Law of Sonship
Moses says in Deuteronomy 25:4,
4 You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.
Because we have already covered this verse earlier in relation to Deut. 24:15, we will not comment further on this law.
The next law is one of the foundations upon which the New Testament bases its idea of the sons of God.
5 When brothers live together [in fellowship on the family estate] and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as a wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And it shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel.
Under the Old Covenant, while Israel was living in Canaan, the land had been divided among the tribes and families. Each family lived in a community on its own property, which it had been given as an inheritance in the land. The law above postulates that a man might die childless, and that as a result, his inheritance would go to his brother, rather than to his heir.
This was a serious matter in those days, for their roots were in the land, and it was considered to be a shame—and even divine judgment—when a man had no heirs to carry on the family estate. Of course, keep in mind that if a man had a daughter, she was allowed to inherit the estate, and when she married, her husband was to leave his own estate and dwell with her (Num. 27:7). The only restriction was that she was not to marry a man from another tribe, so as to keep the borders of each tribe intact (Num. 36:6).
But if a man had neither sons nor daughters when he died, the law commanded his brother to beget at least one heir in proxy for his dead brother. The child would then be the living brother’s biological child, but the dead brother’s legal child.
The Story of Ruth
The law in Deut. 25:5-10 sets the background for the book of Ruth. During a famine, Elimelech and Naomi sold their land near Bethlehem until the year of Jubilee, when it would be returned to them according to the law. They took their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion and moved to the land of Moab.
While in Moab, Elimelech died, and soon the two sons died as well, leaving no children to inherit the estate at the year of Jubilee. Mahlon had married Ruth in the land of Moab, and so when Naomi returned to Bethlehem, Ruth chose to leave her Moabite family and go with her to Bethlehem.
There she fell in love with Boaz, who was a near kinsman to Mahlon. In their desire to marry, they discovered that she was the widow of Mahlon, the childless inheritor of the original property that had been sold some years earlier. The law required the nearest kinsman (“brother”) to marry her and beget a child who could inherit the estate. The problem was that Boaz was only second in line to fulfill this responsibility. Another nearer relative had the first right to marry her.
So Boaz confronted this unnamed relative who was first in line, asking him if he wished to marry Ruth. He refused, and so Boaz took Ruth and brought forth a son in the name of the deceased Mahlon. Ruth 4:16 and 17 says,
16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse. 17 And the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.
The child was born to Ruth and Boaz, but yet it was said that “a son has been born to Naomi.” Being the wife of Elimelech, to whom the estate belonged, Naomi was the legal heir of the estate as long as there were no children to inherit the land. But when the child (Obed) was born, he became the heir of Naomi. Hence, he was said to be her “son,” not biologically, but legally.
A son is not always a biological son. The Hebrew term is often used in a broader sense. In this case, Obed was Naomi’s legal son, or heir. It is one of the many examples in Scripture where, when necessary, the law takes precedence over biology or genealogy.
The Right to Refuse
Getting back to Deuteronomy 25, Moses continues by telling us how to handle cases where a man might refuse to take his dead brother’s wife and beget an heir through her. We see that even though it was his duty to do this, he had the right to refuse.
7 But if the man does not desire 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 establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.”
This is what Boaz did with the one who was first in line to fulfill this duty toward Ruth. They went to the elders who sat at the gate to judge disputes in a public courtroom. The man then made an official statement for the record that he did not want to take Ruth, and so it was established by law that this duty passed to Boaz, who was next in line.
8 Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, “I do not desire to take her,” 9 then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, “Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10 And in Israel his name shall be called, “The house of him whose sandal is removed.”
The significance of this judgment is not readily apparent to most of us today, for we no longer live in that culture. But to spit in one’s face was an insult, and to be known as “the house of him whose sandal is removed” also puts open shame upon that house and family.
New Covenant Application
The meaning of these things is more apparent when we apply this law under the New Covenant. Jesus was not married, nor did He beget any physical children. Thus, when He died on the cross, He died childless. Being the Heir of all things, it was His desire to have children who can inherit the earth with Him.
His first attempt to have children came with Adam, whom Luke calls “son of God” (3:38). But Adam sinned, and his sin was imputed to his heirs, making them all liable for the debt incurred by his sin. Hence, all became mortal, sharing in his death penalty (Romans 5:12). Under those circumstances, the laws of inheritance did not cease, but a new reality was established. Inheritance laws had to adjust to the fact of mortality.
