Tag Archives: Neighbor

Exodus 23: Justice, Celebration and Presence

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne. Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0, source Zeughaus

Exodus 23:1-9 And Justice for All

 You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. 2 You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; 3 nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.

 4 When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.

 5 When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.1

 6 You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8 You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

 9 You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

The end of the Pledge of Allegiance for the United States ends with the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all.” Yet, liberty and justice for all people has been a challenging part of the United States’ story as it attempts to live into these words. Who does the ‘all’ encompass? In the United States that definition was initially white landholding males. The Civil War and the long struggle for Civil Rights attempted to expand the all to include people of color. Women’s movements have attempted to increase the equity in the world and the workplace for women. Probably the place where this generates the largest amount of friction in our current civil discourse relates to men and women who are LGBTQ in their identity. Without justice, the alternative society the people of Israel were tasked to create would devolve into a mirror of the Egyptian society they left.

Initially the ‘all’ in Exodus 23 extends to all citizens, both the rich and the poor. Truthful speech on behalf of the neighbor was essential. Not only does the command to not bear false witness get included in Exodus 20:16 but here it is amplified. They are to be people of truthful speech on behalf of their neighbor, they are not to be deceitful for their own gain of to remain in good standing with the majority. They are to be willing to speak inconvenient truths rather than to pervert justice. The prophets will be examples of those who are charged to speak in ways that rely upon God’s witness and the truth to both leaders and people who may not want to hear. Judgment is not to favor the rich and the powerful but it is also not to be swayed by a bias towards the poor (or against the rich).

Secondly the ‘all’ extends to the enemy and their property, particularly here the animals. Exodus is realistic enough to understand that all relationships within a society will not be friendly. Yet, my enemy’s animal being loose or overburdened becomes my responsibility. Even though the loss of an animal would hurt the one who hates me, for both my enemy and the animal I bear responsibility to set it free from its burden or to bring it back to my enemy.  Ultimately my enemy is my neighbor and the law protects my enemy and their property.

The ‘all’ includes my neighbor, rich or poor, and neither are to be denied justice. Justice requires the people in authority not to take bribes, for people not to bring false charges to steal a neighbor’s property, life or reputation, or any other practice that subverts justice. Finally, the ‘all’ extends to the stranger, or the resident alien as the NRSV translates it. As in the previous chapter, these strangers who are not a part of the people of Israel are not to be oppressed. The experience of the people of Israel being oppressed as ‘strangers’ or ‘resident aliens’ in Egypt is to form a contrast to the society they are to create. Within the immigration debate in the United States is another realm where our nation struggles with the ‘all’ of the pledge. Within the Torah the inclusion of the ‘resident alien’ into the ‘all’ is stated frequently as a reminder to the people of Israel, and those who would claim their scriptures as a part of their own scriptures, that they are to be a people where the ‘all’ is very expansive.

Exodus 23: 10-13 Creation’s Sabbath Rest

 10 For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

 12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. 13 Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.

The practice of a fallow year for the fields may have had a positive impact on the fertility of the ground but here the justification goes back to the care of the neighbor. The year where the field lies fallow and vineyards and olive orchards grow without the tending allow for the poor and the wild animals to benefit. Much as the gleaning provisions in Leviticus 19: 9-10, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24: 21 provide a way for the vulnerable of the land to be cared for, here this seventh-year practice is another way in which the community is to provide an opportunity for survival of the at-risk neighbor.

The Sabbath commandment is re-visited here as well along with the reminder that the Sabbath is rest not only for the people of Israel but for all in their borders to rest. Animals, slaves and resident aliens are beneficiaries along with the people of Israel in this commandment to rest. Here in Exodus there is a creation pattern which the Sabbath is modeled after: In six days the earth was created (according to Genesis 1) and on the seventh day the LORD rested. Now this seventh day which the LORD hallowed becomes the model for the seventh year where the fields lie fallow and the seventh day where people and animals of creation rest.

Painted Sukkah with a view of Jerusalem, Late 19th Century, Austria or South Germany

Exodus 23: 14-19 Festival and Sacrifice

 14 Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. 15 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.

No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

 16 You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. 17 Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.

 18 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my festival remain until the morning.

 19 The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The calendar of festivals for the people of Israel is centered around the Exodus narrative and the yearly cycle of harvest. Exodus 12 and 13 narrate the celebration of Passover as a part of the narrative of the people leaving Egypt. This was to be the defining narrative of the people and the community in their gathering, sacrifice and ritualized eating would tell again the narrative of what made this celebration unique and how these actions defined their life as the people of God.

Deuteronomy 16 also narrates the festivals of first fruits and the festival at the end of the harvest. These were to be the times when the males of Israel would appear before the LORD. In a time where people would have to travel to the place where the LORD placed his name (either the tabernacle, shrines or later the temple) there was not the ability for most people to worship weekly like many people are familiar with. These festivals became communal gathering times and times of celebration for the harvest that was a part of the year.

