Is Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister Lawful?

Is Marriage with a Deceased

Wife's Sister Lawful?


Rev. M. W. M. DUNN, B.A. Onon

second master of bishop vesey’s grammar school
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Is Marriage with a Deceased

Wife's Sister Lawful?

As it seems probable that no efforts will be spared on the part of many people in this country to make it a law of the land that a man may marry his deceased wife's sister, it is incumbent on all who fear God to know what His law is on the subject. The law of the land is not always the law of God. The one is made by man, the other by God, which is immutable.

Therefore, if it be the law of God that "a man shall not marry his deceased wife's sister," it is not a question for debate at all.

The Catholic Church, or the Church of Christ, always teaches us by the Spirit of the Word of God. Now, the Church has ever taught, does and will to the end teach from Scripture, that "a man may not marry his deceased wife's sister," or, which is the same thing, "a woman may not marry her sister's husband."

The Church consists of two great parts—the Eastern and the Western.

The Eastern part always did declare marriage with a deceased wife's sister" illegal, i.e. contrary to the law of God, as laid down by Him in His written Word. In the great mass of writings which we have of the Fathers of any note in the Church, there is no sanction given to such marriages; but, on the contrary, when the Fathers have occasion to mention anything about such a union, they distinctly say that it is their custom, and that of the Church, not to consider such marriages as legal by the Word of God. S. Basil in the fourth century says, "Our custom has the force of law, because it has been handed down to us, i.e. in the Holy Writings, that marriage with a wife’s sister is not reckoned as marriage, and we are commanded not to receive such persons to the Holy Communion until they be separated."

We must remember that S. Basil, like all the others, is giving the custom and law of the Church as founded on God's command. Also the Eastern par up to this day forbids such marriages as being illegal.

The Western part of the Church, consisting of the Roman and Anglican divisions, has never taught that such marriages are lawful in the sight of God.

Not until A.D. 1500 was the Roman division asked to allow such a marriage by dispensation—a right which that division arrogates to itself, which is, of course, at once glaringly wrong and daringly impudent, for the Church is a keeper and not a breaker or dispenser of God's commands. The case I refer to was that of Leopold, King of Portugal, whose family was extinct in the next generation. To this day the Roman division of the Western portion of the Church has to give a dispensation for this kind of marriage, which proves that it holds such a marriage to be illegal.

Now comes the Anglican division of the Western portion of the Church of Christ. We hold the same doctrine, gathered from the Word of God. Right up to the sixteenth century we held the same as the Roman par, and since the Reformation we declare such connections illegal. In the Reformatio Legum of our Church, it is stated that "those degrees which affect the man, also affect the woman"—"paribus semper pro pinquitatum gradibus"—"being always equal degrees of relationship."

Now, this stands to sense, that what affects man equally affects woman. For instance, a man may not marry his mother; then a woman may not marry her father. This commends itself to our reason, if we rightly use it.

Now let us turn to the Word of God.

The code of laws for the kinds of marriage strictly forbidden by God, is given in Leviticus xviii. 1-17. God says, "None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him—I am the Lord."

This, of course, speaks of the man. (Query, does it refer to man as mankind?)

But at once God gives this marriage as forbidden. "The nakedness of thy father." This can alone refer to the woman (as verse 9:2 refers not to marriage, but a horrible lust of such a nature).

Consequently, when God says that man shall not marry any near of kin to him, He also, by even commencing with the marriage not to be contracted by woman, declares that equally woman may not marry any near of kin to her. A right use of reason surely commends this.

God, then, says, "A man may not marry his mother." He lays down this rule, which is reasonable, that a woman may not do what a man is forbidden to do in like things.

He starts us with one case for man and woman, thus—

A man may not marry his mother.
∴ A woman may not marry her father.

After this, throughout, the case of the man only is given.

The rule established for the woman is, shortly—place for man, woman, and for the female or male relationship its equal in the opposite gender—-e.g.

for mother put father,
for brother put sister,
and for wife put husband, etc.

If this be not so, then the very next marriage which is given, where the man may not marry his father's second wife, or, as it is commonly called, his step-mother, in the case of the woman would be, "but the woman may marry her step-father." Such a thing is contrary to the law of God, and contrary, besides revolting, to nature and common sense or the right use of reason.

Then we say,—as surely cannot but be right, for God starts us with it in the first forbidden union,—that what applies to the man equally applies to the woman in a similar case.

