Deuteronomy 25: 1-3 The Limit of Punishment
1 Suppose two persons have a dispute and enter into litigation, and the judges decide between them, declaring one to be in the right and the other to be in the wrong. 2 If the one in the wrong deserves to be flogged, the judge shall make that person lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of lashes proportionate to the offense. 3 Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.
Deuteronomy believes in a harsh justice but it also sets limits on the execution of justice or revenge. This is one of those places where the dignity and reputation of the neighbor limit the maximum punishment of lashes the neighbor can receive as forty. The action takes place in the sight of the judge who orders the proportionate punishment so that the dignity of the offender is preserved. Although we may live in a society that has trouble with this type of corporal punishment, this is a relatively new thing in our society. The idea of submitting oneself to the measured discipline of the community seems to be an expectation for being a part of the society of Israel. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:24 can claim that five times he received the punishment of forty lashes minus one in addition to the other punishment he lists, and this is one of the many indications that Paul saw himself remaining as a part of the Jewish community since he submitted to the discipline.
In our own society we have become very litigious and often use fines or imprisonment as a means of discipline. Yet, when it comes to these fines and imprisonments which can often be excessive for certain crimes (particularly drug related offenses with harsh minimum sentences) in addition to the shame that comes with a criminal record we may want to relook at the idea of punishment that does not permanently diminish our neighbor in our eyes. Are judges enabled to give punishments that are proportional to the offense or are they bound by laws that are harsh allowing the guilty not chance at a non-degraded standing within society. These are difficult issues, but they are the type of big questions of a society that the book of Deuteronomy deals with.
Deuteronomy 25: 4 Care for the Working Animals
4 You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.
This is an acknowledgment that the working animals are not machines to be driven mercilessly, but even in small ways the lost grain that an ox eats while treading the grain is a part of its due. It is one of the windows into a worldview where animals and plants (see Deuteronomy 20 on trees in war for example) are given some protection as well. They all are a part of the creation of the LORD and are entitled to the benefits of striving with humanity to carve a living from the earth. Paul references this section in 1 Corinthians 9:9 in his discussion of his authority and that he could ask for a material benefit for his work among the Corinthians even though he states he made no use of those rights. 1 Timothy 5: 17-18 also uses this line of argument for the supporting of elders.
Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 Levirate Marriage
5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10 Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.”
This passage enters into the narrative of Israel in both the story of Tamar in Genesis 38 as well as the book of Ruth. Deuteronomy is written in an intensely patriarchal world where barrenness is a crisis because it threatens the perpetuation of the family’s name. Women were honored in their role as bearers of children and in their role in allowing for the continuance of the line. The idea of Levirate marriage is foreign to our time, where the idea of marrying the wife of a deceased brother seems out of place. Yet, in the world of Deuteronomy it is an expectation and an obligation. The brother is to ensure that there is an heir to inherit the deceased’s land and title. This also provided protection for the widow for she both has a family she is brought into and with the birth of an heir there is the promise that she will be provided for once her son inherits. In the ancient world, where no government safety net exists, children were the security of their parents in their old age. Even in the ten commandments this concern is addressed in the command to honor the father and the mother (Deuteronomy 5: 16).
In the story of Tamar, who gets herself pregnant by Judah when he denies her his youngest son, is a fascinating short story of a woman who boldly claims her rights to protection and inheritance however she needs to. As Judah can acknowledge at the end of the story, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38: 26) In the book of Ruth this passage serves as the law behind the meeting of Boaz and the unnamed next-of-kin where the issues of inheritance and marriage are tied together. The kinsman acknowledges that he cannot redeem the property, and marry Ruth with the property passing to her children, and so the ‘right’ passes to Boaz. It is uncertain how deep of a shaming was associated with the unwillingness or inability to care for the needs of a widow, as Deanna Thompson states, “This public shaming would give this family the reputation of not providing for its widows, thus making it more difficult for the family to contract marriages for their sons.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 183)
