On Levirate Marriages. - Deu 25:5, Deu 25:6. If brothers lived together, and one of them died childless, the wife of the deceased was not to be married outside (i.e., away from the family) to a strange man (one not belonging to her kindred); her brother-in-law was to come to her and take her for his wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her. יַבֵּם, denom. from יָבָם, a brother-in-law, husband's brother, lit., to act the brother-in-law, i.e., perform the duty of a brother-in-law, which consisted in his marrying his deceased brother's widow, and begetting a son of children with her, the first-born of whom was “to stand upon the name of his deceased brother,” i.e., be placed in the family of the deceased, and be recognised as the heir of his property, that his name (the name of the man who had died childless) might not be wiped out or vanish out of Israel. The provision, “without having a son” (ben), has been correctly interpreted by the lxx, Vulg., Josephus (Ant. iv. 8, 23), and the Rabbins, as signifying childless (having no seed, Mat 22:25); for if the deceased had simply a daughter, according to Num 27:4., the perpetuation of his house and name was to be ensured through her. The obligation of a brother-in-law's marriage only existed in cases where the brothers had lived together, i.e., in one and the same place, not necessarily in one house or with a common domestic establishment and home (vid., Gen 13:6; Gen 36:7). - This custom of a brother-in-law's (Levirate) marriage, which is met with in different nations, and as an old traditional custom among the Israelites (see at Gen 38:8.), had its natural roots in the desire inherent in man, who is formed for immortality, and connected with the hitherto undeveloped belief in an eternal life, to secure a continued personal existence for himself and immorality for his name, through the perpetuation of his family and in the life of the son who took his place. This desire was not suppressed in Israel by divine revelation, but rather increased, inasmuch as the promises given to the patriarchs were bound up with the preservation and propagation of their seed and name. The promise given to Abraham for his seed would of necessity not only raise the begetting of children in the religious views of the Israelites into the work desired by God and well-pleasing to Him, but would also give this significance to the traditional custom of preserving the name and family by the substitution of a marriage of duty, that they would thereby secure to themselves and their family a share in the blessing of promise. Moses therefore recognised this custom as perfectly justifiable; but he sought to restrain it within such limits, that it should not present any impediment to the sanctification of marriage aimed at by the law. He took away the compulsory character, which it hitherto possessed, by prescribing in Deu 25:7., that if the surviving brother refused to marry his widowed sister-in-law, she was to bring the matter into the gate before the elders of the town (vid., Deu 21:19), i.e., before the magistrates; and if the brother-in-law still persisted in his refusal, she was to take his shoe from off his foot and spit in his face, with these words: “So let it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.”
The taking off of the shoe was an ancient custom in Israel, adopted, according to Rth 4:7, in cases of redemption and exchange, for the purpose of confirming commercial transactions. The usage arose from the fact, that when any one took possession of landed property he did so by treading upon the soil, and asserting his right of possession by standing upon it in his shoes. In this way the taking off of the shoe and handing it to another became a symbol of the renunciation of a man's position and property, - a symbol which was also common among the Indians and the ancient Germans (see my Archäologie, ii. p. 66). But the custom was an ignominious one in such a case as this, when the shoe was publicly taken off the foot of the brother-in-law by the widow whom he refused to marry. He was thus deprived of the position which he ought to have occupied in relation to her and to his deceased brother, or to his paternal house; and the disgrace involved in this was still further heightened by the fact that his sister-in-law spat in his face. This is the meaning of the words (cf. Num 12:14), and not merely spit on the ground before his eyes, as Saalschütz and others as well as the Talmudists (tr. Jebam. xii. 6) render it, for the purpose of diminishing the disgrace. “Build up his brother's house,” i.e., lay the foundation of a family or posterity for him (cf. Gen 16:2). - In addition to this, the unwilling brother-in-law was to receive a name of ridicule in Israel: “House of the shoe taken off” (הַנַּעַל חֲלוּץ, taken off as to his shoe; cf. Ewald, §288, b.), i.e., of the barefooted man, equivalent to “the miserable fellow;” for it was only in miserable circumstances that the Hebrews went barefoot (vid., Isa 20:2-3; eted as a false freedom granted to the female sex” (Baumgarten), the law is added immediately afterwards, that a woman whose husband was quarrelling with another, and who should come to his assistance by laying hold of the secret parts of the man who was striking her husband, should have her hand cut off.