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.