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How to Read the Law of Moses
An Examination of Deuteronomy
Ralph Allan Smith
Law and History:
How to Read the Law of Moses
Eric Auerbach, in his classic work on Western literature, devotes his
rst chapter to contrasting Homer with the Bible. Of Homer, he writes of
the need of Homeric style to leave nothing which it mentions half in
darkness and unexternalized.
This is more fully expressed in the
the basic impulse of the Homeric style: to represent
phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable
in all their parts, and completely xed in their spacial and
temporal relations. Nor do psychological processes receive
any other treatment: here too nothing must remain hidden
and unexpressed.
In Homer, then, never is there a form left fragmentary or half-
illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed
There is, rather, what Auerbach calls a procession of
phenomena which takes place entirely in the foreground, that is, a
local and temporal present which is absolute. Homers style knows only
a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.

Auerbach then turns to the Bible. He begins with the story of
Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrice in Genesis 22. As he says, comparing
the Bible to Homer, it would be difcult, then, to imagine styles more
contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts.
The personages speak in the Bible story too; but their speech
does not serve, as does speech in Homer, to manifest, to
1 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 5.
2 Ibid., p.6
3 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
4 Ibid., p. 7.
externalize thoughtson the contrary, it serves to indicate
thoughts which remain unexpressed. God gives his
command in direct discourse, but he leaves his motives and
his purpose unexpressed; Abraham, receiving the command,
says nothing and does what he has been told to do. . . .
Everything remains unexpressed.
In Homer, since everything is externalized, completely expressed,
and connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground, there
is no room for interpretation. The Bible, on the other hand, since it
expresses only what it necessary and leaves everything else in obscurity,
demands to be interpreted.
The Biblical narrative raises questions that it
does not directly or explicitly answer, at least not in the immediate context.
The reader of the Bible, then, is left disturbed. Why is this happening?
Where is this story going? The hermeneutic quest begins as the reader
compares Scripture with Scripture to nd answers for the questions which
naturally arise from the story.
Not only, however, does Biblical narrative remain mysterious and
fraught with background,
but it is also a narrative that makes
totalitarian claims about representing reality.
The Bibles claim to truth is not only far more urgent than
Homers, it is tyrannicalit excludes all other claims. The
world of the Scripture stories is not satised with claiming to
be a historically true reality it insists that it is the only real
world, is destined for autocracy.

Seeking to rightly understand the Bible, in other words, means the
pursuit of ultimate truth about reality itself if the Bibles worldview is
true. Auerbach, together with post-enlightenment thinkers in general,
rejects the Biblical worldview.
But at least he is completely aware of the
immensity, the comprehensive grandeur of the Bible and its worldview.
5 Ibid., p. 11. In context, Auerbach is speaking of Genesis 22.
6 Ibid., p. 11. Concerning Homer, he also writes, Homer can be analyzed, as we have
essayed to do here, but he cannot be interpreted. Later allegorizing trends have tried their
arts of interpretation upon him, but to no avail. He resists any such treatment; the
interpretations are forced and foreign, they do not crystallize into a unied doctrine. pp.
7 Ibid., p. 12.
8 Ibid., pp. 14-15.
9 Ibid., especially pp. 19 ff.
He knows he is rejecting an ancient theory of everything that calls into
judgment those who do not submit to it.
Thus, by way of introduction to this essay, I want to emphasize rst
how different the Bible is as a piece of literature from any other book we
might read. We need to remember that even though modern Western
literary conventions have been inuenced by the Bible, the Bible itself was
not written according to our accustomed literary conventions. This means
that reading Scripture requires special effort. We cannot understand it well
through a casual reading. But this labor required to interpret the Bible is
something that the Bible itself demands from us.
The second thing I want to emphasize is that reading the Bible brings
us under the judgment of the Bibles teaching. Reading the Bible is not and
cannot be a neutral enterprise. The Bible does, as Auerbach duly notes,
make totalitarian claims. I believe those claims are true and that this book
uniquely judges its readers. It not only demands that its readers put in the
extra effort to understand it, it also calls its readers into judgment for their
response to its contents.
Approaching Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8
This essay discusses Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8, a paragraph in the
book of Deuteronomy discussing the application of the Seventh
I will offer here an approach to the passage that differs
from typical commentaries, though I depend on their insights as well. The
approach I recommend in this essay is, for want of a better term, a
meditative approach to reading the law of Moses, the Torah. The
particular sort of meditation I am advocating here, however, is not a
subjective, feeling-based reading. Rather, as Auerbach also demonstrates, I
believe that the text of Scripture itself, invites, provokes, and demands
interpretation based on comparing Scripture with Scripture.
In other words, Moses composed Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 in such a
way that he subtly reminds readers of other passages either in the laws of
Exodus through Numbers or the historical narrative from Genesis through
Numbers. If we read the law slowly enough, asking questions of the text,
and meditating on its meaning, we will discover subtleties and meaning
that a casual reading completely misses. However, I am not suggesting
10 James B. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, TX:
Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), pp. 64-65. Jordan shows how the book of
Deuteronomy from chapters 6-26 addresses each of the Ten Commandments in order.
that our meditation should create a new meaning for the text, the
meditation I recommend is intended to enable us to enter the ancient text
and its fuller meaning with the mind of an ancient reader to the degree
that is possible.

To begin with, then, remember that David pronounced Gods special
on the man who delights in Yahwehs Torah and meditates on
the Torah day and night (Psa. 1:2). So, we naturally ask, What does it mean
to meditate? To answer the question, consider how the Hebrew word is
used in the Old Testament. The word translated meditate in Psalm one
(hgh) only occurs 24 times.
The rst reference stands out. It is Yahwehs
word to Joshua, commanding him to mediate on the Torah day and night.
Davids declaration in Psalm 1:2, therefore, clearly looks back to Joshua
himself as a man who meditated on Yahwehs Torah and was richly
blessed. That gives us an example, but it doesnt show us concretely what
the word means.
The second use of the word hgh in the Psalms gives us a concrete
picture of exactly what meditation involves. The wicked are said to
devise (hgh) a vain thing against Yahweh (Psa. 2:1). In other words, they
meditate on challenging God. Imagine the wicked devising plans,
thinking and rethinking day and night about how best they can make their
rebellion against Yahweh succeed. Similarly, another Psalm tells us how
those who sought Davids life planned all day how they could trap and
destroy him (Psa. 38:12).
In these verses, the Psalms show us that the
hatred which consumes the wicked and preoccupies their minds with
plans for rebellion and evil is the precise opposite of the love for Torah that
inspires the righteous to dwell constantly on the law. To meditate is to
11 James Jordans book, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World,
attempts to give a broad introduction to the Bibles own worldview in the Bibles
language. This essay attempts to apply that basic approach to the exposition of
Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8.
12 In passing, I think it is important to note the distinction between the blessing
(happiness) promised to the man who meditates on Gods word and the blessings of the
covenant promised in Deuteronomy 28, for Deuteronomy is speaking of blessings for
national obedience, not individual obedience. In a nation of people who hate the true
God, individual faithfulness to Him will often, if not always, bring persecution and
opposition, as it did to Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul. What Psalm 1 ultimately speaks of is
blessing and success of the sort that we see in Jesus peace and joy in the true God in a
life full of trial and suffering that bears fruit for eternity.
13 Josh 1:8; Isa 8:19; 16:7; 31:4; 33:18; 38:14; 59:3, 11, 13; Jer 48:31; Ps 1:2; 2:1; 35:28; 37:30;
38:12; 63:6; 71:24; 77:12; 115:7; 143:5; Job 27:4; Prov 8:7; 15:28; 24:2
14 They also that seek after my life lay snares for me;
And they that seek my hurt speak mischievous things,
And meditate on/devise (hgh) treachery all the day long.
think over and over about the meaning of each statute and command, to
ask questions about why God gave a particular command, and to deeply
consider what the command might mean for daily life.
Thus, to meditate on the Torah is to be passionately preoccupied with
it. This is exactly what Psalm 119 show us.
I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies,
As much as in all riches. (119:14)
My soul breaketh for the longing
That it hath unto thine ordinances at all times. (119:20)
The law of thy mouth is better unto me
Than thousands of gold and silver. (119:72)
Oh how love I thy law!
It is my meditation all the day. (119:97)
How sweet are thy words unto my taste!
Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (119:103)
Thy testimonies have I taken as a heritage for ever;
For they are the rejoicing of my heart. (119:111)
Therefore I love thy commandments
Above gold, yea, above ne gold. (119:127)
I opened wide my mouth, and panted;
For I longed for thy commandments. (119:131)
Thy word is very pure;
Therefore thy servant loveth it. (119:140)
Consider how I love thy precepts:
Give me life, O Yahweh, according to thy covenant love.
Seven times a day do I praise thee,
Because of thy righteous ordinances. (119:164)
My soul hath observed thy testimonies;
And I love them exceedingly. (119:167)
It is my contention that what Joshua was commanded to do and what
David commended is exactly what the Christian approach to the Torah
ought to be though, of course, not the Torah only. We need to ask
questions about each command and statute in the spirit of one who is
humbly seeking to know and understand not only the law of God, but
even more, the God of the law. Why did Yahweh give this command?
How does this t into Israels whole covenantal system? What might this
have meant to an ancient Israelite? Especially we need to ask a particular
question that modern Christians are not likely to ask, but I think that
ancient Israelites would have certainly ask: What in Israels history might
this law allude to? Or if allude is too strong a word, the question could
be: What in Israels history echoes in the background of this law? Or, even
more generally: How does this law relate to Israels history?
I need to emphasize in particular questions of this last kind, for
questions concerning stories have special meaning. Only when we can see
the meaning of the Torah in the light of Israels history will we be able to
relate it to our history. N. T. Wright in a discussion of worldview made the
following observation.
Stories are one of the most basic modes of human life. It is
not the case that we perform random acts and then try to
make sense of them; when people do that we say that they are
drunk, or mad. As Macintyre argues, conversations in
particular and human actions in general are enacted
narratives. That is, the overall narrative is the more basic
category, while the particular moment and person can only be
understood within that context . . .
Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted
by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell
themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the
popular belief that a story is there to illustrate some point or
other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the
clumsy vehicle of a narrative. Stories are often wrongly
regarded as a poor persons substitute for the real thing,
which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in
statements about bare facts. An equally unsatisfactory
alternative is to regard the story as a showcase for a rhetorical
saying or set of such sayings. Stories are a basic constituent
of human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the
total construction of a worldview. I shall argue in chapter 5
that all worldviews contain an irreducible narrative element,
which stands alongside the other worldview elements
(symbol, praxis, and basic questions and answers), none of
which can be simply reduced to terms of the others.
Our worldviews, in other words, are story-haunted. Stories are
lurking beneath the surface and behind the scenes of every event and
action in our lives, even every word we speak. In the nature of the case,
this is no less true for ancient Israelites than for modern men. Thus, for
example, the narrative approach to worldview questions that characterized
Pauls writing was not original with him. It is typical of all the authors of
Scripture beginning with Moses. What this means for Torah is obvious.
Moses wrote laws and history that are haunted by the stories that preceded
them. Virtually every law in the book of Deuteronomy presupposes,
alludes to, recalls, reects on, or inescapably reminds readers of stories in
Genesis to Numbers.

Meditating on Deuteronomy, then, includes taking time to ask which
stories the various commands and laws allude to, relate with, or remind us
of. As we recall the stories from Genesis to Numbers, one of the
outstanding features of the basic story is that God Himself is the central
gure. Biblical history is entirely His story. Considering the links between
the statutes and rules of Deuteronomy and the history recorded in Genesis
to Numbers guides us to God.
In addition, when we approach Deuteronomy, we need to remember
that the so-called Law of Moses perhaps better referred to as the
Instruction of Moses since the Hebrew Torah is usually, if not always,
closer to the English word instruction than to law is written as
instruction in wisdom and righteousness.
As such Deuteronomy not only
contains commandments, statutes, and judgments, but it also includes
stories of its own, hortatory material, and even riddles and puzzles.
Allusions to other parts of the Torah sometimes qualify the meaning
of one statute by another. The effect of combining allusions to stories and
laws, new or revised forms of old stories, riddles, and puzzles with
apodictic laws and case laws is to multiply layers of meaning in the text.
15 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,
1992), p. 38
16 It is my contention that there are some laws that no Israelite could read without
thinking of related stories, even though the particular law itself may not contain the
elements of a literary allusion. We might call these echoes, but it seems even more
ambiguous that that, so I have added various ways of referring to them.
17 Actually, instruction might sound too much like a classroom word. Perhaps it is best
to explain what the Torah is and, then, transliterate the Hebrew rather than try to translate
it. That is what I have done in this essay.
Thus, the so-called law is a multi-layered, highly complex literary work.
Simply making a list of the rules found in the ve books of Moses would
not at all do justice to the actual message.

In other words, the Torah was written in such a way that only
meditation on its commandments, statutes, and judgments would open the
way to a true understanding of the meaning of Yahwehs Torah and
Yahweh Himself. A supercial reading, like that of modern atheists
skimming through the Torah to nd material with which to accuse God,
can only result in the most profound misunderstanding though this is
not accidental. It is what God intended. The Torah was given both to
illuminate and mystify its readers. For some, Gods word is the light of
life; for others, like Pharaoh, it hardens the heart. For all it is the sword of
the Spirit, which pierces as far as the division of soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12).
Therefore, Deuteronomy the quintessential book of Torah is
much more than just the Ten Commandments.
However, at the same
time, it is important to emphasize that most of the book, chapters 11-26, is
an exposition of the meaning of the Ten Words for Israels life. The
allusions to stories and other laws, the background taken for granted in
this exposition, and the presuppositional framework provided in the story
of creation and redemption all function almost as Biblical commentary
on the laws.
If we take time to consider the laws of the Torah in detail
18 Although Calvins commentaries on the laws of Moses contain much insight and the
arrangement of the detailed laws under the Ten Commandments correctly denes the
relationships of the various laws as applications of the Ten Words, nevertheless, by taking
the laws out of their original contexts, the commentaries miss the logical connections
among the laws and their narrative contexts. Calvin has inadvertently erased much of the
theological message of the Torah. This means, too, that it would be wrong for modern
readers to approach the Torah expecting to nd black and white rules for life, and to read
the law as if it were written as a manual for success: Follow these ten simple rules and
all will be well. Though it must be admitted, there is actually some truth to this
approach. In the Ten Commandments Yahweh gave to Israel, He outlined a pattern of life
that would lead to rich blessing. If the nation of Israel would have obeyed those simple
rules, they would have lived long and happy lives in the land that Yahweh promised to
Abraham. At the same time, we must insist that the rules-for-success-approach threatens
to take the very heart out of the law. This is seen sometimes in a striking fashion when we
nd a list of the Ten Commandments that does not include the preface: I am Yahweh
your God who delivered you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.
19 I use the tradition expression Ten Commandments here, but in the rest of this essay I
will employ the more accurate translation, Ten Words. The Hebrew text does not say Ten
Commandments, but Ten Words. There are actually more than ten commands in the
Ten Words, and the Ten Words include material that cannot be subsumed well under the
idea of command.
20 Calum M. Carmichael has the right idea about looking at the law through narratives,
but because 1) he does not believe in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and 2) he
and look into their complex literary background, we will discover that the
Torah itself expounds the Torah.
To reiterate, then: What does this mean for our approach to
Deuteronomy? It means that when we read the book of Deuteronomy
not to mention Exodus through Numbers we must read it rst in the
light of the history and laws that precede it. This will give us a key to
understanding the various commandments, statutes, and judgments in
Deuteronomy. Of course, it is not the only key, but it does often unlock
mysteries, or, even better, sometimes opens doors to new mysteries. Then,
too, the history of Israel after the law, including the writings of the
prophets, shows us how the prophets and leaders of Israel understood and
applied the law. Finally, of course, we must ask how each particular law or
command relates to Christ and the new covenant.
The passage that this essay will concentrate on is Deuteronomy 22:30-
23:8. These verses are part of a larger section of Deuteronomy (22:9-23:14)
that applies the Seventh Word to Israels life in Canaan. Though, as I said
above, it is not entirely wrong to call this law, we will see that these
verses are more like a Moses own meditation on the Seventh Word,
actually pointing in directions that are not at all apparent on the surface of
the text.
