Deuteronomy 22: 1-4 Caring for the Neighbor’s Property
1 You shall not watch your neighbor’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner. 2 If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it. 3 You shall do the same with a neighbor’s donkey; you shall do the same with a neighbor’s garment; and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbor loses and you find. You may not withhold your help.
4 You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up.
I have broken the laws outlined in Deuteronomy 22 into three parts: those for the protection of the neighbor’s property, those for the creation of a properly ordered community and those that arise out of the interpretation of the commandment on adultery. This first section of commandments, addressing the neighbor’s property, specifically livestock property, is the easiest to address. In an agricultural world livestock is wealth, but a lose animal can also cause a lot of damage, particularly to farmland. Yet all of these actions that the individual is to take towards the animal is to ensure the best interest of their neighbor.
We live in a highly individualized society where we can often ignore the impact of our actions upon others in our community, but the book of Deuteronomy envisions a community where the neighbor is a vital part of one’s life. One does not have the option to hide from one’s responsibility for one’s neighbor. As Walter Bruggemann can point out in this passage:
The NRSV translates “You may not withhold your help.” The verb is “conceal, hide” stated in reflexive form. You may not withdraw from neighborliness. Perhaps in a more contemporary context, you may not hide behind high walls in a gated community, as though you are not obligated to be a neighbor. (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 219)
The neighbor’s livestock and animals are not merely my neighbor’s responsibility, but they are mine as well. In our own time our neighbor’s livelihood is our concern as well. This is a difficult challenge then and now. When the question of neighborliness is asked it is natural for a Christian to go back to the parable of the Good Samaritan told in Luke’s gospel (Luke 10: 25-37) where our calling is to be the one who showed mercy (even when it is inconvenient or perhaps crosses the lines of purity or contamination in Luke’s gospel). This simple example of returning a neighbor’s animal or helping to lift it up or caring for an animal that is not one’s own goes against our own disinclination to become involved in the struggles of the neighbor. For the people of Israel to be who they are called to be they are called to look out for their neighbor’s best interest even when it would be far easier to simply ignore their struggles.
In our interconnected world this is a difficult challenge and one that I don’t have the answer to. There are a plethora of issues that can daily call out to me from the television or computer screen of people who are in need. The soft hearted part of me wants to help them all, the rest of me simply want to ignore my neighbors struggle both locally and across the world. Yet, I don’t get to put a limit on who my neighbor is and I believe that I am called to be the one who shows mercy. The reality is that no one person can do it on their own, but that is why the people of Israel were insistent on creating a community where neighbors are responsible for one another.
Deuteronomy 22: 5-12 Ordering the World
5 A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the LORD your God.
6 If you come on a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. 7 Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long.
8 When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it.
9 You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself.
10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.
11 You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.
12 You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself.
These seven laws may seem strange to us, but for the author of Deuteronomy the maintenance of a proper order was essential for the life of the people. The barriers between men and women and proper roles in Deuteronomy may seem strange to us, but this is written at least 2,500 years ago and the standards were much different. The idea of a woman wearing men’s clothing being abhorrent to the LORD seems excessive in our time, but in the tightly ordered world of Deuteronomy women and men were to remain in separate roles. The author of Deuteronomy would probably look down not only on crossdressing but also things like women wearing clothes styled after men’s clothing (like suits or pants). Probably a close analogy (although the clothing would reflect a different era) would be the Amish where men and women have specific clothing that they wear almost like a uniform. Deuteronomy’s boundaries are rigid and crossing them may have been viewed as a slippery slope to chaos and disorder and to being like the nations around them. Clothing is a significant part of identity and three of the seven laws address clothing. Mixing fabrics together was also considered crossing a boundary and leading to disorder as was the distinctive tassels they were to wear as a mark of their identity.
The command about a bird and its nest and eggs or fledglings does reflect an environmental concern that the people were to have, they were not to prevent a species from being able to continue to reproduce and produce more food by consuming the mother and the young at the same time. Yet, there is no remorse for eating the eggs or young of the mother bird-merely a limit on killing both. It is worth noticing that this command ends with the same ending as the commandment to honor one’s father and mother and to ponder if perhaps in the minds of the people honoring the mother in creation is connected to honoring the mother in the family. This may also relate to the command not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk in Deuteronomy 14: 21.
Bloodguilt again enters the discussion (as before in Deuteronomy 19 and 21) and this time the command is to prevent innocent blood by creating a parapet on the roof of a house to prevent someone falling off and bringing guilt on the house and land. Sowing multiple seeds in a vineyard and not plowing with and ox and a donkey together close out the commands here which again point to definitive practices that the people were to practice that made them different than others. Deuteronomy envisions a rigidly ordered world and that rigidly ordered world keeps the chaos and danger of wilderness and the surrounding people away from their world. These boundaries helped them feel safer in an uncontrollable world and perhaps we may reflect upon the boundaries we erect that help us feel safer.
Since the next section will deal with sexual relations in a way that are very foreign to us perhaps we might begin with looking at the command against wearing the opposite sex clothing in verse 5. For some communities this would still be abhorrent, in others it is accepted. One of the challenges of any time is to define the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, yet in making these distinctions we also have the challenge of accepting neighborliness and learning to love the neighbor as they are. One of the struggles of the church in the 20th and 21st century in the United States was the role of the church in defining those boundaries. For example there are churches who want the society to reflect a set of conservative moral boundaries that they feel protect families and they often act like a shrill siren against the perceived moral decline of the society. Yet, there are great differences within the Christian church and I serve a much more gracious (and in many others eyes more liberal) community that attempts to meet the neighbor where they are. There is not an easy answer in this either, and while I can understand Deuteronomy’s wish for a simple and ordered universe, I also can’t say that this is a worldview that I share.
