Leviticus 18:18 Commentary - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)
(18) A wife to her sister.—That is, a man is here forbidden to take a second sister for a wife to or in addition to the one who is already his wife, and who is still alive. This clause therefore forbids the Jews, who were permitted to have several wives, a particular kind of polygamy, i.e., a plurality of sisters. According to the administrators of the law during the second Temple, the expression “sister” here not only denotes a full sister by the same father and the same mother, but a half-sister either by the same father or the same mother. The marginal rendering in the Authorised Version, “one wife to another,” which makes this a prohibition of polygamy, and which was first proposed by Junius and Tremelius in 1575, is (1) contrary to the expressions “wife” and “sister,” which, in every verse of these prohibitions (see Lev. 18:8-9; Lev. 18:11-17), invariably mean wife and sister. (2) Whenever the phrase, “a man to his brother,” or “a woman to her sister,” is used metaphorically in the sense of “one to” or “one with another” (Exo. 26:3; Exo. 26:5-6; Exo. 26:17; Eze. 1:9; Eze. 1:23; Eze. 3:13, &c.), the words have always a distributive force, and are invariably preceded by a plural verb, and the things themselves to which they refer are mentioned by name. Thus, for instance, in Eze. 1:23, it is, “their wings were straight one toward the other,” which is not the case in the passage before us. (3) This rendering is at variance with the Mosaic code, which bases its legislation upon the existence of polygamy, and thus authorises it, as will be seen from the following facts. It permits a father, who had given his son a bond-woman for a wife, to give him a second wife of “freer birth,” and prescribes how the first is to be treated under such circumstances (Exo. 21:9-10). It ordains that a king “shall not multiply wives unto himself” (Deu. 17:17), which, as Bishop Patrick rightly remarks, “is not a prohibition to take more wives than one, but not to have an excessive number”; thus, in fact, legalising a moderate number. The law of primogeniture presupposes the case of a man having two wives (Deu. 21:15-17), and the Levitical law expressly enjoins that a man, though having a wife already, is to marry his deceased brother’s widow (Deu. 25:17). Hence we find that the judges and kings of Israel had many wives (Jdg. 10:4, Jdg. 12:9; 1Sa. 1:2; 2Sa. 3:7). David, the royal singer of Israel, “their best king,” as Bishop Patrick remarks, “who read God’s word day and night and could not but understand it, took many wives without reproof; nay, God gave him more than he had before by delivering his master’s wives to him” (2Sa. 12:8), and the case adduced in the previous verse plainly shows that polygamy continued among the Jews after the destruction of the second Temple (Lev. 18:10). (4) The Jews to whom this law was given to be observed in their every day life, and to whom the right understanding of its import was of the utmost importance, inasmuch as it involved the happiness of their families, the transgression of it being visited with capital punishment, have, as far as we can trace it, always interpreted this precept as referring to marriage with two sisters together. Hence the ancient canonical interpretation of it is embodied in the Chaldee Version, “a woman in the lifetime of her sister thou shalt not take,” in the LXX., Vulg., the Syriac, and all the ancient versions.
To vex her.—That is, by marrying also the younger sister, the first, who is already the wife, would be roused to jealousy, and the natural love of sisters would thus be converted into enmity, thus precluding the occurrence of a case like that of Jacob with Leah and Rachel. (See Gen. 29:30.)
In her life-time.—This limits the prohibition to her lifetime, that is, as long as the sister who was first married is still living, he must not marry another of her sisters, but he may marry her when the first one is dead. According to the authorities during the second Temple, “in her lifetime” also includes a woman who had been divorced from her husband, and though she is no longer his wife, yet as long as she lives he is forbidden to marry her sister. When the wife died, he was not only free to marry her sister, but in case the deceased left issue, it was regarded as a specially meritorious thing for the widower to do so. Hence the Jews from time immemorial have afforded the bereaved husband special facilities to marry his deceased wife’s sister, by allowing the alliance to take place within a shorter period after the demise of his first wife than is usually the case.
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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.