So we go on down the list, putting the case of the woman in the way God commences.

* 2. A man may not marry his father's wife.
∴ A woman may not marry her mother's husband.
* 3. A man may not marry his step-sister.
∴ A woman may not marry her step-brother.
4. A man may not marry his granddaughter.
∴ A woman may not marry her grandson.
* 5. A man may not marry his half-sister.
∴ A woman may not marry her half-brother.
6. A man may not marry his aunt.
∴ A woman may not marry her uncle.
* 7. A man may not marry his aunt (by marriage).
∴ A woman may not marry her uncle (by marriage).
* 8. A man may not marry his daughter-in-law.
∴ A woman may not marry her son-in-law.
** 9. A man may not marry his brother’s wife.
∴ A woman may not marry her sister's husband.

Other forbidden marriages are given in verse 17, and from the whole list many others are forbidden. Such as with one’s own sister or daughter, etc.

But in No. 9, which is the last I have mentioned, is surely the marriage forbidden by God, which men desire to make lawful—a thing which a million of Acts of Parliament cannot make lawful, because God says "it is not lawful: I am the Lord."

But it may be said, Why put sister for brother in this particular instance? Well, if we leave brother, it is absurd, for then it would be a woman may not marry her brother’s husband, which is, of course, impossible. Also is it so, if we leave wife.

It simply must be for the woman, that she cannot marry her sister’s husband. But, it is idle to talk of it being allowable for a man to marry his deceased wife's sister, when that sister is strictly forbidden by the law of God to marry him.

God, then, distinctly states that a woman may not marry her sister's husband. This, of course, is sufficient to forbid a marriage with a deceased wife's sister.

Now, it is right for us, in the first place, to accept in faith the truth as given by God, and then reason will follow.

Can we see why such a marriage is forbidden?

God distinctly points out a reason for forbidding the marriages He enumerates, laying down in the first of them the same rule to be applied to woman as is applied to man.

The reason, which God gives for all, is because each is near of kin.

In the list half of the marriages are forbidden, when relationship is established by the marriage alone. Consequently, whether the relationship be by kindred or affinity, in God's sight it is reckoned as kinship by virtue of the marriage.

In the first forbidden marriage, it is stated that a woman shall not uncover the nakedness of her father so that this expression is equally applicable to marriage of woman with man as it is to man with woman. The particular reason against this marriage is that the man is her father, i.e. it is her father's nakedness.

Therefore the particular reason for a woman not marrying her sister's husband is that it is her sister's nakedness.

One might be content with this explanation. But we may see as clearly in another way from these verses in Leviticus that kinship and affinity are reckoned the same by God, whether relationship by marriage be henceforth one of sanguinity, when physiologists themselves would forbid it, or not.

God says to man—

1. Thou shalt not marry thy father's sister.
Reason: She is thy father's near kins-woman, i.e. she is thy aunt by kinship.
2. Thou shalt not marry thy father's brother's wife.
Reason: She is thy aunt (by marriage), i.e. it is thy uncle's nakedness, and he is related by blood to thee.

But before your uncle was married to her, she was not related to you at all. Now, by marriage, she is your aunt, and as such, like your father's sister, in No. 1, forbidden to be married to you.

Surely, now, these are the same for the woman, She cannot marry her uncle, either by blood or affinity. Her aunt's husband is as much her uncle by marriage as her father or mother's brother is by blood.

We see, then, that by marriage affinity is established equal in God's sight to blood relationship.

Therefore, as the husband of your aunt becomes your uncle, so the husband of your sister becomes your brother. But a woman may not marry her brother, therefore she may not marry her sister's husband, who, by his marriage with her sister, has become the same relation to her as her sister is, only in the male line, viz. her brother. Consequently, a man may not marry his deceased wife's sister.

We may argue the same point again from verse 8.

There we see that the man is forbidden to marry his father's wife's daughter who was born before his father married, say, his second wife.

Now, before his father's second marriage, the son by the father's first was no relation by blood or affinity to the daughter of the widow whom his father afterwards married. But after his father's marriage with the widow, the widow's daughter becomes the widower's son's sister, God distinctly says, "She is thy sister."

Here again we see kinship and affinity considered alike in God's sight.

