Is a brother still obligated to marry his brother’s wife if his brother dies? I was recently challenged on this issue by a reader who disagrees with my conclusion that the tithe is mandatory. “If the tithe is still mandatory,” he said, “then what about the kinsman redeemer law?” This is a valid question.
The short answer is: No, because the kinsman redeemer law was a seed law, and seed laws (along with land laws and priestly laws) have been annulled.
But most Christians answer “No” on different grounds: everything in the Old Testament has been annulled, they say. I will discuss why in a follow-up post.
If you stick around and read the following exposition for why the kinsman redeemer law has been annulled, I think you may be blessed by the theological insight that an analysis and understanding of this law bring us.
Most of my explanation follows Gary North’s exposition of the law in his economic commentary on Deuteronomy. If you’re interested in reading a longer, more detailed analysis than what I’ve written here, then I encourage you to download his book and flip to page 794 of Inheritance and Dominion. It’s free.
Otherwise, I encourage you to read on.
THE LAW AND ITS BACKGROUND
The law is stated as follows:
“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. 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. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 ESV)
It’s worth noting right away the reason stated by this law for its intended purpose: that his [the dead man’s] name may not be blotted out of Israel.
This was an issue of inheritance. The inheritance was to be covenantal, not biological. It couldn’t be biological: the man died before he had any children.
In other words, a son would be born for the purpose of adoption into the family to carry on the name of his covenantal — not biological — father so that the deceased man’s inheritance could be transferred to this new covenantal heir.
This means that the brother who carried out the duty of marrying his dead brother’s wife and having a son with her would not carry along his own family name unless he had additional sons. The biological son he had with his brother’s wife would be legally adopted into his dead brother’s family and would then assume the dead brother’s name and inheritance.
It’s also important to note a point that many people miss: the brothers had to have lived together for the surviving brother to be legally bound to fulfill this duty.
GOD’S NAME IN HISTORY
Israel was God’s son (Ex. 4:22), and his son’s survival on earth meant God’s name surviving in history. As North wrote, “The preservation of a man’s name in Israel had something to do with the preservation of God’s name in history.”
But God is sovereign and transcendant over history. He isn’t dependent upon Israel to ensure that his name lives on. So this was really about something else: the promise he made to Abraham.
God promised to send a seed into history through the woman to crush the head of the serpent. (Gen. 3:15) This promise applied to the world outside the Garden (where Adam and Eve would shortly find themselves).
God later narrowed the scope when he made a promise to Abraham that he would have an offspring to whom the land would be given. (Gen. 12:7) We know from Paul that this was referring to a single person: Christ. (Gal. 3:16)
Several years later, God narrowed the scope even further when he inspired Jacob to prophecy as he was transferring his inheritance to his children that the seed, the Messiah, would come from the tribe of Judah. (Gen. 49:10)
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE
Because of Jacob’s prophecy, the Israelites looked with anticipation to the future as they awaited the coming of the Messiah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” (Gen. 49:10)
Most Israelites would not live to see this promise fulfilled themselves, but they knew that at some point in the future their descendants would.
But as members of covenant Israel (signified by their covenantal mark of circumcision), though they themselves would not necessarily live long enough to see the advent of the Messiah, nevertheless they were still heirs to the promise made to Abraham. (Gal. 3:16)
By passing on his family line through offspring, a husband was participating in the promise. Not only did having children guarantee his family’s future, but he was playing a role in securing Israel’s future — which depended on the coming of the prophesied seed.
The law of the kinsman redeemer required the surviving brother to have lived with his deceased brother before he died. This indicated that the surviving brother had utilized the land and resources of his deceased brother. This close proximity — geographically and economically — made each, judicially, the kinsmen redeemer and blood avenger of the other.
By order of the law, therefore, he was required to raise his brother’s name from the dead; or, in other words, to “redeem his brother’s name.”