There is one more matter that I should deal with by way of
introduction. The special concern of this paragraph (22:30-23:8) is with the
disregards the Bibles own chronology and story line, he distorts both narrative and law in
a profoundly unilluminating book. See the ironically titled: Illuminating Leviticus: A
Study of Its Laws and Institutions in the Light of Biblical Narratives (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2006). Ephraim Radner does a much better job of showing how
the laws of Leviticus t with the overall story of the Bible climaxing in Jesus, even if he is
not always very helpful in the exegesis of Leviticus. Leviticus, in Brazos Theological
Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008).
21 In the Hebrew Bible, the verse and chapter division is different, with the English 22:30
being the Hebrew 23:1. I think the Hebrew division is better. The English 22:30 begins a
new section of laws that contain numerous allusions to Genesis. 22:30 alludes also to
other passages in the law, which also allude to Genesis, specically, Leviticus 18:8; 20:11.
These verses not only forbid a man to lie with his fathers wife, they also pronounce the
death penalty on anyone who would. The allusion to the story of Reuben is obvious and
its repetition in the law is pronounced (see also: Deu. 27:20). It seems to me that the clear
allusion to Reuben here is an indicator of a new section, since this law is quite unlike the
laws that precede it, but similar to those which follow, even though the assembly of
Yahweh is not mentioned in 22:30.
assembly of Yahweh.
What is the assembly of Yahweh? Put simply,
to be a member of the assembly of Yahweh was to be a citizen of Israel.
However, the meaning of citizenship in ancient Israel is quite
different from modern conceptions. It did include political or civil
aspects the inheritance of land, the responsibility to pay taxes and to
ght in Israels militia, for example but these aspects of citizenship were
subordinate to or rather part of the larger and more important religious
meaning: the responsibility to participate in the sacricial worship of the
priestly people, to keep oneself clean from delement, and in general to
love Yahweh and keep His commandments. To be a citizen of Israel was to
be a member of the nation of priests that Yahweh had called to Himself to
be His sacred treasure (Exo. 19:3-6). This special priestly relationship was
the prominent feature of being a member of the assembly, even when the
assembly is being considered in terms of responsibilities that we would
regard as civil or political.
The requirement of ritual purity for the members of the assembly of
Israel, therefore, is a function of the priestly character of the people of God.
Every law, statute, and ordinance is given with this context in mind. The
whole Torah is about a holy God who has called a people to Himself to be a
holy priesthood.
22 I assume this expression is synonymous in meaning with similar expressions such as,
assembly of Israel (Exo. 12:3), assembly of the congregation of Israel (Exo. 12:6), the
congregation of the sons of Israel (Exo. 16:1), etc. including in Exodus through Joshua, at
least, even the simple expression, the assembly.
Chapter One
Deuteronomy 22:30
A man shall not take his fathers wife, and shall not uncover
his fathers wing (Hebrew: kanaf).
There are a number of unusual features in this law that mark it out
from the previous context, indicating that it is introductory to the following
paragraph about the assembly of Yahweh, even though this verse does not
speak of the assembly directly. To begin with, this law is apodictic in
contrast with the case laws in the preceding verses (22:13-29), but similar to
the initial laws on the Seventh Word in 22:9-12. Also, in contrast with the
laws from 22:13-19, but similar to the laws in 23:2-8, this law contains an
evident historical allusion. Finally, 22:30 is linked to the laws in Leviticus
18 about forbidden marriages and to the law in Numbers 15:37-39 about
Israelite clothing. In particular, it is the clothing laws that indicate this
verse is already focused on the idea of Israels special place as Yahwehs
treasured nation. Also, the reference to clothing probably alludes to a
second story in Genesis, besides the primary and obvious allusion.
I am suggesting that what may appear on the surface to be a simple
command is rich with historical allusions, links with other laws, and layers
of presupposed background. It may be helpful here to list these before
turning to the exposition.
1. The story of Reuben violating Bilhah, though not directly
alluded to, nevertheless clearly stands out.
2. The similar laws in Leviticus 18:8 and 20:11 supply another
layer of legal background.
3. The law in Numbers 15:37-41, alluded to even more directly
in Deuteronomy 22:12, is alluded to here in the use of the
Hebrew word for wing. Signicantly, in Numbers this law
provides the immediate backdrop for the story of the
rebellion led by Korah and the Reubenites, which reinforces
point 5 below.
4. The reference to uncovering the wing of the robe suggests
an allusion to another famous story in Genesis, the sin of
5. The motivation for this law is to be found in the story of the
Reubenite leaders rebellion in Numbers 16. This becomes
clearer as we read onward in Deuteronomy and discover this
laws emphatic repetition in Deuteronomy 27:20 together
with the curse on Reuben in 33:6.
I also need to address one more question before entering into detailed
exposition. That is: would these allusions have been obvious to a reader of
the law in Moses day? They did not have the tools for Biblical research
that we have. Would they remember the laws and stories so readily? This
is not a difcult question. I believe it would actually have been easier for
an ancient reader to note the various layers in the law. Why? In part
because we are not accustomed to reading the law with allusions in mind.
But also because in Moses day, the whole of the Scripture was just the
books that Moses wrote. The stories in Genesis about Israels great
ancestors would have been told over and over. Each tribe would know as
much as possible about its own father, though it was sometimes
We also need to be reminded about the book of Deuteronomy as a
whole. It is such a long book that as we read it, we may forget where it
begins: These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel . . . in the
fortieth year, on the rst day of the eleventh month (Deu. 1:1, 3).
Deuteronomy is Moses farewell sermon just before his death, his parting
words to the people he loved. We can be sure that they are listening
We should also imagine what happens in the congregation of
listeners, when Moses comes to the law in Deuteronomy 22:30, with the
story of Reuben obviously being alluded to. I can see the other tribes of
Israel glancing toward the Reubenites, and the Reubenites holding down
their heads in shame. Everything here is highly personal. Remembering
and noticing the most obvious allusions and background would hardly
require effort for them, though it does for us. Of course, picking up the
entire multi-layered complex of references would no doubt have required
multiple readings and meditation, but that is exactly what God
commanded Joshua to do (Josh. 1:8).
Reuben and Bilhah
Thus, it is not too much to suggest a historical allusion here to the
story of Reuben, who lay his fathers wife, Bilhah (Gen. 35:22). The
incident with Reuben is the only recorded case of a man lying with his
fathers wife, and through Jacobs curse on his rstborn son (Gen. 49:3),
Reubens sin receives special emphasis in Genesis. This episode, though
recorded briey and without emotional language, is so prominent in the
story of Israel that even though the law here is probably prohibiting
marriage to a fathers former wife rather than simple incest, the allusion
still stands. Israels history was short enough and the incident was famous
enough that it would be impossible for an Israelite of Moses day not to
recall Reubens sin when reading this law.
We may wonder why Reuben would commit such a sin. I believe
Gordon Wenham is correct in seeing Reubens sin as a political act, not a
sensual one.
The context of the story is important. In the paragraph
immediately preceding the record of the incident, Rachel had just died
giving birth to Benjamin (Gen. 35:16-21). This put an end to the long-
standing rivalry between Leah and Rachel, which had centered on having
children (Gen. 29:31-30:24), nally allowing Leah to have the limelight she
so desperately sought. However, there remained one potential source of
competition, Bilhah. Since she had been Rachels slave, her children would
be seen as belonging to Rachel. Reuben, who seems to be especially close
to his mother (Gen. 30:14), would realize, as Wenham points out, that by
lying with Bilhah, he could cut Jacob off from Rachaels slave, ensuring his
mothers preeminence.

Legal Background in Leviticus
The laws in Leviticus provide another aspect of what is presupposed
in this text. The entire section of Deuteronomy 22:9-23:14 is about the
Seventh Word, which is also the central concern of the laws in Leviticus 18.
Though the allusion to Reuben remains central, it is not all that the law is
about. The expression take his fathers wife in the immediate context
23 Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2, (Dallas: Word
Books, 1994) pp. 325-26.
24 There is a slight possibility that Reuben may also be asserting his own rights of
inheritance as rstborn, in a manner similar to Absoloms attempt to steal Davids place
by openly lying with his concubines.
seems clearly to mean marry his fathers wife, for just a few verses
before this the expression take a wife is used clearly to mean marry
(Deut 22:1314; cf. also Deut 7:3; 20:7; 21:11; 24:1, 35; 25:5, 7-8). It is
doubtful that this law concerns a son seeking to marry his own mother.
Rather it addresses the case of a man seeking to marry a former concubine
or a former wife of the father, other than his own mother.
However, the use of the word uncover in Deuteronomy 22:30
clearly links this law with the sexual prohibitions of the book of Leviticus
(Lev 18:619; 20:11, 1721), for although the word uncover (hlg) is not a
technical term referring only to sexual sins, that usage is prominent in
Leviticus where uncover (hlg) occurs 24 times in 20 verses exclusively
speaking of sexual sin, not only unlawful marriage.
Thus, the verse
would be prohibiting a son from marrying his fathers wife after the father
had died or divorced his wife, but also forbidding a son from sexual
relationships with a concubine while the father lived.

For modern people these laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy might
seem unnecessary, but in ancient Israel where polygamy was tolerated, the
law was important and necessary. An older man might take a concubine
who was as young as, or even younger, than his son. For example, Davids
concubine, Abishag, was certainly closer to the age of Adonijah than
David. Since she was renowned for her beauty, it was natural perhaps for
Adonijah to desire her, though Solomon was no doubt correct when he
suspected political motives for Adonijahs request (1Kin. 2:13-25). At any
rate, it is marriages of this sort that the law forbids, though, as we have
seen, it would include the prohibition of the specic sort of adultery that
Reuben committed in lying with Bilhah and that Absolom committed by
lying with Davids concubines.
It is also noteworthy that the laws in Leviticus 18 are both prefaced
and followed by warnings for the Israelites not to be like the inhabitants of
Canaan, because the land vomited its former inhabitants because of their
sexual immorality (18:1-5, 24-30). The law of Leviticus 20:11, which in
25 The Hebrew word hlg (uncover) occurs in the entire Pentateuch 33 times in 29 verses,
making its usage in Leviticus denitive in a similar context. The following list includes
every instance in the pentateuch: Gen 9:21; 35:7; Exod 20:26; Lev 18:619; 20:11, 1721;
Num 22:31; 24:4, 16; Deut 22:30; 27:20; 29:29. The verb is, thus, strongly associated with
sexual sin, not just with unlawful marriage.
26 That a sin like Reubens is implied is also suggested by the parallel verse in
Deuteronomy 27:20, the only other verse in the Old Testament to use the expression PAnV;k hD;lg
(uncover the wing): Cursed is he who lies with his fathers wife, because he has
uncovered his fathers skirt. And all the people shall say, Amen. Here it is not marriage
that is forbidden but lying with the fathers wife.
context specically addresses adultery rather than marriage with a
concubine after a father has died (cf. 20:10), provides important
background as well, since it pronounces the death penalty on the man who
lies with his fathers wife. Thus, Leviticus tells us that individuals who
imitate Reubens sin and societies that imitate the Canaanites sin deserve
the death penalty.
The Fathers Wing
The law in Deuteronomy 22:30 also contains an evident allusion to a
law in the book of Numbers, though it is not obvious to a modern reader
because of our translations. Deuteronomy here uses an odd term for the
fathers garment by referring to the place where the tassels are attached as
the wings or corners of the robe (cf. Num 15:38; Deut 22:12; 27:20). In
other words, Deuteronomy 22:30 alludes to Numbers 15:38 by imitating its
obviously symbolic language. The word kanaf (j::) originally refers to a
birds wing (cf. Gen 1:21; 7:14; etc.) but it is used in a few places to refer to
the corners of a mans garment.
Signicantly in Deuteronomy 22:12, near
the beginning of the section in Deuteronomy on the Seventh Word, there is
a prior allusion to the original law in Numbers 15. This makes for a double
allusion to the law in Numbers in the larger context. Clearly Moses is
drawing our attention to something.
What is the point of the allusion? We need to consider the law in
Numbers to discover what Moses had in mind. Numbers 15:37-39 teaches
us that there is a theological meaning and purpose to its clothing
And Yahweh spake unto Moses, saying,
Speak unto the children of Israel,
and bid them that they make them tassels in the wings of
their garments throughout their generations,
27 Here is a list of every use of the Hebrew word j:: in the Pentateuch: Gen 1:21; 7:14;
Exod 19:4; 25:20; 37:9; Lev 1:17; Num 15:38; Deut 4:17; 22:12, 30; 27:20; 32:11. There is some
disagreement about where the tassels were to be hung. It might have been on the hem of
the robe, as in some ancient pictures, or it might have been that Israelites wore an outer
garment over their shoulders somewhat like a cape to which the tassels were attached.
Tigay comments: Ancient Near Eastern art shows people wearing closed skirts and
robes, not rectangular poncho-like garments. The four corners (lit., wings or
extremities) were probably either the points on scalloped hems or the places at which
vertical bands of embroidery met the hems. Both styles, sometimes with tassels attached,
are visible in ancient Near Eastern murals. Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy in The JPS
Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996), p. 204.
and that they put upon the tassel of each wing a cord of blue:
and it shall be unto you for a tassel,
that ye may look upon it,
and remember all the commandments of Yahweh,
and do them;
and that ye follow not after your own heart
and your own eyes,
after which ye use to play the harlot;
that ye may remember and do all my commandments,
and be holy unto your God.
I am Yahweh your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God:
I am Yahweh your God. (Num. 15:37-39)
The tassels with the blue cords essentially functioned as a covenant
memorial. What does that mean? In Genesis 9:12-17, God told Noah that
He would set the rainbow in the sky as a sign to remind God of His
covenant promises to Noah. When God views the covenant sign, He
remembers the covenant. So, too, the blue tassels on the wings of the
garments were to remind Israelites of their holy calling to be the special
people of Yahweh. The covenant is implied both in the expression do all
my commandments and in the warning not to play the harlot. Also, the
command to be holy expressed the core of Israels covenant obligation as
the chosen race, for it was in order that they might be a holy people that
Yahweh had delivered them from Egypt and brought them to Himself
(Exo. 19:3-6).
The covenantal signicance of the tassels on the wings of the
garment suggests that the word wing has a symbolic meaning, especially
since the tassels are specically commanded to be blue one of the most
prominent colors of the tabernacle and the garments of the high priest. By
putting blue on their garments to remind them of the covenant, the
Israelites would also be associating themselves with the tabernacle and the
priesthood, which again expresses their covenantal obligation to be a holy
With such associations, I think it is legitimate to go one step
28 In addition to the fact that the cords had to be blue, it was probably also the case that
they were made of wool in order to be dyed. Tigay writes: Numbers 15:38 requires that
a blue cord be attached to each fringe. According to early rabbinic sources, the blue cord
is made of wool while the other cords are linen. In other words, the tassels are made of
shaatnez, the combination of fabrics forbidden in verse 11 [of Deu. 22]. This
interpretation most likely stems from biblical times, since it is highly unlikely that the
further and speculate that the word wing is used to create an link with
the cherubim in the tabernacle.
Perhaps it will help us to see the picture if we remember that the
tabernacle was a multivalent symbolic model.
Included among its
meanings was that of being a model of Mt. Sinai. In other words, the
tabernacle was a horizontal and mobile version of the great mountain of
the Torah. Just as Sinai was divided into three areas the border around
the bottom of the mountain dened the forbidden area; a place half-way
up the mountain where the elders sat before God was the area to which
specially appointed men could come; the top of the mountain where God
revealed Himself to Moses was the most exclusive area the tabernacle
also was divided into three areas, the courtyard, the holy place, and the
most holy place. Again, just as Moses received the tablets of the Ten Words
at the top of the mountain, he placed them in the ark of the covenant in the
most holy place. Other associations also show that the tabernacle was a
horizontal model of Mt. Sinai.
Mt. Sinai itself points elsewhere eliciting Eden, the garden on the
mountain top where God placed Adam and revealed Himself to him. To
borrow an image from a time later than Eden, in the original creation there
was a mountain that reached unto heaven. Babel was its counterfeit.
