Deuteronomy 14-26 – Seeing God in Mosaic Statutes

In the remainder of Moses’ second sermon – which began at 5:1 – he continues to apply and clarify the Law.  In these chapters he adds flesh to the skeleton of the Law with statutes that apply to specific situations.

This study will highlight certain statutes and seek to explain their historical-cultural context.  Some of these are hard to reconcile with current attitudes but the exercise is profitable (and perhaps uncomfortable) because of what they tell us about God and also about our own culture.  It also is interesting to see the legal precedent for events that occur throughout Israel’s history.

Instructions to Kings (17:14-20)
There will be no king in Israel until Saul – roughly 400 years from when Moses speaks.  Saul’s coronation comes about because of the people’s rejection of judges – the last one is Samuel – and their desire to have an actual king like the nations around them.  When they come to Samuel and ask for a king, God tells him, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.  Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day – in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods – so they are doing to you also” (I Sam 8:7-8).  Their request for a king is equated to idolatry in its rejection of God.

Even so, God anticipates their sin and gives them statutes to govern who the king is and how he is to conduct himself (“Here is what to do after you sinfully ask for a king”).  Moses begins the section with a prophecy of what the people will do and say – “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me’” (17:14).  He then tells them that the king must be an Israelite and must not multiply horses or wealth for himself and must not have many wives.

This is interesting in light of David and Solomon.  David – a man after God’s own heart – will have many wives and much wealth.  It is notable that while God does not condemn him directly for this, his family will be very dysfunctional (see Amnon, Absalom, and Tamar in II Sam 13) as a result and cause him enormous heartache.  Also, David’s lust for more – even with many wives – will lead him to the sin with Bathsheba.  For Solomon, the ramifications of multiplying wives and wealth will be more direct.  In his old age his wives will turn him away from God to the point where he will engage in idolatry and child sacrifice (I Kings 11).  In neither case does God speak to the king about his violation of the Law, but the effects of the sin on each of their lives are apparent.

In verses 18-20 God commands that the king write down his own copy of the Law so he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left.  There is much wisdom in this command.  It seeks to remind the king of the importance of his loyalty to God and to humble him by reinforcing that God is the true ruler of Israel.  He must not become puffed up and think he is worthy of the people’s worship. 

It is notable that by the time of Josiah (800 years after Moses), this statute is so ignored that the king himself is not even aware of the book of the Law and has to stumble across it when repairing the temple (II Kings 22).

Prohibition against Witchcraft and Mediums (18:9-22)
God tells the people they are not to practice witchcraft or sorcery and are not to allow anyone to speak with the dead.  This is the practice of the Canaanite nations they are to displace.  The reason they are not to do this is because God will speak to them through His prophet and they are not to try to divine His will or the future or other supernatural things apart from Him.  God will raise up a prophet to take over the office of Moses and he will be God’s mouthpiece to the people.

This law comes into play on the last night of Saul’s life when he visits a medium in order to talk to dead Samuel (I Sam 28).  The text there tells us that Saul had outlawed all mediums and spiritists and made the practice of such things a capital crime.  This was in obedience to this statute.  It is interesting that the story tells us Saul turns to the medium because he inquired of God and God did not answer him.  This goes along with Moses’ words as to why the practice is forbidden – if God communicates with His people, the mediums are not required.  At this point in his rule, Saul has disobeyed to the point that God no longer acknowledges him and so he desperately turns to the medium.

Preparation for Battle (20:1-9)
When the people prepare for battle they are to do the following:

  • Remember that God will fight for them and that they need not fear the enemy (even one that outnumbers them and is mightier than them).
  • Dismiss any man who has built a house but not dedicated it (not clear what this means – it could be that he has not officially dedicated it to God – it effectively means he has not moved in and enjoyed it).
  • Dismiss any man who has planted a vineyard but has not eaten its fruit.
  • Dismiss any man who is betrothed to a woman but not yet married.  Moses later adds that any newly married man is exempt from military service for the first year of marriage (24:5).
  • Dismiss any many who is afraid and fainthearted (so he does not cause others to become fainthearted like him).

These commands show the humanitarian nature of the Deuteronomic statutes.  Even in war the people are to have regard for the different situations and needs of specific individuals.  Family is important, settling the land is important, and enjoying the blessings of the land is important.  It is also important that only those who have faith in Yahweh and follow the first command – do not be afraid – are the ones who go into battle.

The other thing these commands do is to make sure that God gets all the glory.  In verse 1 Moses says they will oftentimes be outnumbered.  God’s response is to make the situation even worse by mandating the dismissal of these different types of people.  By the time the remaining men enter into battle there will be no question as to who gets the credit for victory. 

Armies typically enlist every man available in order to fight from a position of the greatest strength.  God’s army, however, knows its strength is God and so does not concern itself with numbers.  This is seen most clearly in the story of Gideon (Judges 6-8) when he uses similar methods to whittle an army of 32,000 down to 300 (it is somewhat amusing that when Gideon dismisses the ones who are afraid, 22,000 go home).  Gideon’s remaining army is so outnumbered that to claim any credit for the ensuing victory becomes laughable.

Prohibition against Pre-marital Sex and Adultery (22:13-29)
This section of statutes is perhaps one of the more difficult to reconcile with modern perspectives and cultural norms.  It addresses scenarios where sexual purity is questioned, marital bonds are violated, and rape occurs.