LAWS ABOUT INHERITANCE
In Mosaic Israel, a man’s land was inherited by his sons at his death; if he had no sons, then his daughter received the inheritance. If no daughter, then his nearest male relatives received the inheritance. (Num. 27:8-11)
As North points out, though the inheritance law laid out a succession path by specifying other family members beyond a man’s immediate family who could receive his inheritance, there is no specific law stating that someone other than a brother could or could not be the kinsman redeemer.
Did that mean that, if the man who died childless had no brother, no one could become the kinsman redeemer?
But surely such a situation would arise when a woman’s husband died without leaving a brother, or without leaving a brother who lived under the same household; this would have been a legal situation that the ancient courts would have resolved.
The lawyers would have looked to the Bible for guidance. This is what North has done.
Based on the Bible’s structure of authority revealed in other laws (such as in Num. 28:8-11) and the strong link between judicial responsibility and economic benefits (Luke 12:47-48), North concludes that the first person in line to inherit the childless man’s legacy — assuming there was no brother to do so — would be the closest male relative (kinsman), geographically, who marries his childless widow. (p.799)
THE STORY OF RUTH
The story of Ruth features an application of the kinsman redeemer law.
Ruth was a Moabite. She married an Israelite. Her husband was the son of Elimelech and his wife, Naomi. They also had a second son. He married a Moabite woman also. Through the course of events, Elimelech died, and then after him so did his two sons — one of which was Ruth’s husband.
So all that was left of Naomi’s family was her and her two daughters-in-law. One of them returned to Moab. Ruth, on the other hand, petitioned to stay with Naomi. For, as she told Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Naomi allowed Ruth to remain with her. They returned to Israel.
Eventually, Ruth met Boaz and fell for him. His statement to her confirms North’s conclusions about the nearest kinsman taking up the role of kinsman redeemer should there be no brother to do so: “And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I.” (Ruth 3:12)
So Boaz went to the city gate and met with the nearer kinsman redeemer so that they could talk. They met in front of ten elders in order to establish witnesses to the discussion. As the nearest kinsman, this other relative was qualified to inherit Elimelech’s land that Naomi was selling in accordance with the inheritance law set forth in Numbers 27:8-11. Boaz told this man that if he didn’t want to redeem the land then, being next in line, Boaz was interested in doing so.
But if the nearest kinsman decided to pass the responsibility of kinsman redeemer onto Boaz, the elders had been gathered to witness the decision.
The nearest kinsman at first agreed. However, Boaz then told him about Ruth and that, should he redeem the land, then he also would have to fulfill the role of the kinsman redeemer with Ruth to “perpetrate the name of the dead in his inheritance”. (Ruth 4:5)
At this point the man turned down the opportunity and passed his right of redemption to Boaz. His reason is noteworthy: “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance.” (Ruth 4:6)
So even though the man wanted the land, he did not want to marry Ruth. Taking the land, by his own assessment, would somehow threaten his own inheritance. In accordance with the law, since he did not live with Elimelech, he did not have to accept the responsibility.
As the law states, the woman was to spit in the man’s face if he refused. But she could only do this to a man who had dwelled with her husband. (Deut. 25:7-9)
Why would the man want to take the land knowing about Naomi, but not after finding out about Ruth? He knew Naomi would have been too old to have anymore children. If she died childless, then her land would automatically be transferred to her dead husband’s nearest kinsman: him.
However, even if the land was transferred to him, but someone else married Ruth, and then Ruth had a son with that man, the land would be taken from him and transferred to Ruth’s son through the kinsman redeemer law.
Boaz was letting this man know his intentions: you can take the land as you’re lawfully able to do, but I intend to marry Ruth. This put the kinsman at risk: if Boaz and Ruth had a son together, he would lose the land.
The only way he could guarantee keeping that land, then, would be to marry Ruth for himself so that Boaz couldn’t.
If the man was single, and he agreed to marry Ruth, this means his biological son with Ruth would inherit the land, but in the name of Ruth’s dead husband. His own covenant (family) name would be cut off, as it were, even though his biological son lived on.