Sinful mankind, led by Nimrod, attempted to make their own tower to
heaven, their own garden sanctuary. God destroyed Nimrods tower, but
in the days of Moses gave Israel a true mountain to heaven, a partially
restored Garden of Eden. In that sense, the tabernacle fullls the vision
Jacob saw of a ladder to heaven with the angels of God ascending and
descending on it (Gen. 28:12-15).
The winged cherubim of the Garden of Eden were replaced by the
winged cherubim in the most holy place, situated on the ark of the
covenant where they symbolically guarded the covenant. The picture we
have is that of cherubim who are always looking on the covenant with
their wings extended. When the Israelites are told that the blue tassels on
their wings are to remind them of the commandments and their obligation
rabbis would have initiated a practice contradicting a biblical prohibition. It is, in other
words, an exception to the general rule stated in verse 11. According to Jacob Milgrom,
the purpose of this exception is suggested by the fact that shaatnez characterized the
priestly garments; hence, wearing these tassels reminds every Israelite of the duty to strive
for holiness like the priests, to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod.
19:6). Ibid. Assuming the correctness of the early rabbinic sources, here is a case in
which there is a blatant contradiction in the law intentionally made for the purpose of
theological instruction.
29 The best introduction to the symbolism of the Tabernacle is Jordan's Through New Eyes.
to be holy, it would have been natural to make the association with the
blue tabernacle and its cherubim looking on the tablets of the Ten Words of
the covenant.
It is also signicant that the wings of the garment are rst referred
to in a passage that warns about idolatry as playing the harlot (Num.
15:39) the sin Israel committed with the Moabites in Numbers 25, which
we are reminded of obliquely in Deuteronomy 23:3-6. Worshiping other
gods was the most basic and total rejection of the covenant with Yahweh,
so living daily with the blue tassels visible to all was to remind the
Israelites to be faithful as Yahwehs priestly people. In this way, the use of
wings in 22:30 alluding to the covenant memorial ties in with the
emphasis on the assembly of Yahweh in 23:1-8 and serves, I believes, as
an introduction to it.
The Sin of Ham
Another story would almost certainly occur to an ancient reader of
the text, especially if he was taking the time to meditate on the contents. It
would be obvious that the expression uncover his fathers wing refers to
the fathers robe, and so recalling the famous story of Ham removing his
fathers robe would naturally come to mind (Gen. 9:20-27). Although this
story is often understood as a story about sexual impropriety, it is probably
rather a story about seizing power.
The robe of the father was the symbol of his power and authority.
What is not necessarily clear to the English reader of the story is the
signicance of the robe in the story of Noah and Ham. Genesis 9:23 in
almost all English translations suggests that Shem and Japheth took a
garment, as if they picked up the nearest robe at hand. But the Hebrew
clearly says they took the garment, as if we are supposed to know
something about the robe they took. The story is, thus, rather indirect, but
it apparently goes like this. First, Noah took off his robe in his tent and
went to sleep because of the inuence of the wine he drank. Ham at some
point went into his fathers tent and stole his robe of authority, leaving his
father naked. When Ham told his brothers what he had done, they took
the robe from him and restored it to their father.
Apparently Ham was attempting to force his father into early
retirement, so to speak, and take over his place of authority. If his brothers
had joined the conspiracy, Noah would have been dethroned and his sons
would have taken over by force before he himself stepped down. Thus,
even though this story probably has nothing to do with sexual sin, the
language of Deuteronomy 22:30 might still evoke the image of an infamous
uncovering of the fathers garment.
Furthermore, if the sin of Reuben
includes an attempt to claim authority for himself, an allusion to Ham
might suggest that sexual sins like Reubens were usually matters of power
struggles. This provides another cultural reason in the context of ancient
polygamy for the promulgation of this sort of law.
The Motivation for Deuteronomy 22:30
If I am correct in the above exposition that Moses intends his hearers
and readers to recall the story of Reubens sin, while also remembering the
previous related laws in Leviticus, the law of the wings of the garment in
Numbers 15:37-39, and the story of Ham, there is one more story that an
astute reader might be expected to recall. That story, moreover, suggests a
motive for Moses to have given this law in the rst place. I am referring to
the story in Numbers 16 of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.
Two things about that story especially stand out, matters that some
modern readers might not remember, but that Moses himself certainly
remembered. First, while Korah was a Levite, Dathan and Abiram, the two
other leaders of the rebellion were both from the tribe of Reuben. Second,
the story of the rebellion of Korah and the sons of Reuben immediately
followed the law of the tassels on the wings of the robe.
What does that mean? If we read Numbers carefully, it clearly
implies that Korah, Dathan, and Abiram perversely interpreted the gift of
the covenant-memorial tassels. Though it is true that law of the tassels
declared that every Israelite was holy (15:37-41, especially 15:40) and the
blue tassels made all the Israelites priestly guardians of Gods law, to have
infered from that that Moses and Aaron had no special place as leaders of
the people was foolish rebellion. It appears that Korah, Dathan, and
Abiram, noting that they wore blue priestly clothing and that they were
counted as cherubim, as also the rest of Israel, and that they were
appointed to guard the holiness of Yahweh, falsely concluded that the
hierarchical priestly system of the Torah was an imposition of Moses and
Aaron. They assumed Moses and Aaron were obessed by an unholy
ambition to be great which is to say that the Reubenite leaders imputed
to Moses and Aaron the kind of motives they themselves cherished.
30 See: James B. Jordan, Rebellion, Tyranny, and Dominion in the Book of Genesis, in
Tactics of Christian Resistance, ed. Gary North (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School
Press, 1983), pp. 38-80, especially 48-52. Of course, literally speaking it was Noah who
uncovered himself, but that was in the privacy of his own tent. Ham had to invade
Noahs privacy to see him uncovered, so in a sense, Ham uncovered Noah.
It was indeed Korah, of the tribe of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram of
the tribe of Reuben who were ambitious, but their resentment against
Gods anointed was contagious. Therefore, even though Gods miraculous
judgment against the rebels should have resolved the issue of the authority
of Moses and Aaron, it did not. The next day the congregation blamed
Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the rebel leaders (Num. 16:41), leading
to another judgment (Num. 16:49). Then, because of the lingering
bitterness in Israel, Yahweh required leaders of all the tribes to bring a rod
to the tabernacle (17:1-7). The rod of the man chosen by Yahweh would
sprout, thereby indicating Yahwehs special favor for that man and his
tribe. When the rod of Aaron blossomed with owers and ripe almonds,
the rest of Israel feared that they were going to be consumed by Gods
wrath and sought help from Moses (Num. 17:12-13), thus bringing to a
conclusion the proud rebellion instituted by Kohath and the Reubenites.
When we consider the narrative of chapters 16-17 in the larger context
of Israels wilderness wandering and the literary account of the book of
Numbers, we realize the central signicance of the story. The climactic
rebellion of the Israelites in Numbers 14, of course, is the most important
single example of Israels unbelief and rebellion against Yahweh. But from
that time until the nal year of the wilderness wandering (Num. 20 ff.),
there is one and only one story in the book of Numbers: the story of the
rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and its consequences.
It is as if to
say that the rebellion of Korah and the Reubenites reveals the true nature
of the people of Israel as a whole and the reasons for their being
disciplined in the wilderness. The importance of the Reubenite rebellion is
further reinforced by Moses drawing attention to it again later in Numbers.
Reuben, Israels rstborn, the sons of Reuben: of Hanoch, the
family of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the family of the Palluites;
of Hezron, the family of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the family
of the Carmites. These are the families of the Reubenites, and
those who were numbered of them were 43,730. The son of
Pallu: Eliab. The sons of Eliab: Nemuel and Dathan and
31 The other material in chapters 15-19 are law, not narrative. The rebellion at Kadesh in
chapter 14 is followed by laws in chapter 15. The story of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan,
and Abiram and its consequences in chapters 16-17 is followed by laws in chapters 18-19.
Then, in chapter 20, when we read another story of the wilderness wandering, we are
already in the nal year. The whole 38 years of wandering is thus characterized by stories
of rebellion. First the rejection of the land (14), then the rebellion of the Reubenites (16-17),
and nally the rebellion of Moses and Aaron (20), the tragic end of the great leaders lives.
Abiram. These are the Dathan and Abiram who were called
by the congregation, who contended against Moses and
against Aaron in the company of Korah, when they
contended against Yahweh, and the earth opened its mouth
and swallowed them up along with Korah, when that
company died, when the re devoured 250 men, so that they
became a warning. The sons of Korah, however, did not die.
(Num. 26:5-11)
As the above makes clear, the sons of Korah did not join their father
in his rebellion against Moses and, ultimately, Yahweh Himself. They were
faithful. But the leaders of Reuben were rebels and their families were
consumed with them. Unlike the rest of the tribe of Levi and the family of
Korah, the other Israelite tribes continued to harbor the hostility provoked
by Dathan and Abiram. For Moses, clearly this rebellion was one of the
most important instances of unbelief in the whole 40 years in the
wilderness, second only to the rebellion of Numbers 14.
My conclusion about Moses motive in including a law like
Deuteronomy 22:30 is that Moses believed it was important to keep the
tribe of Reuben in its place and use Reubens sin in Genesis as a reminder
to the tribes of Gods judgement. As it says in Numbers 26:11, they
became a warning. The well-known stories of the rebellion in the
wilderness led by Reuben would naturally occur to the Israelites through
Moses allusion to the story in Genesis.
This may sound far-fetched to some modern readers. Again, we have
to ask, would an ancient Israelite have made these connections? Did
Moses intend these connections? I believe Moses certainly intended these
connections, but lets consider the ancient reader. Perhaps on a rst
reading of Deuteronomy 22:30 our hypothetical reader would have missed
the multiple layers I have suggested.
But as he continued to read
Deuteronomy, he would have noticed other verses.
What would he have thought, for example, when he read chapter 27?
In this chapter, Moses directed the Israelites to conduct a special covenant
renewal ceremony when they entered the promised land. Six tribes
(Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin) were to stand on
Mount Gerizim to bless the people and six tribes (Reuben, Gad, Asher,
32 I do believe that the use of the word wing in 22:30 would be enough of a surprise
that an ancient reader would begin to ask questions about what the verse is saying. It is
not a long jump to begin to consider the various layers of meaning.
Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali) were to stand on Mount Ebal to curse (Deu.
27:11-13). The Levites were to shout out 12 curses and all the people
answer Amen. One of the twelve curses was almost an exact repetition
of Deuteronomy 22:30. Of all the things that could be cursed and of all the
sins that could be emphasized, we have to ask why this sin?
Moses is making another allusion to the story of Reuben and doing so in
the most emphatic manner possible, with the whole nation pronouncing a
curse on anyone who imitates the sin of Reuben.
Then, the ancient reader of Deuteronomy would encounter another
striking verse when he came to chapter 33 verse 6, though for the modern
reader there is a translation problem.
May Reuben live and not die,
Nor his men be few. (NASB)
Let Reuben live, and not die,
but let his men be few. (ESV)
This is actually not an entirely modern problem. Even the LXX
translation of the Bible into Greek misinterprets the Hebrew.
Let Rouben live, and not die out,
And let him be many in number.

As is clear above, the New American Standard Version, like the LXX,
interprets the verse as a blessing. The words, Nor let his men be few,
mean, obviously, let his descendants be numerous. That is the kind of
blessing God promised to Abraham and it might seem appropriate here at
the beginning of the blessing of the tribes, for, as Driver notes, the general
tone of the chapter is very positive.
However, the Hebrew text as it
33 The same question may be asked of the other sins on the list and of the list as a whole.
The sins on the list seem to be chosen in general as sins typical of the Canaanites in the
land, whose inuence Moses warned against.
34 Deuteronomy (Provisional Edition) in A New English Translation of the Septuagint
translated by Melvin K. H. Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 41
35 In his words, Compared, as a whole, with the Blessing of Jacob, the Blessing of Moses
may be said to be pitched in a higher key; the tone is more buoyant; the afuence, or other
distinctive character, of the various tribes is portrayed in more glowing colours: ease,
tranquillity, and contentment are the predominant characteristics of the age. S. R. Driver,
Deuteronomy in The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902),
p. 386.
stands seems to clearly pronounce a curse on Reuben. In fact the thought
of Deuteronomy 33:6 is close enough to the Jacobs curse in Genesis 49:4
that Moses words might be regarded as an interpretation.
The phrase could even be taken as an interpretation of Jacobs
words in verse 4 there, you shall excel no longer, construing
excel as exceed, abound.
In the history of Reuben, this curse came to fulllment, as the tribe
dwindled both in number and in importance. But we can imagine a reader
in the days of Joshua being surprised at the statement and then reecting
on Reuben and his tribe from the stories of Genesis to Numbers. The
allusions to the sin of Reuben in Deuteronomy 22:30 and 27:20 would then
be seen as reminders of the judgment pronounced against a tribe that led a
rebellion against Moses and Aaron, a tribe whose curse would weigh
heavily upon it.
Multiple allusions to Reubens sin and then a curse pronounced on
the tribe of Reuben in a context that pronounces blessings on the other
tribes provokes questions that only nd an answer in the history of the
Reubenites rebellion in the book of Numbers. It is not at all far-fetched to
suggest an ancient reader would have made these connections. On the
contrary, it is hard to imagine a serious reader not noticing at least the
connections suggested above.
We have seen here that in a relatively straightforward statement of
apodictic law, we have multiple historical allusions, or at least
presupposed background knowledge, which give this law a rich and
complex meaning which could not be read from the surface of the text
alone. The sins of Ham, Canaan, and Reuben reverberate in the
background, most especially Reuben, though the double association may
imply similarity between the two rebellions. Israels special calling to be a
holy nation, a priestly people, is suggested in the use of the word wing
and this provides a subtle link with the next verses and their concern with
the assembly of Yahweh, which could be dened as the winged nation,
the cherub nation. Uncovering the fathers wing, then, is undermining
36 Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy in The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish
Publication Society, 1996), p. 322.
his honor as a member of the winged nation, the most profound
disrespect a man could offer to his father, as Reuben did to Jacob. Perhaps
this could also be seen as what the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram,
attempted to do to Moses and Aaron.
Chapter Two
Deuteronomy 23:1
One wounded by crushing, or cut in the member shall not
enter into the assembly of Yahweh.

The translation of this verse varies in different English versions.
However, the basic idea is clear enough: a eunuch is not to be admitted
into the assembly of Yahweh.
Why not? An ancient Israelite who was
asked this question would have a ready answer. There are two basic
reasons involved. First, that the Israelites were chosen to be a nation that
bears fruit abundantly, which puts a Eunich out of the Israelite community,
the holy assembly. Second, the laws for sacrices and priesthood demand
physical perfection, wholeness as a sign and symbol of holiness. Neither
of these reasons is specied here, but the second is especially clear, given
similar rules in other parts of the law.
Sacricial Animals and Priests
To begin with the second reason, we need to emphasize that for the
assembly of Yahweh, the supreme concern is that it must be holy (Ex.
19:6; 22:31; Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:6-8, 26; Num. 15:40; Deu. 14:2, 21; 23:14;
28:9). Thus, two sections of the law in Leviticus are obviously relevant.
First, there is the law about which animals may be offered to Yahweh.
Second, there is a law about qualications for priestly service. Both laws
speak of the kind of injury or defect referred to in Deuteronomy 23:1 and
so form part of the presupposed legal context for this law.
And whosoever offereth a sacrice of peace-offerings unto
Yahweh to accomplish a vow, or for a freewill-offering, of the
herd or of the ock, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there
shall be no blemish therein. Blind, or broken, or maimed, or
37 This is a slightly edited version of Youngs Literal Translation, along lines suggested by
Keil and Delitzsch.
38 Tigay says there were two sorts of emasculation. These are two types of emasculation,
the rst accomplished by destroying the testes, the second by some type of castration. It is
not clear whether this law applies to all who have these conditions or only to those who
acquired them voluntarily. Op. Cit. p. 211.
having a running sore, or scurvy, or scabbed, ye shall not offer
these unto Yahweh, nor make an offering by re of them upon
the altar unto Yahweh. Either a bullock or a lamb that hath
anything superuous or lacking in his parts, that mayest thou
offer for a freewill-offering; but for a vow it shall not be
accepted. That which hath [its stones] bruised, or crushed, or
broken, or cut, ye shall not offer unto Yahweh; neither shall ye
do thus in your land. Neither from the hand of a foreigner
shall ye offer the bread of your God of any of these; because
their corruption is in them, there is a blemish in them: they
shall not be accepted for you. (Lev. 22:21-25)
Why these animals may not be offered is stated in verses 20 and 21,
and reiterated in verse 25. There is a blemish in them. That is, they are
not perfect as God created them it must be perfect to be accepted; there
shall be no defect in it. Defective animals, including specically animals
with stones crushed, are not appropriate as representatives or substitutes
for Gods image, man. An Israelite in Joshuas day reading the law in
Deuteronomy 23:1 would naturally recall Leviticus 22:24 and its context
(22:17-25) and supply the same sort of reasons for excluding a eunuch from
the assembly.
