Friday, June 11, 2010

The duty of the brother-in-law (Dt 25:5-10)

"When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. But if the man does not desire to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, 'My husband's brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband's brother to me.' Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, 'I do not desire to take her,' then his brother's wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, 'Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.' In Israel his name shall be called, 'The house of him whose sandal is removed.'" (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
First off, let me say that, while I love my brothers and their wives, this aint never going to happen! Children or no children, command from God or not, I'm happily married and the thought of marrying my bothers wives is, frankly, disturbing. What in the world was God thinking?

To understand this law we must first realize that this was not uncommon in biblical days. The scriptures have several examples of the duty of one to marry his dead brother's wife. In Genesis 38:8-11 Judah's eldest son Er dies and Judah instructs his other son, Onan, to marry Er's wife, Tamar. When Onan died, Judah told Tamar to live in the house and wait for his son Shelah to grow up. In Ruth 4:10 Boaz marry Ruth to raise up children for her dead husband. Finally, in Matthew 23:23-28 the Sadducees question Jesus about this very law and ask, in such cases, whose wife the woman will be when they all get to heaven. It is evident that this practice was common and accepted among the ancients. In fact, so established was this practice that in the Hebrew language there was a single word "wabam" which means "Preform the duty of a husband's brother to her".

So how can we, living in this modern era, understand the importance of this law? Our first clue is when the scripture says, "When brothers live together." In those days many families lived as families in excluded and desert areas. Many people live a bedouin lifestyle; separated from other tribes, clans, and foreigners. When brothers lived together, if one died, they had few options for the care for the dead brother's wife. There may not have been any non-relatives nearby that she could marry. It would not be right for her to live in an unmarried state with the other brother, and it would be harsh to send her away to a foreign people; people she did not know and with no certainty of her future among them. In this case, what was best for the widow was to marry the remaining brother and continue to live with the family she knew.

The other reason for the importance of this law had to do with the issue of inheritance. Today, we think of inheritance primarily in monetary terms. We work and save throughout our lives to leave something behind for our children. However, in those days, the inheritance was largely land. When Joshuah divided up the promise land, it was divided by tribes, clans, and families. When a brother died with no heirs, the question remained what to do with his inheritance. They could let the wife remarry and let her new husband have the inheritance, but this would invite foreigners (or at least those not related to the family) into the family land and inheritance, or they could deny the wife the inheritance, keeping it in the family, impoverishing the woman. Given the options, the best for the widow was fore her to keep the inheritance, marry her husband's brother, and raise offspring to her dead husband who would carry on the family inheritance.

So why do we not follow this law today? Today we live in very different times from those biblical days. Very few of us live bedouin lifestyles. Instead we live in cities and communities; intermingled with other families and even foreigners. Even in the times of the first century church we see the need for this law was diminished. That is why Paul recommends for young widows to, "get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach." (1 Timothy 5:14) Note that he did not tell them to marry their husband's brother but rather to simply marry and raise children. For this reason I believe that this law no longer applies to us today, and for that, I am grateful.

One final thought, it is evident from this scripture that Polygamy is not a sin. That is not to say that it is preferable or to be encouraged, but it is not a sin before God. This is important when carrying the Gospel to lands where polygamy is still practiced. My grandmother's sister and her husband were life long missionaries in Nigeria. When the church first went there they told their new converts that they could have only one wife and, if they had more than one, they had to send the others away and keep only one. This lead to the impoverishment of many women and children as the men sent away the old, weak, and those with children, keeping only the young and strong for themselves. It was years later that, after much reflection, the church went back and repented for what they had done. They realized that it was not a sin for them to keep their many wives and that what they had done was not from God.

David Robison

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