Category Archives: Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy 27-Preserving the Law

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

Deuteronomy 27: 1-8 An Enduring Word

1 Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today. 2 On the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and cover them with plaster. 3 You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over, to enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, promised you. 4 So when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster.

 5 And you shall build an altar there to the LORD your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool. 6 You must build the altar of the LORD your God of unhewn stones. Then offer up burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God, 7 make sacrifices of well-being, and eat them there, rejoicing before the LORD your God. 8 You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.

Deuteronomy narrates a scene where Moses has dictated the law to the people in its completion prior to their entering into the promised land. We know that Moses is not going to cross over with the people and so in the remaining chapters we see the beginning of a massive transition in the leadership of the people. We live in a time where written texts are readily available and even if we don’t have a physical copy for many texts a digital copy is only a few keystrokes away. In the ancient world there are very few physical texts and a relatively small class who are able to read and create the written texts. Even something as central as the law was lost, intentionally or unintentionally, multiple times in the story of the people of Israel and Judah. For example, in the reign of King Josiah it is reported in 2 Kings 22: 8: “The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Shortly afterwards the written text is read before the king and the king continues the work of reform.

Moses has been the mediator of the law between the LORD and the people, but with Moses about to leave his role as leader, judge, mediator and teacher there needs to be a way for the people to refer to this critical law he is leaving behind. Oral texts may survive a couple of generations intact, but ultimately for the law to survive it must become a textual document. Much like the recording of the words of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 36, where the prophet’s haunting and inconvenient words survive both the physical threat to the prophet as well as the burning by King Jehoiakim by being recorded again, now the critical exposition of the law in Deuteronomy 4-26 is to be put on plastered stones to be a visible witness to the people. This “furniture of the covenant” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 251) now is to be a manner in which future leaders can refer back to the law that Moses handed on. Moses now begins to step aside from being the teacher of the law to make space for the written law that future leaders and the people will be governed by.

Moses throughout his ministry has occupied a central role in the place between the people and God. Even with the elders and the tribal leaders and priest, ultimately he is the one who mediated the relationship between the people and their God, was the political leader, their chief judge and prophet, their lawgiver, and peacemaker. Yet, as Rabbi Kushner can state,

In the Jewish tradition, we speak of him as Moses Rabeinu—Moses, Our Teacher—not Moses, our Political Leader; not Moses, Who Freed the Slaves. Moses, Our Teacher. He dedicates himself to getting the people to embrace the ideas that they have to live by when he’s no longer around to remind them. (Thompson, 2014, p. 194)

Moses, throughout Deuteronomy has been working to equip the people to live in accordance with the commandments, statutes and ordinances outlined within the book. He has done this with catechetical practices within the home and with worship practices at the place where the LORD’s name will rest that reinforce their identity as the people of God. Here in the recording of the law and the building of an altar to celebrate and worship the LORD the narrative shows Moses preparing the people for a faithful practice of the covenant when he is no longer there to guide or intercede for them. And when the people fail to live out the covenant, then the stones themselves can testify very clearly against them.

Deuteronomy 27: 9-10 Hear One More Time

 9 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the LORD your God. 10 Therefore obey the LORD your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.

Moses, along with the priest, charges the people one final time with their identity and calling. Echoing the tone of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 he makes a final appeal for the people to hear. In an aural world they are to be silent and listen so they may remember who they are. They are the people of the LORD their God and therefore they are to be obedient. Their calling comes with blessing and challenges, and in their faithfulness they will be a witness to the nations and a blessing to the world. In their failing they will become the embodiment of the curses that will come in the following chapter.

Herny Fenn, Ruins on the Summit of Mount Gerazim, On the Site of the Samaritan Temple (between 1881 and 1884)

Herny Fenn, Ruins on the Summit of Mount Gerazim, On the Site of the Samaritan Temple (between 1881 and 1884)

Deuteronomy 27: 11-26 A Liturgy of Curses

 11 The same day Moses charged the people as follows: 12 When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13 And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14 Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the Israelites:
 15 “Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image, anything abhorrent to the LORD, the work of an artisan, and sets it up in secret.” All the people shall respond, saying, “Amen!”
 16 “Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 17 “Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 18 “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 19 “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 20 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has violated his father’s rights.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 21 “Cursed be anyone who lies with any animal.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 22 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 23 “Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 24 “Cursed be anyone who strikes down a neighbor in secret.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 25 “Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”
 26 “Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

 The chapter ends with a series of twelve individual curses that the community is to place on anyone who violates particular actions. This sets the scene as well for the blessings and curses in chapter 28 where six tribes are on Mount Ebal for curses and six tribes are on Mount Gerazim for blessings. The two mountains are on the opposite sides of a valley and for the Samaritans Mount Gerazim would become one of their holy sites. Within Deuteronomy Mount Gerazim becomes the mountain of blessing while Mount Ebal is the mountain of curse, yet for Deuteronomy the tablets of the law and the altar are to be built on Mount Ebal rather than Mount Gerazim.

Many of these are covered earlier in Deuteronomy and rather than spend much time on those I will link you back to the discussion at the appropriate place in Deuteronomy, but a few are new. Verse 15 which concerns idols and images is talked about earlier in Deuteronomy 4: 15-20, and Deuteronomy 5:8-10 and is depending on how you number either part of the first commandment or the second commandment. Verse 16 also harkens back to the ten commandments with the commandment on honoring father and mother in Deuteronomy 5: 16 and is also expanded in Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 with the punishment for children who are rebellious and bring dishonor to their father and mother. Verse 17 concerns the moving of boundary markers which is addressed in Deuteronomy 19: 14. Verse 18 is the first new item on misleading the blind, but it follows in the concern that people care for the vulnerable and the weak in the society. Leviticus 19: 14 also addresses this when it states, “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear the LORD your God.” Caring for the vulnerable is a central part of living out of the covenant and one of the places where the prophets are called upon to point out the way the people have not cared for the vulnerable.  The next curse continues about those who oppress the representative triumvirate of the vulnerable, the widows, the orphan and the alien. The tithe, addressed in Deuteronomy 14: 29 and Deuteronomy 26: 12-13, the inclusion of the vulnerable in the festivals like outlined in Deuteronomy 16: 11, 14 the practice of allowing the remnant of the harvest and vine to be gleaned by the vulnerable in Deuteronomy 24: 19-22 are all concrete practices to help care for the vulnerable in their community. Verse 20 about lying with the father’s wife is covered in Deuteronomy 22: 30. The next three curses about forbidden sexual relations are new to Deuteronomy but fit within the ordered world of Deuteronomy 22:13-26 for the author of Deuteronomy’s view of sexual relations. Sexual relations with any animal, with a sister or a mother-in-law are forbidden and Deuteronomy doesn’t feel the need to explain these any further. The command in verse 24 about striking a neighbor in secret is new and it addresses disputes outside the purview of the community. For Deuteronomy the community and the elders are key to ensuring that disputes are resolved equitably. The curse about taking a bribe to shed innocent blood is addressed in the judicial context of Deuteronomy 16:19. Finally the last curse is general in nature referring to the entirety of the law and the need for obedience. This final curse may round it out to bring the final number of these individual curses to the representative twelve. Obedience is both an individual and communal responsibility, where the community holds the individual accountable. By placing these curses in the mouths of the people as they enter the land their own words hold them accountable to living in obedience to this law and covenant.