That the logic of the law with regard to animals would apply to men
as well is clearly seen in reference to the priests. Among the Israelites, the
Levites and the family of Aaron were the appointed representatives.
Therefore no one from the tribe of Levi or the family of Aaron with a
physical defect
could draw near to Yahweh.
And Yahweh spake unto Moses, saying,
Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed
throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not
approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man
he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man,
or a lame, or he that hath a at nose, or anything superuous,
or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or crook-
backed, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or is
scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man of the
39 The same Hebrew word for blemish or defect is used both of animals and men. In
the law of Moses, c: appears in the following verses: Lev 21:1718, 21, 23; 22:2021, 25;
Num 19:2; Deut 15:21; 17:1.
seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh
to offer the offerings of Yahweh made by re: he hath a
blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.
He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and
of the holy: only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come
nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane
not my sanctuaries: for I am Yahweh who sanctieth them.
So Moses spake unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the
children of Israel. (Lev. 21:16-24)
The law for the priests, especially in association with the law of the
sacrices, provides theological background for the law in Deuteronomy
23:1. The key is the notion of priesthood. In other words, just as the priests
functioned in Israel as representatives for the whole nation of Israel, so the
Israelites as a nation of priests (Exo. 19:6) represented mankind. Again, just
as animals were to represent men and function as substitutes and
representatives for them, so the priestly nation had a special place among
all the nations of the world as representatives of the nations, praying for
them and offering sacrice for them. They must, therefore, be holy not
only in lifestyle, but even physically to represent mankind as Gods image.
They must be whole the symbolic dimension of being Gods image as
well as holy the ethical and ceremonial dimension of being Gods image.
However, it is important to note that in the law of Moses, the logic of
the matter is actually presented in the opposite order. It is not rst animals
and then man, priests. On the contrary, the law that species that the
priests must be whole to approach Yahweh precedes the law concerning
the animals. In other words, it is not that priests are like animals, but
rather that animals are like priests. Animals offered to Yahweh must be
without defect because, like the priests, they come close to Yahweh. They
represent the offerer like the priest represents the offerer. Priest and animal
offering both come into the presence of the holy Yahweh. Therefore
nothing that might be regarded as a blemish or as corruption may be seen
in either of them.
Why not? The reason is clear, Biblically: defects of any sort remind of
the death and the curse. In other words, a blemish or corruption in the
body of the priest would function as the exact opposite of the covenant
memorial that reminds God of His covenant grace (Gen. 9:12-17). The laws
here suggest the following parallel: just as when God sees the rainbow, He
remembers His covenant grace, so also when He sees a blemish, He
remembers mans sin and the curse.
I hasten to add an important qualication that a modern reader might
miss. Ceremonial wholeness and corruption are not regarded as a
soteriological categories. As can be seen from Lev. 21:22, laws about
physical defects do not imply that a man disqualied as a priest was also to
be excluded from the blessings of salvation. In fact, the law explicitly
addresses the matter, specifying that a descendant of Aaron who was not
qualied to serve as a priest was still allowed to partake of the bread of
his God. This included the most holy things (Lev. 21:22). Thus, priestly
service as such and the blessings of salvation, symbolized by the holy food,
are distinguished.
Since Israelites in Moses day would have this background in mind
when they read the law in Deuteronomy, they would not assume that a
man who was physically defective would be excluded from salvation, only
that he would not be qualied to be a priestly representative in the
assembly of Yahweh. The priestly nation, like the priests themselves and
the sacrices offered to God, had to be perfect. But they represented other
peoples and nations who were far from perfect. Even so, Gentiles who
trusted in God could be saved, though they could not become members of
the assembly of Israel unless they were circumcised and went through
the whole process of joining the Israelites.

Abraham and Circumcision
The other background for this law is in the meaning of the people of
Israel as the seed people. I think an ancient Israelite meditating on the law
would make the association, but perhaps in a manner different from a
modern reader. For modern men, the simple physical fact that a eunuch
cannot have children is enough to draw attention to the inappropriateness
of him being a member of the assembly of Yahweh. But an ancient reader
is likely to have made another association that is related.
First, he might note that of all the physical defects listed in Leviticus,
only the defect related to child-bearing is mentioned in Deuteronomy. This
is especially appropriate in a section of the law related to the Seventh
40 Here, qualications for men and women were different and the process would have
been somewhat complicated after the conquest, since all the families of Israel had already
been given specic plots of land. A male convert could be circumcised and presumably
join one of the tribes, but he would not receive a plot of land, unless perhaps he married
into an Israelite family. Still, it would have been theoretically possible for a Gentile to
become an Israelite.
Word, but it is worth noting in passing. Second, the ancient reader would
certainly note that the word eunuch itself is not used here as it is in
some modern translations but rather expressions describing how one
becomes a eunuch. This is signicant, I believe, because the reference to
the male member being cut off could be associated with the ceremony of
circumcision. But was it? I believe that I can clearly show in the ancient
mind that it was associated.
We might not relate the two ideas, but the apostle Paul himself shows
us that the association between cutting off the male organ entirely and
circumcision was a natural association, even though he refers to it
But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still
being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has
been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would
emasculate themselves! (Gal. 5:11-12)
If they like circumcision so much, Paul says, let them cut all the way,
not just the foreskin. Though he is speaking ironically, Pauls language
here is grounded in the nature of circumcision itself, for circumcision is, in
fact, a sort of ceremonial and symbolic castration. Again, though this may
not be obvious to a modern reader, the story of the gift of circumcision as
the sign of the covenant points to this meaning.
Lets recall the story of Genesis and the gift of circumcision. The book
of Genesis repeatedly emphasizes that Abraham and Sarah were both too
old to bear children. As far as childbirth was concerned, they were both
dead. So, the birth of Isaac was a miracle. In the book of Hebrews, this
miracle of an elderly man and woman having a child is referred to in in
exactly that language.
By faith even Sarah herself received power to conceive seed
when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who
had promised: wherefore also there sprang of one, and him
as good as dead, so many as the stars of heaven in multitude,
and as the sand, which is by the sea-shore, innumerable.
(Heb. 11:11-12)
In Greek it is very clear that the one who was as good as dead was
Abraham. He was as good as dead because he was too old to have a son.
It was at this time and to a man in this condition that God gave the
covenant sign of circumcision.
And ye shall be circumcised in the esh of your foreskin; and
it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and you. (Gen.
Also, it was specically at this impossible time that Yahweh renewed
the promise of descendants without number and changed Abrams name
to Abraham. God also promised that Sarai who was also given a new
name, Sarah would bear the covenant heir. The story reects Gods
perfect but strange faithfulness. Yahweh keeps His covenant promises in a
way that boggles the imagination. He waits till Abram and Sarai are
physically dead, as far as childbirth is concerned, and then gives them
new names and a new ceremony connected with the promised child. He
tells Abram to cut off the skin of the organ of reproduction. Abram cuts
off precisely what he needs to bear seed because the organ for bearing
seed is already dead.
The ceremony of circumcision given in this historical and theological
context, then, apparently functions as symbolic castration. To understand
this lets go through it step by step. First, consider that in this ceremony,
the mans foreskin is cut off. Why? We need to remember that typically
the part symbolized the whole. Thus, cutting off the foreskin would have
been a symbolic confession that Abraham is impotent and cannot bear seed
for the kingdom of God. For Abraham, circumcision was a ceremonial
recognition of his actual physical condition, as well as his spiritual need for
Yahwehs blessing. For those of his household who were still young
enough to bear children, it would have been a confession of their spiritual
Second, we need to ask if they would have understood the meaning
of the ceremony. If one thinks about it and given the pain involved, we
can be sure they did it seems relatively obvious. Certainly Abraham
and those around him would have asked themselves, why this ceremony?
What does it mean to cut off the foreskin? Why is this ceremony connected
with the promise of innumerable heirs? Why is the promise and the
41 His own father had Abraham at a much later age, but that is not apparently relevant.
In Abrahams case, he was too old to have a child.
ceremony given to Abram when neither he or Sarai can bear children? All
of these questions are inescapable and considering them all together leads
rather ineluctably in one direction. The result of considering these
questions would have been a theology of circumcision as ceremonial death,
a confession that only Yahweh can give the covenant heir.
This is the logic: Abram was not able to bear seed because he was
dead and Sarai was also dead. What should be done? The symbolic
solution is to, cut off the dead instrument so that a seed may be born. (We
see why Abraham believed in resurrection.) From the time of Abraham
onward, every child born of a circumcised Israelite father would be
regarded symbolically as a miracle child like Isaac, born of a dead father
through Yahwehs wonder-working power.
If anyone was slow to remember Abraham, the next verses in
Deuteronomy 23:2-3, reminding Israelites of the illegitimate births of Moab
and Ben-ammi, would surely have triggered the association, for the story
of Lots sons is sandwiched between the story of the covenant sign in
Genesis 17 and the fulllment of the promise in Genesis 21. Abraham was
circumcised (Gen. 17). God visited him, reiterating the promise (Gen. 18).
Then, God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, saving Lot (Gen. 19). God
protected Sarah from Abimelech (Gen. 20). And nally, Yahweh blessed
Abraham and Sarah with a child (Gen. 21). The gap between the promise
and fulllment is lled with the story of Lot. The two stories therefore
would be associated in the minds of an ancient Israelite. If one missed the
implied background of Deuteronomy 23:1 on his rst reading,
Deuteronomy 23:2-3 would provoke him to think again.
For the ancient Israelites, of course, the story of Abraham and the gift
of the covenant sign of circumcision would have been among the most
famous and most popular stories in the Bible. When Moses preached
Deuteronomy to them, the story of Abraham would stand out for special
reasons beyond the fact that the only Bible they had would have been
Genesis to Numbers. They were about to enter the land promised to
Abraham in Genesis 12, four hundred years previously. With their own
eyes and in their own lives, they were witnessing the same strange and
wonderful faithfulness Yahweh had shown to Abraham. Moses, therefore,
reminded them repeatedly of Abraham and the promise that was about to
be fullled. Careful readers of Deuteronomy will have Abraham on their
minds constantly as they consider this book.
42 References to Abraham in Deuteronomy abound. His name occurs 7 times in
Deuteronomy compared with only one reference each in Leviticus and Numbers. Though
Moses and Circumcision
That Israelites saw circumcision as a sort of ceremonial castration
seems to be conrmed by another story, the story of the circumcision of
Moses son.
And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that
Yahweh met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took
a int, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his
feet; and she said, Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to
me. So he let him alone. Then she said, A bridegroom of
blood art thou, because of the circumcision. (Exo. 4:24-26)
This is a mysterious story, but certain aspects are apparent. First,
since Moses had not not circumcised his son, either Moses himself or his
son was going to be cut off from the covenant people in the most literal
way possible.
Yahweh was going to put him to death for violating the
most basic covenantal form, the covenant-entrance ceremony of
circumcision. Second, circumcision is a bloody ceremony, part of the
larger sacricial system in which blood is shed as a symbol of the death of
the offerer. In the immediate context, circumcision as a blood sacrice
points to the passover (Exo. 4:22-23). Circumcision, like other aspects of
the sacricial system, then, signies death through the shedding of blood.
The obvious connection with passover here makes clear to the
modern reader what might not be apparent to us from Genesis 17.
However, an ancient reader of Genesis 17 would have immediately noted
the aspect of ceremonial death involved in a blood-shedding covenant
ceremony. Though we might miss the literary associations, it should be
clear that the incident with Moses and its connection with passover shows
that passing over rather than judging depends upon seeing the blood of
Exodus refers to Abraham 9 times, Deuteronomy has numerous references to the
fathers, which include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Altogether Exodus has only 13 total
references to Abraham and the fathers (Exod 2:24; 3:6, 13, 1516; 4:5; 6:3, 8; 10:6; 13:5, 11;
32:13; 33:1), whereas Deuteronomy refers either to Abraham or the fathers in 35 verses
(Deut 1:8, 11, 21, 35; 4:1, 31, 37; 5:9; 6:3, 10, 18; 8:3, 16, 18; 9:5, 27; 10:15, 22; 11:9, 21; 12:1;
13:6, 17; 19:8; 27:3; 28:11, 36, 64; 29:13; 30:5, 9, 20; 31:16; 32:17; 34:4).
43 As James Jordan points out, in the immediate previous context, it is the rstborn of
Egypt who are referred to. In verse 24, the him is not specied. Thus, the he is
ambiguous. Jordan takes it to be Gershom, Moses rstborn son. It seems to me to be
better to take it in context as Moses. But the basic point does not change either way. See:
James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, Texas:
Institute for Christian Economics), pp. 243-260.
the sacrice. Yahweh passed over Gershom or Moses when He saw the
blood just as He would pass over the houses of the Israelites who had
smeared blood on their doors.
Returning then, to Deuteronomy 23:1, to speak of castration in a law
about who is qualied to be a member of the assembly of Yahweh would
almost certainly have provoked the meditative reader to recall the stories
of Abraham and Moses and to consider the meaning of circumcision as
symbolic castration a confession that the holy seed could only come
through the miracle of Gods special grace.
What does that mean for our context? It means that the law is ironic
in a sense. A man who was actually castrated could not enter the assembly
of Yahweh. Only a man who was symbolically castrated could enter. The
one who was symbolically castrated had died through circumcision,
confessing that he was not worthy to bear fruit for Gods kingdom. The
one who was physically castrated was physically unable to fulll his
responsibility as a member of the covenant community and was excluded
from the assembly. The irony of the law remains, for by drawing attention
to castration, the law reminds the Israelites that none of them are truly
qualied, that they only stand in the assembly of Yahweh by grace.
The law excluding the eunuch from the assembly of Yahweh was
intended not only to exclude those who were actual eunuchs, but also to
remind the Israelites of story of the eunuch Abram and the sign of
circumcision, by which every man in Israel confessed his unworthiness to
be a seed-bearer for the holy nation. The irony of Gods grace would have
been apparent to anyone who meditated on the deeper meaning of the law.
Also, importantly, the law does not exclude eunuchs from salvation.
Isaiah later makes this clear when he writes the following.
Thus says Yahweh,
Preserve justice and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
How blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who takes hold of it;
Who keeps from profaning the sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to Yahweh say,
Yahweh will surely separate me from His people.
Nor let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.
For thus says Yahweh,
To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
To them I will give in My house
and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
which will not be cut off.
(Isa. 56:1-5)
44 I am sure it is not necessary to point to the irony of the word cut off in this context,
but I did it anyway.
Chapter Three
Deuteronomy 23:2
A bastard (mazmer) shall not enter into the assembly of
Yahweh; even to the tenth generation shall none of his enter
into the assembly of Yahweh.
The translation bastard here for mazmer, common in older
translations and implied even in new ones which substitute the less
offensive one of illegitimate birth (NKJV), is almost certainly wrong,
even though the Hebrew word is admittedly difcult. The LXX
translation, referring to the child of a prostitute, is also incorrect. Rather,
Talmudic exegesis is to be preferred in its identifying the mazmer as one
who is born of a forbidden union.

Talmudic scholars were correct to note that the idea of forbidden
unions is introduced in Deuteronomy 22:30, where a son is forbidden to
marry his fathers former wife. Other forbidden unions are outlined in
Leviticus 18, but the law in 22:30 comes rather abruptly into the context.
As we have already seen, its insertion is probably for the purpose of
making a connection between Deuteronomy 22:30-23:14 and Leviticus 18,
as well as provoking our historical attention through an allusion to
Reuben. As in Leviticus, the concern is with the holiness of the assembly of
Yahweh. The priestly people must be holy to approach Yahweh, just as the
sacricial animals used to represent the priestly people must be
unblemished and whole to be used as substitutes for the holy people.
