The Old Testament. The Old Testament concept of duty is largely related to the performance of the levirate marriage, where a brother undertakes the obligation to marry his widowed sister-in-law so that his deceased brother will have an heir.
The unusual instructions behind this duty appear in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a man dies without having a son, his brother is to marry the sister-in-law and "fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel" (vv. 5-6). If the living brother chooses not to carry out his obligation, the widow then has the right to go to the elders at the town gate, where she can accuse her brother-in-law of his unwillingness to raise up seed for his dead brother. If he still refuses, the widow has the right to shame him, taking off one of his sandals and spitting in his face while saying, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line" (v. 10). Those who refused to carry out this duty caused family lines to die out.
A good illustration of the levirate marriage is that of Boaz, who sought to perform his duty for a deceased relative by marrying Ruth. Actually, a relative who was closer to Ruth's husband than Boaz was willing to redeem the land in restoring the family. When he discovered that he would also have to marry Ruth to raise up an heir to her husband, however, he refused ( Ruth 4 ). Boaz then stepped in and was willing to take Ruth for his wife as well as to be her kinsman redeemer, redeeming the land for the family.
Another kind of duty in the Old Testament was related to the care of the God's dwelling-place. Those who served performed duties in the sanctuary ( Num 3:7 ) or were involved in its care ( Num 18:5 ). These responsibilities involved guarding the furniture in the tabernacle and temple and keeping it clean.
The New Testament. The concept of duty in the New Testament emphasizes service and piety. Jesus says that when a servant has done his best, serving his master, he is only performing his duty ( Luke 17:10 ). The seven deacons who were chosen by the early church were to supervise the daily distribution of food; the apostles turned this responsibility over to them ( Acts 6:3 ). Husbands are told to fulfill their marital duties to their wives ( 1 Cor 7:3 ). Widows are exhorted to practice piety ( 1 Tim 5:4 ), a duty that reflects pious care for the family.
Bibliography. D. K. McKim, ISBE, 1:998-99.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Duty'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".