Deuteronomy 25: 5-10
In this passage, if a man refuses to marry the widow of his brother, she can remove one of his sandals, in the presence of the elders, and spit in his face and say, “‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line’. That man shall be known in Israel as the family of the Unsandalled” (Deuteronomy 25:9-10). Robin Stockitt says: “The surviving brother had brought shame on the widow and therefore on his own brother by refusing to perform his expected duty. The consequence was that he, in turn, would be shamed by the community. In the act of spiting, a bodily substance leaves the body, which in Hebrew thought was understood to be a bounded system, symbolic of the whole community. Once fluids leave the body they become unclean (cf. Lev.15:8). The removing of the sandal may have symbolised the loss of property to the brother-in-law if the widow subsequently married outside the family, or it may have had a more sexual connotation as in Ruth 3:4-7.” (Stockitt: p113.)
The brother has to live with a shamed reputation “for the rest of his life with the likelihood of exclusion from the community. The shaming sanction could have threatened his very survival.” (Stockitt: p113.)
Here, as elsewhere there is a sense, even if wrongdoing is involved, of shame being all enveloping, affecting not just an individual but a whole community or family. It goes far beyond an individual act of wrongdoing and the need for restitution, it is about the whole person, and the remainder of his existence – his whole being.
While we are considering a passage from Deuteronomy it is worth noting that Lyn Bechtel sees and emphasis in Deuteronomy, “not so much on the fearfulness of a crime, but on the fearfulness of the resulting appearances in the eyes of the beholders. The problem was more the inadequacy that was revealed, rather than the crime itself.” (Bechtel: p56.) This is a concern with appearances, with shame. Bechtel provides these examples: (1) Deut. 22:1-4 – the temptation to avoid a shameful sight; (2) Deut. 22:13ff – the bringing of a shameful reputation on a bride and her family; (3) Deut. 23:12ff – the spot outside the camp in which the army was to relieve itself; (4) Deut. 25:11-12 – the shame of a woman grabbing a man’s genitals in a fight; (5) Deut. 27:16 – people who were publicly cursed for shaming their father and mother.
As elsewhere in the Old Testament, shame is a significant concern in Deuteronomy.
Robin Stockitt; “‘Love Bade Me Welcome; But My Soul Drew Back’ – Towards an Understanding of Shame”; in Anvil, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998.
L. M. Bechtel; “Shame as a Sanction of Social Control in Biblical Israel: Judicial, Political, and Social Shaming”; in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament; Issue 49, 1991.