The expression even to the tenth generation in 23:2 probably
means, forever.
It does not seem to mean until the tenth generation,
as if to imply that from the 11
generation admission to the assembly
45 Unless otherwise stated, translations here are from the American Standard Version.
However, I have changed its Jehovah to Yahweh, which is generally considered a
more accurate rendering of the tetragrammaton.
46 The ESV and the NRSV both follow this understanding.
47 The exact expression is only used twice in the entire Old Testament, but the addition of
c:: (forever) in verse 3 seems to remove any uncertainty. Nehemiah 13:1 conrms
this reading, On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people;
and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the
assembly of God forever . . . .
would be possible. But this is an alternative approach to the text that we
will consider. On the surface, what the law appears to be saying is that a
child born of a forbidden union could never be a member of the assembly
of Yahweh. But there are passages in the law itself, as well as in the
history which both precede and follow the law, which suggest that this is a
profoundly mistaken reading. An intelligent reader in Joshuas day would
have recalled numerous other passages in his quest to understand this
verse that would result in a somewhat surprising interpretation.
History Preceding the Law
To explain what I mean, lets begin with the history in Genesis.
Readers in Moses day, cognizant as they would have been of Israels
history, would have noticed immediately what a modern reader might
not think of that 23:2 links directly with the story of Tamars incest with
her father-in-law Judah. This is a famous incident, one that almost rivals
or perhaps more than rivals the infamous story of Lots daughters,
alluded to in Deuteronomy 23:3ff., who seduced their father and became
the mothers of Ammon and Moab. Though Lots daughters committed
incest, they were both virgins at the time, and in ancient Israel that counted
for something. However, Tamar, was not a virgin. In fact, she was the
former wife of two of her father-in-laws, sons his son Er, who was
wicked in the sight of the Lord and his second son, Onan, who was also
judged by God because of his sins.
Onan, Genesis tells us, knew that if a son was born to Tamar, it would
not be his son (Gen. 38:9), so he avoided his duty to provide his brother
with an heir and was judged by God (Gen. 38:10). What is this about? It is
about a law called the levirate. In the time of Judah and Tamar, it was
apparently a custom, though it is not clear how broadly it was observed or
where it originated.
Later it became a law in Israel (Deu. 25:5-10), and it is through the law
that we understand the details of the earlier custom in Genesis.
48 Laws from the Middle Assyrian period of Mesopotamian history witness something
like the Biblical law of the levirate, but there are detailed differences and given the
fundamentally different religious faiths, the motivation and meaning of the
supercially similar laws must have been very different. On the whole, however, our
sources for ancient customs are too sparse to allow us to make denitive statements.
What can be said, however, is that the meaning of the levirate law in the Bible
functions as part of a worldview that fundamentally differs from Israels neighbors.
For ancient Near Eastern laws, see: A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, edited by
Raymond Westbrook (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no son,
the wife of the dead shall not be married without unto a stranger:
her husbands brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to
wife, and perform the duty of a husbands brother unto her. And it
shall be, that the rst-born that she beareth shall succeed in the
name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of
Israel. (Deu. 25:5-6)
The stipulation that the brethren live together seems to imply that
the younger brother is unmarried. In other words, the law is not requiring
polygamous marriages. The unmarried younger brother, then, marries his
older brothers widow in order to raise an heir to his brother, who has died
without a son. This was considered an important obligation, especially
because Israel was the seed people. The fact that Tamar took her side of
the obligation so seriously is the reason the Bible regards her as a great
woman. If the levirate custom among the patriarchs was informed by their
faith in the God of Abraham, and it would seem that it must have been,
then for Tamar to seek a son for her deceased husband would have been an
expression of her faith in the God of Abraham even though her method
of becoming a mother involved seducing her father-in-law.
On the surface, Tamars union with Judah belongs explicitly to the
class of forbidden unions (Lev. 18:15). In fact, given her status in Judahs
family she was guilty of a form of adultery as well as incest. On any
understanding of the Hebrew word mazmer, Tamars children should be
excluded, for her union with Judah was forbidden and adulterous. The
children would be illegitimate from any and every perspective. This
should mean (or should seem to mean), then, on a literal or narrow
interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:2 that Judahs sons by Tamar could not
belong to the assembly of Yahweh, even to the tenth generation, which, as
we have shown, probably means forever.
Passages in the Law
But remarkably this is not the way the law describes them.
Descendants of Perez and Zerah Tamars twin sons are counted as
the legitimate sons of Judah and are included in the assembly of Yahweh
(Num. 26:20-22) with no questions asked. Thus, in both the history
previous to Deuteronomy and in the law included in Numbers, we are
confronted with a case that seems to present a striking exception to the rule
in 23:2. How are we to understand this? One possible way might be to
consider the curse even to the tenth generation as only till the tenth
generation, though this seems contrary to the natural sense of verse 3.
But would that approach actually help? Was the Exodus nine or ten
generations after Tamar, so that the generation to enter the land was the
eleventh or later?
There are some difcult details here. If we consider a generation to be
40 years, then there would be approximately 10 generations in the 430
years (Gal. 3:17) from Abraham to Sinai, leaving us rather short on
generations from Judah to Sinai. If we consider a generation to be 30 years,
then there would be about 14 generations from Abraham to Sinai, which
would get us close enough to having 10 generations from Judah to Sinai, at
least in terms of the raw numbers.
Passages After the Law
How does that work out when we look at the recorded genealogy in 1
Chronicles? Below is the list from Judah to David (1 Chron. 2:3-16). I add
markers to count the generations beginning from Perez and Zerah, the sons
of Tamar, considering them as generation [1].
2:3. The sons of Judah: Er, and Onan, and Shelah; which three
were born unto him of Shuas daughter the Canaanitess. And
Er, Judahs rst-born, was wicked in the sight of Yahweh; and
he slew him.
2:4. And Tamar his daughter-in-law bare him Perez and Zerah
[1]. All the sons of Judah were ve.
2:5 The sons of Perez: Hezron, and Hamul [2].
2:6 And the sons of Zerah: Zimri, and Ethan, and Heman,
and Calcol, and Dara; ve of them in all [2].
2:7 And the sons of Carmi [?]: Achar, the troubler of Israel,
who committed a trespass in the devoted thing.
2:8 And the sons of Ethan [2]: Azariah [3].
2:9 The sons also of Hezron [2], that were born unto him:
Jerahmeel, and Ram, and Chelubai [3].
2:10 And Ram [3] begat Amminadab [4], and Amminadab
begat Nahshon [5], prince of the children of Judah;
2:11 and Nahshon [5] begat Salma [6], and Salma begat Boaz
2:12 and Boaz begat Obed [8], and Obed begat Jesse [9];
2:13 and Jesse begat his rst-born Eliab [10], and Abinadab
the second, and Shimea the third,
2:14 Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fth,
2:15 Ozem the sixth, David the seventh [10];
2:16 and their sisters were Zeruiah and Abigail. And the sons
of Zeruiah: Abishai, and Joab, and Asahel, three.
In this genealogy, we have 10 generations from Judah to David, a
period of roughly 600 years, making one generation an average of about 60
years, which is rather unlikely. Comparing 1 Chronicles with other
genealogies, it may be that there are some left out of the list here.
the genealogy is shortened to get the round gure 10 from Judah to David,
suggesting that David is the perfect realization of Judah and the ideal
representative of the tribes royal lineage. However, the geneologies in
Ruth and Matthew agree completely with the geneology of 1 Chronicles, so
perhaps this is historically accurate.
In any event, the genealogy from Perez to Nahshon seems to work,
considered as a full genealogy, for there are ve generations for a period of
about 200 years, giving 40 years per generation.
Perez to Herzon (2:5)
Herzon to Ram (2:9)
Ram to Amminadab (2:10)
Amminadab to Nahshon (2:10)
If this is correct, the generations of the Exodus, wilderness
wandering, and conquest would not be anywhere near 10 generations from
Judah. I assume that this, or something rather close to this is the case. This
means that the 10 generations in Deuteronomy 23:2 cannot be referring to
the time from Tamar to the Exodus, with the Exodus or wilderness
generation being the rst generation free from the prohibition of 23:2.
We are, therefore, back where we started faced with an apparent
contradiction in the Scripture or with literary irony. Liberal interpreters
typically write off these kinds of phenomena as the result of sloppy
redactors, who were not careful enough with their editorial work. With
multiple redactors editing the text, strange things happen. One problem
with this view is that there are so many examples of literary brilliance and
49 I am not thinking of a geneology of David that includes other people. I am refering to
geneologies like those in Matthews Gospel, which clearly leave out some generations.
amazing correspondence that we have to believe that there were quite a
few idiot-savant redactors men who are intellectually quite dull, but
who unknowingly produce something like literary miracles. At some
point, this takes more faith than believing, as I do, that the Scriptures were
inspired by God.
Where does this leave us? We seem to have this: the descendants of
Judah through Tamar should have been prohibited from joining the
assembly of Yahweh, but they were not. Quite to the contrary, Tamars
descendant through Perez, Nahshon, the son of Amminidab, was a prince
in Israel at the time of the Exodus (Exod 6:23; Num 1:7; 2:3; 7:12, 17; 10:14;
Ruth 4:20; 1 Chr 2:10). Thus, Tamar's descendents were especially blessed
among the descendants of Judah, for Nahshon, rather than a descendent of
Shelah, was the prince of the tribe of Judah (Num. 2:3). Furthermore, as
the prince of Judah, he is given special honor in Israel, both in his position
in the camp and in the order of presenting offerings (Num. 2:3; 7:12) two
matters that Israelites in his day would have noted well.
I suspect that it was passages like this and there are many more
that formed Jonahs understanding of Yahweh. Jonah knew that Yahweh is
a gracious God, one who delights to forgive sins and to bless the unworthy.
In fact, it was precisely because Jonah knew that Yahweh is a good
Shepherd that seeks the lost sheep and receives the prodigal home again
with joy that he ran away when told to warn Nineveh of the coming
judgement. He understood Gods grace, but did not share Gods gracious
Thus, the rule of Deuteronomy 23:2 is not merely a rule. The law is
ironic, calling attention on the one hand to Yahwehs holiness and
intolerance of all evil, but on the other hand to His grace in blessing the
children of Tamar and exalting Nahshon to preeminence in Israel. A
statute which seems to be so strict in fact proclaims that Yahweh is the
gracious God who forgives and receives the unworthy. In a context which
alludes to Reuben, to circumcision as the sign of the covenant in contrast
with being a physical eunuch, this kind of irony is not odd. We should
remember Adam and that all in Adam are condemned. God must nd a
way of grace for the descendents of the condemned one to be blessed, or
there is no hope for the sons of Adam. The paradox of Nahshon is a
promise. With men, this is not possible, but with God all things are
possible. Tamar and her children were saved by Tamars faith.
She must have believed in the promise to Abraham that he would be
the channel of blessing to the world and that his descendents would be
blessed. Even though her husband was an unworthy man, she sought the
blessing of God on the descendents of Judah because she believed in Gods
promise and plan. There is no explanation for her behavior or for Gods
rich blessing on her apart from her faith in the promise. That is why she is
praised in subsequent history and held up as an ideal. Ruth is blessed in
her name (Ruth 4:12) and godly David named his beloved daughter after
her in the hope that she too would be a great woman of faith (cf. 2 Sam.
However, this does not mean that the rule as a rule does not stand.
On the contrary, it does. The broader rule that this verse is grounded in is
that all who are in Adam must die. This basic rule is never broken or cast
aside. Nevertheless, grace nds a way to bring salvation to those who
should be condemned. But, as we see in the New Covenant, that does not
mean that the righteous rule itself is simply set aside. In the verses that
follow in Deuteronomy 23, we will see that exceptions to the rule reveal the
grace of God presupposed in all of the law, while at the same time, the rule
itself must be taken literally and seriously as Gods law for His people.
How this is possible remains a paradox until the coming of Christ.
The apparent contradition of Deuteronomy 23:2 remains unsolved
and provokes wonder until a Son of Tamar is born who can take away the
curse from others by bearing it Himself. The curse on the children of
Tamar in Deuteronomy is simply a narrower view of the curse on all the
sons of Adam that Jesus had to bear. He came as Tamar's son so that He
could bear the curse of all of Adams children.
Chapter Four
Deuteronomy 23:3-6
An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly
of Yahweh; even to the tenth generation shall none belonging
to them enter into the assembly of Yahweh forever: because
they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when
ye came forth out of Egypt, and because he hired against thee
Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse
thee. Nevertheless Yahweh thy God would not hearken unto
Balaam; but Yahweh thy God turned the curse into a blessing
unto thee, because Yahweh thy God loved thee. Thou shalt
not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever.
The Surface Meaning
The reference to Ammon and Moab immediately after a law about
forbidden unions conrms the view that the mazmer in verse 2 is not
simply a bastard. No ancient Israelite hearing the law read or reading it
himself would miss the connection between verse 2 and the history in the
background of verse 3. Lots daughters committed incest with their father
and became the mothers of Ammon and Moab. Here were two whole
nations descended from a forbidden union as everyone in ancient Israel
well knew.
The Torah thus confronts us with a second irony irony no doubt
intended to provoke the interpreter to stop and read slowly, to think and
rethink the meaning of these laws. What is the irony? It takes some
thought to pick it up. To begin with, we might have expected, following
verse 2, for verse 3 to read, An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into
the assembly of Yahweh forever, for they were born of a forbidden union.
But that is not what it says. They are indeed forbidden to enter forever, but
the reason is entirely different.
What are we to make of this? Some interpreters have read verses 3-6
as an application of the principle of verse 2, together with added reasons
for excluding the Ammonites and Moabites, as if Moses were saying, not
only are they born of a forbidden marriage, they also did not greet you . . .
In this reading, of course, there is no irony. But there is also little
sensitivity to the ow of the text itself. rather than assuming Moses is
simply adding an extra reason for the exclusion of the Moabites and
Ammonites, we ought to ask: Why should Moses specify an entirely
different reason for their exclusion? There is an implied answer in the
context. In other words: Could it be because of the inexplicit but
nevertheless clear relationship between the stories of Lots daughters and
Tamar? If Tamar could be forgiven and if her descendants could enter the
assembly of Yahweh with no question, why should the descendants of
Moab and Ammon be forbidden forever? There seems to be another
reason required and this law supplies it.
Lets think about the implications. Though Moab and Ammon
should have been cursed because of their origin, in fact they were cursed
for an entirely different reason. It was not because they were born of an
illicit marriage, for grace in such circumstances was possible, as the case of
Tamar proves. Furthermore, Yahweh had graciously given the tribes of
Moab and Ammon their own land, as Deuteronomy 2:8-23 shows. God
even enabled the Moabites and Ammonites to defeat the giants who had
lived in their lands before them. If Moab and Ammon had continued to
trust in Yahweh, as Lot had, they would have been blessed with Abraham.
However, instead of following Lots faith, they hired Balaam to curse
Israel. Given the opportunity to bless the seed of Abraham their cousins
by bringing bread and water, they chose rather to hire Balaam to curse
their cousins. Those who curse Abraham shall be cursed. The Abrahamic
covenant supplies the logic underlying these verses.
Though the story of Balaam is recounted as a story of the Moabites
attempting to curse Israel, Deuteronomy 23:3-6 seems to include the
Ammonites together with them. Since Midian is mention in Numbers
(22:4; etc.), we should apparently see the hostility against Israel there as a
multi-tribal coalition.,including Ammon. However, the verb for hire is
singular, not plural: he hired, seeming to refer to Moab. On the other
hand, the order Ammonite and Moabite perhaps suggests that the two
nations cooperated in the hiring of Balaam. Moab was the older brother, so
placing Ammon rst and associating the two together like this might imply
that they were one in the hiring of Balaam. In that case, the singular might
not mean Moab hired, but something more like Ammon and Moab
together-as-one hired.
The severity of the judgment applied to the two nations equally
argues strongly that they shared together in the cursing of Israel, but in any
case, neither nation blessed the seed of Abraham as they should have, and
so they would not be blessed. Since they sought to curse Abraham, they
brought on themselves the curse, expressed in the most emphatic
language: Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days
for ever. Israel is to regard itself as in perpetual spiritual war with Moab
and Ammon.
