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Journeys to the Twilight Zone

by Farrell Till

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 13, Number 2.

Love Thy Sister

In previous trips to the Twilight Zone, we looked at some of the strange laws of the people who lived there. One of their strangest was known as the "Levirate law." This was a law that prohibited a widow without a son from marrying until she had given her brothers-in-law a chance to succeed where their brother had failed. As the humorist Dave Barry often says in his column, I am not making this up. This was an actual law that the inscrutable Yahweh had given to his chosen ones: "If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband's brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel" (Deut. 25:5-6). Nothing was said, of course, about whether the widow had given birth to daughters before her husband died, because in the Twilight Zone females just didn't count. The deceased husband had to have produced a son and if not, the widow had to give her brothers-in-law a shot [no pun intended] at it.

How seriously Yahweh took this matter is indicated by a story in Genesis 38. Judah's son Er had married a woman named Tamar, but, as was so common in those days, he "was wicked in the sight of Yahweh, and Yahweh killed him" (v:7). It seems that Yahweh was always killing someone in those days for being wicked in his sight. Anyway, Er was killed before Tamar produced a son, and so Judah said to his second son, Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her, and raise up seed to your brother" (v:8). Apparently, no arm-twisting was necessary, and Onan did as he was told, except that "he knew that the seed would not be his," and so "it came to pass when he went in to his brother's wife that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother" (v:9).

Well, that was a no-no, because Yahweh didn't tolerate those who dared to break his unfathomable laws, so "the thing which [Onan] did was evil in the sight of Yahweh" (v:10).

So guess what Yahweh did? That's right. Yahweh "killed [Onan] too" (v:10). It all goes to show that when Yahweh says do something, even if it's orders to copulate with one's sister-in-law, he means for it to be done.

Men being men, one would think that Onan was just an isolated case and that compliance with this law would not have been a major problem. I mean, think about it for a while, men having sex with their widowed sisters-in-law with full assurance that they were doing the will of God. They just don't make laws like that anymore. What seems true today, however, wasn't necessarily true in the good old days, because there were apparently enough men unwilling to accommodate widowed sisters-in-law that the Levirate law actually contained a provision to punish those who wouldn't ... well, come through: "But if the man does not want to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go to the elders, and say, `My husband's brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother'" (Deut. 25:7). My, my, male pride in those days just wasn't what it is today.

Anyway, disobedience of Yahweh's laws did not go unpunished in the Twilight Zone, so those who refused to "perform the duty of [a] husband's brother" had to pay the price too. So what was the punishment that Yahweh decreed for this unspeakable offense? Amputation of a hand? No, don't you remember? That was reserved for a woman who dared to grab the genitals of a man attacking her husband. Well, then, possibly the amputation of ... uh ... the offending member? No, no, no, a deity who abhorred crushed testicles would never have decreed a punishment like that. As Mark Twain would say, you would never guess the punishment in a hundred years, so I will have to tell you what it was: "Then the elders of his city shall call him [the uncooperative brother-in-law] and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, `I do not want to take her,' then his brother's wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, `So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house'" (vs:8-9). Could punishment get any more ignominious than that?

Well, yes, it could, because even worse was in store for the cad who would slight a grieving widow: "And his name shall be called in Israel, `The house of him who had his sandal removed'" (v:10). Can you imagine the shame of it, going through life being called "the house of him who had his sandal removed"? No doubt this caused many men to throw up their hands in exasperation and say to their widowed sisters-in-law, "Well, all right, if you insist, I guess I can do it just this once." You have to remember that everything was different in the Twilight Zone.

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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