Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Leviticus vs. Deuteronomy

Perhaps this is inspired by the research I have been doing for my senior thesis on the divorce case of King Henry VIII, but I thought I'd take a crack at the apparent contradiction between Leviticus and Deuteronomy regarding the issue of a man marrying his brother's wife. Here is another case in the Scriptures where two verses, if read without the context of the rest of Scripture and with a modernist mindset against biblical authority, seem to contradict each other but can be happily resolved by a brief look at other relevant passages and historical precedent of interpretation and application.

First, in Leviticus 20:21 we encounted this verse, the one that meant so much to Henry VIII:

If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother's nakedness, they shall be childless.

This verse specifically forbids a man taking the wife of his brother. Pretty straightforward. But here, in Deuteronomy 25:5, we have the Law of Moses commanding what it apparently forbid previously:

If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be remarried outside of the family to a stranger; her husband's brother shall go into her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.

In Deuteronomy, the marriage of a man to his brother's widow is considered a duty imposed upon him by God, called the "levirate marriage" (from levir, meaning 'brother-in-law'). Can these two verses be resolved without asserting that Scripture forbids and commands the same thing?

These two verses have been debated about since the beginning of Church history and are quite interesting because unlike other issues of apparent biblical contradictions (here and here) that are more on the level of the theoretical, the interpretation and application of these verses has passed concretely into canon law in how the Church looks at certain types of marriages. It has very practical consequences. Let's look at some hypotheses posed over the years on how to reconcile these verses, many of them used in the Henry VIII divorce case.

First, perhaps Leviticus is meant to be taken literally but Deuteronomy is spiritual? St. Augustine once argued against the Manichean Faustus that when Deuteronomy said that the passage is to be interpreted as instructing preachers of the Gospel to raise up "seed" (new converts) for their dead brother, Christ (Contra Faustum 32:10).

This argument suffers from several defects: first, it fails to reconcile the two verses, instead just explaining one away as a spiritual admonition. Second, any solution which posits to simply choose one as literal and the other as spiritual possesses a very arbitrary quality: couldn't one make an equal argument for the literal interpretation of Deuteronomy over Leviticus? Third, any use of a spiritual interpretation must be built first upon a literal foundation - you can't just say that there is no literal interpretation underlying the allegorical (unless it is clearly allegory, which it isn't - the passage from Deuteronomy falls in the same sections in which the Ten Commandments are spoken, hardly a place to insist on allegory! Fourth, St. Augustine does not even adopt the allegorical interpretation given above - if one reads the entire text of Contra Faustum, we see that Augustine is not denying a literal application of Deuteronomy but is rather citing this allegory as an example of how the Old Testament still has relevance to the New. That he believed in the historical reality of levirate marriage and its justness is indisputable from On the Harmony of the Gospels 2:3 where he cites the levirate as the reason between the discrepancies in the genealogies of Christ in St. Luke and St. Matthew. Therefore, we cannot cite St. Augsutine as a proponent of the allegorical view.

So we have shelved the idea that one is literal and one is allegorical. Perhaps Leviticus simply forbids intercourse with a brother's wife while the brother was still living, thus leaving freedom for a younger brother to marry the wife of a deceased brother who had died without issue. This argument was supported by Alexander of Hales as well as St. Albert the Great, but it has one major weakness, being its redundancy. To say you can't have intercourse with your brother's wife while he is still alive is to merely condemn adultery, and adultery is condemned already in many other places, rendering the specific prohibition of Leviticus superfluous.

A second argument might be that Leviticus forbids a man from marrying a woman whom his brother had put away, say for adultery, but did not impinge on his duty to marry a dead brother's wife, thus fulfilling Deuteronomy. However, this interpretation seems to limit the text much to narrowly and really draws a lot out of the text that is not warranted; i.e., Leviticus mentions nothing about whether or not the brother had put his wife away - it simply forbids another brother to marry her.

The best resolution for these two verses - the one adopted by St. Augustine and also St. John Fisher in the Henry VIII case (but also Ambrose, Chrysostom and Aquinas) - was that Leviticus was to be interpreted maximally as forbidding a man to marry his brother's wife under any circumstances - whether she was a widow or not - with one exception: if that brother had died without issue. This interpretation has the benefit of being true to the context of each Scripture, does not rob Leviticus of its binding nature but gives full room for a man to fulfill the obligation of Deuteronomy. Thus, Deuteronomy can be seen as the one exception to the general rule laid out in Leviticus.

But if marrying a brother's wife is always bad, how does it suddenly become good just because the brother had died without heir? St. Robert Bellarmine agreed that a union between brother and sister-in-law was base, but that the good that would come out of the marriage outweighed the baseness of the union. The marriage, which would have otherwise been forbidden, was made "honest" by the good that was expected to come from it (De Matrimonio).