Deuteronomy 26: Bringing Story into Liturgy

The Seven Species of the Land of Israel listed in Deuteronomy 8:8, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

The Seven Species of the Land of Israel listed in Deuteronomy 8:8, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

 Deuteronomy 26

1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

 12 When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13 then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: 14 I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors– a land flowing with milk and honey.”

 16 This very day the LORD your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. 17 Today you have obtained the LORD’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. 18 Today the LORD has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; 19 for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.

The twenty sixth chapter of Deuteronomy closes a long section which runs from chapter five (although many people move it back to the scene being set in Deuteronomy 4:44) through the end of this chapter. Here in the narrative Moses concludes his exposition of the commandments, statutes and ordinances of the LORD for the people of Israel. In this conclusion resides both ritual and liturgy that will continue to form the identity of the people for their life in the promised land. The manner in which the people of Israel bring in their offerings is mentioned several times throughout this portion of Deuteronomy but the way in which the author chooses to end this section liturgically explaining the significance of these practices is important to note.

In American Christianity there are several branches of the faith that are uncomfortable with the idea of a confessional creed. In a society based on individualism where the focus is on the individual’s faith and what they believe at each point in their lives the idea of a communal confession of faith seems unnecessary. I appreciate the gifts of the confessional tradition that I come out of and the way it binds me both to the manner Christians have understood the faith historically as well as locating me within a community that shares and wrestles with common confessions. Creeds have been used throughout the ages as summaries of a wider faith used in both catechetical (teaching future generations) and liturgical (worship) settings. The bible is full of these confessions of faith in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament (for example Philippians 2: 5-11) and various confessions of faith have been used as a part of the liturgy of faithful people for generations as a way of summarizing the faith. Deuteronomy 6: 21-25 is one example of a ‘credo’ a basic statement of belief to be used as a method of catechesis within the home. While in Deuteronomy 6 the focus is on the actions within the household that the parents will use to pass on the faith to their children and grandchildren and beyond, here we see confessions of faith used liturgically as a part of the telling of the story of the people of Israel. The practice of bringing the tithe and first fruits in Deuteronomy 14: 22-29 and in Deuteronomy 18:4 is now brought into a setting of worship with words that reinforce several basic parts of the understanding of the covenantal relationship the people would be expected to maintain in the promised land. Deanna Thompson outlines succinctly the key themes of the text as:
“the call for Israel to acknowledge God’s persistent care; the reminder that the land God is giving them is sheer gift; and the insistence that fundamental to Israel’s right relationship to God is the practice of attending to the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 188)

As the offering are brought to the tabernacle or temple the people recite a brief exposition of their history which outlines their beginnings as a wandering people in Genesis, the journey to Egypt in the time of Joseph where they received the food they needed in the midst of famine, and then a brief synopsis of the Exodus experience including their oppression and liberation and being brought into the promised land. This short liturgical statement begins with the tenuousness of their situation as a landless people and later as slaves contrasted with their new but contingent identity as the covenant people of the LORD the God of Israel. The narrated history is now combined with the practice of giving which is intended to continue to form the identity of the people in their life in the land.

The liturgy in Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 focuses on re-telling the story of the people and the action of bringing the first fruit which is a result of God’s gracious provision for the people in the land. God has brought the people from being landless or oppressed to being in a land of milk and honey, therefore they are to bring in these gifts and celebrate and remember the provision of God. The focus on this first exhortation is on what God has done for Israel and now Israel is freed to enjoy the fruits of the land. In Deuteronomy 26: 12-15 the giving of the tithe Deuteronomy 14: 28-29 and a declaration that the individual has been faithful both in bringing the tithe (and not withholding a portion or using it in some other way) but also in the keeping of all of the commandments and asking the LORD to bless the peoples’ lives in the coming years.  Now the focus is on what Israel has done in response and their faithfulness to the covenant and understanding that because of their faithfulness the LORD will look down and allow them to prosper in the land. The section concludes with oaths that bind the people and the LORD the God of Israel together. The hope of this relationship is that “I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7: 23) As Brueggemann has helpfully outlined the italicized comments above and here now the people are to be utterly obedient to the LORD and the LORD will be utterly committed to Israel. (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 249f)

This relationship between the LORD and the people as given in this giving and receiving of vows is to be a committed one, and perhaps the natural comparison is to the marriage vows that a couple make when they are married. This relation of the covenant to marriage will form a metaphorical background for Jeremiah (see for example Jeremiah 3) and Hosea (Hosea 2). Much of the remainder of Deuteronomy will call attention to the seriousness of Israel’s commitment in this covenant and the cost of disobedience as well as the LORD’s continuing commitment. As a people holy to the LORD their commitment is a calling. They will need to return to this covenant and recommit themselves several times throughout their story and yet there is the commitment that when they stumble and fall and recommit themselves that God will hear. They have been reminded of who they were and where they came from, how God acted to bring them graciously into this land filled with promise, how they are to respond to God’s faithfulness and the critical nature of their obedience.

Deuteronomy 25: Punishment, Justice, and the Enemy

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

Francesco Hayez, A Portrait of a Woman as Ruth (1853)

Francesco Hayez, A Portrait of a Woman as Ruth (1853)

 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

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

 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.

Deuteronomy 24: Divorce, Purity and Justice

"Ten Commandments by A.Losenko (?)" by Anton Losenko - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Ten Commandments by A.Losenko (?)” by Anton Losenko – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Deuteronomy 24:1-5  Divorce, Remarriage and Wedded Bliss

1 Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.
 5 When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be free at home one year, to be happy with the wife whom he has married.

As a person who has gone through a divorce (I share some of my reflections on this here, here and here) I found it interesting that this is really the only place that divorce is discussed in the law for the general population. There are the prohibitions of a priest marrying a divorced woman in Leviticus 21 and the ability of a divorced daughter of a Levite to return to her father’s home and eat of his food in Leviticus 22: 13 but otherwise the reality of divorce is simply assumed. Numbers 30, for example can discuss that the vows a divorced woman makes are bound to her, while a married woman the husband (or if unmarried the father) may nullify the vows-but divorced women are an assumption as is their remarriage. We saw that in Deuteronomy 22: 13-30 a couple situations (the false accusation of lost virginity before marriage or a virgin who is violated and the man pays the bride price for her) where a woman cannot be divorced but in the Hebrew Bible divorce seems mainly to be an assumed option for men. Here the issue of divorce comes up in the complicated issue of a woman who is divorced, remarries, is either widowed or divorced again and a prohibition against her remarrying her first husband.

Here, as in the discussions of blood guilt in Deuteronomy 19, 21 and 22, the concern is for contaminating the land. The re-unification of first husband with the now defiled ex-wife (notice that the husband is not considered defiled since polygynous weddings were accepted in Israel). This is an issue that receives the strong condemnation of being ‘abhorrent to the LORD.’ In the author of Deuteronomy’s ordered world this is simply something that is not to be done.

Deuteronomy discusses things from a male-centered perspective and it is inconceivable that a woman would ask for a divorce. A husband may release the woman from the relationship, but not the other way around in the ancient world. In releasing the woman from the relationship he also removes her from her means of support. For women in the ancient world there were limited options of support, so a divorced woman would be property-less, and if she wasn’t accepted back into her father’s home (and this may have been an issue of shame so severe that a family would not re-accept their child) then she either must re-marry, or be reduced to begging, or prostitution. Even with the provisions to care for the vulnerable outlined below, being a divorced woman in the ancient world would put one at a severe economic disadvantage.

