Why does the widow of the brother have to spit in his face and take off his shoe? (Deut. 25:9)

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Why does the widow of the brother have to spit in his face and take off his shoe? (Deut. 25:9)

by

Jose de Carvalho

 

 

This section concerns the applicability of the Law in context of justice, marriage and business. More directly to the question this section deals with the provision for widows. Deuteronomy 25:9 has its roots in the legislation of Leviticus 25:25-55, ‘redemption’ and Levirate marriage.

The primary concern in the narrative is the preservation of the family line/name via a Levirate marriage in a society where polygamy was allowed. Hence; “her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.(Deut. 25:5-6, ESV).

Although he has the obligation, he is however not forced into taking the widow as his wife, which is in actual fact to protect the widow from a reluctant husband. In which case a ceremony takes place (halizah) to officiate his decision not to marry her, after her husband’s his brother’s, death.

This is an official ceremony, intended on bringing shame and public humiliation for not cooperating, involving “pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face.” (v.9) by the widow of a brother who has died childless, through which ceremony he is released from the obligation of marrying her, and she becomes free to marry whomever she desires.

“Sandals were the ordinary footwear in the ancient Near East, but they were also a symbolic item of clothing, especially in the relationship between the widow and her legal guardian or levir. This is due to the fact that land was purchased based on whatever size triangle of land one could walk off in an hour, a day, a week or a month (1Ki. 21:16-17). Land was surveyed in triangles, and a benchmark was constructed of fieldstones to serve as a boundary marker (Deut. 19:14). Since they walked on the land in sandals, the sandals became the movable title to that land. By removing the sandals of her guardian (Rth. 4:7), a widow removed his authorization to administer the land of her household.”

In today’s contemporary society, the concept of levirate marriage as portrayed in the Law is not common. Nevertheless there are a few African communities that practice it, but its tradition is not rooted in the scriptures (allegedly in Lesotho this custom in Setswana is called Seya-ntlo they still practice Levirate Law, the Zulu (ukungenwa) nations certainly use it to look after vulnerable windows with small children). In many cases it tends to go against the wishes of the widow and therefore violates their rights (1 Cor. 7:39). Today’s western society would treat this kind of marriage as incestuous and the couple would suffer rejection.

Nevertheless the application of the spirit of the Law in terms of looking after the vulnerable like widows, in contemporaneous society by the Church is worthy of taking note.

James charges the Church to look after the vulnerable among us (1:27).

Paul repeats this theme in 1 Timothy 5:8 “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”(ESV)

 

 

 

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