It is very important to notice in this particular instance that there is no blood relationship between son and daughter before the marriage of the widower and widow, and therefore, i.e. according to the present theory of physiologists, there can be none after. It can, according to them, only be between the widower and widow, by consanguinity in the commencement of off-spring. Yet God says that by the marriage they are brother and sister, so that they cannot marry.

The God of Nature has said from the beginning that man and wife are one flesh, and He has repeated it in the Christian dispensation. There is such a union of bloods by marriage that cannot be separated. Sanguinity is established by consanguinity, or the "uniting together of two bloods," so that the woman imparts her sanguinity to the man, and the man his to the woman——they become one flesh.

If so, as it surely seems to be by the law of God as laid down in Scripture, then in the case we have before us of marriage with a deceased wife's sister or marriage with a sister's husband, the woman, being of the same sanguinity as her sister, cannot marry the husband of her sister, because that sister has, in the union of blood or flesh, united her sanguinity to her husband. Consequently, marriage with a deceased wife's sister is illegal, owing to the union of blood, according to the law of God and therefore nature——"Man and wife are one flesh."

The study of physiology has made one decided step in advance towards acknowledging the reality of union of bloods in marriage. It says now that, only when offspring commences, consanguinity, which is a union of two bloods, occurs.

Man and wife are only one flesh, then, by offspring, we may say. Before, although married, they were two as it were, and not considered one flesh. In this way they explain the reason for God dispensing with His own law in a special case of the woman without issue being permitted to marry her deceased husband's brother, although God distinctly states, "A man shall not marry his brother's wife." The study of Nature or physiology cannot be perfect yet, when the God of Nature, who must know and cannot err, declares that consanguinity is established at once, or, at any rate, man and wife are one flesh, their bloods are united, their sanguinity is for ever united.

Then, shall we say that man, who is fallible,. knows better than God, who is infallible and the Author of nature? No.

It is, I repeat, one step on the way towards God's truth for man to say that consanguinity is established through offspring.

The next discoveries, if man in his carnal mind can make them, will be that by marriage not only a union of flesh is at once established, but that the sanguinity of the woman is imparted to the man, and that of the man to the woman, so that her relations are his and his hers.

While one may wish for such discoveries to be brought about, yet one cannot but feel that the mystery of marriage can never be solved by unsanctified knowledge. Offspring is a fact, but how it comes to pass is a miracle to man. It requires the eye of faith to see the glorious union in marriage, as typified in the grand union of Christ with His Bride the Church.

It is our duty to believe the Word of God, and in it we see that woman may not marry her sister's husband, because he is near of kin to her; therefore nothing can make it lawful, and according to true physiology, the law of Nature, the law of God, no dispensation is needed for her, in the case of her sister not having any issue, that she should marry her deceased sister's husband. The cause of dispensation is to perpetuate his name. There is no need for one, then, in this case, for he may marry any one, not related, to perpetuate his name. It is God's law that a woman should not marry her sister's husband. It is immutable; man cannot dispense with it. It is only the Maker of it who can, and in this case there is no truly physiological or natural reason for it, but against it.

But here numbers of people say that, although it may be God's law, yet He has been pleased Himself to dispense with it by saying in Leviticus xviii. 18, "Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time."

The inference people draw from this is that after your wife's death, you may marry her sister.

Now, at first sight, it may be noticed that this verse does not begin like a dispensatory one, which would begin something like this, "if" or "but if." But it begins' as a continuation of God's law—the law of Nature—"neither." That law is that a man shall have only one wife at a time (N.B. the case of Job, who is witness to God's law given from the beginning), and this verse forbids directly polygamy.

God lays down, first of all, kinds of forbidden marriages, and then He forbids polygamy. This would be considered right by all, I trust, in England.

But the verse says, "a man may not take a wife to her sister during his wife's life time." Then, may he afterwards? Certainly not, if she be his wife's own sister. Why? For several reasons.

When a special cause is removed, viz. his wife's being alive, then the law of God is in force as to marriage, the choice of a wife being restricted according to the code which God gave above.

The words "a wife to her sister," according to the marginal rendering, mean "one wife to another." But perhaps this may be objected to as a mere supposition. But what do we know of Hebrew expressions?

"A woman to her sister" means "a woman to a woman," as "a man to his brother" means "a man to a man." It occurs in Scripture——this style of expression, I mean—about thirty times, and refers to one of the same class, species, or sex. So that the rendering of this verse in most commentaries of the day is a wife to her sister, whether she be sister by her blood, or nation, or by common sisterhood. Indeed it would be doubly wrong to commit bigamy with one's wife's own sister.