How did godly Israelites in pre-monarchial Israel understand a law
like this? The story of Ruth both presupposes and illumines the fuller
meaning of this law. Consider, rst, how the story of Elimelech, who
forsook Bethlehem of Judah to go to Moab because of a famine,
presupposes this law. The parallel with Abraham leaving the land of
promise in Genesis 12:10 is entirely ironic. Abraham was leaving a land
that was under Gods covenantal judgment for its wickedness and seeking
relief in Egypt. Elimelech was living in Bethlehem, the house of bread
that should have been under Gods covenantal grace. If there was a famine
in Bethlehem, it could only mean that the tribe of Judah had sinned against
God and was being disciplined. The right response for Elimelech and
other leaders in Bethlehem should have been repentance.
Instead, Elimelech ed for refuge to the enemies of Israel and Israels
God. Moab and Ammon had a history of oppressing Israel that did not
end in the days of Balaam (Jud. 3:12 ff; 10:6 ff). For Elimelech to chose
Moab over Judah was precisely similar to the Israelites in the wilderness
preferring Egypt over the promised land. Accordingly, his rebellion
resulted in his death and the death of his sons.
The wonder of the story of Ruth is that this compromised and
spiritually debilitated family still, though Naomi, had enough of a
testimony to inuence a young Moabite woman so that she would believe
in the God of Israel and, like Abraham, forsake her family, her land, her
past in order to go the land that God had given to Israel there to serve
Naomi and her God (Ruth 1:16-18).
The real problem in understanding Deuteronomy 23:3-6, however,
presents itself in the story of Boazs treatment of Ruth. I think we have to
assume that Boaz is both a godly man and an intelligent reader of
Scripture. We should not assume that he is ignorant of the laws of
Deuteronomy 23:3-6, for we can clearly see that he is aware of the law of
Deuteronomy 25:5-10, though this law is applied in the book of Ruth in a
way we might not have anticipated from reading Deuteronomy (Ruth 4:1-
If Boaz knew the law in Deuteronomy 23:3-6, why would he have
sought the peace and prosperity of Ruth as he obviously did? The answer,
of course, is provided in the genealogy of Boaz, for he was a descendant of
Judah through Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, so he knew Yahweh had
been gracious to his family in spite of the law in Deuteronomy 23:2. Even
more, he was also the son of Salmon and his famous wife Rahab (Mat. 1:5)!
Boaz, the godly leader of Bethlehem was half Canaanite and the son of a
former prostitute. With both Tamar and Rahab in his family, Boaz would
certainly have known that Gods curse against any individual or nation
allowed for repentance and salvation. Indeed, in Adam, all men were
under a curse. But God had opened a way of salvation for those who
believe, and Boaz would have been especially aware of Gods grace.
Nehemiah 13:1-3
Although the stories of Rahab in the book of Joshua and Ruth the
Moabitess in the book of Ruth corroborate my reading of the Deuteronomy
23:3-6, Nehemiah 13:1-3 might seem to challenge my approach and even
endorse a racist reading of the law. The verses in Nehemiah are
unquestionably important, since they are the only explicit reference to
Deuteronomy 23:3-6 in the rest of Scripture. They offer a partial answer to
the question, How did Nehemiah understand Deuteronomy 23:3-6? but
not necessarily a full answer. In other words, Nehemiah, I will argue,
could not have understood the law in Deuteronomy in the kind of harsh
narrow way that some believe. His application of the law to the
circumstances of his day does not necessarily imply that he would not have
been able to see in these laws the graciousness of Yahweh that I have been
On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of
the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite
and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for
ever, because they met not the children of Israel with bread
and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse
them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. And
it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they
separated from Israel all the mixed multitude. (Neh. 13:1-3)
It is clear that the law in Deuteronomy was understood as having a
literal sense and application, but it is equally clear that the law is being
interpreted in broader theological terms, for the application here in
Nehemiah is not limited to Ammonites and Moabites. In Nehemiahs day,
it was everyone who was mixed that was expelled from Israel. The
Hebrew word {erev, ::, translated above as mixed multitude is also
translated, foreigners (NASB), and those of foreign descent (ESV).
This word is only used ve times in Scripture and seems to always denote
racially mixed people (Exod 12:38; Jer 25:20; 50:37; Ezek 30:5; Neh 13:3).
What we saw when we considered this law in Deuteronomy is that
the curse is on Ammonites and Moabites not because of their race even
though it was true that they, like most of the tribe of Judah, were
descended from a forbidden marriage but because they cursed the
descendants of Abraham. Fundamentally, it was hatred of Israels God that
provoked Israels enemies to oppose her. This is hinted at in the story of
the Moabites tempting Israel to commit idolatry to turn their hearts away
from Him and bring His curse on them.
When we look at the larger context in the books of Ezra and
Nehemiah, it becomes clear that the nations around Israel at the time
cooperated together to lure Israel away from her God. Problems with the
surrounding nations arose almost immediately when the Jews came back
to the land and began to rebuild the temple.
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that
the children of the captivity were building a temple unto
Yahweh, the God of Israel; then they drew near to
Zerubabbel, and to the heads of fathers houses, and said unto
them, Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as ye do;
and we sacrice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king
of Assyria, who brought us up hither. But Zerubbabel, and
Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers houses of Israel,
said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us in building a
house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build
unto Yahweh, the God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of
Persia hath commanded us. Then the people of the land
weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled
them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to
frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia,
even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:1-5
The insincere offer of help turned to open opposition as soon as it was
rejected. The people of the land did their best to frustrate the Jews
project and stop the building of the temple. When the temple was nally
completed and Ezra came to Jerusalem to lead the Jews in the worship of
God, one of the rst things he encountered was the problem of
intermarriage with the people of the land.
Now when these things were done, the princes drew near
unto me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests and the
Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of
the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the
Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the
Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.
For they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for
their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves
with the peoples of the lands: yea, the hand of the princes and
rulers hath been chief in this trespass. (Ezra 9:1-2)
Note that the problem here is not simply that Jews have married
people of other lands. The situation here, in other words, is not parallel to
that of Rahab or Ruth. The nations are not converting to the true God.
Rather, the Jews are being inuenced to do according to their
abominations. This is exactly parallel to the situation in the book of
Numbers 25, when the Moabites tempted Israel to commit idolatry. Ezra
the priest led the Jews in repentance in his prayer for the people (Ezra 9:5
ff.), in which referred to Deuteronomy 7:1-6 which warns Israel not to
intermarry with the surrounding pagans because their will turn their
hearts away from Yahweh to serve idols. He also alludes to the words of
Deuteronomy 23:6, never seek their peace or their prosperity (Ezra 9:12).
The Jews repented and with Ezras leading they put away their
foreign wives (Ezra 10). Following James Jordans reconstruction of the
chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah, this would have been in the 7
year of
Here is the historical scenario, as I see it: Jeshua and
Zerubbabel and their associates returned to Jerusalem in the
rst year of Cyrus. They built the altar, and begin rebuilding
the temple (Ezra 3). Soon, however, they encountered
opposition, which "discouraged the people of Judah and
frightened them from building" (Ezra 4:4). The people left off
working on the temple and devoted themselves to building
nice homes for themselves and working on the wall (Haggai
1). God in His mercy raised up adversaries who complained
about this wall-building, and at the beginning of his reign
King Darius forbad them to work on the wall and city (Ezra
4:21). They were not, however, forbidden to work on the
temple. Thus, God raised up the prophet Haggai, who told
them that they were in sin for not having nished the temple
rst (Haggai 1). No longer able to work on walls and houses,
the people to devoted themselves to rebuilding the temple.
This aroused more questions, and another letter was sent to
Darius asking about the temple (Ezra 5). Darius gave
permission to rebuild the temple, which was completed in the
6th year of Darius (Ezra 6). The next year Ezra arrived, and
noted that both the temple and a rudimentary wall had been
Thirteen years later, in the 20
year of Darius, Nehemiah came to
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and spent 12 years working on the project.
Then he returned to serve Darius, but after about a year journeyed to
Jerusalem a second time. It was at this second visit that Nehemiah learned
that Eliashib the priest had built a room in the temple for Tobiah, an enemy
of the Jews (Neh. 13:4-9), discovered that Levites were not receiving their
due portions (Neb. 13:10-14), found Jews breaking the Sabbath, at least
partially because of the temptations by the foreign traders (Neh. 13:15-22),
and also realized that even some of the priests had married foreign women
and deled the priesthood (Neh. 13:23-29). Indeed the children of the
mixed marriages could not speak Hebrew, implying that they had turned
away from Yahweh to the gods of the nations (Neh. 13:24).
All of this shows clearly that Nehemiahs application of the law in
Deuteronomy 23:3-6 ts with the spirit of the law as it was originally given.
Though the law referred to Moabites and Ammonites only, the reason for
their being cursed was that they had cursed the seed of Abraham. The
50 James B. Jordan, The Chronology of Ezra & Nehemiah (IV), Biblical Chronology vol.
3, no. 5, May, 1991. Jordan points out that in ancient Persia, Artaxerxes, Xerxes, Darius,
Cyrus, etc., were not personal names, but titles, like king or pharaoh. Based on the
names in the geneologies, Jordan argues that the Persian king in the books of Ezra,
Nehemiah, and Esther is Darius the Great. This makes better sense of the relatioship
between the three books and the chronology of the period as a whole.
issue was not race, but rebellion against the true God. In Nehemiahs day,
the Moabites, Ammonites, and other foreign nations in the area hated the
God of Israel and interfered with the rebuilding of the temple and walls of
Jerusalem. In other words, they cursed the people of Israel in a manner
similar to their ancestors. Intermarrying with idolators who opposed the
worship of Yahweh was, of course, forbidden and Nehemiah simply
followed the spirit of the law, as it was originally given, just as Boaz also
followed the spirit of the law in recognizing that a Moabitess who trusted
in Yahweh should be received into the assembly through marriage.
The law of Deuteronomy 23:3-6, like the laws before it, hint at the
grace of God, even while proclaiming His judgment. The Moabites and
Ammonites were not excluded because of their shady origins. On the
contrary, Yahweh had graciously provided land for the children of Lot,
even helping them remove the giants who lived in their lands before them.
Yahweh had turned Balaams curse into a blessing because He loved Israel
(Deu. 23:5), but also because that is the kind of God Yahweh is. His name
proclaims His graciousness.
Thus, in the cases of Rahab and Ruth also, God turned the curse into a
blessing. That the Messiah was born of this special family is profoundly
signicant. Though he should have been perpetually cursed in Tamar,
cursed in Rahab, and cursed in Ruth, the Messiah was blessed in all three
of them because Yahweh is the God of grace who turns curses into
Chapter Five
Deuteronomy 23:7-8
Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou
shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a sojourner in
his land. The children of the third generation that are born
unto them shall enter into the assembly of Yahweh.
This law presents us with more riddles. First, the law forbids
Israelites to abhor or detest Edomites and Egyptians, though both nations
were idolatrous and their peoples practiced ceremonies at least similar to
the nations in Canaan. Ezra 9:1 specically speaks of abominations
being practiced by Egyptians, among other nations, using the noun form of
the verb abhor
used in Deuteronomy 23:7. Thus, I believe we have to
conclude that the law presupposes an Edomite or an Egyptian who is not
practicing the abominable worship typical of those nations. After all, the
persons in question are seeking entrance into the assembly of Yahweh.
Second, if the Moabites and Ammonites are cursed because they did
not meet the Israelites with water and bread on the way, why should the
Edomites not be similarly cursed? They also did not meet Israel with
water and bread along the way. In fact, when Moses sent them a gracious
message, asking for help and promising that Israel would only walk by the
kings highway, Edom responded by saying, Thou shalt not pass through
me, lest I come out with the sword against thee (Num. 20:18). When the
Israelites repeated their request, the Edomites appeared in force with an
army to stop Israel from going through their land. This is less aggressive
than Balaks attempt to curse Israel, but it is also far less friendly than
51 The verb translated abhor or abominate (:::) is found in these passages in the Old
Testament: Deut 7:26; 23:7; 1 Kgs 21:26; Isa 14:19; 49:7; Ezek 16:25, 52; Amos 5:10; Mic 3:9;
Ps 5:6; 14:1; 53:1; 106:40; 107:18; 119:163; Job 9:31; 15:16; 19:19; 30:10; 1 Chr 21:6. The noun
form is much more common, used 118 times in the Hebrew Bible. In Deuteronomy, the
noun (:::) appears 17 times and these verses provide a context for the meaning of the
verb (Deut 7:2526; 12:31; 13:14; 14:3; 17:1, 4; 18:9, 12; 20:18; 22:5; 23:18; 24:4; 25:16; 27:15;
32:16). The abominations Israel is to avoid include idols and everything associated with
idolatrous worship, unclean foods, and various kinds of sexual immorality (cf. every use
of the noun in Lev. 18:22, 2627, 2930; 20:13).
meeting them with bread and water. Why, then, should the Edomites get
this special favor?
Third, how can the Egyptians be considered less evil than Moab and
Amon? The Egyptians not only enslaved and oppressed Israel, they
actually made an attempt at exterminating all the descendants of Jacob as a
race. It is hard to imagine a more emphatic application of a curse to a
nation than utterly eradicating them. And yet, the Egyptians are here also
allowed to enter the assembly of Yahweh in the third generation. Why do
the Egyptians receive Gods special favor?
We have to ask: what is there in the history of the Edomites that
might explain why they are given favor here? But this is not just a question
faced by a modern interpreter of an ancient text. An Israelite in the days of
Joshua would face the same conundrum. As I have been showing, the law
of Moses was not only instruction in righteousness; it was also given as a
riddle. In Deuteronomy 23:7-8, Moses was instructing Israel in the ways of
God by confronting them with another paradox in a context of paradoxes.
The text in Deuteronomy specically points to the history of Jacob
and Essau in the words, for he is your brother. That history begins with
the two brothers struggling with one another even in their mothers womb.
After that ominous beginning, the story continues to tell of Jacobs
with Esau and Isaac among the most well-known stories in
the book of Genesis. In that famous story, Esaus anger and his vow to kill
his brother associate the story of Esau and Jacob with the story of Cain and
Abel, in spite of various contrasts. The jealous older brother hates the
younger brother who has the favor of man and God and determines to kill
the younger brother. Though neither Cain nor Esau may have been fully
conscious of it, the act of revenge was ultimately aimed at God Himself
who favored the younger brother.
But this aspect of the history only intensies the problem. If Esau is
like Cain and if the Edomites hate or distrust the Israelites so much that
they will not even let Israel go through their territory, why should Edom
have more favor than Moab or Ammon? The answer hinted at in
52 It is important to remember that the story of Jacob deceiving Isaac is actually the story
of Rebekah deceiving her husband in order to prevent him from committing a serious sin.
It is not a story of Jacob being greedy and stealing a blessing. It is a story about Isaac
being foolish and forgetting the word of God to Rebekah (Gen. 25:33). Gods plan had
been made clear to Isaac and Rebekah even before the boys were born. For Isaac to
attempt to reverse Gods plan was dangerous. Rebekah saved him from himself.
Deuteronomy 23:7 is provided in the fact that the story of Esau concludes
very differently from the story of Cain. Though Esau and Jacob struggled
and had moments that are reminiscent of Cain and Abel, their story did not
end in murder and the death of the younger brother. For when Jacob
returned to the land after a twenty-year exile, his brother Esau welcomed
him. Later, they both buried their father Isaac (Gen. 35:28-29) and their is
no more recorded hostility or trouble between them. In fact, Esau
voluntary left the land that Jacob had stolen from him by deceiving
Isaac. He apparently gave up his anger at his brother and accepted that it
was Gods will to bless Jacob with the land promised to Abraham and
Isaac. His move to the hill country of Seir, therefore, should be seen as
motivated by faith in the God of his father. This happy ending to the story
of Jacob and Esau is the background for the gracious treatment of Esaus
descendants in Deuteronomy 23:7-8.
The other references to Edomites in Deuteronomy (Deut 2:45, 8, 12,
22, 29) remind us that Yahweh had enabled them to ght giants and defeat
them. The land of Seir was Yahwehs gift to Edom, just as the land of
Canaan was going to be Yahwehs gift to Israel. At the time that Moses
spoke his sermon to Israel, Edom could be looked upon with some favor
because of the history of Jacob and Esau. We also have to consider that
given the relatively short period of time from Esau to the conquest, there
may still have been god-fearing Edomites who would sojourn in Israel
because they believed in the God of Isaac.
