Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Deuteronomy 23:15–25:19

Deuteronomy 23:15–25:19: Miscellaneous Laws

Synopsis

This is a very long passage, in which Moses peppers the Israelites with many laws to obey. There doesn’t seem to be much of a relation between many of these laws; there isn’t a “theme” being followed.

  • If a slave takes refuge with the Israelites, they are to let him live among them, wherever he likes, and they are not to oppress him. They are not to hand him over to his master.
This is a very interesting law. It’s so difficult for me to get my mind around the fact that God even allowed slavery in His laws, but just when I start to get used to the idea, I see a law like this, which turns things on their head. Is it possible that God permits slavery, because of the wickedness of the Israelites’ hearts, even though He considers it bad/wrong? But if so, why didn’t He simply tell them to change their ways, and disallow slavery altogether? These are questions I can’t answer.

  • No Israelite—man or woman—is to become a shrine prostitute.
  • Earnings from prostitutes—male or female—are not to be brought into the house of the LORD to pay a vow, “because the LORD your God detests them both” (verse 23:18).
I’m assuming, for that second rule, that Moses is still referring to shrine prostitutes. Often, when the Old Testament is talking about prostitution, it’s talking specifically about shrine prostitutes. These are prostitutes that have sex with people as part of the worship of other gods. (For example, I think there were some gods of “fertility,” and it was believed that having sex with a shrine prostitute in the worship of these gods would help to increase crops, or possibly help you have male children, or that type of thing. There may have been other examples where shrine prostitutes would be used.) Of course these prostitutes are abhorrent to God, because they’re part of the worship of other gods, which is breaking His first commandment. I’m not saying that non-shrine prostitutes are/were okay, I’m just trying to be precise.

  • Israelites are not to charge fellow Israelites interest. They may charge foreigners interest, but not fellow Israelites.
To me, this is just part of being one of the “chosen people” of God. The Israelites were set aside as His people, and were to be different from the peoples around them. I can’t charge my brother interest, because he is part of God’s chosen people.

  • The Israelites are to be careful about making vows to the LORD. If they do make a vow, they are not to be slow to pay it, or the LORD will hold them guilty of sin. Verse 23:22 says that if they refrain from making a vow, they will not be guilty, which indicates to me that it would be better not to vow anything to the LORD, unless sure of being able to pay it. As it says in verse 23:23:

    Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.
To a certain extent, this rule is just plain common sense: Don’t vow to do something, unless you can really do it. But there is also another reasoning behind this, in which God wants the Israelites to realize that their vows to Him are important, and must be honoured. It can be tempting sometimes to say things like, “LORD, if you get me out of this mess, I’ll give you all of my money for a month!” Or to simply say things to make a point. But God is not pleased with this kind of unthinking vow.

  • If an Israelite enters a fellow Israelite’s vineyard, he can eat all of the grapes he wants. He’s not allowed to put any in his basket—which, to me, is just a way of saying that he’s not allowed to collect any—but while he’s there, he can eat them.
  • The same rule applies to a grainfield; kernels can be picked by hand, but an Israelite wouldn’t be allowed to use a sickle on his neighbour’s grain.
These rules are very cool. I love this. Talk about welfare! God is providing rules so that the poor can be fed, and yet at the same time preventing people with crops from being ripped off. And, really, a vineyard has a lot of grapes in it; even if I walk into a vineyard and fill up on grapes, the person who owns the field will barely miss them.

  • The next rule is kind of complex, so I’ll just quote it:

    If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. (verses 24:1–4)
This is interesting, to me. I marry a woman, and then divorce her—because I have found something “indecent” about her—and then she gets married to someone else. Later on she becomes single again. But if I were to marry her again, this would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. I’m not allowed to marry her again after she has been “defiled,” but I’m not sure which part was the part that defiled her; was it the “indecent” thing I found about her that caused me to divorce her in the first place? Or the divorce itself? Or was it the second marriage? My guess—and this is only a guess—is that this is really hinging on the “indecent” thing the first husband discovers about his wife. If he marries her again, one of two things is happening:
  1. The “indecent” thing he discovered about her wasn’t really indecent at all. In this case, he has maligned a good woman’s name by divorcing her for no reason.
  2. Or, if the thing he discovered really was indecent, then he shouldn’t be marrying her.
Neither of these thoughts are really properly formed, in my mind.

  • When a man gets married, he is to have a full year with his wife, “to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married” (verse 24:5). During this time, he is not to be sent to war, or have any other “duty” laid on him.
This is a rehash of a rule that was given in Deuteronomy 20.

