In Deuteronomy 23, God continued giving laws to help the Israelites protect their purity and set-apartness for Him. Remember, the nations around the Israelites did not follow Yahweh. They worshipped a multitude of false gods such as Molech, Baal, and Asherah. When God gave each of these laws to the Israelites, He set up a new nation and by that, provided a national system of laws by which each person should live. He, too, was setting up a way for the Israelites to be unaffected by the pagan worship and lifestyles of the surrounding nations. God did not want the Israelites to syncretize the worship of Him with the ways the other nations lived and worshipped. He wanted them to stay pure and set apart solely for Him. Deuteronomy 23 includes laws about who can be in the assembly of the LORD, how they were to live while encamped, and five laws affecting relationships within Israel.
The Purity of the Assembly of the LORD
Verses 1 to 8 of this chapter discuss who can be a part of the assembly of the LORD. To understand the laws, we must begin by understanding what the term “the assembly of the LORD” means. Being part of the assembly of the LORD allowed a person to hold office in the temple/sanctuary and in civil life. In addition, if a person came from a people of whom the LORD allowed to be part of the assembly of the LORD, a Jew could marry him or her. Remember, God formed the nation of Israel to be a theocracy. Because of that, every leadership roles in the society developed from Yahweh. There was no separation of church and state. Hence, if the LORD did not allow a person to be part of the assembly of the LORD, God forbade he or she to be a leader in Israel. If such a non-allowed person was to become a leader in Israel, they may have led the nation away from the LORD. God set up rules about who could become a part of the assembly of the LORD. He set up four categories of people who He forbade to be in the assembly of the LORD.
Verse 1 states, “No one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” In our century, this appears unfair, but when we look at it through God’s lens, we will understand why He instituted this law. The English word “emasculated” in this verse comes from the Hebrew word dakah and means “crushed testicles.” Notice, God forbade men with crushed testicles and eunuchs to be in the assembly of the LORD.
Remember that in the surrounding nations, men were eunuchs by the will of the ruler to protect the leader’s wives and harems. These eunuchs learned the customs of the nations in which they served and could teach the Israelites the ways of life and worship of their home countries. That would lead to syncretizing that nations’ worship of its god with the worship and way of Yahweh. God created this law to make sure this syncretization did not occur.
In Leviticus 21:16-24, God gave the law that no man from the line of Aaron (the high priest) who has a defect can come before the LORD – worshipping, interceding, or offering sacrifices. The LORD said it would profane (chalal - defile and desecrate) His sanctuaries. Likewise, in Leviticus 22:24, God forbade any animal with crushed, bruised, torn, or cut testicles be offered as a sacrifice. Why is this important? God created everything good and whole. When the animal or man was not whole through injury or intentional maiming of the genitals, the person or animal was not pure. Only pure and undefiled people were adequate to be in the presence of the LORD, just as only undefiled animals (non-maimed animals) were adequate to offer to God as a sacrifice.
In Deuteronomy 23:1, this meant just whole and unharmed men could be part of the assembly of the LORD. They alone may lead Israel because they were untainted by the practices of other nations and they were whole and pure. This law of the LORD’s sought to keep His people, Israel, pure and set apart for Himself alone.
Verse 2 says, “No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of his descendents, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” This, too, might seem harsh. Remember, though, God enacted these laws to keep the people of Israel, His chosen people, pure.
As we look closer at this verse, we find the word “illegitimate” comes from the Hebrew word mamzer. It means a child of incest, out of wedlock, or of mixed race (one parent is a Jew and the other is not). The influence of a person outside the faith of Israel or one who disobeyed God by conceiving a child outside holy wedlock would affect the child as he or she grew so that the child would grow up with syncretized laws. The ways of foreign nations or evil people who broke God’s laws would affect the firm foundation the LORD established for Israel through His laws. By issuing this law, God expected to keep the influence of evil (nations and people) from affecting the purity and set-apartness of His people, Israel.