The case of Egypt is entirely different. There was no repentance or
reconciliation between Israel and Egypt. The story ends in judgment and
death. But the story did have a good beginning and Deuteronomy
specically reminds the reader of it. In Josephs day, Egyptians trusted in
the God of Jacob and accepted Joseph as a prophet of God, exalting him to
the right hand of Pharaoh. As long as Joseph lived and the Pharaohs
believed in his God, Israel enjoyed a place of special grace and favor in the
very best part of the land of Egypt. The favor that was extended to the
children of Jacob was not to be forgotten. However, it remains true that the
story of Israels relationship with Egypt ended, as I said, badly. So, why
should Egypt be treated with special favor compared with Moabites and
Ammonites, both of which tribes were cousins to Israel?
I should stress here that the way the law is written an ancient reader
would surely have asked the questions I am asking. Egypt in the days of
Moses had been Israels worst enemy. Pharaoh himself was the symbol of
Satan attacking the seed of the woman and trying to ruin the promise
made to Abraham. Until Haman the Agagite in the days of Esther, no one
in the entire history of Israel attempted the kind of total genocide that
Pharaoh had attempted. An ancient Israelite in Joshuas day would not
have forgotten the suffering Israel endured in the house of bondage.
Remarkably there are 50 references to Egypt in the book of
This contrasts with 29 references in Numbers and only 11
references in the book of Leviticus. Exodus, of course, has far more
references (123) than any other book. Apart from Exodus, in all the rest of
the Old Testament, only Genesis (77), Jeremiah (62) and Ezekiel (51) have
more references to Egypt than Deuteronomy. Most of the references to
Egypt in the book of Deuteronomy point back to the Exodus. Indeed,
Moses exhortations to the Israelites to remember their redemption from
Egypt constitutes an important theme for his nal sermon.
then beware lest thou forget Yahweh, who brought thee forth
out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 6:12
When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What
mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances,
which Yahweh our God hath commanded you? Then thou
shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaohs bondmen in Egypt:
and Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand;
and Yahweh showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon
Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our
eyes; and he brought us out from thence, that he might bring
us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers.
If thou shalt say in thy heart, These nations are more than I;
how can I dispossess them? Thou shalt not be afraid of them:
thou shalt well remember what Yahweh thy God did unto
53 Deu. 1:27, 30; 4:20, 34, 37, 4546; 5:6, 15; 6:12, 2122; 7:8, 15, 18; 8:14; 9:7, 12, 26; 10:19, 22;
11:34, 10; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:1, 3, 6, 12; 17:16; 20:1; 23:4; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 26:5, 8; 28:27, 60,
68; 29:2, 16, 25; 34:11. The word Egyptian is used in Genesis 20 times, in Exodus 57
times, in Leviticus 1 time, in Numbers 4 times, and in Deuteronomy only twice. The word
Pharaoh appears in Genesis 93 times, in Exodus 115 times, and in Deuteronomy 7 times,
while not appearing at all in Leviticus and Numbers. The combined numbers of the
various Egypt-related words shows that
Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt; the great trials which thine eyes
saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand,
and the outstretched arm, whereby Yahweh thy God brought
thee out: so shall Yahweh thy God do unto all the peoples of
whom thou art afraid. 7:17-19
Beware lest thou forget Yahweh thy God, in not keeping his
commandments, and his ordinances, and his statutes, which I
command thee this day: lest, when thou hast eaten and art
full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and
when thy herds and thy ocks multiply, and thy silver and
thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied;
then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget Yahweh thy God,
who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the
house of bondage; who led thee through the great and terrible
wilderness, wherein were ery serpents and scorpions, and
thirsty ground where was no water; who brought thee forth
water out of the rock of int; who fed thee in the wilderness
with manna, which thy fathers knew not; that he might
humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at
thy latter end: and lest thou say in thy heart, My power and
the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou
shalt remember Yahweh thy God, for it is he that giveth thee
power to get wealth; that he may establish his covenant
which he sware unto thy fathers, as at this day. 8:11-18
Remembering the bondage and deliverance from Egypt is
remembering the saving grace of God who fullled His promises to
Abraham through spectacular judgments against Egypt and wonderful
provision for the Israelites. But it is also remembering the wickedness of
the Egyptians in bringing Israel into bondage. Since Egypt and the exodus
constitute a major theme of Deuteronomy, we are again confronted with
the seeming paradox of Yahwehs graciousness to the Egyptians. Apart
from the allusion to Israels sojourn in Egypt and the reminder of the good
days of Joseph, is there anything in the law to suggest a reason for Egypts
special treatment here?
I believe there are two possible reasons that may be added to what is
specied in the text, part of the background of the law that an Israelite
would have recalled as he meditated on Yahwehs strange ways. First,
Egypt had been thoroughly punished for its sins against Israel. The
judgments on the land of Egypt listed in the book of Exodus would have
utterly ruined the land of Egypt. It may be that Moses regarded Egypt as
having paid for its sins because of Yahwehs amazing judgments on that
Second, perhaps because of the judgments Egypt suffered some
Egyptians came to believe in the God of Israel. At any rate, we know that
the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt with Israel (Exo. 12:38)
included Egyptians (cf. Lev. 24:10). Though the so-called mixed
multitude seem to either overlap with or be the same as the trouble-
makers who are called rabble in Numbers (11:4), the fact that these
people left Egypt with Israel probably indicates some sort of faith.
In Deuteronomy, Moses refers to sojourners who are with Israel at
that time and even includes them in the covenant (Deu. 29:10-15). It seems
likely that some of these people would be the descendants of Egyptians
who left the land with Israel. If they were, it would constitute another
irony in the law, for they are only the second generation. Even if there are
no Egyptians among them, it would still be signicant that second-
generation foreigners are being included in the covenant, for that would
seem to make them members of the assembly of Israel. Perhaps
participation in the wilderness wanderings constituted a form of covenant
initiation that obviated the necessity to wait for another generation. It was,
after all, an exceptional era. Or perhaps Moses does not imply that the
sojourners are actually members of the assembly. In any case, if there were
a small but signicant group of Egyptian sojourners, they would constitute
a group of people like Ruth or Rahab, who had left their own people and
land to follow Yahweh. Grace to such people ts the rest of the context and
its odd message of Gods mercy in judgment.
The text itself points to the answers for the questions the startled
reader would naturally ask. Why special favor shown to Egyptians and
Edomites? The short answer is, because of the history of their
relationship with Israel. Their different histories, of course, show
different reasons for Gods gracious law, as the words of Deuteronomy 23:7
point out. Though it may surprise the reader at rst, Gods grace toward
Egypt and Edom, however remarkable, ts well the context which reminds
readers of Tamar and suggests the possibility of grace to anyone who
comes to Yahweh in faith. The Pharaoh of Josephs day seems to have
trusted in Yahweh. There is no reason Egyptians or Edomites in the days
of Joshua or later could not trust in the true God, also.
Chapter Six
Matthew 15:21-28
And Jesus went out thence, and withdrew into the parts of
Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out
from those borders, and cried, saying, Have mercy on me, O
Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed
with a demon. But he answered her not a word. And his
disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for
she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I was not sent
but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she came
and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. And he
answered and said, It is not meet to take the childrens bread
and cast it to the dogs. But she said, Yea, Lord, but even the
dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters table.
Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is
thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt. And her
daughter was healed from that hour.
I believe this story reinforces my reading of Deuteronomy 23:1-8 as
intentionally paradoxical a riddle of Gods grace included in the laws of
exclusion, because I think Jesus is acting out the same sort of paradoxical
application of the law. Consider the story. Jesus departed into the region
of Tyre and Sidon, gentile territory, in order to rest from the hustle and
bustle of his ministry in Galilee (Mar. 7:24). But immediately, according to
Mark, a Gentile, pagan woman appeared, asking for help (Mar. 7:25). The
woman is identied as a Greek, a Syro-phenecian, and a Canaanite
(Mat. 15:22; Mar. 7:26). Though she is not from the particular nations
mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:1-8, she is a Gentile from an idolatrous
nation the kind of people that Deuteronomy warns against and that
Nehemiah included in the list of forbidden people on the basis of his
principled interpretation of Deuteronomy 23. If Jesus followed
Nehemiahs interpretation of the law, she is part of those who are
Jesus answer suggests He follows Nehemiahs understanding of the
law, for after initially ignoring her, He speaks very clearly: He is not sent
to help Gentiles, but only the lost sheep of Israel. Also, His rejection of her
plea adds to the disciples attempt to send her away. At this point, one
might expect her to be disappointed at least, and perhaps even angry that
she is being treated with such disrespect by a man known as a prophet and
healer. What is more, Jesus did not just turn her down once, but twice
the second time labeling her as a Gentile dog.
From the perspective of Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, this rejection of
a Gentile does not seem entirely illegitimate. She had no right to the
special blessings of the chosen people. Also, contrary to some modern
misconceptions, Jesus was not a philanthropist healer on a medical
mission. His healing was specically designed to restore Israel to her
priestly role among the nations. It was a Messianic task, not a
humanitarian work. However, as we have already seen from considering
Deuteronomy, the prohibition of Gentiles was never intended to be
absolute. The law itself pointed to gracious exceptions.
Jesus answer to the woman might seem to us like an insult, but it
would be perverse to assume that was Jesus intention. What, then, is He
trying to do? Working backwards from the end of the conversation and
assuming that it ended in the way He wished, I think we can say that He
was accomplishing two things. First, He is establishing the literal realities
of His ministry and commission. Neither this woman nor any other
Gentile should presume the right to be healed by Jesus. He was sent to the
lost sheep of Israel and bringing Israel back to God was his calling. Of
course, that was just the rst step toward the redemption of all mankind,
but that rst step was the work Jesus was called to do.
This ts with the passage in Deuteronomy because the verses in
Deuteronomy are concerned with membership in the assembly of Yahweh,
the denition of who belongs to Israel. People who do not belong are
excluded from the special blessings of the chosen people and from Israels
priestly status. The gift of the Messiah Himself and His healing ministry is,
of course, rst of all for the assembly of Yahweh, not for others
especially not for someone who could be identied as a Canaanite. This
54 I put this expression in quotation marks because I do not really think it is proper.
Gods grace is not an exception to the rigor of His justice. He is a gracious God who
delights to turn the curse into a blessing. But on the surface, it seems like an exception
to an explicit command. My argument is that the laws themselves contain allusions to
the so-called exceptions which indicate clearly that the exception is, in fact, part of
the purpose of God from the beginning. The example of Jonah illustrates this principle
perfectly. Jonah knew and understood that an announcement of judgement was
equivalent to an invitation to repentance and grace. He learned it from many places in
the law, including Deuteronomy 23:1-8.
woman was a perfect representative of those who were forbidden to join
the assembly of Yahweh. Therefore, Jesus rightly rejects her.
But Jesus is the God who gave the law. He knows well about His
own grandmothers: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. Tamar was turned down,
but her faith found a way to get from Judah what she sought for the
kingdom of God. Rahab was a social outcast, but her faith found a way to
save her family and build a future as an ancestress of the Messiah. Ruth
was turned down by Naomi and four times urged to return to her pagan
people (Ruth 1:8-15), but she persisted in faith and eventually won a
prominent place in the most distinguished family in world history.
In the case of each of these famous women, there is a consistent
principle, one that appears in the lives of men like Abraham, Moses, and
David: God tests His people. What we see in the Gospel story is that
yesterday, today, and forever, Jesus is the same Yahweh, the God who tests
His peoples faith. Yahweh tested Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth not because He
is mean, but because He loved them and sought to rene their faith, to
bring it to its highest and most beautiful expression. In trial, their faith
persisted in spite of rejection, and even grew, because it was genuine.
That, then, is the second reason for Jesus apparently harsh words
to test this womans faith for her blessing. She showed up as soon as he
entered the house (Mar. 7:25) and persistently begged for Him to heal her
daughter (Mar. 7:26). From the beginning, then, her faith was clear. By
testing her faith, Jesus puried it, leading her to join the ranks of Ruth and
others who did not take no for an answer.
This Canaanite woman actually displayed her faith in more ways
than one. First, she addressed Jesus as the Son of David, so she knew
about Israel and Gods plan for His people, at least to some degree. It
seems probable that she had come to Jesus because she believed that He
was the Messiah, which is the only thing the title, Son of David could
have meant in this context. When, therefore, Jesus seemed to reject her, she
did not easily give up or get discouraged, because she had some idea of
what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah.
Mark tells us that the woman appeared in the house where Jesus
stayed almost immediately after He arrived. Matthew offers details that
ll out our understanding. We see, for example, that when this woman
rst sought His mercy, Jesus ignored her (Mat. 15:22-23). Her response,
however, was to continue to plead for Jesus help. The disciples asked
Jesus to send her away because she was troubling them so much, but
again, she did not give up. Jesus then gave her his rst answer, rejecting
her plea with the statement that He was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel
(15:24). At this point, she approached Him and bowed before Him, asking
for help (15:25). Again, her persistence in the face of rejection showed her
trust in Christ. Since she continued to beg, Jesus responded in language
even harsher, in effect calling her a Gentile dog: It is not right to take the
childrens food and give it to dogs (15:26).
Her response to this was amazing. She did not argue with Jesus
about His Jewish mission or show frustration or anger at His words to her.
Rather, she accepted His seemingly harsh words and built her answer on
the presupposition of their appropriateness. This time her answer was not
mere persistence, repeating the same request over and over. Rather, her
answer showed faith in Jesus as the one who was commissioned to save
Israel. She acknowledged Gods special purpose for the seed of Abraham,
but added to it in a surprising way. For what she added to Jesus picture of
the children eating bread at the table borrowed what we might consider
the most insulting aspect of the whole scene, the reference to Gentiles as
dogs: Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the childrens
This answer showed humble child-like faith of the sort Jesus
commended on other occasions. Her words displayed wisdom born from
trust in the kind of person Jesus is. It was not her cleverness or quick
tongue that won Jesus favor, but the fact that she trusted in Him as the
Messianic representative of Israels gracious God, the God who shares His
favor promiscuously to those who trust in Him.
Jesus conversation with the Canaanite woman is typical of the way
God deals with people who come to Him for help. If we keep in mind the
kind of God Yahweh is and has displayed Himself to be, we will read the
law differently and notice the riddles and paradoxes it includes. We will
learn to see Gods grace in places we would not normally expect it, even in
laws that seemed primarily concerned with restricting entrance to the
assembly of Israel.
Reading back into the law from the perspective of this story, perhaps
we should see these laws as tests for the Gentiles who would come to the
God of Israel, tests that require them to show their understanding of and
trust in His person. Gentiles who know what kind of a God Yahweh is,
will trust in Him and seek Him, knowing that the apparently harsh
rejection of various nations in Deuteronomys laws was not intended as a
rejection of individuals who turn to Yahweh and seek His favor. It was
always true that dogs could eat from the crumbs that fell from the table.
It was even true that so-called dogs could be the ancestresses of the
Messiah Himself!
Chapter Seven
In this series, I have offered an interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:30-
23:8 which suggests that a simple surface reading of the text does not do
justice to Moses or Gods intention, that the larger historical and legal
context in which these laws were given suggests a much more complicated
interpretation of the laws than one might make if he simply read the laws
as independently standing statutes. I offered an interpretation of these
laws which claims that they allude to or presuppose historical and legal
passages. Considered together, the various texts force an ancient reader to
see multiple levels of meaning in these laws. Thus, the laws in
Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 contain irony and puzzles that open up nuances
and meanings hidden from the casual reader.