  • When an Israelite makes a loan, he is not to take the person’s millstone as collateral, because that would be taking away the person’s livelihood.
I’m pretty sure, for this rule, that the rule is referring to a millstone as an example, and not an absolute. That is, I’m assuming that you can’t take away the person’s livelihood, regardless of what it is. At first glance, this is just common sense; if you take away the person’s means of making a living, how would they ever be able to pay you back? But there is something more insidious, that the loanees are being protected from: sometimes, people will make loans in such a way that it’s impossible to pay the loan back, in which case they basically get an indentured labourer working for them—someone who will always be in their debt. Laws like this one try to prevent that from happening.

  • If an Israelite kidnaps a fellow Israelite, to make him a slave or to sell him, the one who committed this crime is to be executed.
Sounds pretty straightforward to me. Next…

  • When an Israelite gets a skin disease, s/he is to carefully obey all of the instructions of the priests, as the LORD has commanded them. Verse 24:9 gives a warning, which refers back to Numbers 12:

    Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt.
Verse 24:8 actually says “leprous diseases,” but the footnote indicates that the Hebrew word “leprous” was “used for various diseases affecting the skin—not necessarily leprosy.” I find it interesting that God specifically includes a rule where he instructs the Israelites to obey His other rules. Shows us something about the sinfulness of the human heart.

  • When a loan is made, and the person borrowing offers a pledge in return for the loan, the person making the loan is not go to into the loanee’s house, to get the pledge; the man is to go into his own house, and get the pledge, to bring out to the loaner.
  • If the person taking the loan is poor, the person giving the loan is not to keep the pledge overnight; verse 24:13 says that the person’s cloak is to be returned to him by sunset, so that he may sleep in it.
  • If this is done properly, the person receiving the loan will thank the person giving the loan, and God will regard it as a righteous act.
The first rule given here seems, to me, to be about letting the person accepting the loan keep his dignity. The second shows God’s concern for the poor, and His desire for His people to treat the poor properly. The third isn’t a rule at all; it’s just a prediction of what will happen, if people follow the rules properly.

  • The Israelites are not to take advantage of hired workers who are poor and needy—fellow Israelites or aliens—by withholding their wages. Wages are to be paid each day, before sunset, because the people are counting on these wages to live.
  • If an Israelite does withhold wages from a hired worker, that worker may cry out to the LORD, who would hold the boss guilty of sin.
Again, a nice law that shows God’s concern for the poor. As with the rules above, the second point is not a rule, but a prediction of what will happen if bosses don’t follow the rules.

  • Fathers are not to be punished for the crimes of their children, and neither are children to be punished for the crimes of their fathers. Each are to be punished for their own sins.
Verse 24:16 actually says that fathers are not to be put to death for the crimes of their children, and children not put to death for the crimes of their fathers. I’m assuming, though, that this would also apply to other crimes, that don’t deserve the death penalty.

  • A very general rule comes next:

    Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.(verses 24:17–18)
The reasoning behind this rule is interesting. God doesn’t just say, “be just because it’s the right thing to do,” or even, “be just because I am just” (although He does say that elsewhere, or at least something like it). He says, “put yourself in their place; would you want to be deprived of justice? Remember what it felt like in Egypt, when the Egyptians treated you cruelly? Then you shouldn’t do the same to someone else!”

  • When the Israelites are harvesting their fields, or beating the olives from their olive trees, or harvesting the grapes from their vineyards, they are only to go over the crops once. They are not to go back over the field/tree/vineyard again, looking for anything they missed—they are to leave that for the poor. (Verse 24:19 uses the phrase that gets used a lot in the Old Testament: “the alien, the fatherless and the widow.”)
  • Verse 24:22 instructs the Israelites, again, to remember that they themselves were slaves in Egypt, and says that that’s why God is giving this command.
So again, we see God’s concern for the poor, and a very interesting form of welfare.

  • Disputes are to be taken to court, where the judges will decide the case. They are to acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty.
  • If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge is to decide the number of lashes, based on his crime. But the number is never to exceed forty, so that he won’t be degraded in his fellow Israelites’ eyes.
Aside from the fact that we don’t have flogging in our 21st Century North American legal systems, I find it interesting that even though the guilty man is being punished for his crime, God doesn’t want him to be degraded in the eyes of his fellow Israelites. Also, the passage doesn’t mention what types of disputes are to be brought to the courts; I would assume that simple matters would be handled by the men themselves, instead of bringing it to court.

