1 “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, 2 then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. 3 Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.
4 “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.
5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish 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 perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’” – Deuteronomy 25:1-10 ESV
It would be difficult to ignore the extreme specificity of many of these laws. Moses brings up a wide range of scenarios that deal with some of the most peculiar and particular situations imaginable. In these ten verses alone, he shifts from talking about just punishment for the guilty to the proper treatment of domesticated animals. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he brings up the law concerning levirate marriage.
While these three topics appear to have no common link to bind them together, they each fall under the overarching topic of justice. God demanded that His people live together in a society marked by justice and righteousness. It was essential that they treat one another well, exhibiting respect and reverence for every one of God’s chosen people, regardless of their social status or financial condition. God even placed a high regard on the ethical treatment of animals, expecting His people to care for them as exactly what they were: Blessings or gifts from His gracious hand.
In the case of a dispute between two individuals, they were instructed to go before the appointed judges and present their evidence. The judges were charged with acquiting the innocent and condemning the guilty. In prosecuting the case, if it was determined that the guilty party’s crime required a public beating as punishment, there were to be limits placed on the number of stripes delivered. The punishment must fit the crime. There was to be no abuse of the guilty through excessive discipline. In fact, Moses indicated that no more than 40 stripes or lashes were to be allowed. Obviously, this is dealing with crimes undeserving of capital punishment. But the guilty were to be justly tried, convicted, and disciplined for their crimes. But it was important that criminals not be degraded through excessive and unnecessary punishment. Even while meting out justice, the judges of Israel were expected to treat the guilty with dignity and respect.
At this point, Moses makes another one of his seemingly awkward transitions as he shifts his focus from dealing with criminals to the proper care of farm animals. Oxen played a vital role in the agrarian culture of the Israelites. In this case, they were used to tread the grain in order to separate the wheat from the husk. The basic idea was that, if the ox was forced to tread the grain, it should also be allowed to graze at it labored. Even animals should be treated fairly.
The apostle Paul would use this very law as an argument for the financial support of those who were called by God as ministers of the gospel.
For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? – 1 Corinthians 9:9-12 ESV
He would bring this topic up again in his first letter to Timothy.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 ESV
According to Paul, the underlying principle behind this law had to do with fairness. A criminal was to be treated with dignity and respect, and so was a common farm animal. There was no place for abuse or mistreatment of man or beast.
In the third scenario, Moses brings up the case of a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly. This law deals with what has become known as the levirate marriage. This term comes from the Latin word levir, which refers to a husband’s brother. If a man died without having an heir, his widow could appeal to one of his unmarried brothers, requesting that he marry her. The purpose behind this union was to preserve the deceased man’s legacy through the birth of a son who would bear his name.
It seems clear from the text that this regulation concerned two brothers who shared the same home. And since the Mosaic law prohibited polygamy, it would seem obvious that the brother of the deceased would have to be unmarried to fulfill his commitment to the widow. But if the man was unwilling to marry his dead brother’s wife, there was a process she was to follow. She was to take the matter before the elders of the city, who were then required to approach the reluctant brother and give him a second opportunity to do what was right and just. Should he persist with his refusal to marry her, the woman was required to “go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV). And this physical display of humiliation was to be accompanied by a verbal curse: “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV).
From that point forward, the brother would be forced to carry the reputation of one who refused to do the right thing. He had shown justice to his widowed sister-in-law. And this was a serious issue in the culture of that day, because a widowed woman was considered damaged goods. She would have a difficult time finding a husband and, in most cases, would end up living in poverty. So, for this brother to shirk his responsibility to perpetuate his brother’s name was a serious issue that could have dire consequences for the widow.
As with the other scenarios covered in this section, this is all about justice. God was extremely concerned about how His people treated one another. They were not free to do as they wished. Yes, the brother could refuse to marry his widowed sister-in-law, but not without consequences. A man could refuse to allow his ox to eat from the grain it was threshing, but this would be considered inhumane and limit the effectiveness of the animal. A guilty man could be given more punishment than he deserved, but it would be unjust and, ultimately, non-productive.
God had His ways of doing things and He expected His people to abide by His will. If they did, it would go well with them. If they refused, they would have to reap the results of their stubbornness. Ultimately, all their behavior, whether good or bad, reflected back on God because they were His chosen people. They represented Him on earth and all that they did was intended to reflect His glory. Which is why Moses spent so much time addressing these highly specific situations that dealt with every area of daily life. Nothing is unimportant to God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.