In the first scenario – vss.13-21 – a man takes a wife but then claims she is not a virgin.  To prove her virginity her family presents to the elders of the town a garment that has evidence on it.  This is not entirely clear in the text – it could be something that proves the girl is menstruating and therefore not pregnant.  It also could be the garment on which the marriage was consummated showing she was a virgin at the time (although it seems the man would have seen this also and so not made the claim).  If the family’s proof is conclusive, the man is chastised (probably whipped) and made to pay the family 100 shekels of silver (twice the ‘bride price’ which he presumably would have already paid – to put this in perspective, an average wage was 10 shekels per year).  He also cannot divorce her and she must remain his wife for his whole life.

However, if the family cannot prove the girl’s virginity she is brought to the door of her parent’s house and stoned to death.  She is executed because she has brought dishonor to her father’s house and to the nation as a whole.  Sex outside of marriage is thus seriously forbidden.

In verse 22, Moses states a very simple prohibition against adultery.  Any man caught lying with a married woman will die along with the woman.  No exceptions.

In verse 23, he lays out a scenario that is not quite as cut and dried.  In this case a man finds an engaged girl in the city and lies with her.  There seems to be some sense that the girl is not entirely a willing partner in this.  However, if they are found they are both executed because in the city the girl could have cried out and someone would have heard her.  The fact that she apparently did not, makes her guilty of adultery.  Notice that infidelity during the betrothal period is considered adultery – there is no difference between engaged and married in the case of unfaithfulness. 

In verse 25, the situation is similar except the violation takes place in the field (notice the addition of the words forces her which is not in the scenario that takes place in the city).  In this case the girl is innocent because she may have cried out but no one was around to hear her.  The man therefore is the only one guilty and the only one put to death.  One very important fact to notice in this scenario is that the girl is engaged.  This rule does not apply to an unattached girl – as the next scenario will make clear.  Thus the man is put to death technically for adultery – not for rape in itself.  He had sex with a betrothed woman which is a capital crime.

The final scenario is listed beginning in verse 28.  In this case a man rapes a girl who is not engaged.  Where the rape takes place is not an issue because adultery is not in question.  Notice also that the text leaves little doubt that the act against the girl is rape – there really is no other way to interpret the words used.  The man is punished by having to pay the girl’s family 50 shekels of silver (presumably the bride price for a virgin – see Exodus 22:16 – in Israel the man pays a bride price to the girl’s family and the girl’s family pays to him a dowry – it is notable that this fine is only half what he would owe if he publicly defamed her as in verse 19).  The girl also becomes his wife and he cannot divorce her for the rest of his life.

This final scenario is hard to reconcile with modern sensibilities.  How can it be that the punishment for raping a woman is that she becomes the wife of the rapist and he pays a fine?  A woman is raped and then told she will be the wife of the man who raped her?  “But it is OK because at least he cannot divorce you and you will be with him forever!”  This is a hard text to explain to an unbeliever or to someone who wants to find fault with the Bible.

Some cultural truths may help us to better understand.  First – an unmarried woman in this society is almost unheard of unless she is a widow, and as long as she is single has no means of support outside of her father’s provision.  Second – the raped girl (remember that she is likely very young as she is an unbetrothed virgin) is much less likely to marry because the vast majority of men will not want her (see the earlier section on virginity in vss. 13-21).  This means the requirement for marriage – as twisted as it sounds to our ears – is actually a means of protection for her.  This also explains somewhat why the death penalty is not invoked – if the man were dead the girl would likely be single forever.  Third – the large fine (five years of wages) and the fact that he cannot divorce her is a fairly large deterrent against doing the act in the first place.  The man cannot force himself on a virgin and then walk away – he will face her for the rest of his life.

The story of Tamar and Amnon sheds some light on this statute (II Sam 13).  Amnon is a son of David who greatly desires his half-sister Tamar (interesting to know if she is named after her ancestor mentioned in a somewhat similar story in Gen 38).  Because he knows he cannot legally have her – because of the laws against incest – he devises a plan to get her alone in his house.  Once she is in his house and they are alone, he rapes her.  After he rapes her he becomes disgusted with her and seeks to throw her out.  Her reaction to him is instructive.  She says in 13:16, “No, because this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you have done to me!”  Tamar seems to know the Law and knows that he is now required to marry her.  By sending her away he makes the act known and sentences her to a lifetime of dependence and disgrace.

In the end this is still an uncomfortable passage.  The gap between cultures is so vast that trying to fully understand it is difficult.  The cultural context, however, is what tells us that the command’s intent is actually to protect someone who has no rights without it.  It also intends to prevent the act from ever happening in the first place.  As hard as it is to comprehend, the law is actually an example of God’s compassion on the disadvantaged in Israel’s society.

Humanitarian Laws (Various)
The Mosaic Law is notable for its generosity to the poor and the powerless.  The many statues governing how slaves and widows and other disadvantaged people are to be treated show God’s concern for them.  The Law is really a reflection of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 regarding how His followers will be characterized by their treatment of the least of these.

The humanitarian spirit is a feature of Deuteronomy.  Generous treatment of the slave (15:12-18), the stranger, the fatherless and the widow (10:18; 24:17,19,20,21; 27:19), the Levite (12:19; 16:11,14; 26:12,13) is required of Israel.  The gleanings of the field are to be left to the poor (24:19ff).  The law referring to loans and pledges is generous (24:10-13).  Hired servants are to be generously treated (24:14f).  Fruit trees are to be spared during siege warfare (20:19f); roofs are to be protected by a balustrade (22:8); family millstones are never to be taken in pledge (24:6); excessive beating is forbidden (25:1-3); kindness is to be shown to animals (5:14; 22:6f; 25:4), e.g. the ox is to go unmuzzled; camps are to be kept clean (23:9-14); reckless assault is forbidden (25:11f).  Such a picture is a noble one and portrays an attitude to life which finds echoes in the New Testament.  It is altogether according to the Spirit of Christ.  – JA Thompson, Deuteronomy.

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