The law of God is, that man may marry after his wife's death another woman. The question is, Can that woman be your wife's own sister? What is God's law about marriage? He distinctly points out to us in His code that His law is that a man cannot marry his wife's own sister, as we have seen. His law cannot be dispensed with, unless God Himself dispenses with it. But we see not the slightest sign of a dispensation given by God, and there is no natural or physiological reason for it. He simply forbids marriages near of kin and polygamy. It is absurd to think that God in the same breath, as it were, would both forbid and then allow the marriage. Besides in this case, according to the showing of nature, or true physiology, or God's law, there is no physiological or natural reason why a woman should marry her brother-in-law, because he can marry any one else (but not her by the law of God). Naturally speaking, I say, there is no necessity for a man to marry his deceased wife's own sister to perpetuate his name. He can marry any other not near of kin without breaking God's law.

Consequently, when a man's wife dies, if he wish to marry again, he is at liberty to marry any of his wife's sisters by nation or by common sisterhood, but not his wife's own sister by blood (or affinity), because God's law forbids him so to do, she being considered by God near of kin to him through his marriage with her sister.

We now see what this 18th verse means. It is this—

(1) A man shall not marry a second woman, who is not "near of kin" even to his wife, while that wife is alive.

Why? Because God forbids polygamy.

Or (2), if for sake of argument, the word sister be counted blood relationship, it means then, "a man shall not marry a woman, who is his wife's own sister, while that wife is alive.

Why? Because (i.) God forbids polygamy. (ii.) It would be more incestuous even than the other, for a man cannot even marry this one, even if his wife were dead, because God forbids him, as she is near of kin to him through his deceased wife. It is seen from God's Word that a man may not marry at any time his deceased wife's own sister.

God, who is the Lord of Nature, says it is wickedness. The Hebrew word translated wickedness expresses the vilest kind of lewdness.

But it may be argued that the moral law of the Jews is not binding on Christians. What? If it be God's law, as given at Mount Sinai in writing, it must have been and will be His law through all time and eternity, for He is unchangeable, and with Him all is one vast present, so that it is binding on all mankind throughout time.

Besides, what do the physiologists at the present day think of the Levitical code? They think that it is the best sanitary and social code ever produced. As, then, the moral law of God is unchangeable and always in force, so we find that the whole Church of Christ has kept it intact, as we have seen in this particular instance of the forbidden marriage with a deceased wife's sister.

But in this case it may be said that most if not all, nations allow this marriage.

Does that dispense with the law of God? Decidedly not.

Did the cases of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon, dispense with God's law? Decidedly not, for the practice of fallen man can never interpret the law of God aright. Were the practice of fallen man right, there would be no need of the Law. Were there no disobedience or sin, there would be no law.

The state of men, by the light of the Law at its re-promulgation at Mount Sinai, shows to us their forgetfulness or neglect of God's law by tradition, as handed down from Paradise. Let me ask, What was the proportion of the Israelites with the people of the earth, at the giving of the Law in writing on Mount Sinai? May we say the proportion was one to a hundred, or even a thousand or ten thousand?

Then, what does God say to the Israelites? "Ye are not to do as the nations do, anything contrary to My moral law.

What does He say to Christians now? The very same.

Therefore, the Church does keep intact the Levitical code, being God's moral law, and commands all to obey it, as in this case which we have before us.

Sympathy is brought to bear frequently. People argue that the wife's own sister will surely take the most care of her sister's children. Now, so will any good second wife, and such sympathy is insufferable, in that, if God's law be broken by it, no amount of sympathy can be allowed.

As a judge refuses sympathy to be created in a law court, so must we.

But, it may be argued, the majority, either ignorantly or wilfully, are in favour of such a marriage being made legal by the law of the land, which is an impossible thing to be done in the sight of one who fears God.

Are we not told in God's Word over and over again that the world is at enmity with God? All history, too, shows that in any case contrary to nature, or, that is, God's laws, the mass are in the wrong, although for a time they may seemingly have their wilful way, and that the minority are in the right. This is customary to fallen man, and in accordance with a Christian's expectations as set forth in Scripture.

The world is wrong——God is right.

Then, on whose side are we?