God further forbade any of the descendants of the “illegitimate” person through the tenth generation to enter the assembly of the LORD. Two ways to interpret this arise. The first is that only persons of the eleventh generation and beyond may enter the assembly of the LORD, the strict reading of the words of the verse. We must consider, though, that ten is a complete number for the Hebrew people. This part of the verse, too, could mean that no descendant of this illegitimate person may ever enter the assembly of the LORD. God made sure this person (an evil person or one from another nation) would not influence Israel. He did not allow him or her to be a leader of the people in temple/sanctuary or civic life.
The Ammonite and Moabite.
To understand this law of God in verses three through six, we must recall who the Ammonites and Moabites were and how they affected the Israelites. Both the Ammonites and Moabites descended from Lot. When the messengers of the LORD rescued Lot and his family from Sodom before God destroyed it, Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom and turned to a pillar of salt. His daughters feared the end of their lineage because no man would be available to be their husbands (Genesis 19). Because of the daughters’ fear, they made Lot drunk and they each laid with their him. From that intimacy with their father, the oldest daughter bore a son, whom she named Moab. The youngest daughter bore a son, whom she named Ben-ammi, who later became the father of the Ammonites. So the people of Moab and Ammon came from an incestuous relationship through trickery. This already made them excluded from the assembly of the LORD.
Balak, the king of the Moabites at the time Israel left Egypt, feared the Israelites. He saw how the Israelites routed the Amorites and sent for Balaam, a prophet of Yahweh, to curse the Israelites. Besides this, when the Israelites sent word to their kindred, the Moabites, asking permission to pass through their land and drink their water for which they paid, Balak refused (Numbers 22-23). The Ammonites, too, refused the Israelites passage or drink (Judges 11:17). Because of these things, God judged them and refused them acceptance into the nation of His chosen people, Israel.
God’s judgment appears in these verses. He said,
No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came our of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless, the LORD your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the LORD your God loves you. You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days. (Deuteronomy 23:3-6 [NASB])
God forbade the people of Ammon and Moab to enter His assembly and lead His people. We understand why God forbade the Israelites from allowing a Moabite and Ammonite to be a part of their nation and lead them. We, too, understand from verse two this meant their descendants may not lead Israel even if one of them married a Jew. The latter would make their descendants “illegitimate.” Besides this, God commanded the Israelites never to seek the peace and prosperity of these people. God judged the Moabites and Ammonites. Remember, judgment from God was dispossession of land and death. He instructed the Israelites not to help these people to prosper or seek an alliance of peace with them. The Ammonites and Moabites were enemies of God because they were enemies of the Israelites.
The Edomites and Egyptians.
A definitive distinction exists between the Moabites and Ammonites to the Edomites. They each descended from the same line as Abraham, but the former two cursed and hated the Israelites. In addition, the Edomites came from the line of Abraham’s grandson, Esau. God told the Israelites they must not detest the Edomites because they came from their brother, Esau (Genesis 25:24-26). The English word “detest” comes from the Hebrew word ta’ab and means to abhor or loathe. God told the Israelites not to loathe or abhor the Edomites.
God gave this same command about the Egyptians. This may appear odd since the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, but God told them His reason. God said the Egyptians helped the Israelites survive the drought and famine that occurred, which led the Israelites to be in Egypt. When the people of Israel sought help from the Egyptians while they were aliens to the Egyptians, the Egyptians nurtured them (Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; and Deuteronomy 10:19).
God commanded the Israelites not to loathe these two groups of people. He allowed them to enter the assembly of the LORD in the third generation of the family’s residence in the land of Israel. Once the families of Edom and Egypt lived long enough for a third generation to be born in Israel, God allowed them to enter the assembly of the LORD and lead/rule in religious and civic affairs.
The Purity of the Camp
God next addressed the purity of the encampment of Israel. Just as the law about who may be in the assembly of the LORD affected the spiritual and physical lives of the Israelites, so did these laws about when they encamped. What the Israelites did by their physical bodies and minds affected their spiritual selves and relationship with God. Verse 9 says they were to keep themselves from “every evil thing.” As Jesus taught, evil is not just a physical action, but the thought and temptation that preceded the action. Moses spoke many times throughout the exodus years about what was evil in the sight of the LORD. These deeds and thoughts that God proclaimed He detested or abhorred, they were not to do.
