Last Sunday, a question came up about Deuteronomy 25:5-10 regarding if God endorsed multiple marriages or permitted them. In doing a little bit of research and reviewing of the text, here’s how I’d teach this passage.
This is a very restrictive and limited rule. Notice right away in verse 5 the word “If”, so we already see a limitation applied to the passage. The condition is if brother dwell together, suggesting that they live together on family land that has not yet been divided for the inheritance. One commentator I read suggested it may also reflect a brother who is not married, but it doesn’t explicitly say this, so I’m hesitant to say that it must be that way.
Thus, our first understanding of this text is that it is limited and is the exception rather than the rule. It is a very limited case. The question is why was this important. Why is it important to have an heir? To an extent, this text indicates it has something with keeping the family name and lineage going in Israel. However, we see both in this text and in the practice from Ruth that this wasn’t a mandate. The other brother could, should he chose, reject the claim on the widow.
So, our second understanding is that there is something more than simply continuing the family line. It is here that we begin to see the true motive of the text. Widows were, as we see in Ruth, very vulnerable in ancient times. They had no inheritance. They had no rights. They had no wealth of their own. It was the son’s job to care for his widowed mother (think of Jesus telling John to care for his mother as he hung on the cross). Thus, we can see that the heart of this text is that widows are cared for.
If this third point is true, that is to say that widow care is the primary thrust, it makes sense then that the brother is to serve two ideas. First, he is to continue the family line and second, and more importantly, provide an heir for the widow so that when the family land is divided up, the widow isn’t left out.
So, in this case does God “endorse” multiple wives? Frankly, it’s unclear from this text because there isn’t an indication if the brother that is to take the widow is to be unmarried or if it doesn’t matter. However, if we look at Matthew 22:23-28 (cf. Mark 12:18-23 and Luke 20:27-33) it seems like this is a series of “one man, one woman” marriages in the example the scholars gave to trip Jesus up.
Further, when we look at the story of Judah and Tamar from Genesis 38:1, we see that Tamar’s first husband, Er, was put to death by God for his wickedness so Judah told his younger brother, Onan, to perform his duty and provide an heir. When he refused, God put him to death as well and there is no mention of a widow for Onan. Now, they may not have been important to the story, but they are not there in the narrative. Thus, it would seem by context that in Israel, the practice was one man / one woman marriages.
So, my conclusion based on this is that Deuteronomy 25:5-10 does not endorse nor encourage multiple marriages.