This passage takes on a life in two other significant places in the Bible, the first being Jeremiah 3 where God is cast in the role of the husband who wants to re-take the wife who abandoned her marriage.  God refuses to abandon God’s love for God’s adulterous people (using the language of Jeremiah) and is willing to set aside the past for the possibility of something new. The other place this passage comes up is in Mark 10, and its parallel in Matthew 19, where Jesus is asked by a group of Pharisees whether divorce is lawful. Jesus interestingly reframes the issue that the man who divorces commits adultery against the divorced wife and the woman who divorces (not a conceived possibility in Deuteronomy) commits adultery against her former husband.

Divorce is a difficult issue in ancient times and in modern times. The church has often been a place where divorced men and women were excluded or made to feel like second class citizens. In earlier times, even though my own divorce was not something I wanted or did anything to cause, I would not have been permitted to serve as a pastor within my denomination. There are other denominations where this still would be the case. I have certainly had verses like Titus 1: 6 where it refers to a bishop being, “someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious.” Texts like this are difficult, but essential to wrestle with in a world where we also find divorce as an assumed reality. As we as individuals and churches struggle with issues of relationship like divorce and sexuality it is important to exercise wisdom and compassion. Divorce is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, even in modern times it is an incredible emotional, financial and spiritual drain on a person. While a man or woman who is divorced in our society has opportunities to re-invent themselves they need communities to care for them while they and the affected families are in very vulnerable states.

The final line in this section links back to Deuteronomy 20 where a person who is recently married is exempted from military service. Here the issue is expanded slightly giving a one-year window where a newly married man is freed from military service.  Here the language can be read that the exemption is so that the wife may be happy, which would be an uncommon acknowledgment of the value of women’s feeling in the ancient world. From a person who served in the Army this is would have interesting implications if it were applied in modern times (and I would think in times of conflict the marriage rate would skyrocket to avoid wartime service), yet in the world of Deuteronomy it makes sense. It is essential for the man to have the ability to ensure a future descendent who will carry on his name and inheritance in Israel. I also wonder how effective this was in practice when the elites would have been able to marry multiple times, and perhaps prevent themselves the risk of military action. Again, very different from the experience of the modern military which is filled with stories of people being married immediately before deployment.

Deuteronomy 24: 6-22: Purity and Justice

  6 No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.
 7 If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
 8 Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them. 9 Remember what the LORD your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
 10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God.
 14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.
 16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.
 17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
 19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.
This portion of chapter 24 deals predominantly with protecting the vulnerable within the community from exploitation, but within this passage is also a provision for protection from skin disease. The guarding against the “leprous” skin disease, which we honestly don’t know what this disease is-it isn’t what would be medically categorized as leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease).  The mention of Miriam and Aaron’s speaking against Moses where Miriam is afflicted with this skin disease (Numbers 12) is an interesting narrative linkage that the text makes. Miriam (not Aaron, perhaps because of his role as priest) is placed outside the community, yet the community waits for seven days when she is healed and is able to be re-united with the community. Leviticus 13 and 14 go into great detail for the priests on how they are to diagnose and deal with these skin diseases and it was a significant issue in the community. There are numerous places where lepers are lifted up as a part of the narrative throughout the bible, too many to address here, and apparently this was a significant issue among the people of Israel they had to guard against.

The remainder of the chapter deals with caring for the vulnerable in the community. Verse 6, dealing with taking a mill or millstone in pledge prevents a person’s livelihood from being taken which would not only prevent the repayment of the debt but also imperil the person’s ability to live. To take a person’s livelihood is to deprive them of life. In a similar way they are not to be a society where a person is taken captive or sold into slavery, this was not a practice the people of Israel were to tolerate and this is probably behind the command to not allow kidnapping. In verse 6 the people of Israel are prevented from depriving another Israelite of livelihood and in verse 7 they are prevented from depriving another person of freedom.

In Deuteronomy 23: 19-20 there is already a prohibition against charging interest on debt to another Israelite, but Deuteronomy spends even more time on the issue of debt here. This must have been a pressing issue among the people. As Deanna Thompson can state these laws reveal, “a fundamental respect for the dignity of the neighbor; even if he stands in need of money.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 178)  A person was to respect the neighbor’s property and to wait outside the home to receive a pledge (preventing the lender from voyeuristically deciding what among their neighbor’s property they would confiscate). Nor may a person’s means of being warm at night be taken away. As the prophet Amos can criticize in his time:

They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge;
 and in the house of God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. Amos 2:8

In any society the poor and vulnerable are likely to be preyed upon by those in power and debt can become a burden that they cannot ever emerge from. Yet, Israel was to be a society that cared for the poor in their midst and did not allow a neighbor to become permanently enslaved or burdened by their debt. In a similar manner the following verses relating to paying the poor and needy laborers daily and not holding onto wages for it could put their livelihood at risk. In a society where the poor are preyed upon by ‘payday loans’ and high interest rates on purchases, higher prices for goods and pay schedules that benefit the business but may not benefit the employee we have a lot we could learn from this view of economic justice based upon being a covenant people.

When I first encountered liberation theology[i] the idea of a “preferential option for the poor” it troubled me, because it seemed that God was picking one group over another. The reality is that the God of the Bible does pick, and that this is a faithful witness to the God we come to know.  As Miroslav Volf can state eloquently:

Consider, second, God’s partiality. In the biblical traditions, when God looks at a widow, for instance, God does not see “a free and rational agent,” but a woman with no standing in society. When God looks at a sojourner, God does not see simply a human being, but a stranger, cut off from the network of relations, subject to prejudice and scapegoating. How does the God who “executes justice for the oppressed” act toward widows and strangers? Just as God acts toward any other human being? No. God is partial to them. God “watches over the strangers” and “upholds the orphan and the widow” (Psalm 147: 7-9) in a way that God does not watch over and uphold the powerful.
Why is God partial to widows and strangers? In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. (Volf, 1996, p. 221f.)

God seeks justice, but not revenge. We live in a revenge culture, if a person harms me there is the desire to make sure that this could never happen again. In the United States, and much of the world, this also informs foreign policy. Revenge in interpersonal conflicts is addressed here, where the idea of “if you hurt me, I will not only hurt you but all those close to you” is forbidden. A person is to be penalized for their own offense, not their children or parents. Justice ultimately seeks to establish an end to the cycle of punishment. In our own society where children of parents who are in prison are often set up to follow in their footsteps by the lack of opportunities and support for a different path maybe we too can imagine how we could imagine a society where children are not punished for the mistakes of the parents and vice versa.

These commands to help the vulnerable, highlighted in the widow, alien and orphan, are brought into the narrative of liberation of the people from their slavery. In Exodus 23: 9 we hear for the first time this command brought into the narrative “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The people are to remember their own situation was not one where they ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ but instead a gift of their covenant identity with their LORD. They are given concrete ways to enact this justice towards the vulnerable. They are to be shown justice, not taken advantage of. These landless ones are to have a method of living off the plentiful harvest that the people are promised in the land. They are to be different than the world they knew in Egypt, or the societies they see around them. “The neighbor—especially the neighbor in need—lives in a world governed not by the ruthless “iron law” of the market or by the unencumbered autonomy of the powerful, but by the same God who curbed Pharaoh.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 240f.) Throughout their life, they would struggle with this view of justice. The prophets would often cry about the way the widow, orphans and the resident aliens were being denied justice, being oppressed by practices designed to keep them poor and being denied their rights within the land. The vision was a noble one, and yet, justice is a hard dream to achieve. Yet, even though dreams of justice may be difficult to achieve in reality it does not free us from the struggle of attempting to live into the vision of justice that God calls us to.