In verses 10 and 11, Moses told the Israelites again about another thing that polluted them and made them unclean. He said, “If there is among you any man who is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he must go outside the camp; he may not reenter the camp. But it shall be when evening approaches, he shall bathe himself with water, and at sundown he may reenter the camp.” The nocturnal emissions did not include what occurred during sexual intimacy. The English word “emission” comes from the Hebrew word qareh and means the chance or accidental nighttime emission/pollution. In both Leviticus 15:16 and Leviticus 22:4-6, God said any man who experienced nocturnal emissions was ritually unclean until evening when he bathed himself. Until the man bathed himself that evening, he could not reenter the camp and eat of the holy gifts. Notice that what comes out of the body makes the person unclean. Impurities of the body affected the relationship and closeness a man could have with Yahweh. He could not be in the presence of God until he was ritually clean.
In verses 12 through 14, God spoke about another bodily emission – feces. It may appear arbitrary that God would speak to something so base and mundane, but God had reasons. God commanded encamped Israelites they must go outside the camp, dig a hole, put their excrement in a hole and cover it. The biological reason is obvious. By doing this, they would be safer from the bacteria and germs that arise from fecal material. From a spiritual viewpoint, keeping emissions from the body separate from the Israelites, kept them ritually clean. When a person was ritually clean, God could be with him or her. By doing as the LORD said here, the LORD remained within their camp and walked among them. God gave this important command because by His walking among them, He could deliver the Israelite soldiers and defeat their enemies (vs. 14). Moses said in verse 14b, “Therefore your camp must be holy and He must not see anything indecent among you or He will turn away from you.”
In relation to this, remember Jesus told the Pharisees what goes into the body is not what defiles it, but instead what comes from it (Matthew 15:11). Evil comes from the heart of a person. Emissions come from the body. Both make a person unclean and keep God from walking with him or her. Our sins come from within ourselves and keep us separated from God in the same way.
The Preservation of Purity and Set-Apartness of the Israelites
In the rest of this chapter, verses fifteen through twenty-five, God addressed the purity of the Israelites in five different areas of life. These areas affected the relationship of Israelite to Israelite, Israelite to foreigner, and Israelite to God. Moses gave God’s commands the Israelites about runaway slaves, prostitution, usury, vows, and abuse of a neighbor’s field/vineyard.
Against Mistreatment of Runaway Slaves.
In verses 15 and 16, God addressed the treatment of runaway slaves. God forbade the Israelites who found a slave who escaped from his master and went to Israel to return the slave to his master. In addition to this, the slave could live in any place he or she chose within Israel. God commanded the Israelites not mistreat the slave. This command from God assumes the slave escaped (natsal – delivered oneself) from an evil master in a neighboring nation, like in 1 Samuel 30:15. Remember from Deuteronomy 14:22-15:23 God showed He cared for everyone who lived in Israel including the foreigner. He cared that people not be abused. In this command from verses fifteen and sixteen, God showed His care of foreigners who were slaves. He commanded the Israelites treat them with compassion not mistreatment. Moses reminded them in Deuteronomy 5: 15 they were once slaves, too. By having compassion and care for people, the Israelites showed the love of God and remained in a covenant relationship with Him. Jesus spoke about this when He said to love your neighbor as yourself. Care for other people is with what the last six commandments dealt.
Verses 17 and 18 deal with cultic prostitution. Moses said,
None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a cult prostitute. You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the wages of a dog into the house of the LORD your God or any votive offering for both, for both of these are an abomination to the LORD your God. [NASB]
God commanded this because He did not want the people of Israel to be involved in the cultic worship of the nations near them. To be involved in these religions in any way corrupted their worship of God with the practices of the cult worship. In these two verses, God forbade His people from being prostitutes for the worship of other gods. By doing so they defamed Yahweh and defiled themselves, God’s chosen people. Leviticus 19:29 speaks to this and Deuteronomy 22:21 says a prostitute’s judgment was death to purge the evil from Israel. Giving the wages of a cult prostitute as a votive offering was an abomination (detestable) to the LORD (vs. 18).
