Women’s Rights in Old Testament Times
by James R. Baker

Chapter 9.
The Inheritance Rights of Wives

[p.137]United States common law does not consider wives or more correctly widows to be heirs of their husbands. However, all states have statutes providing for a widow’s right to take a portion of her husband’s estate (usually one-third) for her support during her lifetime.

Nor were widows considered heirs in biblical times. Some narratives describe situations in which a widow was poorly provided for and demonstrate her courage in the face of significant obstacles. What claims, if any, did a widow have on her husband’s estate? What facilities of disposition were available to husbands to ensure their wives’ care after their death?

The Code of Hammurabi is the only ancient legal code that clearly describes two situations in which a widow may become an heir. If a soldier had been given land and then was killed in battle, his son inherited the land, but if the son was too young to administer it, the soldier’s wife became heir to one-third of the land “in order that his mother may rear him.”1

In the second case, if a husband had not provided a marriage-gift (nudunnum), his wife became an heir equal with her children (sons) and received a life estate in the family house.2 If she decided to leave the home by marrying another [p.138]man, she could take only her dowry. In other words she retained her heirship and life estate in the home only if she remained a widow in her husband’s home. Furthermore, her only heirs were her children, and whatever she did inherit had to be kept for them. She could not dispose of it during her lifetime.

If a husband gifted property to his wife while he was alive and left a “sealed document with her,”3 the gifted property would be hers at least for life, since her sons were her heirs. In an Old Babylonian marriage contract, a man married a widow who already had three sons, and the contract stipulated property including a house, field, and orchard which would belong to the wife. The sons were designated as the heirs with the oldest son taking a preferential share.4

The law so favored sons as heirs that it was common to challenge any other form of transfer, but property by gift from husband to wife could not be reclaimed by heirs after the husband’s death. During a widow’s lifetime, she could appoint any of her children to administer the property, but at her death they shared equally in her estate.5 There was no firstborn double portion or special privilege in a mother’s estate.

In another case described in Hammurabi’s code, a freewoman married a slave and brought her dowry to their union. They then built up a joint estate through their mutual efforts. Upon the death of the husband, the wife took her dowry plus one-half of the estate, which she was required to hold in trust for her children. The owner of the slave took the other half as his ownership interest in the slave.6

The Middle Assyrian laws were a little less kind to wives and, except for one fairly obscure situation, only affirmed a wife’s right of support. If a husband died and “assigned [a wife] nothing in writing,” the wife could live in whatever house of her sons she chose.7 All of her sons had an equal obligation of support. If she was a second wife and had no sons, she could [p.139]live with one of her husband’s sons by another wife, and they would all be obligated to support her. If she married one of her husband’s older sons by another wife, only he had the obligation of support.

In another case, if a husband died while living with his brothers on the undivided estate of their deceased father and the husband had no son, his brothers could claim a return of any jewelry he had given his wife during their marriage. Title to all property remained in the estate. If the couple had sons, they would inherit the jewelry. If the husband had owned the jewelry outright (if it was not a part of the undivided estate) and there were no sons, then the widow would be sole heir to the jewelry.8 In other words, under Middle Assyrian law a wife/widow had a right of support and a narrowly construed right to retain gifts received from her husband during his lifetime.

Neo-Babylonian law dating from about 600 B.C. permitted a widow to control her dowry plus any gifts her husband had given to her during her lifetime. If she did not have a dowry, the law provided one. In this sense she was not an heir but had a statutory dowry right. If she had no children, she was free to remarry. If she had children, she could remarry but would have only a usufruct in the property received from her husband, which would be distributed to her sons upon her death. If a woman had children by her second husband, they shared equally in her dowry and marital gifts with the children of her first husband.9

Nuzi wills were written perhaps seven hundred years before Neo-Babylonian laws. In one will, the husband Unaptae appointed his wife Sakutu guardian over his minor daughter Silwaturi by another woman. The daughter inherited all of her father’s estate, and after she reached legal age, the will required her to support and care for her stepmother and give her a proper burial.

