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Levirate Marriage (Genesis 38:1-11)

September 10, 2020 | by: Gregg Hunter | 0 comments

Posted in: The Life of Joseph

In order to understand today’s Scripture passage, you must first understand that there was an ancient law, cited in the Law of Moses, that was known as “levirate marriage.” Under this law, if a married man died without siring any heirs, then it was the duty of his brother to marry the man’s wife and produce a son through her to be the heir of the dead brother.

This is certainly a weird law that sounds pretty foolish to us today, but it was necessary back then in order to preserve the land rights of each individual, family, and tribe. During Judah’s lifetime, God has not yet officially declared this as His law, but He will later in Deuteronomy 25. This was the law of the land, a law that God condoned, and it should be followed by those who are called by God’s name.


With that in mind, please read Genesis 38:1-11.

Er has died. Due to the law of levirate marriage, it was Onan’s obligation to marry Tamar, Er’s wife, and go in to her to produce a son who would bear Er’s name. For his own reasons, Onan chose to have intercourse with Tamar, but refused to complete the act, therefore extinguishing the possibility that she would conceive and bear an heir for Er.

Commentators today like to debate the morality of levirate marriage, but in doing so, they are ignoring the point of the passage. Levirate marriage was the law of the land, a law which God would later condone in the Law of Moses. As a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Onan should have obeyed the law, no matter what his personal feelings were regarding it.

By breaking the law, Onan did what was “wicked in the sight of the Lord,” so God “put him to death also.” God’s judgment is swift. We don’t know the exact means that He used, but we know that Onan was given capital punishment for his repeated breaking of this law.

God has now executed both Er and Onan while they are married to Tamar, which makes Judah nervous. He doesn’t want to see his third son, Shelah killed by God, so he hides Tamar away, using the excuse that Shelah is too young to be married. This will come back to bite him later on, but we’ll get to that tomorrow.

Today, let’s focus on the reality that breaking the law, any law--even a law that we think is stupid--angers The Lord. God has given us the law for our good. God has put rulers and authorities over us for our good. Are there some stupid laws today? Absolutely! But God has not given us the option of choosing to obey the law or not.

Onan disobeyed the law in the privacy of his own home. He wasn’t hurting anyone else, he wasn’t publicly flaunting his disobedience; he was just privately disobeying the law. And this angered God so much that He killed Onan in such a way that the Scripture simply says, “He put him to death.” God takes breaking the law seriously. We should too.