If the man had been previously married with children of his own (perhaps he was a widow), and he married Ruth, then he would not be able to bequeath Naomi’s land to his own children, but only to his son with Ruth. The land he inherited from Naomi would become Elimelech’s namesake’s land. He would spend his efforts working and improving the land, only to have it passed on to a son who would inherit the land, but not his name.
From this we can understand something: the concept of a man’s family name and his name’s continuity through history and into the future was a very powerful notion in Israel.
The nearest kinsman preferred to inherit land that he could pass on in his name. Since Naomi was too old to have anymore children, this would be the case only if Ruth didn’t marry and have a son. Even though his biological heirs would inherit the land should he have married Ruth, his family name would be cut off.
WHY THE MAN TURNED DOWN THE OFFER
In Mosaic Israel passing on the family name took precedence over passing on biological inheritance.
In our day, we may not be so quick to grasp this. We tend to place more importance on what our biological heirs inherit than propagating our family names into history.
But in Israel, propagating the family name into history was very important.
Again, as discussed above, it was tied to the eschatalogical promise of the arrival of the seed, the Messiah, through the line of Judah, and also in the desire of people to participate in that promise. Not only was it important for the tribal distinctions to be maintained through specific inheritance laws, but families hoped to participate in Messiah’s arrival by propagating their family name into the future.
Because of this, we can better understand now why covenant lines (family lines) were more important to people in Israel than bloodlines. This is why the first kinsman declined and said “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance.”
Consider this: Ruth was adopted into the covenant line of her husband (Elimelech) by way of the marriage oath. Her first husband was of the tribe of Judah. (Ruth 1:1) She was a Moabite.
The Moabites were a particularly despised people by the Lord for their special kind of repugnance. They came from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his firstborn daughter (Gen. 19:37), and they also hired Balaam to curse the Israelites in their journey through the desert. Consequently, it took 10 generations of males for Moabites to become citizens of Israel. (Deut. 23:3)
Contrast this with the Egyptians who, despite their great persecution of the Israelites (before being broken by Moses), could become citizens after only 3 generations. (Deut. 23:7-8)
In Ruth’s case, by Boaz’s grace and through his judicial role of kinsman redeemer, she was permanently adopted into the covenant line of Judah through marriage. Not only that, but she continued the line by giving birth to a son, Obed, who would become the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David.
Consider another such case: Rahab the prostitute. By her faith, she helped the Israelites in their seige against Jericho, and because of this she and her household alone were allowed to survive the destruction of Jericho. She lived in Israel for the rest of her life (Josh. 6:25).
We find out later something significant: she married a man named Salmon, and together they gave birth to Boaz. (Matt. 1:5)
Rahab, also, was adopted by covenantal marriage into the covenantal line of Judah. Because of her son Boaz’s subsequent mercy and grace towards Ruth, she was retroactively adopted into the covenantal line of not only Judah, but Jesus Christ himself.
Both women were gentiles adopted into the Mosaic covenant and made heirs to the promise. This says something: adoption is the most authoritative relationship in the Bible.
I’ll repeat North’s own words here because they are succinct and insightful: “Through adoption, the disinherited children of Adam re-enter the family of God. Adoption is the judicial basis of inheritance. Adoption is by covenant oath, not biology.” (p.802)
As a Moabite, Ruth was a social pariah. Boaz humbled himself in order to marry her. He had to suffer the certain “humiliation” that would have come from meeting new people when they found out that his wife was a Moabite, and he also had to cut off his own family name by executing his judicial office of kinsman redeemer:
“Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.” (Ruth 4:10)
But because he humbled himself, he was lifted up with great blessings in history forever: though his own family line was cut off in his day and age, he will be forever known because of his participation in the greatest family line in all of history: that of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. (Matt. 1:5, Luke 3:32)
The law of the kinsman redeemer, then, was a seed law meant to protect and perpetrate the covenant line of the promised seed. It was also associated with the land laws since physical property was transferred through inheritance.
One of the main principles we see in play is that of imputation of legal status. In this particular case, one man’s family name was legally imputed to another man, and by this judicial imputation the landed inheritance could then be legally transferred to the other man’s biological heir. The land was legally transferred to the dead man’s covenantal heir.