Under this paradigm, the Old Covenant was established to govern the pattern inheritance in the land of Canaan. This inheritance was real, but it was not the full expression of what God had in mind. In fact, Israel under the Old Covenant was first in line to have opportunity to beget Christ. They refused, however, and so this responsibility passed to the second in line—those of the New Covenant. Hence, the story of Boaz and his reluctant relative was prophetic of the two covenants and their adherents.
New Covenant Inheritance
From the time of Adam, the inheritance was passed down to a single man in each generation. While each inheritor had a family and clan who could inherit with him—as long as they were in fellowship with him—they were really only beneficiaries of the one man’s inheritance. There was only one who owned the inheritance in each generation.
The inheritance was subdivided in the time of Jacob, for he gave the priesthood to Levi, the scepter to Judah, and the birthright to Joseph. In the course of history, these three parts would converge in Christ, as He reunited each part back under His leadership. In His first coming, He reunited the priesthood and the scepter. In His second coming, He will reunite the birthright of Joseph with that which He has already claimed.
The point is that Jesus Christ is the Heir. There is only one Heir. All others, if they wish to enjoy the benefits of His inheritance, must be in fellowship with Him. We know this as a covenant relationship. Under the Old Covenant, Israel agreed to remain in covenant with Him, but most of them broke their promise and served other gods. When He came in Person, most of the Judeans rejected Him as well, breaking the covenant and rendering it “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13, NASB).
Those who did accept Him, however, came under a New Covenant. Being second in line, they were given the authority to become the sons of God, as John 1:12 and 13 says,
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right (exousia, “legal authority”) to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born not of blood(line), nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
John speaks of this in terms of legal authority, rather than of direct bloodline, for Jesus had no physical children. Becoming one of His sons, that is, one of the “sons of God,” required the implementation of the laws of sonship based on Deuteronomy 25.
Sonship as a Legal Concept
One cannot claim sonship on the basis of genealogy through Israel, for the fellowship of that Old Covenant was broken. It can come only through the New Covenant, whose Mediator is Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). This New Covenant was foreshadowed by the Abrahamic covenant, where we see the great pattern for the household of faith. Abraham’s household included 318 men of military age (Genesis 14:14), none of whom were physical children of Abraham. Yet they were in fellowship with Him and were able to enjoy the benefits of his calling. The Apostle Paul uses Abraham’s household of faith in speaking of the church in the first century, saying in Gal. 6:10,
10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.
He defines and explains this further in Gal. 3:8, 9,
8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations shall be blessed in you.” 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
Under the New Covenant, this pattern of Abraham comes into clearer focus, for Jesus Christ has become the final Heir. Thus, all those in fellowship with Him can be blessed, regardless of genealogy, for that was the divine intent of the promise to Abraham. One must be a son of Jesus Christ in order to be in fellowship with Him. But because Jesus had no physical sons, we must interpret “son” in the legal sense, rather than biological.
This is where Deuteronomy 25 becomes very important, because Jesus died childless, and we are called to beget children in His name. Legally speaking, we are His brethren, for we read in Hebrews 2,
11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, 12 saying, “I will proclaim Thy name to My brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will sing Thy praise.” 13 And again, “I will put My trust in Him,” and again, “Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me.”
As “brethren,” we are called to beget the children of God in order to build up the house of Jesus Christ and to establish a name for our older Brother. “Christ in you” is your child, biologically speaking, but that child belongs to Jesus Christ in the legal sense.
If we refuse to beget His heirs, as did the people under the Old Covenant, then we will suffer shame and humiliation. Our walk with God will be hindered, because our spiritual sandal will be removed. Our face, which was created to manifest the presence of God, will be spit upon (that is, shamed and cursed).
We see the significance of spitting upon the face in the story of Miriam. She criticized Moses for marrying the Cushite woman (i.e., Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the Midianite, because Midian in those days was in the land of Cush, now Saudi Arabia). God judged her with leprosy, but then healed her after Moses’ intercession. Part of God’s verdict regarding Miriam is found in Numbers 12:14, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days?”
It took a full seven days to cleanse lepers. Likewise, it took seven days to cleanse someone whose father had spit in his or her face. This speaks prophetically in a broad view of the 7,000 years of mortality during the time of our historical cleansing from Adam’s sin. At the end of 7,000 years, the Great White Throne ends all mortality, for even death itself is then cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).
Therefore, when the law prescribes spitting in the man’s face who refuses to beget children on behalf of his older brother, it sets forth the divine judgment upon those who refuse to beget “Christ in you” by the seed of the Gospel.