Deuteronomy 23: Boundaries, Purity, Interest, Vows and Limits

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

Deuteronomy 23: 1-8 Boundaries of the Assembly

1 No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

 2 Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

 3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 (Yet the LORD your God refused to heed Balaam; the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you.) 6 You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.

 7 You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land. 8 The children of the third generation that are born to them may be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

The Bible is not a unified document where there is only one position on any particular issue, instead it is a dialogue of many voices trying to reflect faithfully on who God is and who they are to be. Deuteronomy 23: 1-8, and the theology of Deuteronomy offers a great deal of influence for many of the voices of the Hebrew Scriptures on issues of who is a part of the community (or specifically here the assembly) and who is not. Holiness and purity are large concerns for the author of Deuteronomy and occupy an important part of their vision of what it means to be the people of the God of Israel.

One the first prohibition, which has to do with males who have been emasculated, they are (according to Deuteronomy) not to be a part of the assembly of the LORD. Here is a place where we see how being admitted is also tied to sexual generativity or the ability to produce offspring. A person who is unable, physically, to be sexually active was probably not viewed as fully male and therefore not a legitimate part of the assembly which would be charged with making decisions on behalf of the community. Here is another place where we see that maleness was a large part of what it was to have status in the community.

The second prohibition is against children born of illicit unions, or to use the derogatory term bastard children. Apparently the rules that have proceeded this (for example Deuteronomy 22) have not prevented the reality of children outside of marriage, but this prohibition places them as a disadvantaged group outside the assembly. This may also reflect children born of mixed marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites as are further outline in the coming verses. Once again they are separated from the assembly because their presence corrupts the pureness of the people of Israel.

Finally, there are the specific prohibitions directed at the unions with Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Egyptians. These specific prohibitions, much harsher on Ammonites and Moabites, are difficult to make sense of based upon the narrative of Exodus and Numbers. The Ammonites and Moabites, according to this section of Deuteronomy, failed in the imperative of hospitality to the people of Israel. In Deuteronomy 2 the people of Moab and the Ammonites were not allowed to be invaded because their land had also been given by promise to their ancestors by the LORD. In Numbers 20: 14-21 the Edomites are the first to refuse hospitality and do not allow the Israelites to pass through their land, refusing to offer water, food or passage and come out to meet the Israelites with a large force diverting them on their journey, yet they are not to be abhorred and they, like the Egyptians who enslaved the people but are instead remembered here for the acceptance of them as aliens into their land at the end of Genesis. In Numbers 22-24 we have the story of the Moabites hiring Balaam to curse Israel (referred to in verse 4-5) and perhaps this narrative is a part of the distinction as well as the story that follow it about Israelite men beginning to have sexual relations with the women of Moab and the way this led some of Israel to begin to worship Baal of Peor (see Numbers 25).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, the bible is more like a dialogue than a unified voice. While the perspective of this portion of Deuteronomy will be echoed in book like Ezra and Nehemiah where there is a movement to exclude the foreigners from the community simply because they are foreigners. Yet, there are important counter voices throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the book of Ruth, where a Moabite woman becomes a model of what hospitality and faithfulness looks like and her courageous action as a woman in a man’s world not only wins her a place of honor among the people but she becomes the grandmother to King David (who according to these rules would have to be excluded from the assembly of the LORD).  Perhaps even more critical for the New Testament perspective are these surprising words from Isaiah 56:

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”
 4 For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
 6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant–
 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah goes directly against the voice of Deuteronomy and Ezra and Nehemiah, seeing both eunuchs and foreigners as admitted if they hold fast to the covenant. The early church had to wrestle with their own place within this heritage and the witness of both Acts as well as the fact that we have the letters of Paul show that they moved to embrace Isaiah’s vision of God’s openness rather than Deuteronomy’s vision of attempting to legislate the purity of the people of Israel.

With all this talks of eunuchs and bastards we could be referring to the storyline of Game of Thrones rather than the bible, and this is a point where I think most people miss the complexity of the bible as well as the messiness of it. Game of Thrones, for example, depicts a brutal and messy reality but so does the narrative of scriptures. No matter how orderly Deuteronomy may want to make the world, it is fundamentally messy since it involves God’s interaction with flawed and forgetful people. Yet, when we are honest our world is messy as well. I think, for example, in our country the immigration debates feel pulled between the same types of poles—those who are worried about how immigrants might change our culture or nation and those who feel called to an inclusive vision of an American society. Both of these positions can claim a scriptural worldview (even though in our context they may play out as secular positions) but ultimately it is difficult to make an exclusive worldview Christian. One more scriptural reference before we close this reflection and that is the narrative of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: 26-43. This is a part of a series of stories that reflect God’s movement of key leaders (Peter, Paul and here Philip) towards this more inclusive vision. As the eunuch, on hearing the narrative of Jesus can recognize it as a story where now instead of being excluded he has the possibility to be included and says to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip, and eventually the early church would have to be stretched by God’s vision of inclusion they felt they were called to, and perhaps the struggles of the church in our own time about the boundaries of the assembly and leadership of our own assemblies reflect this ancient dialogue between purity and holiness and inclusion.


Deuteronomy 23: 9-16 Rules of Encampment

 9 When you are encamped against your enemies you shall guard against any impropriety.

 10 If one of you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp; he must not come within the camp. 11 When evening comes, he shall wash himself with water, and when the sun has set, he may come back into the camp.

 12 You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. 13 With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. 14 Because the LORD your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

 15 Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. 16 They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.

