Cook-dignity for the lowly–also leverite marriage

Go read Deuteronomy 24:8-25:4 and your first impression will be that nothing here has anything to do with the commandment not to bear false witness.  But Stephen L. Cook in Reading Deuteronomy insists that this section of Deuteronomy is supposed to elaborate on the ninth commandment.

Well, he does have some reasons.  I don’t buy them.  But they do help us get into the text a little more deeply.  The passage starts off by saying that if you have a dreaded skin disease, you should follow the instructions of the Levitical priests.  Verse 9 refers to Numbers 12 and the story of how God had cursed Miriam, Moses’ sister, with leprosy.  Now the sin of Miriam was that she had attacked Moses’ reputation.  She had broken the ninth commandment.

She was healed by following Moses’ instructions.  After Moses’ death the Levitical priests were his successors and carried on this function.  However, I think for Cook’s point to hold–that these verses head up a section about the ninth commandment–you would need some evidence that every instance of leprosy was thought to punish an instance of perjury. But he does not follow that line at all. So I have a hard time seeing that a law making the Levites healers like Moses always refers to Miriam’s sin.

He does hold that the laws about debtors and day laborers in  24:10-15 protect the dignity of people who might be maligned.  He believes such people were falsely thought to deserve their station in life.  He refers to Proverbs 24:30 ff. which seems to blame poverty on laziness.

He points out that there were many ways to lose your farm besides stupidity or sloth.  The need to treat debtors and day laborers with dignity also applies to widows, and orphans and foreign refugees (24:17).  To say that such people deserve their social position and poverty is to bear false witness.

Criminals, like the people at the bottom of the social ladder, cannot be treated inhumanely. So beatings for criminal behavior have a 40 lash limit (25:1-3).  This may seem part of a very harsh system.  But other Near Eastern laws were worse.  Assyrians gave up to 100 lashes.

Not only the poor and criminals must be treated with dignity, but even the ox who worked the fields (25:4).

I appreciate that these laws inject some decency and protection for the less fortunate into a culture that bordered on cruelty.  But I am baffled by the claim that they are all about bearing false witness.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10 details the leverite marriage law.  A brother was to marry his sister-in-law if his brother died.  This was back when a-woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a bicycle did not apply.  The woman and her children needed to replace the head of their household both to avoid poverty and to pass on the family line.

Cook relates this to the command not to covet your neighbor’s wife.

He related it to the weird story of Tamar in Genesis 38.  Tamar’s husband, Er, died childless.  His brother, Onan, was supposed to provide offspring for Tamar, but he used a primitive method of birth control (this has nothing to do with masturbation although onanism became a name for the practice).  After that, people saw Tamar as cursed and she was not given to the next brother in line.  So years later she impersonates a prostitute in order to get pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah.

The ritual of the sandal (25:9) is meant to shame men like the ones who did not do their duty toward Tamar.  Cook explains that the foot was a euphemism and the image of the foot slipping into a sandal had a double meaning.  So what the widow is saying by her action is “I reject this man; keep his overeager ‘foot’ away from me!”

That is amusing.  But I am not seeing the “overeager” part in the text.   The next thing after the ninth commandment, though, is the one about not coveting the neighbor’s wife.  So Cook fits this into his scheme.

Once again, although I am not inclined to see the text of Deuteronomy structured upon the Ten Commandments, Cook is worth reading.  For one thing, he knows a lot about tribal anthropology all over the world.  So he was able to show that other tribal cultures have laws similar to leverite marriage.  In some of them the responsibility to provide a husband for the widow belongs to the whole kinship group, not just the brother-in-law.  So Ruth and Boaz might fall under this kind of an understanding.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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