Deuteronomy 22: 13-30 Sex, Lies and Proper Proceedings
13 Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her 14 and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, “I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.” 15 The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; 17 now he has made up charges against her, saying, ‘I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.’ But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.” Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. 18 The elders of that town shall take the man and punish him; 19 they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver (which they shall give to the young woman’s father) because he has slandered a virgin of Israel. She shall remain his wife; he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
20 If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, 21 then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
22 If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.
23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
25 But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. 27 Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.
28 If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, 29 the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.
30 A man shall not marry his father’s wife, thereby violating his father’s rights.
This is another of those passages in Deuteronomy where their worldview is drastically different from mine, but I come from a much different time and would ask much different questions in these circumstances than Deuteronomy would. As I have done before I will begin with how Deuteronomy would understand these things in its would and then attempt to move to thinking through how we might faithfully walk with people who find themselves in these situations today.
In the ancient world, marriage and sexual relationships may involve love but they are primarily based on economic and honor concerns. In the ancient world women were viewed as property, their father’s property until (by an economic arrangement) she is married and then she becomes her husband’s property. As in Deuteronomy 21: 10-14, where the issue of a female captive is discussed, the woman has no choice in many of these matters. It is a patriarchal society, much like the other societies of the ancient world, and even though there are some restraints placed here as well, there are not many placed upon this worldview. In an arranged marriage one of the expectations was that the new bride would be a virgin, and while scholars can debate about exactly what ceremonies would have been involved after the wedding to acquire this ‘proof of virginity’ ultimately it was important to the father of the new bride that he be able to demonstrate that he is giving the new husband an undamaged product. Divorce will be covered in Deuteronomy 24, but here Deuteronomy imagines a situation where the new husband is immediately dissatisfied with his new bride and tries to break the marriage based on an accusation that the daughter is not a virgin.
The accusation of a woman having sex out of wedlock are serious accusations for the woman and the family involved. It is a life or death issue for the woman in Deuteronomy’s strictly ordered world but it also brings a great deal of dishonor upon the family and may endanger the ability to negotiate future marriages for other children. There are a number of parallels between the daughter who brings dishonor by having sexual relations prior to marriage and the rebellious son discussed in Deuteronomy 21: 18-21. What is at stake is the family’s (particularly the father’s) honor and their standing within the community. The stakes are high for the author of Deuteronomy and he attaches the ending, “so shall you purge the evil that is in your midst” to this command (see also Deuteronomy 13: 5, 17:7, 19:19 and 21: 21) The stakes are not nearly so high for the accuser. Notice that the hundred shekel fine is paid to the father to account for the damage the accusation may have done, and while this is not a trivial fine it is not a life or death matter. Again the elders of the community are the ones who are responsible for the judgment and its execution with the man who makes the accusation. In addition, the man may never divorce this wife he has slandered, which does provide her with economic security as long as he lives.
The next three situations (vs. 22-27) involve a woman who is already spoken for who is caught in a sexual act with another man. If a woman is married both she and the man are to be killed. If she is engaged she is still considered to belong to the one she is engaged with and so the penalties are the same. The only time where she is given the benefit of the doubt is in the open country where she may have cried for help and was not heard. In that case only the man is killed, but in any other case both the man and the woman are killed. While these penalties are harsh, they are consistent with Deuteronomy’s view of harsh justice.
The situation envisioned in verse 28 and 29 shows how different the stakes are for women and men. We need to be honest that this is a situation of rape, where the man seizes and lies with her. If it was a woman who had sex out of wedlock and was therefore damaged property the penalty is stoning, but for the man he pays the fine, marries her and cannot divorce her. Finally, the situation is discussed where a son wants to marry his father’s wife. This is not the son’s mother, for that would be incest, but in a polygynous marriage where a father may have multiple wives a son may not marry one that belonged to his father, even after his father’s death.
Texts like this are distasteful, but perhaps more distasteful is the way the church has often preferred texts like this one that favored a male based power structure and had to be drug kicking and screaming by the enlightenment to grant women a greater role in the human enterprise. The church has struggled to be critical of its own traditions in the light of the gospel. Men and women together are critical parts of both families and societies and laws are needed to protect both women and men. We cannot simply accept a worldview where sexual relations are a life and death issue for women and an economic one for men. Nor should women be viewed as property that can be dealt with in any way the head of the household pleases. There are still significant conversations to be had around sexual ethics within the church and the household, but we cannot do it from the patriarchal framework of Deuteronomy and be faithful to our calling today.
The questions of sex before marriage, affairs, rape, unhappy marriages and abuse and domination within marriages are all very real and have drastic consequences on our lives and our communities. It is challenging to navigate the middle ground between the moral absoluteness of the community in Deuteronomy and the individual autonomy of today where fidelity to family and community are no longer valued in the same way. These are difficult questions, but I think perhaps a place to begin is the value of the individual within the relationships. Both women and men have needs and value in families, in the workplace and in our religious and other communities.
Perhaps the story recorded in John 8: 1-11 gives us a starting point to look at the way passages like this might have been handled by Jesus. The story has the scribes and Pharisees bring Jesus a woman caught in adultery (note the man is not brought forward and never appears in the story). Instead of following Deuteronomy in its rigid justice where she is to be stoned he places the challenge back upon the accusing community and does not condemn her. Forgiveness is hard, grace is challenging and for both women and men who are victims in sexual violence, abuse and affairs the desire for punishment and justice is real. How do communities of faith today stand with the victims and is there a place where reconciliation in some circumstances might happen? Can we be a part of a community that brings healing to women and men who have often not received grace in their families, society, and religious communities.
 Even though this passage is not a part of the earliest historical copies of the Gospel of John, it is one of the more better known stories distinctive to John’s gospel.