[p.140]The husband wrote into his will a particularly harsh clause designed to prevent his wife from placing any of the estate at jeopardy: “If Sakutu, my wife, remarries, [my] brothers shall kill Sakutu.”10 We assume that this clause applied only during Sakutu’s guardianship. After the daughter reached majority and took control of the estate, the wife would, one assumes, be free to take her dowry, leave, and remarry if she chose.

From Elephantine, a Jewish community on an island in the Nile River in the fifth century B.C., we find marriage documents in which the wife was sole heir of her husband’s estate if he died without children.11 Women, at least in Elephantine, generally enjoyed almost full equality with men in matters of property and obligations.12 However, in matters of inheritance, the rights of wives in their husbands’ estates were assured by legal transfer such as contract, will, or gift, not under laws of intestacy.

There is no law or statute in the Mosaic code which deals with a widow’s rights or lack of rights to inherit or obtain property from her husband’s estate. But two stories, those of Ruth and Naomi and of Tamar, explicitly address the problems faced by widows.

Ruth and Naomi

The narrative of Ruth and Naomi is about land. When Elimelech left Bethelem, he sold the family farm. When Naomi returned with Ruth, she apparently did not consider the possibility of recovering her husband’s land. However, one evening, after Ruth had returned from gleaning in the fields of Boaz, Naomi shrewdly realized there was a complex correlation between redemption of land and levirate marriage for Ruth. They put a plan of action together that assured their own well-being as well as continued posterity for their husbands.

The story of Ruth and Naomi traces its beginnings to a [p.141]famine in Judah which forced a Hebrew couple, Elimelech and Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to leave Bethlehem for Moab east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. In the course of time, the father died and the brothers married Moabite women—Mahlon married Ruth, and Chilion married Orpah (Ruth 1:4). After ten years of marriage, the brothers both died, leaving their wives childless.13

After hearing “how that the Lord had visited his people [Israel] in giving them bread” (Ruth 1:6), Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem where presumably her kinfolk lived. Furthermore Israel practiced the law of gleaning—a unique cultural practice designed to provide for widows and orphans without other means of support:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.
And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the Lord your God
(Lev. 19:9-10; see also 23:22).

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.
When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.
When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow (Deut. 24:19-21).

As Naomi set out “on the way to return unto the land of [p.142]Judah” (Ruth 1:7), she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their parents’ houses. Their fathers would have been responsible for their support, and we know specifically that Ruth’s father was still alive (2:8, 11).14 Naomi invoked a blessing upon them “that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her [second] husband,” but they refused to leave her, desiring to return with her “unto thy people” (1:10).

Orpah and Ruth had probably accepted the God of Israel and the Hebrew way of life. Naomi reminded them, however, that she could not promise them family position or security, for she had no more sons to perform the levirate duty. All they could do was to share her lot: “Why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons; Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me” (Ruth 1:11-13).

Orpah was persuaded, kissed Naomi good-by, and returned “unto her people, and unto her gods” (Ruth 1:15). But in a strong, stirring statement, Ruth affirmed her love for Naomi and the God of Israel: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (v. 16). Ruth had faith enough in Naomi and the God of Israel to forsake the security of her home and travel to Bethlehem.

Shortly after their arrival, Ruth decided to glean for food. She happened upon the field of Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech. As she worked, he watched her and learned who she was from his foreman. Boaz already knew of Naomi’s return to Bethlehem and of the convert who had followed her (Ruth [p.143]2:11). He praised Ruth: “The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (v. 12). He then helped make his blessing a reality by inviting her to dinner and instructing his servants to leave a little extra in the fields for her. Ruth managed to glean an ephah (twenty-two liters) of barley for herself and Naomi.

As Ruth returned home she met Naomi and told her of her success. As Ruth recounted the day’s activities, Naomi realized that she and Ruth had an opportunity available through a combination of the customs of land redemption and levirate marriage. Pleased and excited by Ruth’s report, Naomi thanked God for this kindness to them, for Boaz was “one of our next kinsmen” (Ruth 2:20). In fact, the Hebrew goel (next kinsman) means “he who has the right to redeem.” Naomi understood that Boaz had the right to redeem their ancestral lands. And if they could prevail upon him to perform the levirate duty and provide an heir for Mahlon, such an heir would provide them security.

