Prolegomena To The Study Of Ancient Israelite Levirate Marriage In The Light Of Herbert Brichto's Theory Of Afterlife In The Old Testament

Date of Graduation

Spring 1980


Master of Arts in History



Committee Chair

James Moyer


This study examines the theories concerning the origin and purpose of Biblical levirate marriage in the light of the recent study by Herbert Brichto. Brichto has presented a theory about the ancient Israelite belief in afterlife or immortality. In support of his theory he has offered Biblical evidence that the levirate custom among the ancient Hebrews was practiced in order to provide a son to care for the deceased in afterlife by performing the necessary rituals and ceremonies. Brichto's theory has illuminated the fact that most scholars believe ancestor worship is a factor in the origin of levirate marriage although there is very little discussion concerning this factor. The subject is reopened by Brichto's work. The classic theories of polyandry and group marriage as origins of levirate marriage are examined in detail with current anthropological evidence offered to justify placing these theories in the category of historical background. The theory of the conception of the women as property, the theory of the Deuteronomist's desire to provide for the security of the widow, the theory of ancestor worship and theory of the preservation of the name of the childless deceased, the theory of the mutuality of the custom are discussed. The weaknesses of these theories are detailed. Also it is shown that Brichto's theory encompasses all of the factors which are attributed to the various theories except, of course, the theories of polyandry, group marriage, and the conception of the woman as property. The actions of the three widows mentioned in Genesis 38 and the book of Ruth are analyzed in relation to Brichto's theory. It is suggested that only the widow of the first born son is subject to levirate marriage. Also true levirate is pictured as being for the purpose of providing progeny and does not demand marriage but sexual union. A study of the archaeological data and comparative material of the ancient Near East is necessary before Brichto's theory can be fully tested.

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© Rose Marie Boone