Boaz was in no way bound to serve as the kinsman redeemer. He was not the closest relative of Elimelech. He could have married some other woman and propagated his own family line. But because of the grace that he showed to this gentile woman, his covenantal act of adoption, through which he cut off his own name in order to resurrect that of Elimelech, secured his place in history.
In no way does blood line factor into any of this. Boaz’s biological son would receive Elimelech’s inheritance as an adopted heir into Elimelech’s family covenant by way of judicial imputation of Elimelech’s name.
A FAMILIAR STORY
Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should.
What Boaz did on a small scale, Jesus did on a big scale. Jesus was the covenantal heir of the kingdom through the line of David. But through his death and refusal to be married to a wife on earth, he ensured that his inheritance — the kingdom of God — would be passed onto his covental heirs (as opposed to biological ones).
How? Through covenantal adoption. He did what Boaz did: gave up his family name in order to secure the inheritance for his kinsmen. (North, p.805)
Instead of tribal continuity, inheritance is now transferred through confession of faith when we adopt a new family name: “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:26)
Through his death, Jesus took the kingdom away from the Jews and gave it to his Church, opening it to anyone who will receive him. (Matt. 21:43)
In the Old Covenant, to become an heir to the promise you had to marry into or be adopted by a tribal family. Males who were adopted into the family were sealed by the mark and oath of circumcision (Gen. 17:11-13, Ex. 12:44,48); females were represented covenantally by their husband or father.
In the New Covenant, we now confess faith in Jesus Christ as our savior and take his covenantal oath by being sealed by the mark of Holy Baptism. We are then judicially imputed with Christ’s name (“Christians”) and become legal heirs of a portion of his inheritance in the kingdom. (Eph. 1:3-5, Acts 20:32)
In the New Covenant, we perpetrate Christ’s name by adoption into the covenant line through conversion a la The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20)
AN OBJECTION: PRE-MOSAIC ISRAEL
The seed laws and land laws of the Mosaic covenant were meant to foreshadow the coming of Christ and the reign of his kingdom. They legally preserved the tribal separation within the land of Israel, and they legally preserved the geographical boundaries of national Israel.
Since these prophesies have been fulfilled, the seed and land laws have been annulled. Specifically, covenantal adoption into Christ’s church has replaced the law of the kinsman redeemer.
But what about the objection that the kinsman redeemer was practiced prior to its codification into law under the Mosaic covenant? We know from Scripture that it was already a law. Onan refused to fulfil his legal requirement (Gen. 38:8-9). Because of his disobedience to God’s law, God cursed him with a negative sanction: death. (Gen. 38:10)
This instance (pre-Moses) shows that the law was still tied to the tribal units of Jacob’s family (Israel). The law of the kinsman redeemer applied to Israelite families in particular, not to the family unit in general.
Since they do not apply to the family unit in general, they are not cross-boundary laws that are still in effect today.
The law of the kinsman redeemer was a seed law that is no longer in effect today. It was intended to ensure tribal separation and legal transfers of inheritance in order to bring about Jacob’s Messianic prophecy of the promised seed. (Gen 49)
A specific application of this law took place between Boaz and Ruth. Because Boaz demonstrated mercy to Ruth and sacrificed his own namesake in order to continue the family line of his kinsman, Elimelech, his name was forever raised up in history as an heir in the specific line of Jesus Christ.
Elimelech’s name is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible outside the book of Ruth.
In the same fashion, Jesus sacrificed his namesake by dying for us on the cross to ensure that his rightful inheritance, the Kingdom of God, would be transferred to the Church. By confessing saving faith in Christ and receiving the covenantal mark of baptism, we are adopted into his covenantal family line and, because his legal name is imputed to us (“Christians”), we become rightful heirs to a portion of his inheritance.
Jesus has redeemed his kinsmen: our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We have been adopted out of the covenant of death reserved for Adam’s heirs into the covenant of life in Christ.