This interpretation is also is born out by Scripture: Judah commands his sons to perform the levirate duty with regard to Tamar, widow of his eldest son Er, not once but twice (Gen. 35). In the Book of Ruth, Ruth has to perform an elaborate ceremony against a relative who has refused to perform her levirate duty in order to obtain legal permission to wed Boaz, a more distant kinsman. Furthermore, and most importantly, the above interpretation of the levirate obligation has been used since the time of St. Augustine (see Retractions II.7) to explain the divergent genealogies of Christ in St. Matthew and St. Luke. This would make St. Joseph the biological son of Jacob, who had married the widow of Heli in order to raise up seed for him - and thus Joseph is called both the son of Heli (by levirate) and son of Jacob (biologically). One certainly cannot say that the levirate obligation is negated when it was practiced even within the holy family.

So, we are left with a resolution to the two apparently contradictory verses which is exegetically sound, upheld by other Scriptures, as well as historical precedent (for this principle passed into the canon law of the Church) and gives adequate literal application to both the Levitical prohibition against marriage to a brother's wife and the Deuteronomic verse that allows for an exception if the brother has died without issue. Another nail in the coffin of those who say the Scripture contradicts itself.

By the way, thanks for your patronage of this blog - if this is your first time here, and if you enjoyed this post, check out some of my favorite posts here. Also, be sure to scroll down the side-bar for other favorite posts.I recommend my posts on reconciling apparent Scriptural contradictions, such as:

Synthesizing Resurrection Appearances
Conflicting Passover Chronologies?
On Seeking and Finding


Maggie said...

This is a great explanation. I'm a fan of the Showtime series The Tudors, and of course much of Season 1 is devoted to this particular debate. However for me, this issue really came down to papal authority. Henry and Katherine received a papal dispensation to marry, since Katherine was Arthur's widow. Regardless of what Henry felt about Leviticus, the Pope gave his dispensation, and that should have been the end of it. Since they had approval to marry, the marriage was both valid and licit and his "divorce" was simply ridiculous.


Boniface said...

The issue of papal authority is related to this issue, because it belongs to the Pope to decide which of these interpretations is the correct one - and the popes, following tradition, asserted that Deuteronomy did provide an exception to Leviticus, which though ad for Henry, was the orthodox position on the matter. So for Henry, to deny that Deut. was an exception to Lev. was to deny the Pope's authority to interpret Tradition, tighten or relax canon law and dispense from impediments that were according to positive ecclesiastical law, which Henry's case was.

Susan Maxfield said...

I was wondering about this same contradiction in scripture when I came upon your blog. It seems to me that Deuteronomy should be literally interpreted, after all it is entirely specific as to how and why a man should under duty take his brother's wife, there is no mistaking it's meaning (and it was heavily practiced throughout the ages).

In addition, from the moment I first read Leviticus 20:21 my first instinct was that it referred to adultery, almost in the exact same wording as does Lev 18 which continually admonishes us not to "uncover the nakedness" of close relatives nor those married to close relatives even if they are not "blood" relations. However, in the case that a blood relative should die, like a brother, since his wife has become one with the family, then it is proper duty for his brother to, in a sense, "take the place" of his brother to build up progeny for him.

I understand your argument of "redundancy" against the adultery argument, but isn't that what scripture is all about? To hammer the point in until us thick-brained dummies get it? God and his prophets repeatedly admonish us to following His commandments throughout all the scriptures to remind us of their great importance.

To me THIS reconciles the contradiction. Henry the VIII got it wrong; or he just REALLY wanted an excuse for a divorce.

Boniface said...


The argument is redundant not just because adultery is condemned already in Scripture; of course, Scripture often hammers away at the same thing, in many different ways. But it is redundant because of the level of specificity of gives. For example, suppose we had a law that said, "Thou shalt not break the window of your next door neighbor's house, sneak in and steal his potted plant," but the real meaning of the law was just to condemn stealing. If simple stealing was what was being condemned, why the extra details about breaking the window and stealing the plant?

Similarly, if adultery is all that is condemned in Leviticus us adultery, then why the specification about it being a brother's wife (why not anybody's wife?)- also, why the phrase "they shall be childless"; usually, when one is committing adultery, they do not want children from the adulterous union anyway. This context implies that the man is not just committing adultery with the wife, but is actually taking her to be his own wife.