The people were to bring their best to the LORD at these celebrations and times of sacrifice. There were practices they were not to do: like boiling a kid in its mother’s milk or offering anything leavened with the blood of the sacrifice, but most of these offerings were used as a part of the community’s celebration. They were times of feasting and celebration, storytelling and gathering.

Exodus 23: 20-33 Promised Presence in Future Conflicts

 20 I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

 22 But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.

 23 When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall worship the LORD your God, and I1 will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send the pestilence1 in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 I will set your borders from the Red Sea1 to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.

The God of the Exodus has brought the people out of the land of Egypt and is bringing them on a journey to a new, promised land. The angel of the LORD who goes with the people becomes an intermediary of God’s promised presence and a guarantee of the LORD’s provision of security. There is both promise and threat here, much as Deuteronomy’s blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 and 29. If the people will listen to the voice of God, mediated through the angel (in addition to Moses) then God will be with them. However, if they do not there are consequences-this representative of God is not a forgiving presence. As people who have grown up with different sensibilities than the ancient Hebrew people there may be a tension between this demanding voice of God and many passages where God is portrayed as more gracious. Yet, obedience is one of the covenant expectations for the people.

The promise of God’s presence in the conquest of the promised land as it occurs in Deuteronomy 2, 3 and the book of Joshua presents many ethical challenges which I have addressed other places (see additionally Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 20, Psalm 18 and Violence and the Bible). There is an unavoidable tension between the concern for the resident alien and the command to utterly demolish the people of the land. Especially in the United States where there is a ‘new Exodus’ narrative (the United States becoming for many early Americans a new promised land and what that meant for the native Americans who were driven from their homes). There are no easy answers, every people has times where religion has been used to justify acts of violence. Every nation has parts of their history that have been glossed over. One of the struggles and gifts of going back to parts of the Bible that are rarely used is the opportunity to wrestle with the uncomfortable parts of the tradition and see what parts of the narrative we can lift up and what parts we need to acknowledge and ask forgiveness for.

Without dwelling on this in the same way I have in the other places listed above, the positive force in this is the command to trust in the promised presence of God in the people’s future conflicts. Ultimately, this formerly enslaved people have been promised God’s intervention as they make their way beyond the wilderness into their promised land. For the people, the promise of God’s presence makes the difference between their weakness on their own and their ability to conquer their foes through God’s strength.

Psalm 15- Entering the Sacred Presence of God

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 15

 <A Psalm of David.>
1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
  nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD;
  who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
  Those who do these things shall never be moved.

How does one prepare to enter the sacred spaces of the world, those places where the presence of the divine makes holy the profane? In many cultures there are a number of rituals one must undergo to purify oneself and prepare to enter the holy places of the world-those places where heaven and earth seem to meet. Even within the Bible there are places where there are actions that the priest must do to prepare for their tasks and in places like Leviticus 21: 17-21 and Deuteronomy 23: 1-6 there are limits placed upon who may enter the tabernacle or the temple to serve. Yet here, in Psalm 15, as is frequently the case in the Psalms and prophets there is no physical requirements, exclusions or cultic actions that prepares one to enter into the house of the LORD, instead the focus is on the way one lives out one’s relationship with one’s neighbor. Perhaps echoing this Psalm, the prophet Micah can say:

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6: 6-8

In contrast to the duplicitous hearts in Psalm 12 and those who say in their hearts “there is no God” as in Psalm 14, stand the righteous ones who speak truth from the heart and who honor and fear God are allowed to enter into the presence of God.  It is one’s life in relation to one’s neighbor that prepares one to enter into the temple or tabernacle, one’s life in the mundane life of community that is the preparation for the sacred encounter with God. Loving one’s neighbor and living as truthful and righteous people toward the community is preparation for encountering God in the promised communion. As Rolf Jacobson can state, “when the Lord extends an invitation for a person to enter the sacred space, God insists that one’s neighbors are also invited.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 173)

This short Psalm has a number of phrases that point towards what a life that is prepared to see God’s presence not only in the holy spaces but in the normal secular spaces of life as well. Speaking truth from one’s heart refers both to a person whose speech reflect truly their own character but also their character is pure and peaceful as well. The refuse to speak of a neighbor in a way that compromises the person’s participation within the community but instead as Martin Luther can talk about in his explanation to the eighth commandment:

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. (Luther, A Contemporary Translation of Luther’s Small Catechism, 1978, p. 20)

While we may struggle a little initially with the language of, “in whose eyes the wicked are despised” there is a strong need for the community not to tolerate or ignore things that are contrary to the justice their God has called for. When we turn a blind eye or accept, for example, the abuse of children or the oppression of the homeless then we have also turned away from the God who cares for the children and the vulnerable. After wrestling with Deuteronomy and Jeremiah I’ve come to appreciate the urgency the people of Israel felt for attempting to create a society that lived into the vision God called them to. A trustworthy society where the words and actions represented the God’s dream for them and the world. A society where mercy for one’s neighbor was more important than profit one could make upon one’s neighbor by charging interest to them in their need.

