HOUSE OF THE UNSANDALED
When the average contemporary Christian thinks of the Mosaic Law, what comes to mind are the “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments. Centuries removed from when they were first instituted and remotely distant from its modern practice, most Christians don’t appreciate the breadth and scope of the customs, rituals, and traditions of the Law of Moses.
As an all-encompassing manual for living, the set of regulations and decrees that God gave Moses on Mt Sinai cover every aspect of the lives of the people. The Mosaic Law is a code of conduct that regulates worship, governs behavior, guides relationships, controls commerce, and directs social interactions.
While some of these customs and practices are conveniently popular, like the instructions on tithing for instance, the others are mostly obscure, hidden in those sections of the Bible that most Christians skip and avoid.
One of those arcane aspects of the Mosaic Law is a rather fascinating instruction given by God to Moses on the family’s responsibilities to widows. The Law provides specific prescription on how widows are to be treated and cared for by the family after the death of the husband. Known as the “Family of the Unsandaled,” this aspect of the law is found in Deuteronomy 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.’”
Levirate marriages provided that an unmarried brother of a dead man who died childless was to marry the widow in order to provide an heir. Though not compulsory, this practice reflected fraternal affection, and if the unmarried brother refused to conform to this practice, he was confronted with contempt and humiliation by the elders. The perpetuation of the name of the deceased husband as a member of the covenant people witnessed to the dignity of the individual (MacArthur Study Bible).
There are those who subscribe to the notion that women neither had rights nor were entitled to inheritance in ancient cultures but were mere objects for pleasures and breeding offspring. Such an erroneous perception flies in the face of the intricate system of public shaming ceremony described in Deuteronomy 25, in which a wronged widow is given the opportunity to seek and obtain justice by means of a sophisticated act of symbolic punishment of the wrongdoer.
While this particular provision of the Mosaic Law no longer applies to modern-day Christians, it’s instructive to note that in the economy of God, every citizen has a right regardless of gender, and the well-being of everyone is paramount. Whether it’s in the Old Testament or New Testament, there’s equity under the law.