A redeemer or next kinsman could redeem ancestral land lost to a family through foreclosure or other circumstance. The land of Israel belonged to Jehovah (Lev. 25:23) and was given to the Israelites to be used by them in perpetuity or until they ceased to serve God. Each tribe had its own land, and within its tribal inheritance, families were assigned their legacies by lot (Jos. 13-19). Through Moses God commanded that lands never be permanently alienated from the family. Thus land had religious significance to Israelites.

If a landholder were forced to sell his or her land, he or she would first approach the next of kin, who had the right of first refusal to buy the land.15 If the land was foreclosed upon to satisfy an unpaid debt, the family still retained a right of redemption, and if that did not suffice, a jubilee right of return (Lev. 25:13).

[p.144]Under the rule of redemption, a landowner could at any time repay the balance of his debt to the creditor and regain his land. The balance owed was calculated according to the number of crops the land would produce before the year of jubilee (Lev. 25:15-16). If the landowner was unable to redeem his land, he could prevail upon a relative (next of kin) to purchase it for him and return him to his estate. Beyond the desire to preserve family honor and avoid public shame, there would appear to be little incentive for a next of kin to redeem the land of his relative unless that relative had no heirs, in which event the land would revert to the next of kin upon the relative’s death.

The redemption right was inheritable and remained with the family as long as an heir survived. Such a surviving heir reacquired family lands in the jubilee year, a “sabbath of sabbaths” that occurred every fifty years (seven times seven years plus one year). On a given day in that year, all land was to revert to its original family owner. Thus in theory each dispossessed family could repossess its ancestral home at least once every fifty years. No wonder genealogies were important: “If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away some of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold. And if the man have none to redeem it, and himself be able to redeem it; Then let him count the years of the sale thereof, and restore the overplus unto the man to whom he sold it; that he may return unto his possession. But if he be not able to restore it to him, then that which is sold shall remain in the hand of him that hath bought it until the year of jubilee: and in the jubilee it shall go out, and he shall return unto his possession” (Lev. 25:25-28).

Since both Ruth’s husband and her father-in-law were deceased, she was legally a widow, free to marry whomever she pleased. With Naomi’s guidance, Ruth chose a path that would raise up seed to her deceased husband and redeem the family [p.145]lot. In the evening, she went to the threshing floor, keeping out of sight. “When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down” (Ruth 3:7). Awakened and startled to find someone sharing his bed on the corn, Boaz asked who she was. Ruth answered, “I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman” (v. 9).

The language is clearly sexual.16 The invitation to “spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid” is a direct reference to marital intercourse.17 The phrase “for thou art a near kinsman” in effect informed Boaz of his levirate duty and asked him to consummate it. Ruth could not compel Boaz to marry her, but she had the legal right to ask him. Therefore while his “heart was merry” from a harvest celebration, Ruth asked him to complete the duty.

However, neither she nor Naomi appear to have realized that Boaz was not the nearest next of kin. Boaz, who was better informed, told Ruth he would be willing to be her husband if it were not for the one nearer kinsman (Ruth 3:12). Boaz apparently refrained from being intimate with Ruth until he had a chance to confront the nearest next of kin.18

Boaz told Ruth that he would meet with the unnamed relative in the morning. And if he proved unwilling to become Ruth’s husband, Boaz would then be free to marry her and be the redeemer (goel) of Elimelech’s and Mahlon’s family lands. He then suggested she stay the night and sent her home with six measures of barley early the next morning “before one could know another” (Ruth 3:14). Obviously he did not want it known that she had spent the night near him (“Let it not be known that a woman came into the floor”), but J. M. Sasson suggests that it may not have been any more discreet for a young woman to walk home in the early morning, heavily laden with grain, a common form of currency.19 Was Boaz concerned [p.146]about her safety if she went home alone late at night? Was he concerned about his reputation if he accompanied her home?

As the day’s activity began, Boaz went to the gate where contracts were made and witnesses from the town elders were easily found. Here he expected the kinsman to pass on his regular morning exit of the walled city to his fields. When the kinsman came Boaz asked him to sit down. Boaz arranged for ten witnesses. Because two or four would have been sufficient, the large number indicates that Boaz considered this transaction important. He then explained, “Naomi, that is come again out of the country of Moab, selleth a parcel of land, which was our brother Elimelech’s” (Ruth 4:3). “Brother” here is probably a generic term of kinship.