The Psalm is a bold vision and a vision that is challenging in our time. It is a vision that looks at holiness in terms of how we treat our neighbors rather than some version of piety or orthodoxy. In this Psalm and in many other places, particularly in the Psalms and prophets, issues of proper attire or cultic actions are disregarded or at least given a far lower place than one’s relationship with the neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus can echo this sentiment when he talks about leaving one’s gift before the altar to be reconciled to one’s neighbor (Matthew 5: 23-24). In contrast to the previous three Psalms, where one finds oneself in the position where the wicked seem to be prospering, the Psalmist now returns to the vision of the first Psalm, where the LORD watches over the righteous and they will not be moved. Their words and their actions truthfully come out of their heart and even when their truthful words and actions or their willingness to stand with their neighbor causes them hurt they are not moved. They look at the world through the lens of mercy rather than profit, through the lens of love rather than acquisition and they are perhaps ready to enter into the sacred spaces of the world where God meets them because they lived a godly life in the secular places of life.

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 - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_and_the_sinner.jpg#/media/File:Christ_and_the_sinner.jpg

“Christ and the sinner” by Andrey Mironov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_and_the_sinner.jpg#/media/File:Christ_and_the_sinner.jpg

[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.

Soft Hearted

love me forever by syntheses on deviantart.com

love me forever by syntheses on deviantart.com

We enter into a world full of broken people and shattered stories

Am I my brother’s keeper? Who is my neighbor and who can I ignore?
Can’t I just send the crowds away with their insatiable appetite and needs?
Or ignore the foreigner on my doorstep who cries out for her daughter?
Who can I, in my mental and physical fatigue, exclude so I don’t see?
 Where can I go to escape the cries of creation that fill my ears?
In the highest heaven they ascend to God rending the creator’s heart
And they echo from the walls of the endless abyss creating a hell of brokenness
 
I don’t want to see, I don’t want to care, I want to block it out
To plug my ears, cover my eyes, harden my heart and distract my mind
To hear no evil, see no evil and to feel no compulsion to speak back to evil
To wall my broken heart away behind immense walls of cold stone
Some safe shelter where I can isolate myself from the needs of the world
To buy in to the promise of despair, that in giving up hope I can save myself
That the promises of the kingdom of God are not worth the birth pangs of creation
And that by pulling away and shutting out the world that the pain may simply cease
 
From a young child I was taught to hide the feelings, the emotions, the pain
That to be a man was to be like some distant unloving picture of a god
Who was unaffected and unattached to the world around him
Whose heart did not break, but rather this deistic god was unmoved
And to live a life in that stoic god’s image was not to feel, not to love
For in feeling there was fault and in love there was weakness
And to be weak was to fail and to fail was to be worthless
It was a god that seemed to demand nothing and to give nothing
But its sacrifice was the very marrow of life, it sucked dry the bones
Exchanging the risk of love for the a hollow security of disconnection
For in love there is joy and pain, in losing there is loss and gain
And I could never exchange the fleshy heart in my breast for a stone one
Yet, from a young child I was taught to hide the feelings, the emotions, the pain
 
As a man I began to realize the pain and cries of a loving God
Foolish enough to love the world, to cry for its hurts, to enter its rejection
A God of crazy dreams of new creation that emerges out of the brokenness
Where shattered shields and broken spears become the instruments of harvest time
Where even in the midst of death, life can emerge from an unending well of love
That the world in all its broken people and shattered stories can be taken in
That it can be loved, not because it is loveable but because that is what the softhearted do
And that perhaps, in a company of bumbling fools who dare to hope and dream
Who put aside the false promise of despair and have the courage to love God’s beloved
That perhaps in those moments where stones slowly removed change mountains
We see the hope that the creation has long been waiting for
The instruments of God’s work being those who can take up the sensitivity of a child
To see the world as it is and to dare to believe that it can be better
And that the discomfort I feel is not weakness, but the strength of a soft heart
A heart not content to be locked behind walls of stone separate from the world
But rather that sees the evil, hears the evil and dares to speak and name the evil
And perhaps to do my small part in the struggle, for the dream of a better world
A world of compassion and justice and joy and love, the world that could be
To dream and speak that world into being one small act of love at a time
A world where hearts of stone are replaced by soft fleshy hearts
That dare to love, the courage to hope and the audacity to dream
Of a time where tears are wiped away, where pains are healed
And we can enter into a world of healed people and mended lives
 
Neil White, 2014