[i] Liberation theology is a broad term for theological perspectives that came out of various experiences of oppression. Liberation theology started with the experience of base communities in Latin America among the poor, but also now are experienced in black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology and many other branches of theology which utilize the experience of oppression as a lens to encounter God and God’s action towards the world.

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?



 Deuteronomy 22: Miscellaneous Laws

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

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[1] 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.

"Christ and the sinner" by Andrey Mironov - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Christ and the sinner” by Andrey Mironov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

[1] 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.

 Deuteronomy 21: Death, Rebellious Children, Captured Women and Inheritance

The First Funeral, Louis Ernest Barrias (1883)

The First Funeral, Louis Ernest Barrias (1883)

Deuteronomy 21: 1-9: Dealing with an Unsolvable Death

1 If, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, 2 then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3 The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4 the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6 All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8 Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

The author of Deuteronomy is concerned that the people’s life in the land is not contaminated by bloodguilt and that they have a means for dealing with an unsolvable death in their land. Even though the death may not be solvable there still needs to be action on behalf of the community to atone for the wrong that has been done and to make things right. This issue also comes up in Deuteronomy 19: 1-13 when discussing the cities of refuge to ensure innocent blood is not spilled for an accidental killing. In Deuteronomy’s perspective there is a need to atone for the death that occurs and only blood can do that. The ritual involves the elders of the community and the Levites who come together to absolve the community of guilt.

The ritual itself involves assigning the responsibility to the nearest town, the giving up of something of high value to the community, declaration of innocence of the community, blessing and finally a ritual of surrendering responsibility. The role of the Levites in the judicial process laid out in Deuteronomy 17: 8-13 is now expanded here to involve any case of dispute and assault, but they also oversee the actions of the community to make things right with God. Once the responsibility is assigned to the elders of the town they bring a heifer, a cow that has not been used for agricultural purposes and has not born a calf, and identify a wadi, a ravine which must have running water, that is also not being used in agricultural purposes to conduct the ritual. Breaking the heifer’s neck kills the animal in a non-sacrificial way and unlike the sacrifices (talked about earlier in Deuteronomy 12, in relation to the festivals in Deuteronomy 16, and in relation to the priests in Deuteronomy 18) there is no mention of participating in eating the heifer that has been killed. This animal is lost to the community in the action of absolution. The washing of hands to absolve responsibility is a common practice, but here the elders of the community act on behalf of the community: declaring innocence both in action and in not covering up the crime and attempt to make things right between the community and God.

Deuteronomy is an ancient book and it is sometimes difficult to approach in our world, and one of the reasons I spend the time working through this publicly is there is not much that is available online that is not either using Deuteronomy as a classic case of how irrelevant the Bible and religion is or on the other side lifts up Deuteronomy (often individual verses or sections) as a methodology that we should embrace without reflection in all its harshness. Most Christian pastors, especially in the more liturgical traditions, spend very little time in Deuteronomy other than perhaps chapters 4-6. Yet, as I have moved through these sections of Deuteronomy that deal with interpreting the law for the people of Israel it has become for me a dialogue within and between scripture. Wanting to honor and find what wisdom Deuteronomy has and how its perspective on God’s relationship to God’s people might help our communal life as Christians even when we can’t always agree with either the rules or the perspectives contained within Deuteronomy.

Some passages, including some coming immediately after this one, we would not want to integrate into our life in our society, but in our litigious society there is no way to deal with an unsolved case. It simply remains unsolved unless, somewhere down the road, a new revelation makes the case solvable. In events where a public wrong has been done, like an unsolved murder, perhaps there would be wisdom in finding a way for community leaders and religious leaders to come together, to denounce the wrong that has been done, to ensure that they do not bear responsibility for the actions and to atone on behalf of the community. Perhaps these actions might begin the process of the community’s healing and bring together the community to protect and watch over the fellow members of the community so that this type of action does not occur in the future.

Deuteronomy 21: 10-14 The Female Captive

 10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11 suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12 and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13 discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

War in any time is hellish both for the soldiers involved in it but perhaps even more so for those who are the victims of the conflict. Women and children rarely had any choices when their cities or lands were captured. From a modern standard the idea of forcing a captive woman to marry a warrior of the army that has conquered their land seems abhorrent. Deanna Thompson argues that this passage is a “glimpse of restraint in the midst of the brutal realities of war.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 159) It does set limits on the injustices that (in theory) be committed on a captive of war by the warriors of Israel.

The author of Deuteronomy would not understand the questions that people from a postmodern secular word (or even earlier worldviews) would have with passages like this, it was simply the world they lived in. Even though there are parts of the bible that can be read as sympathetic with a feminist or egalitarian view of sexuality there are large portions, like this one, which simply come from a world that would be alien to us. In the world that Deuteronomy speaks to: polygamy is an accepted and encouraged practice (to quickly grow the nation of Israel), being a brought into the chosen people of God (through conquest) is a privilege that the vanquished should be thankful for (many Christians shared a similar perspective in the conquest of the Americas), and ultimately in a male centered society the feeling of the women doesn’t carry very much weight. In the United States we can joke that, “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” but assuming that type of worldview on the world of Deuteronomy is simply not true.

One of the gifts and challenges of wrestling through Deuteronomy is that it requires us to wonder how do utilize the wisdom and sometimes the wrongness (from a current perspective) of ancient scripture in our time. There isn’t a major calling for a wholesale adoption of the Deuteronomic and Levitical practices as a guide for life in our time, but I think the pieces of Deuteronomy that make me uncomfortable force me to think about questions like, “how then should women be protected in situations involving combat?” “How do we honor the scriptures and those who wrote them even when we disagree?” “Is there wisdom to be learned even in our disagreements?” “Are there places where the ancient scriptures challenged the world of their day?”

In the world of Deuteronomy, where women are looked upon as spoils that were treated however the captors chose: used while desired and then perhaps sold when no longer desired, Deuteronomy does place a restraint upon the power of the male head of the household. While the woman who is captured has no choice, once she is taken up into the household she does have some, albeit small protection. She is given a time to mourn, she is to lose hair and nails and fancy clothes that may have contributed to her being an object of attraction. She is given protection from being sold into slavery, even though being released does subject her to a significant economic challenge without a means of support. The reality is that she may be forced into begging or prostitution by the release but at least the releaser does not become the one to profit financially by this. Ultimately this is probably told in the hope that the one who releases would provide for the captive woman initially like the people of Israel receiving material wealth from the Egyptians prior to their leaving in the Exodus narrative. In its own harsh way I believe that Deuteronomy is trying to communicate a level of personhood and protection for the captured women. This provides a limit to the power over the booty outlined in Deuteronomy 20, not a sufficient limit for our time, but a limit nonetheless.