This statement establishes that it was possible for women to inherit land or at least inherit the right to deal with family lands but probably not in their own interest. Where widows were left land by contract or gift, it was always with the condition that the children would receive the land at the mother’s (or widow’s) death.20 But in Naomi’s case the land was presumably first left to her sons Mahlon and Chilion. But then they died childless. Did they gift or bequeath the land to Naomi? Or did she automatically inherit the land because her sons died childless?21

There are many theories about how Naomi came to own the land.22 But in the absence of an heir, the law would probably allow for the birth of a potential heir before final disposition of the land.23

Boaz informed his relative of his preferential right of redemption, assuring him that if he would not redeem it, then Boaz would. This would include responsibility for supporting Naomi, but the land would produce considerably more than Naomi’s support and the land title would vest in him after her death. The kinsman, perhaps predictably, agreed. Then Boaz played his trump card. He told him about “Ruth the [p.147]Moabitess,” who would also require support, with the additional responsibility of performing the levirate duty and raising an heir who would of course inherit the land instead of the kinsman (Ruth 4:5).24

The kinsman refused, “lest [he] mar [his] own inheritance” (Ruth 4:6). Depleting his estate to buy land and then raising up an heir to take possession was more than the kinsman was prepared to do.

Deuteronomic law established a specific procedure in such cases. If the kinsman did not accept the widow’s invitation to perform the levirate duty, then before she was free to seek remarriage with a partner of her choice, the widow had to arraign the reluctant brother-in-law before the elders in the city gate and there accuse him of refusing to raise up an heir. The elders would interview the recalcitrant one. If he continued to refuse, the widow was to remove his shoe and spit in his face, saying, “So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house” (Deut. 25:7-9). Thus the brother-in-law was publicly shamed.25

What is the significance of the shoe? Some suggest that because the shoe was sometimes used in transferring property titles, the brother-in-law gave up any rights that he might have had to his brother’s property.26 Whatever the legal significance, by “loosing the shoe” the kinsman relinquished his responsibility as a kinsman to produce an heir for his brother. Boaz had been careful to send Ruth home so that she would not be present at the gate and also to let the kinsman know that he himself was willing to be a redeemer and husband. Thus the kinsman would be spared a scene of public shaming.

As Boaz had hoped, the kinsman responded by giving his shoe to Boaz and with it his rights to the land redemption and also to the levirate duty. For this reason he gave the shoe to Boaz and not to Ruth. Boaz then made a formal declaration before the witnessing elders: “Ye are witnesses this day, that I [p.148]have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s of the hand of Naomi. Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren” (Ruth 4:10).

As a result of their union, Ruth conceived and bore a son who was given the name of Obed, “and Naomi took the child and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it” (Ruth 4:16). Was Obed their only child? The record is silent. There is no dictum in the law against additional offspring in the levirate union. If Ruth were Boaz’s sole wife, then it seems reasonable to suppose that the marriage would have been a normal connubial relationship, except that the firstborn Obed would have had special inheritance rights to Elimelech’s property and Boaz would have had guardianship rights in that estate during Obed’s minority. In the event of more than one child of the levirate marriage, only the firstborn belonged to the deceased husband. All others including daughters belonged to the levirate husband.

The primary purpose of levirate marriage was to produce a male heir. In the case of Ruth, it is clear that this son became heir to the estate of Mahlon, his legal father, even though the final verses of the book of Ruth pronounce the genealogy of generations between Pharez, the levirate child of Judah and Tamar, and David—through Boaz not through Mahlon. Obed was grandfather of king David and a forebear in the royal lineage of Jesus.

Tamar: Mother of the Jews

This story begins with Judah, a leader among Jacob’s sons and the initiator of Joseph’s betrayal (Gen. 37:26). Knowing that his father never believed the fabricated story of Joseph’s [p.149]demise27 and unable to bear his shame and remorse, Judah left Hebron and traveled west down the Shephelah to Adullam. Here he married an unnamed Canaanite woman, a daughter of Shua, and adopted Canaanite customs and laws. Judah and the daughter of Shua had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.

