Leviticus Marriage Laws of the Old Testament

In the Old Testament book of Leviticus lies a complex array of marriage laws that paint a picture of the moral and ethical standards of their time. These regulations, part of the old covenant given to the Israelites, are more than mere historical artifacts; they are reflections of a society’s attempt to maintain order, sanctity, and purity within their community.

While the prescribed punishments for transgressions may seem harsh and distant to the modern reader, reflecting a covenant that has been fulfilled and transformed through the arrival of Jesus Christ, the underlying principles of many of these laws continue to resonate with universal themes of morality, ethics, and social responsibility.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40, ESV

With that in mind, let’s take a historical look at the Leviticus Marriage Laws.

Leviticus Chapter 18: Prohibited Marriages and Sexual Relations

In Leviticus 18, the text delves into the intricate web of familial and social relationships, setting clear boundaries for marriage and sexual conduct. These laws were designed to uphold the sanctity of family and ensure the moral integrity of the Israelite community, distinguishing them from neighboring nations.

  • Prohibition against marrying close relatives (incest) (Leviticus 18:6-18)
  • Prohibition against taking a mother and her daughter or a granddaughter as rival wives (Leviticus 18:17)
  • Prohibition against adultery with another’s spouse (Leviticus 18:20)

Leviticus Chapter 21: Marriage Regulations for Priests

Chapter 21 of Leviticus elevates the expectations for priests, the spiritual leaders of the Israelites, by imposing stricter marital laws. These regulations are meant to preserve the holiness and purity of the priesthood, ensuring that those who serve at the altar reflect the sanctity they are meant to embody.

  • Priests prohibited from marrying prostitutes or divorced women (Leviticus 21:7)
  • High priests prohibited from marrying widows (Leviticus 21:14)
  • High priests must marry a virgin (Leviticus 21:13)

Leviticus Chapter 20: Punishments for Violating Marriage Laws

Leviticus 20 underscores the severity with which these marital and sexual transgressions were viewed, prescribing harsh punishments for those who violate the sacred boundaries.

These decrees reflect the intense emphasis on community purity and the dire consequences of disobedience in ancient Israelite society.

  • Marrying a close relative: Death penalty for both parties (Leviticus 20:11-12, 14, 17, 19-21)
  • Marrying a woman and her mother: Death penalty for all three parties (Leviticus 20:14)
  • Marrying a sister or half-sister: Death penalty for both parties (Leviticus 20:17)
  • Marrying an aunt or niece: Death penalty for both parties (Leviticus 20:19-20)
  • Marrying a woman during her menstrual period: Both parties will be cut off from their people (Leviticus 20:18)

Cultural Context of Leviticus Marriage Laws

During the period in which Leviticus was written, arranged marriages were commonplace, and the institution of marriage was tightly intertwined with issues of inheritance and property rights.

As such, many of the marriage laws outlined in Leviticus reflect the societal norms of the time.

Marriage in Ancient Israel

Marriage was a central institution in ancient Israelite society, and the practice was governed by a complex set of rules and customs. In addition to the restrictions outlined in Leviticus, there were also rules concerning betrothal, dowries, and divorce.

For example, betrothal usually took place when a woman was young, and the groom’s family would pay a dowry to the bride’s family as part of the arrangement. Divorce was also permitted under certain circumstances, although it was generally frowned upon.

In some cases, however, divorce was the only way to resolve serious marital issues, such as infertility or unfaithfulness.

The Role of Religion

Religion played a central role in ancient Israelite society, and many of the marriage laws outlined in Leviticus were deeply intertwined with religious practices. For example, Leviticus 20:18 prohibits sexual relationships with a woman during her menstrual period, which was considered a time of impurity and spiritual contamination.

If a man lies with a woman during her menstrual period and uncovers her nakedness, he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from among their people.

Leviticus 20:18, ESV

Similarly, Leviticus 20 outlines the consequences of violating the marriage laws set forth in Leviticus, including banishment and death. These severe penalties were intended to reinforce the importance of the institution of marriage and to maintain the sanctity of the family unit within the context of religious practice.

Modern Interpretations of Leviticus Marriage Laws

In the light of the New Covenant, the Leviticus marriage laws are often seen through a lens of transformation and grace.

Many Christians believe that while these laws provided a foundation for ethical and moral behavior, as the arrival of Jesus Christ introduced a new paradigm centered on love, forgiveness, and the spirit of the law rather than its letter. Consequently, while some may still find wisdom and guidance in the principles behind these ancient laws, others focus on the teachings of Christ and the New Testament, interpreting the old laws in a way that reflects contemporary understanding and the overarching message of love and compassion.

This shift from the old to the new covenant invites believers to re-evaluate and discern which aspects of ancient legislation resonate with the enduring values of faith, love, and ethical integrity.

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:10, ESV