Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"Sexual Cleansing" and Levirate Marriage

Last week, the New York Times featured an article about the practice of "sexual cleansing" in Africa:

Here and in a number of nearby nations including Zambia and Kenya, a husband's funeral has long concluded with a final ritual: sex between the widow and one of her husband's relatives, to break the bond with his spirit and, it is said, save her and the rest of the village from insanity or disease. Widows have long tolerated it, and traditional leaders have endorsed it, as an unchallenged tradition of rural African life.

Now AIDS is changing that. Political and tribal leaders are starting to speak out publicly against so-called sexual cleansing, condemning it as one reason H.I.V. has spread to 25 million sub-Saharan Africans, killing 2.3 million last year alone. They are being prodded by leaders of the region's fledging women's rights movement, who contend that lack of control over their sex lives is a major reason 6 in 10 of those infected in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

It sounds like a real problem; but I'm probably not the only Biblical scholar who was reminded of the practice of levirate marriage. A woman widowed without children was, in ancient Israel, married to her husband's brother in order, by means of a legal fiction, to bear children to her late husband (Deut. 25:5-10). From the Anchor Bible Dictionary:

This type of marriage is known as levirate marriage, from the Latin levir, “brother-in-law.” Its continuation into the NT era is demonstrated by the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about the childless woman who was married in sequence to six of her late husband’s brothers (Matt 22:23–33 = Mark 12:18–27 = Luke 20:27–40). We have seen that levirate marriage existed in Ugarit, in the Middle Assyrian (no. 33) and Hittite law codes (no. 193), and possibly in the Nuzi texts. In these texts the primary concern is with producing a (male) child to carry on the name of the deceased husband.

Here's my question: Is there any historical connection between the levirate law and the practice of "sexual cleansing"? Is the latter a debased and superstitious form of the former; or is the levirate law a later development of a primitive ritual that originally had nothing to do with "preserving the husband's name"? It seems to me that both alternatives are equally likely. It is also possible, of course, that there is no historical relationship at all. Maybe a historical anthropologist (if there is such a thing) can answer this.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Richard Kalmin, "Levirate Law," Anchor Bible Dictionary

UPDATE: The article referred to by Andrew in the comment below is excellent. It doesn't address the historical question I raised, but many cross-cultural comparisons suggest themselves.


Andrew Criddle said...

The relation of levirate marriage to 'sexual cleansing is discussed at http://www.aims.ac.za/~kgross/discussion/malungo2001.pdf

The Dark Knight said...

There is a difference between the two customs.

In sexual cleansing the practice is done on the assumption that the dead man is going to harm his wife or the community unless someone close to him has sexual intercourse with her to repel his spirit from her.

To an outsider this brings up several questions.
1. Why would I -in death-harm the person I dearly loved all my life?
2. How would watching my brother take advantage of "my wife" make me feel better if he is not assuming responsibly for her continued welfare?
3.If I am still alive - by inference of my spirit being in her-how is he going to dislodge me by just sleeping with 'my wife’?

The practice of levirate marriage as outlined in the bible - I will not attempt to cover other types which were different.

It begins with the belief that bearing children to contribute to the growth of the nation was a blessing from the Creator. (Ps127:3-5) Large families were considered desirable and all children born were accorded legitimate status.
That every family longed for the possibility that ‘the seed of promise’ would come through their lineage. (Gen 22:17,18; 28:14)

According the levirate marriage custom the widow then becomes the legal wife of her brother in law or next closest kin who then thru the rights of marriage as any husband can – produces offspring the firstborn would bear, not the name of the brother-in-law, but that of the deceased man. This does not mean that the child always bore the same given name but that he carried on the family line and the hereditary possession remained in the household of the deceased man.
This allowed the brothers name to continue and offspring thru the wife of his choice could then inherit that part of the family inheritance rather than having it seized by the rest of the family since the law required that the inheritances should remain within tribal communities. Numbers 27:1-11

Once the heir /offspring could do so, the heir was now fully responsible for administering the original brother’s inheritance.
Subsequent children borne from that union would be considered the children of the brother himself since only the firstborn from that marriage would have any claim to the property.

This practice shows concern for the preservation of the family name and line. It allowed the woman to choose either to raise up a child for her husband or have the inheritance passed back to the family upon her death since the law required inheritance not be passed between tribes. Number 36: 6-12 if she married otherwise the same would apply – the inheritance reverts to the family and her new husband would provide for her.

This custom does not presume that the community will suffer the anger of the deceased man if his wife does not submit to having intercourse with someone she does not want to – she retains her dignity but by agreeing to marriage she becomes another’s wife with the benefits and privileges that such brings and at the same time honors her previous husbands desire to pass his inheritance within the tribal boundaries.