Brothers Marrying Widows in the Bible

Henry VIII, King of England, (1491-1547) could not get a male heir from his wife, Catherine of Arragon. Thus he divorced her on the grounds that she had been his brother's wife. This was a big controversy at the time that was a major cause of the English Reformation.

Proponents of the divorce, led by Henry's lawyers and loyal clerics insisted that the marriage had been illegal from the beginning based on several passages in the Bible, particularly two passages from Leviticus.

Leviticus 18:16 Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife: it is thy brother's nakedness.
Leviticus 20:21 And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is impurity: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.

To support this idea from the Old Testament there is a passage from the New where John the Baptist rails against King Herod for marrying his brother's wife.

Mark 6:17-19 For Herod had sent soldiers to arrest and imprison John as a favor to Herodias. She had been his brother Philip's wife, but Herod had married her. John kept telling Herod, "It is illegal for you to marry your brother's wife." Mar 6:19 Herodias was enraged and wanted John killed in revenge, but without Herod's approval she was powerless.

Yet on the other side of the argument there are passages which just as strongly insist that a brother should take the widow of his brother to wed, especially if they have all been living in the same household.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, "My husband's brother refuses to carry on his brother's name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me." Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, "I do not want to marry her," his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line." That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

And there is more support from Genesis:

Genesis 38:8 Then Judah said to Er's brother Onan, "You must marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. Her first son from you will be your brother's heir."

How persuasive were the arguments on either side? The Pope was asked to grant the divorce. He dallied and dithered because he did not want to offend either Henry VIII nor the powerful relatives of his wife. The Pope's indecision caused Henry to break his whole country off from the Catholic Church and order the Archbishop of Cantebury to grant him his divorce...and so began the English Reformation.

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Interesting Fact:

It is NOT illegal in most countries for a man to marry his brother's widow.


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