Leviticus 18:16 Commentary - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
(16) The nakedness of thy brother’s wife.—Though alliance with a brother’s wife is here forbidden—the prohibition, according to the administrators of the law during the second Temple, extending to illicit commerce or marriage in case she is divorced from her husband during the lifetime of her husband—and though the offenders are threatened with the curse of childlessness (see Lev. 20:21), yet the law on this point is by no means absolute. Under certain conditions the law enjoins it as a moral and civil duty for a man to marry his brother’s widow. If a brother dies without issue, it is incumbent upon each surviving brother in succession to marry the widow, and if the brother-in-law refused to perform the sacred duty, the widow made him pass through a ceremony in which she heaped upon him the greatest indignity. This clearly shows that the prohibition here could not be based upon the ground of incest, since that which is inherently incestuous the Divine law itself would under no circumstances have set aside. This duty the surviving brother-in-law had to perform to the widows of as many of his brothers as happened to die without issue. A striking illustration of this fact occurred whilst Jehudah the Holy was president of the Sanhedrin. Twelve widows appealed to their brother-in-law to perform the duty of Levir. He refused to marry them because he saw no prospect how to maintain such an additional number of wives, and possibly a large increase of children. The case came before the President of the Sanhedrin, who not only decided that he must marry them all, but promised that if he would do the duty enjoined upon him by the Law of Moses, he himself would maintain the family, and their children in case there should be any, every Sabbatical year, when no produce was got from the land, which was at rest. The offer was accepted by the Levir, and he accordingly married his twelve sisters-in-law. After three years these twelve wives appeared with thirty-six children before Jehudah the Holy, to claim the promised alimony, as it was the Sabbatical year, and they actually obtained it. To this day this law is in force among the orthodox Jews. When a man dies without issue, the widow ipso facto belongs to the surviving brother, and she is not allowed to marry any one else unless her brother-in-law has gone through the ceremony of publicly renouncing her, which is tantamount to a divorce. This will explain the rendering of the clause before us in the ancient Chaldee Version, “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife in the lifetime of thy brother or after his death if he has children.”
Consult other comments:
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
Charles John Ellicott (1819 - 1905) was a distinguished English Christian theologian, academic and churchman. He briefly served as Dean of Exeter, then Bishop of the united see of Gloucester and Bristol.
His works include:
- An Old Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1897. (Editor)
- A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1878.