Following his patriarchal prerogative, Judah selected a Canaanite wife named Tamar for Er, his firstborn. We know only that Er fathered no children with Tamar and that God took him for his wickedness (Gen. 38:7-8). Er’s death shattered Tamar’s marital expectations and eliminated the status, support, and protection for which she had married. In early biblical times, a woman who married a firstborn son expected to bear a son who would take his father’s place in the family hierarchy as the chief heir of his father’s estate. Being the wife of a firstborn son or leader in a patriarchal community meant that she would be mother of a future community leader. Such position was both socially and economically prestigious. The wife of a patriarch or leader became a matriarch or chief wife and was leader in the extended family: as her husband was chief man, she was chief woman. Her husband inherited at least a double portion of his father’s estate, twice as much as any other heir. This inheritance assured him of added respect and family and community leadership and would have been appealing to some women.

Tamar had recourse to the law of levirate marriage. In Canaanite practice a son born to the levirate union bore the deceased husband’s name, for such a son inherited all the deceased husband’s property and continued as a link in an unbroken genealogical chain as though he were the biological son of the deceased husband.

It was also in Judah’s best interest to retain Tamar in the family. If Tamar entered into a levirate marriage and bore children, she would help maintain the numerical strength and economic integrity of the family, despite Er’s untimely death.

[p.150]Tamar’s marital obligation continued as long as the father-in-law was alive. She was not declared a widow, able to “go whither she pleases,” until both her husband and father-in-law were dead. None of the laws mentions a preference in the order of kin, nor did it matter whether the brother or father was already married. However, if the story of Tamar is typical, we may assume that older brothers were preferred over younger brothers, who were in turn preferred over the father.28 In order then, Onan was preferred over Shelah, who was preferred over Judah.

The initiative in arranging a levirate marriage for Tamar belonged to Judah. If he did not provide a son or himself as a husband, then Tamar had the right to demand that one of them perform his duty. This prerogative was based on custom, not civil or criminal statutes enforceable in a court of law. Therefore a brother-in-law could accept or reject the request of his sister-in-law without fear of legal retribution, although he probably had less choice about his father’s request.29 If he refused the sister-in-law, his only punishment was being held up to public shame through a legal shoe-removing ritual known in Jewish law as halitzah.

Judah arranged for Onan, his second son, to marry Tamar. Though it was considered honorable for the brother to impregnate his brother’s widow and thereby preserve his brother’s name, the death of Er had naturally increased Onan’s share of the family inheritance. Furthermore, Onan would now inherit the firstborn’s share, which was double that of the other sons. If Tamar bore a legal son for Er, then Onan, the biological though not the legal father (for purposes of the inheritance), would lose this doubled estate. Perhaps for this reason, Assyrian law cited above left the choice of levirate marriage to the father-in-law rather than to the brother.

When Judah, Tamar, and Onan reached an agreement, the levirate marriage became effective upon consummation. [p.151]There was no need for a new dowry or a new marriage contract: all the arrangements of the first marriage between Er and Tamar remained in effect. Since she was Er’s chief wife, she retained chief wife status with Onan. If Onan was already married—his marital status is not clear—Tamar’s chief wife status would pertain only to Er’s estate.

Knowing that he was next in line for the blessings of the firstborn, Onan did not openly defy his father, an act for which he could have been disinherited. Instead, he conspired to deceive Judah and defraud Tamar. During the connubial act, through coitus interruptus, he “spilled {his semen} on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing . . . displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also” (Gen. 38:9-10).

Judah’s only remaining son, Shelah, was not “grown” (Gen. 38:11), indicating that he had not reached puberty. The minimum marriageable age under Middle Assyrian law was ten.30 Judah asked Tamar to live in her father’s house as a widow. Tamar’s father had the legal obligation of support “till Shelah my son be grown” (v. 11). This condition constituted an oral contract that Judah would have Shelah perform the levirate duty when he was of age. Tamar kept her part of the agreement by returning to her father’s house.31

An unspecified amount of time passed, but it must have exceeded puberty for Shelah, for Tamar became aware that Judah was keeping Shelah from her. She devised a stratagem, and on a day when Judah was going to shear his sheep at a certain location, she disguised herself as a lay sacral prostitute.

