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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 5–12
Verses 5–12

Here is, I. The law settled concerning the marrying of the brother’s widow. It appears from the story of Judah’s family that this had been an ancient usage (Gen. 38:8), for the keeping up of distinct families. The case put is a case that often happens, of a man’s dying without issue, it may be in the prime of his time, soon after his marriage, and while his brethren were yet so young as to be unmarried. Now in this case, 1. The widow was not to marry again into any other family, unless all the relations of her husband did refuse her, that the estate she was endowed with might not be alienated. 2. The husband’s brother, or next of kin, must marry her, partly out of respect to her, who, having forgotten her own people and her father’s house, should have all possible kindness shown her by the family into which she was married; and partly out of respect to the deceased husband, that though he was dead and gone he might not be forgotten, nor lost out of the genealogies of his tribe; for the first-born child, which the brother or next kinsman should have by the widow, should be denominated from him that was dead, and entered in the genealogy as his child, Deut. 25:5, 6. Under that dispensation we have reason to think men had not so clear and certain a prospect of living themselves on the other side death as we have now, to whom life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel; and therefore they could not but be the more desirous to live in their posterity, which innocent desire was in some measure gratified by this law, an expedient being found out that, though a man had no child by his wife, yet his name should not be put out of Israel, that is, out of the pedigree, or, which is equivalent, remain there under the brand of childlessness. The Sadducees put a case to our Saviour upon this law, with a design to perplex the doctrine of the resurrection by it (Matt. 22:24-33), perhaps insinuating that there was no need of maintaining the immortality of the soul and a future state, since the law had so well provided for the perpetuating of men’s names and families in the world. But, 3. If the brother, or next of kin, declined to do this good office to the memory of him that was gone, what must be done in that case? Why, (1.) He shall not be compelled to do it, Deut. 25:7. If he like her not, he is at liberty to refuse her, which, some think, was not permitted in this case before this law of Moses. Affection is all in all to the comfort of the conjugal relation; this is a thing which cannot be forced, and therefore the relation should not be forced without it. (2.) Yet he shall be publicly disgraced for not doing it. The widow, as the person most concerned for the name and honour of the deceased, was to complain to the elders of his refusal; if he persist in it, she must pluck off his shoe, and spit in his face, in open court (or, as the Jewish doctors moderate it, spit before his face), thus to fasten a mark of infamy upon him, which was to remain with his family after him, Deut. 25:8-10. Note, Those justly suffer in their own reputation who do not do what they ought to preserve the name and honour of others. He that would not build up his brother’s house deserved to have this blemish put upon his own, that it should be called the house of him that had his shoe loosed, in token that he deserved to go barefoot. In the case of Ruth we find this law executed (Ruth 4:7), but because, upon the refusal of the next kinsman, there was another ready to perform the duty of a husband’s brother, it was that other that plucked off the shoe, and not the widow—Boaz, and not Ruth.

II. A law for the punishing of an immodest woman, Deut. 25:11, 12. The woman that by the foregoing law was to complain against her husband’s brother for not marrying her, and to spit in his face before the elders, needed a good measure of assurance; but, lest the confidence which that law supported should grow to an excess unbecoming the sex, here is a very severe but just law to punish impudence and immodesty. 1. The instance of it is confessedly scandalous to the highest degree. A woman could not do it unless she were perfectly lost to all virtue and honour. 2. The occasion is such as might in part excuse it; it was to help her husband out of the hands of one that was too hard for him. Now if the doing of it in a passion, and with such a good intention, was to be so severely punished, much more when it was done wantonly and in lust. 3. The punishment was that her hand should be cut off; and the magistrates must not pretend to be more merciful than God: Thy eye shall not pity her. Perhaps our Saviour alludes to this law when he commands us to cut off the right hand that offends us, or is an occasion of sin to us. Better put the greatest hardships that can be upon the body than ruin the soul for ever. Modesty is the hedge of chastity, and therefore ought to be very carefully preserved and kept up by both sexes.