The reality of the plight of captive women in the ancient world, even within Deuteronomy’s system, forces them into marriages where they have no voice in the matter. The reality that in this world the woman has no choice over how her body is to be used may not be as far away as we would like to admit. Many women, and some men, in relationships may not feel freedom in how their body is used. Throughout history rape has been used as a part of the conquest of an area. Even today in combat zones throughout the world women’s bodies are not safe. As people of faith we need to be willing to answer the difficult questions of how we honor women and men and their bodies in relationship, in society and even in conflict.

Deuteronomy 21: 15-17 The Rights of the Firstborn

 15 If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, 16 then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. 17 He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

This is one of those interesting passages where the Biblical narrative, particularly as it relates to God’s freedom, comes into conflict with the ordered worldview of Deuteronomy. This passage places a limit on the freedom of the male head of household with respect to passing on the inheritance. A husband is not allowed to pick a younger son from a (currently) favored wife to inherit in preference to the eldest son. Matters of inheritance were serious business in the ancient world as possessions and land passed from one generation of men to the next. Yet, it is interesting the way that the narrative of the people of Israel comes into conflict with this fairly simple and common understanding of inheritance.

Throughout the book of Genesis there are stories of later sons inheriting the first born portion. Beginning with the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, the first born son, Ishmael, is set aside for the child of promise, Isaac. In this story the argument could be made that Hagar was never the wife of Abraham so the promise wouldn’t flow to Ishmael but to Isaac. Yet in the very next generation there is the stories of Jacob and Esau where Jacob, by trickery, gets both the inheritance and the blessing. Joseph is favored by his father over his brothers because he is the first child of Rachel, the favored wife, and later Reuben, the firstborn, is passed over for Judah because of sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilhah. David is chosen by God to be king even though he is the youngest brother and in the political intrigue surrounding David’s impending death he appoints Solomon to reign instead of older brothers. There are many other examples that could be lifted up, but things are rarely as neat and orderly as Deuteronomy may want them to be.

Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 The Rebellious Son and the Community

 18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

This portion of Deuteronomy links back to the commandment:

Honor your father and mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 5: 16

And attempts to legislate how families are to deal with children, particularly male children, who bring dishonor upon the household. Deuteronomy has a harsh view of justice and of honor and being a dishonor to one’s parents is lifted up as a capital offence. However, when you read closely to this passage there is a significant limit placed upon the familial authority. Families are not allowed to take matters into their own hands. The family is expected to be firm in their disciplining of their child but the threat, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it!” was not to be left to the discretion of the parents. The disciplining of the stubborn and rebellious son is left to the community, but must be initiated by the parents. Again the elders are expected to take upon themselves the role of judging for their community.

We wouldn’t sanction execution of children, even adult children, in our society for being stubborn and rebellious, being a glutton or a drunkard or refusing to obey parents. We as a society do set limits on what is acceptable for parents with respect to disciplining. Navigating the boundaries between discipline and abuse can be tricky at times but that is one of the decisions we make as a society for the protection of children. How we care for our elderly also is a part of this discussion as we create rules for a society and how their children are allowed to treat them, since the commandment on honoring parents probably primarily refers to how adult children care for their elderly parent as I discuss when talking about Deuteronomy 5. We may not always agree with Deuteronomy’s harsh stance on justice, and working through this part of the book can seem very legalistic, but the author of Deuteronomy is trying to construct a society that is living out of God’s covenant. In our society we also have to figure out how to advocate for rules that protect children and families, providing limits and unfortunately penalties for people who do not live in accordance with those laws.

Deuteronomy 21: 22-23 A Limit on Execution for the Sake of the Land

 22 When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.

                 For Christians this is one of those rare portions of Deuteronomy that is well known because of its echo by Paul in his letter to the Galatians:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Galatians 3: 13-14

As Paul wrestles with the scandal of the cross among both Jewish and Greek audiences he alludes back to this piece of Deuteronomy and recasts it as a part of the language to explain the death of Christ. The passage does not have a problem with the execution, even hanging or crucifixion, but it does place a limit upon the way that body can be used.


Gladiators Crucified after the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE)

Gladiators Crucified after the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE)

In the ancient world executions had both a physical and a psychological dimension. Physically it killed the person who was executed but it also worked psychologically by making the person a public display of the cost of disobedience. Victims of crucifixion in many cultures were left out to both rot and be dismembered by animals as the executor destroyed not only the person but their honor. In cultures ruled by fear the executed one became a grotesque billboard proclaiming what happened to those who challenged the regimes in power. For the Hebrew people they were to treat the dead differently. As mentioned above in verses 1-9, and in Deuteronomy 19 there is the concept of blood guilt but here it is expanded to a curse upon the land for leaving a cursed person out in the elements. In the world of Deuteronomy the land and people are defiled by failing to deal properly with the dead.

This passage also may help shed some light on the crucifixion narrative in the synoptic gospels where Joseph of Arimathea requests the body of Jesus and buries it on the night of the crucifixion as well as John’s narrative in John 19: 31-37 where the Jewish leaders don’t want the bodies left on the cross. But for the Jewish people they were not to be a culture who relished in death, they were not to display dead bodies or skulls so that others would fear them: instead this would be a source of defilement for them. The prophet Ezekiel can lift up in the vision of the destruction of the armies of Gog, how the burial of the bodies of the vanquished horde will be a part of the cleansing of the land (Ezekiel 39: 11-20)


Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct of War

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

Deuteronomy 20

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. 2 Before you engage in battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the troops, 3 and shall say to them: “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; 4 for it is the LORD your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” 5 Then the officials shall address the troops, saying, “Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit. 7 Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” 8 The officials shall continue to address the troops, saying, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.” 9 When the officials have finished addressing the troops, then the commanders shall take charge of them.

 10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. 12 If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13 and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16 But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17 You shall annihilate them– the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites– just as the LORD your God has commanded, 18 so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.

 19 If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? 20 You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.


I would love to be able to say that the remarks made by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University that his students should arm themselves so that they could ‘end Muslims before they come in’ has no scriptural place to justify it, but that would mean looking aside from passages like Deuteronomy 20. Ultimately, from the way I read scriptures his remarks were not only wrong but inflammatory and yet passages like this probably feel like home for some conservative evangelical Christians who seem to feel the right to bear arms is more important than anyone else’s right freedom of religion. Yet, passages like this are in need of discussion and the warrior image of the God of Israel is a potent image which can be used for both good and ill.  As I discuss when talking about the second half of Deuteronomy 2 the warrior image of God which is used throughout the scriptures can be used in both powerful ways for good and evil. We have uncomfortable, well at least uncomfortable for a Christian who tries to take the witness of Jesus seriously, passages like this as a part of our scriptures. What I will attempt to do below is first talk about this text within the context of war in the ancient world and what it meant then, discuss some of how this powerful language can be used appropriately in our day as well as the challenges of this text in our secular and polarized age.

The Passage in the Ancient World

War is an assumed reality for the people of Israel, especially being at the crossroads for trade and movement of troops in the ancient world. In a world where empires would rise and fall around them the land of ancient Palestine would (and still does) find itself pulled between competing kings and empires. Ancient Israel, with the exception of a brief period under David and Solomon, is never a major military power in comparison to the other ancient empires (and in Deuteronomy 17 we see how Solomon is the opposite of the model king Deuteronomy envisions). And if the people of Israel are not to be a society whose strength relies upon its military might and muscle they probably felt the need for a way to demonstrate their reliance upon God in this reality. If Deuteronomy is finalized within the context of the Babylonian exile it may also be reflecting back upon the ways the focus on their own military solutions failed them in their conflict with Babylon.