  • While an ox is “treading out the grain”—I assume this is something the Israelite farmers would be familiar with—it is not to be muzzled.
My first thought is that it’s not just humans that God has concern for; it’s animals, too. But that being said, this rule (verse 25:4) is quoted twice in the New Testament, and indications are that it’s really a metaphor:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. (1 Timothy 5:17–20)

and

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? (1 Corinthians 9:7–12a)

I’m especially looking at the part that says, “Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?” It’s written even more explicitly in other versions:
  • ESV: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake…”
  • NASB: “God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written…”
  • KJV: “Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt…”
I was thinking that God is writing a law for oxen, but also using it as a metaphor for humans. But Paul seems to be indicating that it’s just a metaphor. And, depending on the version of the Bible you happen to have, he seems to be saying that more or less explicitly. So… sorry, oxen.

  • When a man marries, but then dies before producing a son, his wife is to marry one of the dead husband’s brothers, who is to “fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her” (verse 25:5)—in other words, he is to help her produce a son.
  • The son, when he is born, will be considered to be a son of the dead husband, rather than the brother-in-law. He will carry on the dead man’s name, so that it won’t be “blotted out from Israel” (verse 25:6).
  • If the brother-in-law refuses to marry the woman, she is to go to the elders, and tell them so. The elders are then to summon him and try and talk some sense into him (my words), but if the man still refuses, the woman is to go up to him, take off one of her sandals, spit in his face, and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line” (verse 25:9b)
    • If that happens, the brother-in-law’s family line will be known in Israel as “The Family of the Unsandaled” (verse 25:10).
The first part of this, about the duty of the brother-in-law, doesn’t really hold much meaning for me, because we don’t have the same sense of maintaining a family line, in my culture. (Of course, for the Old Testament Israelites, it was even more important, because the family line would also dictate what land you owned.) The second part, about the rules for a brother-in-law who doesn’t fulfil his obligation, sounds very strange to me; Like I say, I don’t get the reasons for the rule in the first place, but the penalty sounds almost… silly. To me.

  • If two men are fighting, and the wife of one of the men tries to protect her husband by grabbing the other man’s private parts, she is to have her hand cut off. Verse 25:12 says that she is not to be shown pity.
This is a very interesting one. I think the intent of the rule is this: a woman is not to be touching the private parts of any man but her husband, with no exceptions. Even in the case where it’s not meant in a sexual way at all, like in this case, no exception is to be made. (If that’s the case, of course, one might wonder why there isn’t a similar rule written for men.) I’m not convinced that this is the reasoning behind this rule, but it’s a theory.

  • The Israelites are to be honest in their buying and selling. They’re not to have two sets of weights, or two sets of measures, for buying and selling. They’re to have one, accurate, set of weights, and one, accurate, set of measures.
  • If they are honest in their dealings, they will live long in the land that the LORD is providing them.

    For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly. (verse 25:16)
This may be self-evident, but just in case it’s not, I’ll explain: Many merchants, in that day and age, would have two sets of weights or measures, and both would be inaccurate. For example, if I had a weight that was supposed to measure 1kg, I would have one that was slightly less than 1kg, and one that was slightly more than 1kg. If I wanted to buy 1kg worth of sugar, I’d measure it using the weight that weighed more than 1kg, and I’d end up paying for 1kg of sugar, and getting more. On the other hand, if I were selling 1kg worth of sugar, I’d measure it using the weight that’s slightly less than 1kg, and would get paid for 1kg of sugar, but give away less. But, as mentioned, the LORD doesn’t like this. It’s not “good business,” it’s just dishonest. His people are to value Him more than they are to value a profit.

  • Because of what the Amalekites did to the Israelites—see Exodus 17—the Israelites are to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (verse 25:19). (I think it’s pretty safe to say that this means the Israelites are to destroy the Amalekites.) Once the LORD has given the Israelites rest from all of the enemies within the Promised Land, they are to turn their attention to the Amalekites, and carry out God’s judgement.
This is one of those instances where God proves that He doesn’t forget, but is patient to carry out His promises—even if those promises are negative. God promised in Exodus 17:14 that He would blot out the memory of the Amalekites, and this passage in Deuteronomy is a reminder to the Israelites that He is going to use them as His tool in doing so.

Thoughts

Again, I have to wonder if I’m wandering into sacrilegious or blasphemous areas to say that I “like” some rules and “don’t like” others. But I’m humble about it, in my own heart; I know that when I don’t understand something, it’s my own lack of understanding, not God’s rules that are messed up.

I really didn’t expect to write so much about a simple verse like 25:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” But that’s one of the benefits of blogging your way through the Bible: sometimes you have to stop and examine a verse more closely, when you would have been tempted to simply skim over it, reading it in your bedroom before bed.

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