 Military service was a part of the expectations for the males of the people of Israel, and particularly in a narrative where Deuteronomy is spoken to the people of Israel prior to Joshua’s leading of the tribes in their conquest of the promised land these rules have immediate implications for the upcoming military actions. The ancient military force of the Hebrew people was not a professional army that spent its time training for war, but rather they were called upon in times of conflict to leave their homes and fields to be a part of the defense (or offensive actions) of Israel. Warfare is not neat and tidy even with a professional army, but things are heightened for the people of Israel theologically by their belief that God travels with them in their camp as they prepare for action, and as Deuteronomy 20 outlined their strength is not in their superior weaponry or equipment but the belief that the LORD will grant them victory.

Many people are familiar with the proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and while it is not a scriptural proverb it does resonate with the ordered world of Deuteronomy. Nocturnal emissions would be viewed as a contamination of the camp and the person would be excluded for a time and while the commands to carry a trowel to dig a hole for relieving oneself is a very practical command (and modern military forces do the same thing if they are in an area where portable facilities are not available). Yet, for Deuteronomy’s worldview it is less concerning that a fellow soldier might step in someone else’s excrement and more a concern for purity before the LORD who travels with their camp.

Interesting is the final command in relation to slaves, where slaves who are fleeing their captors are not to be returned but instead are to be allowed to settle among the people. This is different than the typical practice of much of the ancient world. Perhaps it draws upon their own narratives as people who were freed from slavery accepting others freed from slavery. This also builds upon an understanding of slavery outlined in Deuteronomy 15: 12-18 where the slavery in Israel is not a permanent thing and they, unlike Egypt, are not to have an economy based upon slave labor.

Deuteronomy 23: 17-18 Men, Women, Temple Service and Prostitution

 17 None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the LORD your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the LORD your God.

Looking at this phrase was interesting for me because it challenged what I thought I knew. In English verse seventeen the term rendered temple prostitute for both the male and the female is simply the male and female form of “holy.” The term for prostitute is used in the following verse about the wages of a prostitute not being brought into the house of the LORD. It is easy to make assumptions if it is translated temple prostitute that sexually charged elements were a part of the worship of the surrounding culture and perhaps there was and perhaps there wasn’t. It may be the idea of having a female priestess of any type is behind this prohibition. While there is a prohibition against bringing the money made from prostitution into the temple there is no prohibition of the practice itself. Prostitution is simply assumed as a part of life in much of the ancient world, even if it needs to be kept away from the vision of the priests in the ordered worldview of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 23: 19-20 Interest

 19 You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. 20 On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.

The community of Israel as imagined by Deuteronomy is to be very different than either the societies of Egypt which is based upon slave labor and production or the American consumer society where debt can become its own method of enslavement for many people. As in Deuteronomy 15: 7-11 they are openhanded in lending to their neighbor in need and as we talked about in Deuteronomy 22:1-4 they are not to turn away from their neighbor’s need. There is a lot of Anti-Semitic literature that talks about the Jewish people being greedy, yet there were many times where tax and rent collecting or moneylending were occupations that the Jewish people were forced into in Europe since many other occupations were closed to them by society and by the church.  Deuteronomy does allow for interest to be charged to outsiders, and perhaps this allowed them to find some middle ground in the midst of the challenges they faced through centuries of having to accept some of these jobs that were viewed as marginal within the society. Perhaps a question to ask is how did it become permissible for Christians to view charging of interest as the norm. This is probably one of many times where our understandings of Christianity have been tailored to our society rather than the other way around. In one of the most economically challenging parts of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus states:

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)

Yet, even in Jesus time he can assume the norm of interest being charged and use it as a part of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30).

Deuteronomy 23: 21-23 On Vows

 21 If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt. 23 Whatever your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed to the LORD your God with your own mouth.

There are countless stories throughout scripture of people making rash oaths, probably none rasher than the vow of Jephthah in Judges 11: 29-40 where he vows to God, “If you give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by burnt offering.” (Judges 11: 30b-31) and upon returning it is his daughter, his only child who comes out. She is offered up, even though there is a repeated emphasis against child sacrifice in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in fulfillment of the vow. Vows are serious business for the people of Israel and they are bound by these words. These words also serve as a backdrop for Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount about oaths where speech is to be truthful without oaths. (Matthew 5: 33-37). As in Matthew’s gospel the speaker is expected to use truthful speech but is also encouraged to refrain from vowing. The practice is not forbidden, just cautioned against, for the speaker will be bound by those words.

Deuteronomy 23: 24-25 Providing for the Neighbor

 24 If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container.

 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.

The covenant community was to care for one’s neighbors, and yet caring for one’s neighbors has to negotiate the boundaries of providing for the neighbor’s need without having one’s field decimated. Here at the end of Deuteronomy 23, they use Moses voice to attempt to reach a balance point. A person may eat the fruit of the vineyard or the wheat of the field, but only what they can eat or pluck then. They are not to bring in vessels to store up for tomorrow or instruments of harvest to take as much as they can. This practice sets the backdrop for the story of Jesus and his disciples in Matthew 12: 1-8 where the controversy does not revolve around his disciples picking grain out of someone’s field (that was acceptable) but rather doing it on the Sabbath. This issue of how do I care for my neighbors in need is a live one that many churches wrestle with. In a time where churches are sometimes asked to cover house payments, car repairs, insurance and many other things in addition to simply providing food (and I don’t want to portray that these are not real needs-they are simply not within the budgets of many church outreach funds to cover). How do we as Christians and communities of Christians work individually and together to help provide for our neighbors by meeting their true need and not become consumed in the process?



5 thoughts on “Deuteronomy 23: Boundaries, Purity, Interest, Vows and Limits

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