The practice of a priest coming forward and blessing the troops for combat would not have been unusual in the ancient world. The soldiers of Israel, especially if they were fighting a larger opponent with better equipment, would want to believe that the fighting they were engaged in was a part of a holy war. Perhaps Psalms like 144 would become individual prayers for the soldiers after the priest gave their blessing:

1Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; 2 my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me. Psalm 144: 1-2

These words and the sense that the endeavor that they are taking part in is the LORD of Israel’s battle and war may also serve to provide a sense of justification for the horrors of war they are to endure. The charge given by the mustering officer which gives an opportunity for those who have not yet been able to enjoy the fruits of a good life (house, fruit of the harvest and family) to return from battle so that they would not be deprived of these things. These three things the mustering officer allows people to return to also are lifted up as a part of the curse of disobedience:

You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruits. Deuteronomy 28:30

Also the charge for anyone who is disheartened to return home does point to the reality that fear in combat is contagious, and yet for Deuteronomy this fear is also the result of a lack of trust in the God of Israel. While there is no stigma attached to the previous reasons for release from service in an honor based society there would be for this last one. Military duty was expected of the males of ancient Israel, they were to fight for their God and for their king (or judge or leader).

This passage addresses two types of conflicts, the conflict of occupying the promised land (which is covered second although in the narrative of Deuteronomy its time is near at hand) and the invasion of future enemies.  For the enemies of the future where the people of Israel come to take a city they are to offer terms of peace, the word behind this is shalom, but it is a brutal peace. The only way a city would probably accept these terms was if they saw no possibility of resistance for it ensured forced labor of all the people. In many respects this envisions a society, like Egypt, that is based upon conquest and slavery. Unlike our current world where war is an endeavor which societies go into debt for, war was a profitable endeavor in the ancient world. If a city resists their invasion there is the spoil of the city which goes to the conquerors once the men defending the city are slain. The booty is not just wealth, but also the women and children and livestock which may all serve to enhance the wealth of the invader. War in the ancient world, and in modern society as well, is not kind to women. Even for the Israelites, who have a little more protection for the conquered than some societies, the women are viewed as spoil. Even though we may interpret the commandment on adultery prohibiting the rape of women from a conquered village ancient Israel probably did not, they still viewed women as a commodity and adultery was primarily an offence against the male.  The ancient world was a violent world and war in any time in hellish.  For the list of enemies of the towns they will be occupying there is to be no accommodation, they are to be completely wiped out. There is to be no spoil but they are to be dedicated for destruction, they are herem (those to be destroyed, annihilated). In modern times we would consider this genocide.

A final note is on the environment which is also a victim in times of war. Siege warfare, which is the type of warfare represented in this section of Deuteronomy, involves cutting a city or refuge off from the surrounding resources of food and water and waiting for the supplies within the city to become desperate. Part of siege warfare against a walled city (which is the first line of defense for a city in the ancient world) is constructing siege engines which are designed to either breach or to go over a city wall. Siege engines and the practice of war in the ancient world would often consume the trees for use in these engines or burn them so that they couldn’t be used by an enemy. While crops can grow back in the next growing season the loss of trees involves a long term loss of production. The limit of cutting down only the trees that do not produce fruit to limit the environmental destruction of the siege is unusual, as well as the way the Deuteronomist frames it, “Are the trees human being that they should come under siege from you?” For the author of Deuteronomy, the conflict is with the people and not with the environment.

Militaristic Language and Its Positive and Negative Usage

You do not have to look far for examples of how religion has been used to justify any number of horrors. This is not exclusive to any faith and occurs even in non-religious governments. As Miroslav Volf states memorably:

The majority of the world’s populations is religious, and when they are at war, their gods are invariably at war too. It would seem that if we reconciled the gods we would come closer to reconciling the peoples. The question is, however, who is fighting whose battles in those wars? Are the people fighting the battles of the power-hungry gods or are the gods fighting the battles of their bellicose peoples? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. My suspicion is, however, that the gods mostly get the short end of it: they end up doing more of the dirty work for their presumed earthly servants than their servants do for them. And when the gods refuse to do the dirty work most people involved in conflicts either discard them in favor of more compliant gods or seek to reeducate them, which amounts to the same thing. The poor gods! What they have to endure at the hands of their humble devotees! (Volf, 1996, p. 284)

And it is not hard to see how passages like Psalm 149 “Praise the Lord!…Let the high praise of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands” (verses 1, 6) can quickly evolve into “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. There is great damage that has been done when people are absolutely convinced that the LORD or another god is on their side and that they are involved in a struggle against an unredeemable opponent. Whether it is groups like ISIS/ISIL, or Christian groups calling for the elimination of Muslims, or even the inter-ethnic atrocities like Rwanda and Bosnia that are justified under the belief that they are the righteous ones of a god purging the earth of the infidel. These actions seem to come first from the desire to do violence or oppress another group and then the religious militaristic language is brought in as justification of the work. The poor gods, what they must suffer from the hands of their devotees.

Yet, for all of its danger and the way that militaristic language has been utilized to sanctify violence, oppression, enslavement, rape, environmental destruction and even genocide, I still think there is a place for this language. Psalm 46, which was Luther’s inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress”, is full of militaristic images as the song itself is and yet it also speaks to the conflict that the faithful feel in the world. In the hands of the oppressed it has often been utilized to point to the God of liberation that cares for and lifts up the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and the least. It has certainly been misused by the powerful as well as the disenfranchised to authorize their violence. Yet, it also has spoken to people in their lives. We may not be able to redeem texts like Deuteronomy 20, or at least not all of it, but it speaks to a people whose lives did involve conflict. We may not share the Deuteronomist’s certainty that God is on our side, and when we are too certain we probably have crafted a god in our own image, but we do need to wrestle with, in a world that is still full of conflict, war and oppression, where our God is in the midst of these struggles.

War, God and our Secular Age

The enlightenment arose out of the ashes of conflicts over religion in Europe and now we live in an age where, in the United States and much of Europe, spirituality has been consigned to the realm of private choice. When pastors and priests blessed the soldiers of the various armies going off to war in World War I, the war to end all wars as it was known then, they believed that their causes were linked directly to God’s cause and that nation and God were closely joined together. After two world wars and countless other wars of the twentieth and twenty first century for most people in the United States our current wars may have religious undertones but they are not authorized by God. There are exceptions to this, but the wars of state are no longer uniformly blessed by the churches, mosques, and temples of the land. In the United States the war on terror has at times moved towards being portrayed as a between Christianity and Islam, yet within many religious circles there has been a continual lament and protest against this conflict as well.

As people of faith how do we engage warfare and conflict? What are the central beliefs that shape our interpretation of the world around us? If faith in merely a private spirituality we never have to engage questions like this but if it is a public faith, then we have to engage our faith in the messiness and the conflicts of the real world. As a Christian and as a Lutheran I do go back to the life and witness of Jesus which continually calls us to love even my enemy and to pray for them, to turn the other cheek in response to being struck and to learn how to forgive. Christians have long struggled with theologically making a case for various wars or military service and I won’t even attempt to answer those questions here. I am a military veteran and that is a part of my own history and the things God used to shape me for my life and thankfully I never had to endure the hell that is war, training for war is hellish enough. And yet, I can hope, with Isaiah, for the time when nations no longer train for war, when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Deuteronomy 19: Justice, Refuge and Grace

"Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

“Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Deuteronomy 19: 1-13: Cities of Refuge

1 When the LORD your God has cut off the nations whose land the LORD your God is giving you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their towns and in their houses, 2 you shall set apart three cities in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess. 3 You shall calculate the distances and divide into three regions the land that the LORD your God gives you as a possession, so that any homicide can flee to one of them.