Cultic prostitutes were women who offered their services to the public and donated the proceeds to the temple. In early times, according to Herodotus, sacral prostitution was expected of all Babylonian women at least once in their lifetime.32 The practice came from the myth of a male deity such as the Canaanite god Baal, the god of rain, fertilizing his lover or [p.152]wife/sister Anat, the earth goddess, which brought forth food. A scholar notes: “It is known that feasts of the preexilic period were accompanied by ritual fornication with the magic intention of securing rich crops and increase of herds. Judah’s visit to a hierodule at that time of year was a predictable ritually pre-scribed act.”33 Judah had apparently adopted this custom at some point during his stay in Adullam.34 He was, moreover, recently widowed (Gen. 38:12).

Judah saw her “covered with a vail,” which evidently was a part of her costume that signalled her status as a cult prostitute, and asked permission to visit her. They agreed upon a kid as the fee. Since Judah had no animals with him, Tamar required as a pledge or guarantee his signet ring, bracelets, and staff. Judah willingly entrusted these valuable objects to her, an indication of the esteem given these prostitutes. Later Judah sent his friend Hiram to deliver the kid, another indication that he was not ashamed of his activity. But the “prostitute” had disappeared.

Three months later Tamar’s pregnancy became publicly known. Recall that she was the childless widow of Er. She and her father-in-law Judah had agreed that Shelah would perform the levirate duty when he became of age. So Tamar was under the levirate obligation to Shelah, a legal status similar to a betrothal. Her pregnancy was prima facie evidence of adultery since Shelah had had no relations with her.

Even though Judah had asked Tamar to return to her father’s house while she waited for Shelah, Tamar still came under Judah’s patriarchal authority. Legal systems of the time left capital punishment for certain crimes against the family in the hands of the patriarch.35 Hearing of the pregnancy and even before confronting Tamar, Judah ordered, “Let her be burnt” (Gen. 38:24). It is not known what the Abrahamic/patriarchal traditional punishments for adultery were. Reuben lost his birthright (49:4), and Bilhah’s punishment if any is [p.153]not recorded. However, burning is a penalty found in Babylonian law though not for adultery.36 The usual Babylonian penalty for adultery was death by drowning. Burning may have been a Canaanite penalty for adultery of which we have no record.

Tamar appeared at a “judicial hearing” and presented Judah’s signet, bracelets, and staff, all personal items conspicuously known to be Judah’s, and identified their owner as the father of her child. Judah understood the legal ramifications of Tamar’s evidence and dropped the charge and punishment of death, admitting, “She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son” (Gen. 38:26).

Judah was not guilty of adultery because he was a legal consort. Thus even if Tamar had acted improperly, the child would have been legitimate. Judah “knew her again no more” (Gen. 38:26) indicating that although she had acted correctly, he had no intention of pursuing a relationship beyond the levirate duty.

During the births of Tamar’s twin sons, whose conception was linked to the rights of the firstborn, another interesting question about firstborn sons emerges. When the hand of one infant came out first, the midwife tied a scarlet thread on it. But the other child, Pharez, was actually the first to draw breath. Zarah was born second, with the scarlet thread on his wrist. Which was the firstborn? Ancient legal codes are silent on this issue, but Jewish law dating from about A.D. 200 held that the one whose head emerged first was the firstborn, even though it might then withdraw—a physiologically unlikely event—and be preceded by the other twin.37 Under most modern legal systems, an infant does not become a “person” until he or she takes a breath. Whatever the law, Pharez, the first to emerge or draw breath, was the firstborn, surpassing even Shelah since Pharez was heir to Er under the law of levirate marriage.

We do not know why Tamar was so thoroughly resolved to [p.154]bear a son for her husband Er. Perhaps she wished to solidify her position as matriarch in the house of Judah. As mother of Pharez, firstborn of Judah, she was the tribal matriarch. When the chronicler lists those who accompanied Jacob to Egypt at the behest of Joseph, her sons Pharez and Zarah are included. Tamar is not mentioned, but neither are other women. If she were still alive, we can assume that she would have been there.

