On Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister
Leviticus 18:6-30
None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD.…

By the wording of the Hebrew text a man is permitted to marry his deceased wife's sister, but not to have two sisters for wives at the same time, or one after the other while both are living — this is the logical inference to be drawn from the qualifying addition "in her lifetime"; and yet by the spirit of the Levitical laws, the former alliance also is like an alliance with a sister, and therefore no less objectionable. Such scruples were indeed unknown to the Hebrews of earlier times, since even in Genesis Jacob is represented as the husband of the sisters Rachel and Leah; but they followed with necessity from the severe theory of marriage gradually worked out and adopted. Philo, in the oldest explanation of our law that has come down to us, observes that it is impious for one sister to usurp the place of the other, and to make the misfortune of the latter a stepping-stone of her own happiness; thus bitter jealousies and implacable enmities must be engendered; and it would be as if the different members of the body, abandoning their natural harmony and fellowship, were to quarrel with one another, thus inevitably causing incurable diseases and endless mischief. In this sense the prohibition has commonly been understood, and if the words of our verse alone are weighed, it can hardly be understood otherwise: and yet the matrimonial laws, taken as a whole, were not prompted by considerations of mere expediency, such as the prevention of unsisterly rivalry, since their main object was to warn against alliances between near relations (ver. 6). From whatever side we weigh the question, we cannot help being struck by the incongruity of a code which permits a woman to marry, at least under certain conditions, her sister's husband, but expressly forbids a man to marry his brother's wife. If the wife dies, her husband does not cease to be the brother of that wife's sister; yet practical life seemed to demand some relief from the rigour of abstract logic, and the prohibition was limited to the lifetime of both sisters. It has bee contended that this was a concession analogous to the levirat and the permission of divorce; but the cases are not quite parallel: the Levitical legislators are entirely silent with regard to the levirat and divorce; for in their own time the former was unnecessary, and the latter was strongly opposed by contemporaries, such as Malachi; a direct repeal of the two statutes, known to the people as a part of Deuteronomy, or "the Book of the Law," was unfeasible; and silence on these subjects was sufficiently significant. We need hardly add that these remarks are merely designed to elucidate the meaning and intention of the command, without attempting to decide upon its value or its binding force; the latter points must be left to individual judgment and feeling, which in no other sphere claim greater respect and freedom. The prevailing laws of matrimony may possibly, in the course of time, call for revision; and progress and liberty of action should not be checked by a misconception of Biblical authority. The very verse under consideration affords the strongest proof that the ordinances of the Levitical code are not final and unalterable; for this verse involves the sanction of polygamy, which, not even abrogated by Christ and the apostles, is now regarded by western Jews and Christians not merely as inexpedient, but as immoral. It is well known that from comparatively early times, many chiefs of the Christian Church indeed translated the words of our verse literally, yet weighing the spirit of the law, were strongly opposed to the marriage with the deceased wife's sister. By the Apostolic Canons (about 300) persons contracting such an alliance were for ever incapacitated for clerical functions. The Council of Illiberis (about 305) excluded them from holy communion for five years; St. Basil (375) imposed upon them for seven years the ecclesiastical penalties fixed for adultery; his celebrated letter on the subject proves that, in the Church "a custom equivalent to a law, and handed down by holy men" had been established against such marriages; it was in his time probably that the Septuagint (in Deuteronomy 27:23) received the interpolation found in the Vatican copy of that version, "Cursed be he who lies with his wife's sister"; and similar views were enforced by the emperors Constantius and , Honorius, Theodosius II., and , and by all the leaders of the Greek and Latin Church: the only notable exception is Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus; but he was indignantly opposed by his contemporary St. Basil, who declared that such marriages are indeed permitted to the Jews because they are under the law and all its ceremonial enactments, but not to the free Christians, and asked how the offspring of the two sisters would be related to each other, whether they should be called cousins or brothers, since by a deplorable "confusion" they could claim both names. In England those marriages were forbidden in 1603 by the Convocation of the province of Canterbury in a Canon which has never been formally ratified by Parliament. Dispensations were, however, readily granted in the Roman Church; and since the last century many Protestant theologians and jurists, and among the first those of the pietistic schools, as Philip Jacob Spener, declared marriage with the deceased wife's sister unobjectionable, since the prohibition is not unequivocally enjoined in the Bible. It was disapproved of by the Karaites; but among the bulk of the Jews it has at all times not only been tolerated but encouraged.

(M. M. Kalisch, Ph. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD.

WEB: "'None of you shall approach anyone who are his close relatives, to uncover their nakedness: I am Yahweh.

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