 4 Now this is the case of a homicide who might flee there and live, that is, someone who has killed another person unintentionally when the two had not been at enmity before: 5 Suppose someone goes into the forest with another to cut wood, and when one of them swings the ax to cut down a tree, the head slips from the handle and strikes the other person who then dies; the killer may flee to one of these cities and live. 6 But if the distance is too great, the avenger of blood in hot anger might pursue and overtake and put the killer to death, although a death sentence was not deserved, since the two had not been at enmity before. 7 Therefore I command you: You shall set apart three cities.

                8 If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he swore to your ancestors– and he will give you all the land that he promised your ancestors to give you, 9 provided you diligently observe this entire commandment that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and walking always in his ways– then you shall add three more cities to these three, 10 so that the blood of an innocent person may not be shed in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, thereby bringing bloodguilt upon you. 11 But if someone at enmity with another lies in wait and attacks and takes the life of that person, and flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death. 13 Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you.

                 With the roles that people will play within the community to ensure justice established in chapters 17 and 18 (judges, priests, king and prophets) now this section of Deuteronomy turns to expounding upon laws that continue to flesh out the ten commandments, particularly how the people of Israel are to relate to one another. There is less of a narrative and more of a didactic tone as the exposition of the law is intended to illustrate what the covenant life of the people is to look like and the manner in which they are interconnected with their God, the land and with one another. The author of Deuteronomy may not move systematically through the various commandments in articulating this exposition of the law, but is continually concerned to relate the adherence to the commandments to the people’s continuing life under the covenant with their LORD.

The setting up of cities of refuge assumes a situation very different from our modern legal system. In ancient honor bound agrarian societies if a member of the family was killed it was the family’s responsibility to enact justice. Deuteronomy assumes this type of system but also limits it with the provision of cities of refuge where a person who has killed another may flee to. Mentioned in Exodus 21: 13 and later designated in Joshua 20 they provide a place where the cycle of violence may be stopped providing the killing is accidental. If the killing is murder, the elders fill a judicial function in having the murderer turned over from the city of refuge to the family. The family remains the executor of judgment in this system.

Within this law setting aside both the cities of refuge and the method of justice to prevent a murder from remaining in sanctuary within these cities is an understanding of innocent blood which would contaminate the land and bring bloodguilt upon the people. Perhaps the understanding of this bloodguilt is similar to God’s response to Cain in Genesis 4:

And the LORD said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now cursed you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. Genesis 4: 10-11

Innocent blood calls out to God who is ultimately the one who will have vengeance. There is an understanding that only blood can atone for blood and that the injury is not only against the individual but also the community and their holiness before God.

Issues of revenge and vengeance are huge threats to order within any society. There needs to be some manner that wrongs can be addressed. Yet, there also is a role for the legal system of a society to place a limit on the practice of revenge or vigilante justice. As much as Americans may love characters like Batman who are symbols of vigilante justice in a society where justice is perceived to be lacking. The reality of people creating their own systems of justice in a system where justice is not being carried out effectively (or rigorously enough) has led to many terrible acts throughout history. As will be outlined later in the chapter what is being sought is not vengeance but instead proportional justice. The lex talionis, (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc.) which probably was not enforced literally, provided a formula for justice that did not exceed the damage caused.


Deuteronomy 19:14 Honoring Boundaries

14 You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.


The gift of the land to the people of Israel was a part of their living out of the providence of their LORD. Within this society, where land is the primary means of producing food and ultimately wealth, the book of Deuteronomy has a very different understanding of land than our modern understanding derived from philosophers like John Locke or Adam Smith. For the people of Israel land was to remain with a family and was not viewed as private property that could be bartered or sold, it was to remain with the family for as long as the people remained faithful to God’s commandments. It was contingent on their relation to God, not to their ability to acquire more wealth.  Moving the boundary markers on a neighbor’s property is stealing from their neighbor in addition to failing to trust in the provision of God for their needs.


Deuteronomy 19: 15-21 Bearing False Witness

15 A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. 16 If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, 18 and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, 19 then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Central to the pursuit of justice is truthfulness. Truth is not only about not telling falsehoods, but also about the damage it does to the neighbor and by extension the community. Fear of punishment is a part of the understanding for obedience in Deuteronomy. People are to fear the consequences of their actions both from God and from the community. Deuteronomy’s justice is a harsh justice but it is a proportional one, and here the lex talionis is applied to the concept of bearing false witness or perjury against another. The punishment is in relation to the damage the false witness intended to do to the neighbor.

Within any community people will act out of self-interest and look for advantages over their neighbor. Yet, Israel was intended to embody something different. They were to look out for and to care for their neighbor. Within the laws of Deuteronomy safe guards are put in place, like the provision of needing multiple witnesses to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing and the important role of the judges and the priests in ensuring an impartial hearing. For Deuteronomy’s author the consequences are too high for justice to be corrupted. The bloodguilt would cry out against the community before God and the people would find themselves needing to atone for the wrongs done to the innocent.

Some Christians embrace this harsh judgment within Deuteronomy and would love to see a legal system that is as unforgiving and which embraces capital punishment for a number of crimes. They may also want to ensure that they can have the right to bear arms and have the ability to be enforcers of this system like the families in the ancient world would do in relation to a murder. Yet, Christians also have to wrestle with the way Jesus engages this text Matthew’s gospel for example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  Matthew 5: 38-42

Jesus was certainly concerned about a community that could live in justice but his manner of speaking about the way this community was centered more upon forgiveness than on justice. Perhaps Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous quote that, “there is no future without forgiveness.” Which came out of his experiences in South Africa, represent the challenge of constructing a society where forgiveness can lead to justice. But whether we talk about Jesus (see immediately before the above quote in Matthew 5: 33-37), or Archbishop Tutu, or Deuteronomy one of the prerequisites for a society that has justice is truthfulness.

Deuteronomy 18: Priests, Prophets and Forbidden Magic

Deuteronomy 18: 1-8: The Levitical Priests

Painted board of Aaron, oil on wood panel, British, ca 1708

Painted board of Aaron, oil on wood panel, British, ca 1708

1 The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no allotment or inheritance within Israel. They may eat the sacrifices that are the LORD’s portion 2 but they shall have no inheritance among the other members of the community; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them.

3 This shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder, the two jowls, and the stomach. 4 The first fruits of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. 5 For the LORD your God has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for all time.

6 If a Levite leaves any of your towns, from wherever he has been residing in Israel, and comes to the place that the LORD will choose (and he may come whenever he wishes), 7 then he may minister in the name of the LORD his God, like all his fellow-Levites who stand to minister there before the LORD. 8 They shall have equal portions to eat, even though they have income from the sale of family possessions.

