last hundred years; discusses all relevant Old Testament texts.

  • Weisberg, Dvora E. “The Widow of Our Discontent: Levirate Marriage in the Bible and Ancient Israel.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2004): 403–429.

    DOI: 10.1177/030908920402800402

    All relevant texts of the Hebrew Bible are discussed, with a special focus on the aspect that Levirate marriage may not be a desirable solution from the man’s point of view, which is also a main issue in later Jewish discussions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.