Marry Your Dead Brother's Wife, or Risk Losing a "Shoe"

The city's elders will summon him and talk to him about this. If he doesn't budge, insisting, "I don't want to marry her," then the sister-in-law will approach him while the elders watch. She will pull the sandal off his foot and spit in his face. Then she will exclaim: "That's what's done to any man who won't build up his own brother's family!" Subsequently, that man's family will be known throughout Israel as "the house of the removed sandal." (Deuteronomy 25:8-10 CEB)

    Can’t you just hear the playground taunts now: “You come from the house of the removed sandal!” Who would want to play with that kid, am I right? Obviously I am being a bit sarcastic here, because it does not seem like that is such an awful name.  It would be akin to coming from the house with no good spaghetti strainer. Actually, though, it may be a bigger cut down than you would think, but we will get to that in a bit. First, let’s deal with the crazy law at work here.

    In Deuteronomy 25:5-10 we are treated to the description of what will become known as levirate marriage. It got its name because the Latin word for brother-in-law is levir. In this practice, if a man’s brother died and that brother’s wife had no children, it was the responsibility of the surviving brother to marry her and give her some kids. Now, before you go thinking this whole thing smacks of Maury Povich, let’s consider what good could come from this practice. This law was put in place at a time when women had limited means for survival outside of the support of a male relative (father, husband, son), and they also had limited rights to inheritance. Note in both cases I said limited – there were women who made their way on their own and some who inherited, but these were, at least at the supposed time of this law, somewhat exceptional. The law of levirate marriage, then, helped protect a potentially vulnerable widow, and provided for a line of inheritance for the dead brother’s family, keeping property in the tribe. That is the ideal situation.

    Of course, ideal situations are fine as long as you don’t put actual people in the mix. As soon as actual people are involved, then it gets messy. Maybe that is why (in the Book of Ruth), the closest kinsman to Ruth’s dead husband is all cool with buying the field that belonged to that family line, but as soon as there is a woman attached to the purchase of that field, he backs off. He explains that it will mess things up with his own line of inheritance, which of course it could. The complications of reality may be exactly why scholars can’t determine how widely levirate marriage was practiced.

     We have two striking potential examples of this practice in action in the Bible. One is the negotiation between Boaz and that other kinsman for Ruth that I just mentioned. The other is Tamar’s insistence that Judah should give her his third son in marriage, and if he won’t then by God she is more righteous than he is when she disguises herself as a prostitute and gets pregnant from her father-in-law (see Genesis 38, and yes, I realize that would also make a good That’s In the Bible?! entry). The Judah – Tamar story narratively precedes the giving of the law in Deuteronomy, but two things to note there. First, the Bible was written down a thousand or so years after these events supposedly happened, so things may have gotten a bit mixed up. Or, it is also not unusual to have a custom, and then later decide to make it into a law, particularly if there is a feeling that a custom is starting to disappear. It is a typical reactionary move.

    Other than these two stories, though, we don’t’ really have any idea how or if levirate marriage was practiced. All we can say is that, since it shows up in this holy text, the people who honor this text want this type of law to reflect their values as well. In other words, there is an ideal that we take care of vulnerable women and we do all we can to preserve a familial line and keep property in the tribe. The value is there whether the practice is or not.

    Now, about this shoe thing….

    So as I said, it does not seem so shocking to us to take someone’s sandal, and then to call them the house of the removed sandal. Mostly it just seems weird. It might be important to know, however, that at times in the Bible feet and sometimes legs represent male genitalia, specifically penises. That is certainly the case in Ruth, where Ruth uncovers Boaz’s “feet” on the threshing room floor. Now, sometimes a foot is just a foot, but sometimes not. Since reproduction is at the heart of the argument there, I think that the removal of the sandal represents a curse for barrenness on the unwilling kinsman’s house. If he will not help perpetuate his brother’s family line, then let him be cursed with an end to his own line. So, to be the house with a removed sandal is to be a house with a removed penis.

    I think I will just leave it at that.  

Do Not Kill

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