In addition to judges and the king outlined in Deuteronomy 16 and 17 respectively now a third ordering portion of society is added, already alluded to in Deuteronomy 17: 8-13 with their role being the final judicial appeal for cases too difficult for the regional judges. This third pillar of the society is the priesthood, a group set aside to minister before the LORD and who serve cultic, teaching and judicial roles for the people of Israel.

The Levites do not have an inheritance of agricultural land, they will have places to live but not the fields for growing crops or animals like the other tribes. On the one hand they are independent of the necessity to work in the fields and are able to dedicate their time to their work of ministering on behalf of the community. On the other hand, they are incredibly vulnerable and dependent on the other tribes providing for them and continuing to offer before the LORD their sacrifices and bringing in their first fruits. If Israel remains faithful to their calling to bring in from the fields their first fruits of grain, wine and oil as well as offering the firstlings of the flock and the other offerings that are outlined the Levites will be taken care of. If Israel becomes a more secular society then the economic security of the Levites is undercut because they do require the other tribes to provide the portion that they are living off of. They have no inheritance other than the LORD which gives them, perhaps, a closer sense of communion with their God but also depends upon receiving the blessing of the LORD through the labor and work of the other tribes.

Israel was intended to be a society structured around this covenantal relationship with their God, not a secular society. In this society structured around a particular understanding of justice the people will care for the tabernacle and later the temple and those who minister to it. The remembered reality is often far different: the priests would often fail in being faithful by abusing their position, the temple and tabernacle would fall into disrepair, the people and kings would be attracted by the ways of the other nations and the economy would become indistinguishable from the nations that surrounded them or the practices of Egypt where they were enslaved.

It is possible that the reference to Levites leaving the towns and coming to minister at the temple/tabernacle may reference the reforms of King Josiah in 2 Kings 23: 8-9, where he tries to centralize the worship of Judah in the temple and eliminates the high places. In the theology of Deuteronomy and the books that come after it, the high places are places where the worship of the LORD is not done correctly, perhaps blending in the elements of the surrounding nations. Perhaps this is also referencing the practices mentioned in 16: 20. The centralization of the cultic functions in Jerusalem does cause a concentration of a large number of levites, but the ongoing narrative also is aware of priests that are scattered throughout the nation. There would be tensions that would arise between the rural priests and the urban priests who became a part of the power structure in Jerusalem, but these verses imagine a situation where rural priests would be welcomed into Jerusalem as equals.

We live in a very different world than the one imagined in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy the Levites become one of the central parts of the society ordered around the worship of the LORD. In the United States where there is a strange hybrid relationship between the religious and the secular those in religious callings that are dependent upon the support of their congregations share the blessing and insecurity imagined for the Levites. There is the gift of being able to dedicate one’s time to the ministry that they fell called to be a part of. Yet, particularly in our increasingly spiritual but not religious age where many congregations are aging and shrinking and fewer people identify themselves religiously as a part of a congregation much less support one financially, many leaders of religious communities are finding their calling very tenuous. Unlike the Levites there is the opportunity in a diverse economy for dual callings where the religious role becomes one of two or more roles that sustain a person and their family, but in the ancient world where wealth was tied to land the Levites were placed in a vulnerable state if the other tribes did not support the religious system.

Deuteronomy 18: 9-14: Forbidden Magic

9 When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. 14 Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so.

We live in a world where magic is predominantly a part of fiction and the magicians we may see are illusionists that are able to trick our senses through various forms of deception. There are still people who look to horoscopes, palm readers, mediums and other spiritual forms of divining the future but for most people in our society theses are looked upon in terms of entertainment rather than items to place one’s trust in. In the world of Deuteronomy, the practices listed were apparently real and persuasive options available in the world they lived within. All of these forms of magic and divining the future were not to be things that the people of Israel were to heed.

Many of the prohibited practices relate to trying to predict the future or discern how a person is to act to bring about a desired future, whether through practices like augury or by inquiring of the dead. In many respects this vacancy is to be filled by the role of the prophet talked about in the coming verses, even though the biblical prophets are primarily concerned with the present and its impact on the immediate future. Perhaps one of the key differences comes from a different view of the universe. For many people in the ancient world the future was fixed and many ancient religions have some idea of fate. For the people of Israel the future rested in God’s freedom and their relationship with their God. Ultimately God would decide the course of their lives based upon their obedience to the covenant. Deuteronomy will echo repeatedly: if you follow the ways of the covenant you will be blessed and your lives will be long, if you do not follow the commandments and ordinances you will be cursed.

In verse 13, the command is that “you must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” Walter Brueggemann points out when speaking about the word translated completely loyal, “The Hebrew term tāmîm means “integrated, whole, undivided, as one unit.” This idea and term likely lies behind Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:48 which gets translated, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The translation in the gospel as perfect could mislead the reader to think this is about some type of moral perfection which is different from the direction of the Sermon on the Mount within which this verse is contained. Jesus and Deuteronomy are both calling for unreserved loyalty and living a whole integrated life within the followers ongoing relationship with their God. (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 194)

Deuteronomy 18: 15-22 The Prophetic Voice

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn 1630

15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die.” 21 You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” 22 If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

 The fourth and final pillar of the Israelite society is the voice of the prophet. The judges, priests and king will all be voices charged with defending the faithfulness of Israel and protecting the justice for all the people, especially the vulnerable. Yet, the judges, priests and king will all compose the ruling class of the people and come from privileged positions which may skew their perspective on justice at times. With Moses all of these roles are held within one person but in the coming future without Moses these gifts will need to be spread among the community, yet the prophetic voice, the one charged with speaking on behalf of God, is a unique gift of the Hebrew people. The prophets may or may not come from the priestly Levites, but they are charged with standing between God and the people as a mouthpiece. Often their words will be uncomfortable: they will challenge kings and sometimes be thought of as traitors. In Deuteronomy 13 it is the faithfulness of the prophet to the LORD that is the critical discernment as to whether the prophet is a true or false prophet, but sometimes a situation may arise, as in Jeremiah 28 where Hananiah and Jeremiah are proclaiming two very different prophecies and both apparently in the name of the LORD. Now the actual occurrence of the prophecy becomes a key part of discerning who the true and false prophet is. Being a true prophet of God is often a dangerous and lonely vocation because it often challenges the monarchy, priestly and judicial powers calling them back to justice and their vocation on behalf of the LORD. Only certain people seem to be able to hear the voice of the LORD, and this story places this back with the reception of the law at Mount Horeb/Sinai (see Exodus 20: 18-21). The word of God being enfleshed in messengers rather than appearing in its terrifying unveiled power is a concession to the people’s plea. Yet, in this enfleshment in the prophets there is also the potential for abuses even in this office. The story of Israel will be full of false prophets who tell people what they want or expect to hear or those who ensnare others. The prophets will also be those who at least in some cases, like Elijah and Elisha, are able to act as an extension of God’s power towards (or against) the people of Israel.

Within the person of Moses he bears together the roles of leader, priest, judge and prophet. From a Christian perspective these roles come together in a very different way with Jesus. Because of this it is not surprising that the gospel of Matthew spends a lot of time placing Jesus and Moses alongside each other and understands who Jesus is in light of Moses story and role. It is very early in the Christian church that you can find references to the three roles of Christ: as prophet, priest and king. And perhaps it is underappreciated how Jesus was seen by the people of his time as a prophet because his words and his actions would have called to mind some of the biblical prophets that had been a part of the story of Israel.