One other thing we need to understand in verse eighteen is use of the term “dog.” The English word “dog” comes from the Hebrew word keleb. Keleb means contempt or male cult prostitute. In Leviticus 18:22, keleb spoke of a man lying with another man and in Leviticus 20:13 it says this action God considered detestable and held a death judgment. This helps explain why God considered the offering of these prostitute wages detestable and abhorrent.
God was serious about and against prostitution whether for false gods in cultic worship, as mentioned here, or of one’s own choice as in Deuteronomy 22:21. He considered prostitution an “abomination” (tow’ebah – detestable) that made a person ritually unclean and wicked. Because of this, God even considered an offering from the wages of a prostitute as unworthy to be given to Him for a votive offering. We need to consider whether anything we do could corrupt our worship of and offering to God.
In verses 19 and 20 God gave specific commands about interest on loans – for money, food, or anything they needed. God commanded the Israelites not charge interest on any loans to their countrymen – a brother, relative, or Israelite. Moses used this same word in Exodus 22:25 and said God’s people, the Israelites. In Leviticus 25:25-27, Moses spoke of a loan to a countryman who then had near kinsman who bought his property back and returned it to him. In both verses, the term countrymen referred to Israelites as the countryman with regard to loans. So in Deuteronomy 23:19-20, we must realize about whom Moses spoke. He said to not charge interest on a loan given to another Israelite. God allowed interest to be charged on a loan to a foreigner.
The reason God did not allow interest on loans for countrymen was because the LORD God would bless each of them in everything they attempted when they were faithful to their covenant with Him. God’s blessing for faithfulness to the Ten Commandments states this many times in Deuteronomy. When a person is faithful to God, He will bless them and they will have what they need. When a fellow Israelite needed something, God commanded the person from whom the Israelite sought help give out of God’s blessing to him. Added to this, in Deuteronomy 15:10 God commanded the Israelites to give help to their fellow kinsman and the LORD would bless them in everything they attempted. This command comes with a promise of blessing or curse for faithlessness.
Against the Breach of Vows.
Verses 21 through 23 speak of vows made to the LORD. Remember, a vow is a pledge made to the LORD of one’s choice. This kind of vow God called a neder vow. God did not mandate making this vow. Yet, when we read these three verses we find when a person made a neder vow, God expected the person to fulfill his or her vow. Moses said in verse twenty-one, “You shall not delay to pay it for it would be sin in you and the LORD your God would surely require it of you.” God expects each person to keep his or her pledges (Numbers 30:1-2). Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 says it is better not to vow than not to fulfill a vow. In carrying this command forward, Jesus told the people to keep an oath they made to the LORD (Matthew 5:33). In Deuteronomy 23:22, Moses said, “If you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you.” The pledge of a vow or oath as a neder vow is not mandatory to the LORD. Not keeping the vow is faithlessness and sin just as Moses said in verse 23. Because a person volunteered a vow, God required him or her to do what he or she promised.
Against Abuse of Neighborly Liberties in a Neighbor’s Field/Vineyard.
Verses 24 and 25 command how much of a neighbor’s produce a person may eat. Moses said,
When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but you shall not put any in your basket. When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.
In these two verses, a neighbor is anyone living within Israel, unlike the definition of “countryman” in verses nineteen and twenty. This law provides food for the hungry until sated at that moment. It does not allow people to harvest a neighbor’s produce for themselves and take it to their homes. The verses say “you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied” and “you may pluck the heads (of grain) with your hand but not use a sickle.” This law has a two-fold purpose. It taught the Israelites they were to feed the hungry. Besides that, it taught that an Israelite may not abuse a neighbor’s care by taking a large part of his produce. Greed is not acceptable. This law reminds me of the law of gleaning found in Leviticus 23:22. This law told the farmer not to harvest the grain on the edges of his field, but to leave them for the poor and foreigners living among them. God cared about each person living in Israel. He cared that His people showed compassion for them. By being obedient to these laws, the Israelites’ relationship with God would grow.