Deuteronomy 25:11 An Unfair Fight
11 If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, 12 you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.
Deuteronomy is written from a male dominant perspective and to the author of Deuteronomy the idea of a woman ‘sexually shaming’ a man in public (Thompson, 2014, p. 184). The genitals of another man which are exposed and could potentially put the man and the woman on an equal footing are to be off limits in a fight. As we saw in Deuteronomy 23: 1-8 the damaging of the testicles or penis is enough to make a man no longer a man in the eyes of the assembly. For men sexual generativity is on par with sight and limbs and the punishment listed of mutilation is only prescribed for one other event (in Exodus 21: 22-25) where a man injures a woman and causes her to miscarry. The husband may demand whatever punishment he sees fit in that case. Martin Luther addresses this broadly with the maxim, “Evil should not be done that good may come of it.” (Luther, 1960 (1525), p. 9:249) where he talks about the woman wanting to do good on behalf of her husband and yet doing it in a ‘cowardly’ way.
Again this brings up issues centered around women’s rights compared to men’s rights and the rights of self-defense. There are times I am convinced we are more concerned with protecting men than women, and while we might want to protect the vulnerable areas of both men and women how do we also ensure that women are given the ability and permission to protect themselves in an unfair fight and do we accuse that woman of sexually shaming the man or simply attempting to protect herself or her family?
Deuteronomy 25: 13-16 Fair and Just Weights and Measures
13 You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. 15 You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the LORD your God.
Justice is a critical part of the people’s life within the land. There will always be the temptation to make a business deal work to one’s advantage and if one can skew measurements and weights in one’s favor one can cheat one’s neighbor out of their fair share. This type of injustice is another of the things that obtain the stronger disapproval of being abhorrent to the LORD. Economic injustices would be a common cry of the prophets for example in Amos 8: 5-6: saying, “When will the new moon be over so we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.
In a barter economy where grain and oil are traded it is easy to think of concrete ways where this type of imbalance could be used to create economic advantages and disadvantages. Yet, in our world sometimes the examples are a little harder to see. When a company uses an inferior material that produces an item that wears out quickly, or a corporation delays in repairing a safety concern because it is cheaper to allow the improper item to remain in use, or when practices are used that harm the land and environment and then others have to bear the cost of cleaning up the land. In our days, as in the ancient times, acting dishonestly and can affect how long our days are in our own land. With the crisis with the water supply in Flint, Michigan we can see the cost when individuals and a government are not honest in their measurements and allow things to become unsafe for their society.
Deuteronomy 25: 17-19 The Amalekites
17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.
The warrior God re-emerges here at the end of chapter 25 and demands revenge upon the Amalekites. In Exodus 17: 8-16 we hear the story of the conflict between the people of Israel, shortly after their emergence from Egypt, and Amalek. In the story Moses holds up his staff and the people prevail, but as Moses’ arms become tired the people falter, so Aaron and Hur hold up his hands and the battle is won. As Exodus states:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called it, the LORD is my banner, He said, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” Exodus 17: 14-16
The Amalekites become the enemy memorialized in a slogan, much as ‘Remember the Alamo’ or ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ allowed for Texans or Americans to call to mind an earlier attack of an enemy. The people are to never forget this action and to never again allow it to happen. This memory sets the stage for a contentious history between the peoples and the people of Amalek enter the story of Israel again in the curses of Balaam in Numbers 24: 20, “First among the nations was Amalek, but its end is to perish forever,” in 1 Samuel 15 where King Saul defeats the Amalekites but leaves King Agag alive (disobeying the LORD) and probably in Esther 3:1 where Haman the Agagite is thought to be a descendent of Agag and the hatred between the remnant of Israel and the remnant of Amalek continues to burn.
We have seen many instances in history where ancient feuds emerge in surprising ways leading to acts of extreme violence and genocide. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu can state, “there is no future without forgiveness.” I talk more about this in the related passage of Deuteronomy 20 (or in the passages at the end of Esther, Esther 9:1-10 and 11-19). I spend more addressing the way passages like this would have been heard in the ancient world and how we talk about them today and don’t need to rearticulate them at this point. Deuteronomy is not a text that is always comfortable for us and passages like this where the people are commanded to blot out another people are passages we will have to struggle against if we are to embrace Christ’s call to love our enemies. In a time where many people want to use ‘Never forget’ in relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, we may also be condemning ourselves to a long history of warfare and hatred unless we can learn to remember rightly where the past violence does not define the totality of our future. I speak more about this idea of remembering rightly, influenced heavily by Miroslav Volf’s book The End of Memory here.