The Levirate Law
God’s Laws require keeping it all in family.
In the Law of Moses is a provision which requires a man marry his childless brother’s widow and raise up children to claim that brother’s inheritance. If she already has children, it would already be the duty of the extended family to manage things for them.
We understand so much without trouble these days, but we struggle over why this seemed so important that failure to perform carried such a high penalty. God took the life of Onan, son of Judah, for refusing this duty prior to the Law of Moses. It was a common Ancient Near Eastern custom which God included in the covenant of Israel. We may not know much about the origin of the custom, but we can abstract the Law of Moses enough to understand why God included it.
There are two things at issue here. First, DNA is God’s thing in this world. Don’t mess with it. God decides when people conceive children, and has a plan for each life. It is wholly His prerogative, when people have sex, what comes from it. I’m not suggesting contraception is evil, nor artificial insemination; raising that issue simply confuses the deeper moral considerations. It’s not about performance, but about the moral fabric and how we understand it. That we struggle to understand simply indicates how far we have drifted from the truth of God’s Laws. In the broadest sense, ancient peoples regarded childlessness as shameful, as children were one of the highest blessings and privileges of life. If God doesn’t want you to have children, nothing you do can frustrate His will. Neither can you prevent them if He requires it of you. God is in charge and humans can only make their situations more or less painful within His plans.
Second is the fundamental requirement of all God’s Laws which demand social stability. That’s pretty much the whole point of every commandment regarding our conduct with each other. After the Fall, there are limits to what we can do about social stability, but God’s Laws are the path to the pinnacle, and any departure guarantees His wrath because it guarantees some measure of failure. All the business of sex restrictions and requirements touch on this, and all our human ingenuity will hardly change human nature. What matters here is building a communal life based on observing limits God says are hard-wired into our very existence, limits which the human intellect cannot discover any other way except through revelation. God requires certain things in order to offer His promise life will be as good as it can be.
We were designed, and God demands, we live communally in an extended family setting. There may be reasons for rare individuals to depart that setting, but the basic requirement stands. There is no better life possible on this earth than the tribal setting. It’s all about cohesion, and human cohesion reaches it’s highest state in the tribal lifestyle. This is the single greatest factor in keeping Satan out of your lives and being open to the higher provisions of what the Laws of God offer. If you cannot live in close proximity to your kinfolks, you are damaged, and need healing. Nothing man can devise will offer a stronger bond of cohesion. (Yes, the covenant community of faith can fulfill this, but that’s another article.) In essence, the only people with any just authority from God to exercise influence and power in your daily existence are those related by blood or covenant. Fundamental to the Covenant of Noah was that necessity of executing those who pose a serious threat to social cohesion fell on the shoulders of blood kin, particularly the nearest clan elder. Consider the implications if the only person who can hold the duty of taking your life over criminal acts is your own grandfather, as it were.
So when your life is mostly a matter of rural agriculture, as it was for ancient Israel, land ownership becomes an issue. Starting at the tribal level and working its way down to the smallest extended family household, real estate needs to be kept in the family. The idea is to avoid inserting aliens into your clan society. It’s okay if someone in the neighboring community, who happens to be wealthy, should temporarily hold title to a field in your village, but it shouldn’t be permanent. This disrupts social stability, introducing an element of lesser accountability. Everything must remain a matter of relations between persons, and any degree of depersonalizing business is simply wrong, in the sense it removes that accountability. While there are good people out there, there are at least as many bad people, and lots of folks who aren’t very much of either good or bad, just sort of decent. The threat is generalized; in a general sense you can’t allow outsiders to hold property inside your communal boundaries.
So God left this Levirate Law as a provision to strengthen the local claim over the turf. It’s not really about the real estate itself, but the mechanism of cohesion. God can still destroy the local society by way of attrition, if He sees the need by His own divine estimation, but our attention is focused on the mechanisms for making and keeping a stable society. It’s fundamental to human nature we treat our blood kin better than anyone else, and so we should. That’s proper moral living. Thus, the Levirate is all about preventing property from drifting out of the local ownership, and keeping the proper lines of inheritance working.
So what’s wrong with, say, nepotism is not bringing in the family, but it’s wrong to assume someone wouldn’t and shouldn’t bring in their family. The system is wrong when nepotism is regarded as a problem. Creating a system which is designed to operate best without nepotism is an evil system.
We have so very much to learn and unlearn to live justly before the Lord.