God provided laws by which the Israelites were to live and for the foreigners living among them. Because of the deceit and unfriendliness of the Moabites and Ammonites, God’s judgment on them was they were never to be a part of the assembly of God. God allowed just the pure to lead His people. Added to this, He allowed just the legitimate and non-emasculated to lead His people. If God’s allowed His people to be led by people affected by the evil of other cultures and nations, Israel would be misled. God made allowances for the Edomites and Egyptians to become a part of the assembly of the LORD. The third generation born in Israel may become a leader in civic and religious roles.
Besides the laws defining who may lead Israel, God addressed the purity of men within an encampment, most likely soldiers in military camps. God promised to walk among them and defeat their enemies if they remained pure. God told the Israelites what came from their bodies, nocturnal emissions and fecal matter, made them impure. In His laws, God provided a way for them to stay clean or become clean from these things. From these and the other laws God gave, the Israelites received the message and command to stay pure. The Pharisees were hyper-vigilant about purity to the point of making sure people saw their purity by highlighting it in public out and punishing those who were not pure. Jesus, in Matthew 5, spoke about this and explained that what comes from the heart of a person makes him or her unclean, not what is put into a person.
As to people living within Israel, God gave laws to keep peace. He taught how He wanted escaped slaves treated. God recalled for them how He looked upon prostitution, particularly cultic worship prostitution and the money earned from it. God gave a command on how they were to treat loans to fellow Israelites and foreigners. This law recalled the promise of God’s blessing to the Israelites for being faithfulness to their covenant with Him. Next God commanded that if they made a neder vow to Him, He required them to do what they promised. God did not require a neder vow, but if they made one, He required its fulfillment. The last thing Moses told the Israelites was God commanded them not to abuse a neighbor’s goodwill when eating from his field or vineyard. He provided a law stating they must allow their fellow man to eat their produce, but just enough to satisfy his or her hunger at that point in time.
Each of these laws dealt with the Israelites’ relationship with other people – countrymen, Israelite, foreigner, slave, and enemy. They, too, dealt with the relationship of Israelite to the LORD God. If the people followed these laws, they would stay pure and God would walk among them. If they did not follow them, then God would not walk among them because of their impurity and lack of righteousness. This would lead to death (per the curse of their covenant with God). God provided ways for people to return to following Him through sacrifices and cleansing in water. He provided ways to remove evil from among them, too.
The Old Testament covenant between the Israelites and Yahweh God led them to seek and find God. It did not give salvation from their past sin, nor power to overcome sin in the present and future. God knew from the beginning of time He would give salvation through a Redeemer, His Son, Jesus Christ. At the right time, God sent His Son to be born of a virgin in a low place, a stable. Jesus lived the life of any young Jewish boy – learning a trade with his father, learning Torah and Talmud from his father and priests. At the right time, Jesus revealed Himself as the Son of Father God sent to take away the sins of the world. He proclaimed the Father’s Good News of salvation. He lived a sin-free life. Jesus died the accursed death, on a cross even though He was sinless. By Jesus’ hanging and dying on the cross, He bore the penalty - the judgment - for our own sins. Our sins required judgment. That judgment is death. When Jesus died for each of us, He saved us from our death penalty and redeemed us from the power sin would have over us in the present and future. With Jesus’ ascension from the grave, He removed the power of death Satan held over us. Jesus conquered death and the grave. He gave everyone who trusts in and believes on Him the same power – not to sin, not to be tied to eternal death, and to be in the presence of God forever.
How we each respond to God’s love at Jesus’ cost is our own decision. We can stick to Old Testament laws and be led to God repeatedly as we strive to live by them. These laws do not give salvation from sin and death. Alternatively, we each can choose to follow Jesus Christ, admit He is the Son of God, accept His love and grace given through His life, death, and resurrection, and have victory over sin and death. God’s laws in the Old Testament led people to Him. His gift of Jesus Christ gives us salvation if we will believe and receive. We each must choose for ourselves. God will force none of us.
What will you choose – love, mercy, and grace shown on the cross
or a life lived trying to be perfect through the laws of the Old Testament?