Tamar’s twins became heirs of their grandfather’s estate at birth. We do not know when Judah died. From that point on they would have been responsible for her support.


1. Code of Hammurabi 29, in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, including Supplement, 1969), 167.

2. “If her [deceased] husband did not give her a marriage-gift, they shall make good her dowry to her and she shall obtain from the gods of her husband’s estate a portion corresponding to (that of) an individual heir; if her children keep plaguing her in order to make her leave the house, the judges shall investigate her record and place the blame on the children, so that woman need never leave her husband’s house; if that woman has made up her mind to leave, she shall leave to her children the marriage-gift which her husband gave her (but) take the dowry from her father’s house in order that the man of her choice may marry her.” Code of Hammurabi 172, in ibid., 173; see also Code of Hammurabi 171, in ibid.

3. “If a seignior, upon presenting a field, orchard, house, or goods to his wife, left a sealed document with her, her children may not enter a claim against her after (the death of) her husband, since the mother may give her inheritance to that son of hers whom she likes, (but) she may not give (it) to an outsider.” Code of Hammurabi [p.155]150, in ibid., 172.

4. Raymond Westbrook, “Old Babylonian Marriage Law,” Vol. 1, Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1982, 218.

5. G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 1:269.

6. Code of Hammurabi 176, in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 174.

7. Middle Assyrian Law A 46, in ibid., 184.

8. Middle Assyrian Law A 25-26, in G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Assyrian Laws (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 397, also 195.

9. Neo-Babylonian Laws 12-13, in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 197.

10. J. Paradise, “A Daughter and Her Father’s Property at Nuzi,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 32 (Oct. 1980): 196.

11. Reuven Yaron, Introduction to the Law of the Aramaic Papyri (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 69.

12. Ibid., 43.

13. The names of the story’s main characters are so parallel that coupled with the deaths of the sons at exactly ten years, one suspects scribal intervention in the interests of symmetry:

Elimelech: God is king Naomi: the pleasant one
Mahlon: sickly Chilion: weakly
Ruth: the friend Orpah: turned back
Boaz: the pillar Obed: serving

14. The KJV has Naomi recommending that her daughters-in-law return “each to her mother’s house,” but Septuagint manuscripts say “father’s house,” and the Syriac manuscript has “your parents.” Edward F. Campbell, Jr., Anchor Bible, Ruth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 60nf.

15. H. H. Rowley, “The Marriage of Ruth,” Harvard Theological Review 40 (1947): 89.

16. William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, eds. F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 163. Anthony Phillips, “The Book of Ruth—Deception and Shame,” Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (Spring [p.156]1986): 14. See also Edward F. Campbell, “The Hebrew Short Story: A Study of Ruth,” in A Light unto My Path; Old Testament Studies in Honor of Jacob M. Myers, eds. Howard N. Bream, Ralph D. Heim, and Carey A. Moore (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), 96.

17. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 2:484. See also Ezek. 16:8.

18. Beyond the husband’s brothers, the nearest of kin in order would be the father, father’s brothers, father’s brother’s sons, then the father’s father and on down his line. We do not know how far in the order of succession a widow could go to find the next of kin. We know that Ruth’s husband’s brother and his father were deceased. We also know that Boaz was one step removed from being the next of kin. If Boaz and the nearest kinsman had been brothers, it would have been simpler to explain their relationship thus. Consequently it is more likely that they were paternal cousins or sons of paternal granduncles with the nearest kinsman in some position of seniority.

19. J. M. Sasson, Ruth (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 95.

20. J. Paradise, “A Daughter and Her Father’s Property at Nuzi,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 32 (Oct. 1980): 195.

21. D. R. G. Beattie, “The Book of Ruth as Evidence for Israelite Legal Practice,” Vetus Testamentum 24 (July 1974): 254.

