“Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife:
it is thy brother’s nakedness.”
Let’s review a couple of terms.
First, remember that the phrase “one’s nakedness” in the Bible is possessive.
It refers to those individuals a man has sexual rights to.
For example, my father’s nakedness is his wife or my mother.
Only my father has the right to have sex with his wife, no other man in the world has that right.
Second, remember that most of the commands in Leviticus 18 are about making a proper distinction between CONSANGUINEAL relationships and AFFINAL relationships.
CONSANGUINEAL refers to those who are related by blood.
AFFINAL refers to those who are related by marriage.
So when verse 16 says “thy brother’s nakedness”, it is referring to a situation of a man entering into sexual relations with his brother’s wife.
The important thing you need to understand here is that this is NOT talking about adultery!
There had to be some other reason why sex was occurring and in most cases that reason was marriage to that particular woman.
Now what can be confusing is that once a man married a woman, all of her relatives were now considered CONSANGUINEAL or blood relatives of the man, even if there was no real blood relationship.
This was because it was believed that in a very literal sense, marriage brought the man and woman together as ONE FLESH.
For example, let’s say a man took a second wife who already had children, upon marriage, those children were now considered to be his biological children.
Therefore, a man couldn’t do something like marry a woman, divorce her, and then marry her daughter even if that daughter wasn’t biologically his child.
Again, this was because Hebrew culture treated that stepdaughter as if she was biologically his own daughter.
I know this is a bit complex but if we’re really going to have a detailed understanding of Torah, it’s important to understand how Hebrew society worked on many levels.
Another important thing to understand that as far as the “Old” Testament era was concerned, adultery was ONLY a female crime.
The general understanding at the time was that men could NOT commit adultery.
Now I know that’s quite a volatile statement, so let me explain a little more.
What I mean is that the crime of adultery was based on the marital status of only the woman.
It had nothing to do with the marital status of the man.
Whenever I say adultery was only a female crime, invariably I’ll have folks throw the following verses at me:
And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.-Leviticus 20:10
“If a man lies with his father’s wife, and has uncovered his father’s nakedness, both of them should surely be put to death, and their blood should be on them.-Leviticus 20:11
“If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them should surely be put to death. They have committed a perversion, and their blood should be on them.-Leviticus 20:12
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, and they should surely be put to death. Their blood should be on them.-Leviticus 20:13
“If a man takes a wife and her mother, it is wickedness. They should be burned with fire—both he and they, so that there may be no wickedness among you.-Leviticus 20:14
“But who so committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul.-Proverbs 6:32
Again, I’m not talking about a situation where a man sleeps with a married woman who is not his wife.
I’m specifically talking about the situation where a married man sleeps with an UNMARRIED woman who is not his wife.
This was NOT considered adultery.
However, the reverse was NOT true.
If a married woman, slept with an unmarried man, that WAS considered adultery.
There is one BIG EXCEPTION to the command in verse 16 and it is this.
If a man has a married brother who dies childless, then it was considered the DUTY of the alive brother to marry his now deceased brother’s wife in order to produce children TO CARRY ON THE NAME OF THE BROTHER WHO PASSED AWAY.
This was considered critical for two reasons.
The first reason was to preserve the Israelite family line.
The second reason was because of the ancient belief that a man’s life essence or soul lived on through his offspring after he died.
This practice of marrying a dead brother’s wife to preserve his family line was called a Levirate Marriage (it has NOTHING to do with the Tribe of Levi).