(yebhemeth = "a sister-in-law," "brother's wife" (Deuteronomy 25:7,9); 'ishshah = "a woman," "wife"; `esheth 'ach = "brother's wife" (Genesis 38:8,9; Leviticus 18:16;20:21); he gune tou adelphou = "the brother's wife" (Mark 6:18)):
A brother's wife occupies a unique position in Hebrew custom and law, by virtue of the institution of the Levirate. The widow had no hereditary rights in her husband's property, but was considered a part of the estate, and the surviving brother of the deceased was considered the natural heir. The right to inherit the widow soon became a duty to marry her if the deceased had left no sons, and in case there was no brother-in-law, the duty of marriage devolved on the father-in-law or the agnate who inherited, whoever this might be. The first son of the Levirate marriage was regarded as the son of the deceased. This institution is found chiefly among people who hold to ancestral worship (Indians, Persians, Afghans, etc.), from which circumstances Benzinger (New Sch-Herz, IV, 276) derives th e explanation of this institution in Israel. The Levirate marriage undoubtedly existed as a custom before the Israelite settlement in Canaan, but after this received special significance because of the succession to the property of the first son of the marriage, since he was reckoned to the deceased, inherited from his putative, not from his real father, thus preventing the disintegration of property and its acquirement by strangers, at the same time perpetuating the family to which it belonged. While the law limited the matrimonial duty to the brother and permitted him to decline to marry the widow, such a course was attended by public disgrace (Deuteronomy 25:5). By the law of Numbers 27:8, daughters were given the right to inherit, in order that the family estate might be preserved, and the Levirate became limited to cases where the deceased had left no children at all.
Frank E. Hirsch
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