Throughout scripture, marriage practices were a very complicated system. Because women did not have many rights and were unable to own property. As a result, levirate marriage established a system in which women's social security as they aged was protected by ensuring that they had heirs to which to pass their estate and children to care for them in their old age.

Under this system, typically, it was the responsibility of a widow's brother-in-law to marry the widow in the event of her husband's passing before leaving her with an heir as outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. This is seen in the story of Judah and Tamar and complications arising from this tradition are seen in the story of Ruth.

Similarly, the bride-price or dowry was intended to compensate a family and a father for the loss of a worker in agragarian society as well as ensure that in the event of a divorce, a woman would have some recompense upon rejoining her family. This-bride price also had a ripple effect within the familial-social system by allowing a family to use the bride-price received from marrying off a daughter in order to allow a son to find a bride.

One component of this was the virginity of the bride-to-be. Exodus 22:16–17 and Deuteronomy 22:28–29 indicate that if a woman loses her virginity before marriage, she may no longer be able to fetch the bride-price as a result and these verses provide for economic recompense in these situations.

In modern Western culture, we no longer maintain these practices or arranged marriages and purchasing of virginity as they are considered barbaric. Since women are no longer treated as property and have equal rights to men, this is considered a barbaric relic. Despite dispensing with all of the other components of the levirate marriage complex, one component that remains in western culture is the idea that sex before marriage is still un-Biblical today, while the other components of levirate marriage do not enjoy an equal status or treatment. This belief may be more influenced by the virtuization of the virginity of Mary, but what is the Biblical basis for dispensing with Levirate Marriage Customs but not the interlocking requirement of virginity before marriage in Western culture

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    These look to me to be two entirely distinct questions. If you could show that the two are critically linked in the theology of some particular Christian denomination, perhaps the question would be on-topic. But as it is now, as an apparently theoretical question, it looks to me to be "too broad." – Lee Woofenden Jun 5 '16 at 8:16
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    This question appears to be based on the false premise that western Christian marriage practices grew out of Levirite marriage practices, when in reality western Christian marriage practices have far more in common with pagan Roman marriage practices at the time of Constantine. As such, there is no Biblical basis--there is a cultural one. – Flimzy Jun 5 '16 at 10:49
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    The pagan customs we inherited were monogamous, so it was infeasible for a married pagan or Christian man to marry his brother's widow. In pre-Christian Judaism, sex before marriage for men was entirely proper, as to a large extent it is in modern western culture. Different standards applied for women, who were property (10th commandment). I think now, women are increasingly permitted the same freedom as men in respect to pre-marital sex (ie usually permitted, except by some strongly religious people who may see Paul's epistles as a guide). Like Flimsy, I don't see a biblical basis. – Dick Harfield Jun 5 '16 at 21:45
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    @JamesShewey If that is acceptable to you, then why did you even ask for a biblical basis?! – bruised reed Jun 6 '16 at 4:17
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    Not to be insensitive, but, where did the OP get the idea that levirate marriage was for the benefit of the widow? It obviously does help her out, but the real issue was protecting the dead husband's line and property. It's for his sake, not hers. – Joshua Jun 6 '16 at 5:17

An evangelical perspective on this issue:

Q: What is the biblical basis for valuing virginity, but dispensing with levirate marriage?

A1: Applying the ruling of the council of Jerusalem upholds the former but does not enjoin the latter.

In discussing what provisions of the law gentile converts to Christianity must adhere to, the early church decided:

[they] are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality... - Acts 15:29 NIV

But released them from following any other particulars of the Mosaic law. The traditional understanding of sexual immorality is that it includes any kind of extra-marital sex, whereas levirate marriage would come under the "other particulars" that are no longer required.

A2: The same basic reasons that Jesus gives for "dispensing" with Mosaic divorce laws, but maintaining prohibitions against adultery:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:3-12 NIV, Emphases added)

The social security aspect of levirate marriage laws were only necessary in the context of hardened hearts that failed to see that the commandment "love your neighbor as yourself" (cf. Leviticus 19:18) has such a broad application that fulfilling it, also fulfills all other laws governing human-to-human interactions. After the Holy Spirit was poured out, the believers (with regenerated soft hearts, full of the love of God) in the early church looked after the widows amongst them as a loving community superceding the necessity of the welfare provisions of Levirate marriage (cf. Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; James 1:27).

The value of virginity is also changed in the context of the new covenant - it should no longer be seen as merely valuable in the sense of property rights, shame, societal norms etc. (as those with hardened hearts may have done), but in terms of a refocusing on the original design of God's sacred covenant for marriage which is undermined by any act of fornication or adultery. As Andy Stanley puts it, "sex is not just a physical", but it is integral to the sacred joining that occurs in the God-designed one-flesh union and should not be profaned, but reserved for that purpose (cf. Hebrews 13:4; Ephesians 5:21-33); and in the context of a new paradigm of paramount focus on the Kingdom of God that looks beyond the (still legitimate, but subsidiary and, for those "to whom it has been given", deniable) needs of human companionship and sexuality (cf. Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; 25-40; Revelation 14:4). In these particular contexts, the value of virginity is broadened (unmistakeably including men, not just women) and sacralized.

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  • To be clear: I am not speaking of adultery, or sexual immorality (fornicate comes from porneia, which means sexual immorality, but the understanding of "fornicate" has changed since the KJV was written) but premarital sex only. In the context of Hebrews, Ephesians, weren't they practicing Levirate marriage and Jewish marriage customs? This would tend to indicate that just as virginity was not dispensed with as a value, neither was the other principles of Levirite marriage. The "hardened hearts" necessitating Levirate marriage have existed well into the 1700s and 1800s - until women's sufferage – James Shewey Jun 5 '16 at 22:42
  • @JamesShewey I would've assumed that they weren't practising it in the NT era (they hardly practised it in the OT era!) but I don't have any evidence either way. – curiousdannii Jun 6 '16 at 0:02
  • @JamesShewey Regardless of the etymology and semantic usage of fornication and porneia, in the context of the way Jesus teaches on marriage, premarital sex is a violation of the original (Genesis 2) model of sacred covenant. Hardened hearts of course still exist in the unregenerate and societies of unregenerate people can make laws that suit their needs independantly of the counsel of God, but when you are asking for the biblical basis for a change in attitude, I assume you are asking for why God's people (with soft hearts) do what they do and the law of love is what rules in such situations. – bruised reed Jun 6 '16 at 3:00
  • Gen 2 provides a model of marriage, but not a model of pre-marriage. Accordingly, all teachings on virginity are Mosaic teachings. Even granting that, many Mosaic laws are still in force (the mosaic law on Murder for example) If Genesis 2 is to be extended to virginity, why are interlocking practices and traditions not also part of God's original covenant in Gen 2 - that God seeks to restore man from a fallen state and restore women; one means being through providing for their welfare. Why are the other components of Levirate marriage not also a part and what is the biblical basis for this? – James Shewey Jun 6 '16 at 3:56
  • @JamesShewey "Gen 2 provides a model of marriage, but not a model of pre-marriage." I think exactly the same logic could be applied to say that Gen 2 doesn't provide a model re divorce, but Jesus does in fact use it this way and then goes on to talk about those who abstain from marital relations (eunuchs - ie read virgins) in the same context - so you are just plain wrong about this. In regard to your other point, I've covered this in my answer - levirate laws are akin to divorce laws, in that they are (in part) concessions to hardened hearts that are better fulfilled in other ways. – bruised reed Jun 6 '16 at 4:07

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