22. “If a woman whose husband is dead does not go forth from her house on her husband’s death, (and) if her husband has assigned her nothing in writing, she shall dwell in a house belonging to her sons where she chooses; her husband’s sons shall provide her with food; they shall enter into a covenant for her for (the provision of) her food and her drink as (for) a bride whom they love. If she is a second (wife and) she has no sons, she shall dwell with one (of her husband’s sons and) they shall provide her with food in common; if she has sons (and) the sons of the former (wife) do not agree to provide her with food, she shall dwell in a house belonging to her own sons where she chooses, (and) her own sons too shall provide [p.157]her with food and she shall do their work. But if indeed among her sons (there is one) who has taken her (as his spouse), he [who takes] her (as his spouse) [shall] surely [provide her with food and her (own) sons] shall [not] provide her with food.” Middle Assyrian Law A 46, in Driver and Miles, The Assyrian Laws, 415; see also Code of Hammurabi 29, 39, 172, in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 167, 168, 173; see also Neo-Babylonian 12, in ibid., 197.

23. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 2:489.

24. Dale Manor phrased this situation using an interesting parallelism, “Although it may be an oversimplification, a summary of the Ruth narrative and the go’el/yabham [redeemer/brother of deceased childless husband] relationship is that in a levirate marriage, the land goes with the woman; in a go’el situation, the woman goes with the land”; see Manor, “A Brief History of Levirate Marriage As It Relates to the Bible,” Restoration Quarterly 27 (1984): 138). In other words, if the nearer kinsman acted as a redeemer over the land, he also had to act as a redeemer of the name of the dead and raise up an heir to his deceased kinsman or vice versa.

25. According to David Daube, we should not underrate the seriousness of such public shame: “No doubt a man branded as `he that hath his shoe loosed’ was avoided by the better citizens, excluded from higher offices and not trusted in any business transactions.” See Daube, “Consortium in Roman and Hebrew Law,” Juridical Review 62 (1950): 78. Thereafter the widow had no further responsibility to her first husband’s family.

26. T. Thompson and D. Thompson, “Some Legal Problems in the Book of Ruth,” Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968): 93. A friend, John Tvedtness, adds that the Hebrew for sandal (na`al) is probably a wordplay with (nahal) meaning “inheritance.” The medial consonants are both pharyngeal fricatives, one voiced and the other unvoiced.

27. According to one very convincing treatise, Jacob never believed Reuben’s evidence but was constrained to accept it by the rules of prima facie evidence. See especially Genesis 44:28 where Judah quotes Jacob as saying, “Surely he [Joseph] is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since.” See David Daube, Studies in Biblical Law [p.158](New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969), 9.

28. “[If], while a woman is still living in her father’s house, her husband died and . . . she has no [son, her father-in-law shall marry her to the son] of his choice . . . or if he wishes, he may give her in marriage to her father-in-law. If her husband and her father-in-law are both dead and she has no son, she becomes a widow; she may go where she wishes.” See Middle Assyrian Law A 33, in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 182. While there is no Canaanite code as such, this section parallels the fact situation of the Tamar narrative. Cf. Deut. 25:5.

29. Anthony Phillips, “The Book of Ruth—Deception and Shame,” Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (Spring 1986): 3-4.

30. Middle Assyrian Law 43, in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 184.

31. It is clear that Judah did not release Tamar from her levirate duty at this time. He had already lost two sons and made no secret of his fear that he would also lose Shelah (Gen. 38:11). Now he stood to lose a daughter-in-law and her dowry as well. Clearly Judah needed time to assess his predicament.

32. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Cultic Prostitution in Orient and Occident (Verlag Butzon & Bercker Kevelaer, 1973), 216.

33. Michael C. Astour, “Tamar the Hierodule,” Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966): 193.

34. About six hundred years later, the sons of the prophet Eli would introduce this practice at the Lord’s tabernacle at Shilo (1 Sam. 2:22). Certainly they knew of the Deuteronomic prohibition against sacral prostitution: “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog {male sacral prostitute}, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 23:18). Judah, embracing the Canaanite culture several generations before Moses, had no such proscription.

35. See Middle Assyrian Law A 15, in Driver and Miles, The Assyrian Laws, 389. See also Hittite Law 198, in E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws (London: Luzac & Co. Ltd., 1951), 57. See also Code of Hammurabi 129, in Driver and Miles, The Babylonian Laws, 2:51.

[p.159]36. See Code of Hammurabi 110, in ibid., 2:45.

37. Bekoroth 46b, in I. Epstein, ed. and trans., The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino Press, 1948), 318.