I do think you are right that Henry really just wanted an excuse for a divorce, and I agree that your interpretation would still resolve the difficulty, but it would leave too many points unanswered. The solution I propose is the one adopted by some of the most eminent fathers and theologians and the one that the Pope used in Henry's case. Thus Leviticus is seen to be forbidding a man to marry his brother's wife under any circumstances - whether she was a widow or not - with one exception: if that brother had died without issue. This interpretation has the benefit of being true to the context of each Scripture, does not rob Leviticus of its binding nature but gives full room for a man to fulfill the obligation of Deuteronomy. Thus, Deuteronomy can be seen as the one exception to the general rule laid out in Leviticus.

I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Really... so your explanation as to why these 2 blatantly contradictory verses are not so is to add what wasn't there in the 1st place.

There was no addendum, no but but.. in Leviticus.
"And if a man shall take his brothers wife, it is an vncleane thing: hee hath vncouered his brothers nakednesse, they shall be childlesse."


"If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and haue no child, the wife of the dead shall not marrie without, vnto a stranger: her husbands brother shall go in vnto her, and take her to him to wife, and performe the duetie of an husbands brother vnto her."

the 1st clearly states it is wrong. The other states specific times it is right.

the two cannot resolve each other...

Which one is wrong?

Does it matter? (if 1 is wrong, which clearly it is, then it CANNOT be divinely inspired.)

A thing cannot be sanctioned, and banned at the same time. Try to argue against it all you will.. but the only explanation is that they are not divinely inspired. Why would the word from an all knowing god need to be clarified? Isnt he supposed to be all knowing/powerful etc..????????

Boniface said...

They are not contradictory. One says, "A is always wrong"; but the other says us, "Unless in the case of B." So rather than being contradictory, one is an exception to the other.

Whether or not you agree in the manner that God chose to reveal something is a problem with you, not with the text. Jewish culture has always understood the verses to be reconciled the way I have described, and God's commands in the text were understood not just by an exegesis of the text ("what is technically written down"), but by how the community understood these commands; i.e., Tradition.

You cannot really say these verse are contradictions. You can argue that you don't agree with Tradition's way of resolving them, or with using Tradition as a lens through which to interpret problematic texts, or you can say that you don't think God ought to have revealed something a certain way (a tremendously arrogant statement), but none of that constitutes a real contradiction. You are so determined to prove a contradiction that you are unwilling to accept that this verse has never been seen as a real contradiction because of the explanation I offered above.

Jamie Lee Balyeat said...

Seriously? All this debate over this? It seems so painfully obvious to me.

The verse in Leviticus is talking about stealing your LIVING brother's wife.

The verse in Deuteronomy is talking about marrying your DEAD brother's wife.

It's clear what's right and wrong in this situation. You're all overthinking this. It means exactly what is implied, and it doesn't contradict each other at all.

It was probably emphasized that you may not marry your brother's wife because it was probably a recurrent incident at that time in history between rivaling brethren. For example, when John the Baptist forbid the marriage of Herod to his brother's wife. There are lots of verses in the bible like that that seem redundant-for example, the one that says you may not have sexual relations with your half sister. Wouldn't it be enough to just forbid fornication? Or sexual relations with a close relative? Or sexual relations with a sister? But no, it was very important to set very clear specific boundaries, and that's the way most of the Bible is written-giving tediously specific details and repeating commands again and again. That's the pattern of Scripture. These verses are no different.

Anonymous said...

I find it amazing when Christians don't ask Rabbis these questions as part of their research. These are our writings, written in our language, which we have maintained and studied for thousands of years longer than you.

If a man died childless his brother was obligated to have a son with the widow in order to maintain the land rights in the land of Israel to the deceased brother's line. (Deuteronomy)

Leviticus says not to take your living brother's wife.

"Adultery" in Judaism is a legal term which specifically means a Jewish man having intercourse with another Jewish man's wife. A married Jewish man having intercourse with a non-Jewish married woman is not adultery (but it is fornication). Also, a married Jewish man having sex with a non-married Jewish woman is not adultery by Jewish law (it is fornication).

Anonymous said...

So...morality is relative? Incest is bad unless it's good (I just read that in another religious explanatory text on where Cain's wife came from). These are some serious mental gymnastics that must be made in order to both make the Bible consistent with itself as well as to reinforce the idea that marriage and babies are the only things that matter to God, especially (and conveniently) when those marriages and babies also help the secular ruling classes maintain their power.

Boniface said...

^^Uh, no Morality is absolutely not relative. One text lays down a general rule; the other gives an exception. Its like the Fifth Commandment prohibits killing, but self-defense is an exception. It's not moral relativity ("killing is wrong...unless its not"); rather, its explaining an exception ("killing is generally wrong, but there are particular cases when it's not").

Anonymous said...

I believe Henry was right because of the wording in Deuteronomy.
"If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her"

It says they must "dwell together" which I assume the two of them didn't.