But, of course, a modern reader might object. Right off hand, I can
imagine the following possible arguments. First, one might claim that the
view suggested in my essays is too complex. The objector might say that it
would be absurd to assume an ancient reader of the law would be able to
remember all these associations and put them together. It is simply too
subtle to be believable. Second, one might also object that if the law is
stated in terms this complex that it loses its democratic character. That is
to say, if the law is so difcult to grasp, the book of Deuteronomy hardly
stands as a sermon to all the people of Israel. It would become the
province of specialists, like the priests, rather than Gods word for His
people. This seems to contradict many passages in Deuteronomy which
clearly imply the law was intended for the whole nation, especially the
paragraph containing the rst and great commandment which speaks of
common Israelites inscribing the law on their hearts and teaching the
commandments diligently to their children (Deu. 6:4-9). Third, one might
object that these laws are rst articulated by Moses in order to correct the
sins and problems of the patriarchal era. Examples like Tamar are not set
forth in Genesis as behavior to be imitated, but as sinful behavior that God
graciously forgave. The law of Moses in Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 makes it
clear that God disapproves of this behavior. There is no paradox or riddle
here. What was tolerated before Moses is no longer tolerated.
I have stated the rst two objections as different issues, but I think
they both boil down to objecting that my view makes the law too
complicated. The third objection is rather different. No one can deny that
God in some earlier ages tolerated behavior that in later times He
condemned. The most obvious example is brothers marrying sisters. In
the case of the children of Adam and Eve, for example, there is no other
option. Cain married a sister. There was no sin in doing so, and God did
not disapprove. But in the law of Moses, God forbade the Israelite men
from marrying their sisters (Lev. 18:6 ff, esp. vs. 9). In fact, as the law is
stated it even specically forbids Israelites from imitating Abraham, who
married his half-sister. This was not, of course, condemning Abraham
himself, but it was drawing a historical line between what had been
permissible in the past and what would be permissible in the future. An
objector to my view could argue that all of the laws about marriage t into
this paradigm.
The Law Loses its Democratic Nature
I will consider each of these objections in order, beginning with the
second rather than the rst. It seems to me that the second objection
derives from the rst, but it is also signicantly different and deserves
separate consideration. If the law is so complex and if understanding the
law requires such subtle thinking, how can we say that Deuteronomy is a
sermon for the whole people of Israel? How can we say that the law itself
is a law for the whole people of Israel? Doesnt this kind of subtle
interpretation take the law out of the hands of the common Israelite (and in
our day the average Christian) and place it into the hands of specialists?
Doesnt this make the law the esoteric province of priests?
With apologies to my hypothetical objector, I believe the answer to
this question is also rather complicated. To begin with, the fact that Moses
is addressing the nation does not mean that he must speak in terms of a
lowest-common-denominator paradigm of sermonizing. We might think
that a good sermon must be entirely comprehensible by the entire
congregation. But what if Moses did not think that way? What if Moses
preached a sermon to Israel that was simple and easily understandable at
one level and in some places, but was also at the same time deeply subtle
and included riddles and paradoxes in other places? Is this possible? In
my understanding, this is the character of the Bible as a whole. Children
can read the Bible, understand its basic message and prot from it.
Scholars can and do devote their entire lives to understanding the Bible
and never plumb the depths of it. Centuries of study by the godliest and
wisest of men still leave questions unanswered. Can anyone deny this?
What I am claiming for the book of Deuteronomy is simply that it
shares the same character as the Bible as a whole. Deuteronomy is a
sermon for the people of Israel. The Ten Words were a clear statement of
Gods will for His people that everyone could easily memorize and
meditate upon. In an age like Joshuas, when people followed Gods law, I
think we can assume that an Israelite farmer could recite the Ten Words
from memory and understand their basic meaning. The song of Moses is
much more difcult and subtle, but singing it repeatedly would rmly
places its subtleties even into the minds of children and lead them to think
about Gods ways and Gods law. We should not underestimate the
abilities of an average man to understand Gods law, assuming he is
All of that being said, however, I also have to wonder, who can read
the law of God and not see that it establishes a hierarchical system? The
whole nation of Israel is a priestly nation (Exo. 19:6). But that does not
mean that their are no Israelites who are more priestly than others, for
the tribe of Levi has special privileges and responsibilities not given to the
other tribes. And within the tribe of Levi, the family of Aaron has special
privileges and responsibilities not given to other families. Furthermore,
within the family of Aaron, the rstborn sons have special privileges and
responsibilities not granted to the others in Aarons family. Israels law
system includes provisions which dene a hierarchical society. It not only
assumes, it requires specialists, including specialists in the law.
However, there is no reason to claim that this system removes the law
from the common man. It simply requires that the common man seek
counsel from the Levites when they confront difcult issues of
interpretation and application. Similarly, it requires that the Levites seek
counsel from other Levites or priests when they face matters they cannot
adequately handle. Levites and priests, too, might not be able to answer
questions put to them, so that they would be required to ask the High
Priest to consult Yahweh Himself through the Urim and Thummim (Exod
28:30; Num 27:21).
The law of Moses established a hierarchical system. To be sure, it has
what we might call democratic elements, but the notion that the law
contains difculties and subtleties does not contradict the idea that the law
addresses the whole nation and all the people, for God provided teachers
of His law to lead the whole people to deeper understanding and love, as
He also does in the New Covenant (Eph. 4:11-16).
This View is too Complex
The rst objection I mentioned is simply that the view I set forth is
too complex. How could the average Israelite be expected to understand
the kind of subtleties I claim are to be found in Deuteronomy? By
answering the second objection, I have already partially answered this one.
The answer is twofold. First, the law contains many teachings, basic
instruction, that would be perfectly comprehensible to the average
Israelite. I am not claiming that every word of the law is a paradox or
riddle that would be hard to understand. The Ten Words in particular
dene the basic covenantal ethic of Israelite society and they are totally
accessible. Second, God gave teachers to Israel, specialists who were
supposed to devote their lives to study the law and to teach it to the people
of Israel. Consider Ezra.
For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of Yahweh, and to
do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances. (Ezr. 7:10)
But this answer is not enough. The fact is that if the average
Israelite were educated in the law, few of the subtle aspects of
Deuteronomy would be beyond him. First, as I pointed out previously, at
the time of Joshua, the whole written Scripture was just Genesis through
Deuteronomy. This is not a vast corpus. The people had been commanded
to gather together locally every Sabbath (Lev. 23:3). What would they do?
Obviously, I think, they would read the law and talk about it. They would
probably also sing and pray. The weekly Sabbath worship should have
informed the average Israelite about the subtleties of the law through the
repeated reading of Genesis through Deuteronomy and the instruction
given by local leaders.
Second, we need to think more carefully about the situation of the
average Israelite. Why should we assume that he would not notice what
we can notice? Remember, everything was personal to them. They were
the tribes and the people who came out of Jacobs loins and Egypts
bondage. What Israelite would forget the story of Reuben? What Israelite
would not know the story of Lot, or the story of Tamar? When Moses
pronounced Gods condemnation of acts similar to those of Reuben or
Tamar who would not easily recognize it and ask questions about Moses
To regard my suggested interpretation as too complex or difcult for
the average Israelite in Joshuas day is unfair to the intelligence of the so-
called average man of any age. No doubt there are subtleties in the law
that the average man could not understand and concerning which he
would seek help from teachers and specialists. But, at the same time, the
average man, hearing the law read over and over each Sabbath,
meditating on the law in his daily life, and seeking understanding could
understand much. In a godly era like the days of Joshua, the teachers of
the law in Israel would have supplied any gaps.
The Law Corrects the Sins of the Past
The third possible objection is that we do not need to read these
puzzles and paradoxes into the law, because there is another approach that
adequately addresses the matter: the book of Deuteronomy is simply
correcting sins of the past. What had been tolerated in the patriarchal era
would no longer be permissible. Cain married a sister. Abraham married
a half sister. Neither of them sinned in so doing, but the times had
changed. In Deuteronomy, Moses dened permissible and impermissible
relationships differently. No paradox or riddle is necessary. This view
could be combined with the rst two objections or be set forth as an
independent argument.
As I have already stated, there are changes in the laws over time.
Brother-sister marriage was permitted in earlier times but was indeed
forbidden later. However, these sorts of change in the law do not mean
that a complex reading of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 is unnecessary. On the
contrary, I offer three arguments to demonstrate that a complex reading is
the Biblical approach.
First, whatever may be said about my interpretation of Deuteronomy
22:30-23:8, the fact is that we cannot escape the basic idea of paradox and
subtleties in the law, including intentional apparent contradictions. One of
the more obvious ones, which has been widely recognized from ancient
times, came up in the previous discussion. On the one hand, the law
specically forbids Israelites from mixing wool and linen in their clothing
(Deu. 22:12). This is not because the mixture implies sin or compromise.
Quite to the contrary, the mixture is too holy for the common Israelite.
Only the priests were to wear garments of mixed cloth. However, on the
other hand, the law also required Israelites to wear tassels with a blue cord
(Deu. 22:12; Num. 15:38). That meant a mixture of cloth since only wool
could be dyed. The cord on the tassel is an insignicantly small part of the
garment, but the mere fact of including a small piece of dyed wool on a
linen garment would make the association between the common Israelites
and the priests. The contradiction in the law was intended to make a
theological point: that all Israelites were priests in a secondary sense. This
is a feature of Mosaic law that modern interpreters must take into account.
Another surprising example appears in a festschrift for James Jordan.
Peter Leithart drew attention to a missing law in Leviticus 18, one that
must have created no little confusion for ancient priests.
There is no explicit prohibition against uncovering the
nakedness of a daughter. I demonstrate below that daughters
were excluded, but in a passage that explicitly excludes aunts,
sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, step-daughters, and
granddaughters, the absence of a direct prohibition of father-
daughter incest is so startling that it must be deliberate and
No doubt Israelites in Joshuas day would have pondered the
meaning of this omission, but they did not face a glaring contradiction here
and it was clear from the general structure of the chapter that father-
daughter incest was forbidden, even though mysteriously unmentioned.
As Leithart points out, silence may be a form of emphasis. When one
expects to nd a particular literary feature but it is absent, that absence
becomes a puzzle that forces readers to think. The absence of a father-
daughter prohibition in Leviticus, therefore, drew attention to the subject.
In Ezekiels day the emphasis was intensied and the mystery heightened
by the introduction of an apparent breach of the unstated law by Yahweh
By way of background to Ezekiel, we must remember that Israel is
called Gods son in the Exodus (Ex. 4:22) and the people His sons and
daughters (Deu. 32:19). In fact, the father-son image dominates and
characterizes the entire book of Deuteronomy.
In a passage that Ezekiel
specically points to, Yahweh is described as Israels father and mother
55 From Peter J. Leithart, The Knotted Thread of Time in, The Glory of Kings: A
Festschrift in Honor of James Jordan, edited by Peter J. Leithart and John Barach (Eugene,
Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011), pp. 58-59.
56 See: Ralph Allan Smith, Hear My Son: An Examination of the Fatherhood of Yahweh in
Deuteronomy (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2011).
(Deu. 32:1-18). Later, Jerusalem is frequently pictured as the daughter of
Yahweh (2 Kgs. 19:21; Psa. 9:14; Isa. 1:8; 10:32; 16:1; 37:22; 52:2; 62:11; Jer.
4:31; 6:2; etc.).
With this literary background in mind, when Ezekiel
describes Yahweh as having found Jerusalem as an infant girl, raised her as
His daughter, and then married her, the metaphor is striking (Eze. 16:1-14).
Leithart suggests that the father-daughter incest seemingly implied by
Ezekiel nds a solution in the revelation of the Son in the New Covenant.
Under the Old Covenant, Israel was forced to puzzle over the
revelation that Yahweh is both Father and Husband to Israel.
The jarring implicit incest offered a puzzle designed to arouse
Israel to consider a plurality within the life of Yahweh, the
possibility of an eternal divine society. Perhaps, they would
begin to suspect, Yahweh is both Father and Husband to
Israel because Yahweh is Himself both Father and Son.
Ultimately the knot is undone by the gospels fuller
uncovering of the Triune life, its revelation of a Father who so
loves His daughter that He sends His son to give Himself and
ultimately, as Jonathan Edwards put it, to introduce her into
the family of the Triune life and the bride of His Son.
Second, my understanding of the law is conrmed by passages
subsequent to the law which indicate that ancient Israelites discovered
complex layers of meaning in the law. To take one example related to our
passage, consider the rest of the Old Testament witness concerning Moab.
We have already pointed out in a previous essay that Boaz relationship
with Ruth suggests that Boaz, a child of a mother from a condemned
nation, realized that Deuteronomy 23:3-6 was not intended to exclude
godly individuals who would repent and seek the God of Israel. But the
later history of Israel is suggestive as well.
On the one hand, almost every reference to Moab in the Old
Testament is negative (Judg 3:12, 1415; 1 Sam. 14:47; 1 Kgs 11:33; 2 Kgs 1:1;
3:45, 7, 10; Isa. 15:1 ff.; etc.). The general perspective is that Moab hates
Yahweh and Israel and that it therefore deserves the judgment that comes
upon it. On the other hand, when David was in trouble, he sought help
from the king of Moab (1 Sam. 22:3-4). He did not go to Edom or Ammon,
57 The expression daughter of Zion should be understood as daughter Zion. Zion is
not a mother, but the daughter.
58 Op. cit. p. 73.
but to Moab. Why? The obvious answer would seem to be that it was
because Davids ancestress, Ruth, was from Moab. Perhaps the story
suggests some sort of family connections or friendship between Moab and
David, though there may be nothing more here than the king of Moabs
enmity to Saul. In any event, this does not bear fruit in the salvation or
blessing of the nation, for David later has to go to war against Moab and he
punishes them severely (2 Sam. 8:2).
However, the fact that Moab served
David (a blessing for the Moabites) and that there was a Moabite among
Davids mighty men (1 Chr. 11:46) does indicate that David did seek the
blessing of Moab and allowed a Moabite to have a special place in his
kingdom. He did not understand the curse of Deuteronomy 23:3-6 as
It is even more remarkable to note that this long-standing and erce
enemy of Israel is promised Yahwehs gracious salvation.
Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab
in the latter days, declares Yahweh. Jer. 48:47
Israel had been forbidden to seek the peace or prosperity of the
Moabites, but David and Jeremiah understood that in His grace, God
would overturn the curse. No doubt they would have also understood the
historical allusions in Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 and seen the ironies and
puzzles in them.
Third, consider the case of Jonah. He knew that God shows Himself
to be gracious even to His enemies. Jonah understood that though Yahweh
pronounces terrifying curses, He is the God who delights to change the
curse into a blessing. When, therefore, Yahweh sent Jonah to Nineveh,
Jonah understood from the beginning that Yahwehs declaration of certain
judgment in 40 days included an implicit but unstated promise of salvation
should Nineveh repent. Where did Jonah learn of this? Through his
reading of the law and prophets and through his study of the history of
Israel. Nothing in the message that God gave to Jonah suggested the
possibility of mercy. But Jonah understood the implicit and hidden
message included in the condemnation of Nineveh. After all, if Yahweh
simply intended to destroy Nineveh, there would have been no prophetic
visit, unless it would be like the angels visit to Sodom, to remove a godly
remnant before the re would fall from heaven.
59 Apparently some Jewish commentators suggest that the king of Moab killed Davids
parents and Davids severity was a response to Moabs treachery.
Reasoning like Jonahs requires one to go beyond the surface of the
text and consider other contexts, especially the most important context of
all: the Bibles depiction of the character of Yahweh. Who is Yahweh?
What kind of a God is He? Jonah knew the answer that Deuteronomy
22:30-23:8 teaches between the lines of its seemingly judgmental laws.
This entire essay illustrates what James Jordan argued in his
introduction to the Biblical worldview, Through New Eyes.
Before the modern era, and before Gutenberg, there were few
books. The few men who wrote books wrote them very
carefully. As a result, ancient writings, including the Bible,
are very tightly and precisely written. Every word has its
This fact is generally ignored by liberal scholarship, which
usually assumes that any part of the Bible is a sloppy
conation of several sources. This viewpoint grew up to
explain apparent contradictions and paradoxes in the text. A
proper reading of any ancient text, including the Bible, would
take the apparent contradictions as stimuli for deeper
The oddness of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 is intentional. Like Gods
message to Jonah, Moses sermon included layers of meaning not explicitly
stated in the text, but which a sensitive reader should pick up on a
meditative reading. Indeed, the whole Bible is written as both revelation
and riddle. Its message is hidden from the proud and foolish who hate
their Creator, but is open to those who love their heavenly Father and seek
Him with all their heart.
60 James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Eugene, OR:
Wipf and Stock, 1999), p.14.