“The Lord has declared this day that you are His people, His treasured possession as He promised, and that you are to keep all His commands” (Deut. 26:18).Old Testament Law touched on every aspect of the Israelites lifestyle, showing that God was intimately involved in all of the believer’s life on earth. Many of the laws in this section are notable for the concern they express for individuals.
Definition of Key Terms
“If . . . then.” Many of the laws here are causistic in form: they apply general moral principles by looking at specific cases. The cases then became precedents, and were used to guide rulings when similar cases came before Jewish courts.
Laws touching on many aspects of Israel’s life in the land are grouped in this section. Included among miscellaneous rulings are blocks of laws dealing with family (21:15–21), marriage (22:13–30), and religious ritual (26:1–19).
Understanding the Text
“A stubborn and rebellious son” Deut. 21:18–21. There is no record of parents turning a son over to local judges for execution. But the case establishes several important legal principles. First, this case underlines the importance of a stable family, for the family was the basic religious and economic unit in Israel. Other laws also stress the importance of honoring parents (cf. Ex. 20:12; 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9), as did Jesus (Mark 7:10). Second, parents did not have absolute rights over their children. In Roman law the father could order the death of a son. In Israel a parent could only punish. Only the judges of the community, who were charged with determining a son’s guilt or innocence, could order execution. Third, both father and mother must agree to bringing charges against a son. The rights of the wife and mother, ignored in many other ancient law codes, were affirmed in Israel. Family is basic to us too. While nothing we parents can do will guarantee that our children will make godly choices, moms and dads share responsibility for giving boys and girls discipline and guidance. “You must not leave his body on the tree overnight” Deut. 21:22–23. In ancient societies the bodies of executed criminals were often hung in the open as an object lesson to others. In Israel exposure was limited to a single day, for “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Paul applies this to Jesus in Galatians 3:13, to show that Jesus truly became accursed in order to free us from the curse of the Law (i.e., the Law’s demand that sin be punished). “Do not ignore it. Help him” Deut. 22:1–4. A person who finds another’s lost property is obligated to return it or care for it until the owner can be found. In Exodus 23:4–5 the obligation to help is extended to enemies. Jesus applied this principle to answer an “expert in the Law” who challenged him to define the “neighbor” that Old Testament Law requires a person to love as himself. In His story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus showed that our “neighbor” is anyone in need whom we have the ability to help. “A woman must not wear men’s clothing” Deut. 22:5. Both men and women wore similar robes in Old Testament times. But cut and decorations were different. The injunction here does not, as some have thought, prohibit women from wearing slacks. What it does is to affirm the value of both sexes, and call for male and female to affirm their sexual identity by their dress rather than dress to deny that identity. “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof” Deut. 22:8. Houses in Israel had flat roofs. An outside stairway led up to the roof, which was used by family and friends as a gathering place for talk and for work. This law, an extension of the commandment not to kill, requires building a low wall around the rooftop area. God’s “do not” here and in other Old Testament case law is transformed into an active “do” that captures its deepest meaning. You and I too are to actively promote the welfare of others, rather than simply do them no harm. “Proof of her virginity” Deut. 22:13–19. Traditionally this law has been taken to indicate blood on the marriage bed showing that a girl’s hymen was broken. But betulim here may mean “adolescence” rather than “virginity.” So it is better to understand the “evidence” as a cloth used during menstruation. The young bride’s menstrual flow was proof that she was not pregnant when married, as well as evidence that she had reached marriageable age. “Sleeping with another man’s wife” Deut. 22:22–30. Several laws dealing with adultery, seduction, and rape underline the importance of sexual fidelity. The pagan nations around Israel maintained a casual attitude toward sex. Our modern “playboy” view of sex as innocent fun is hardly new! Biblical laws remind us that God’s people are called to purity. Sex is to be an important part of life, but of married life. Sex is to be sacred to believers, an expression of intimacy and caring that is appropriate only within the context of marriage. “If a slave has taken refuge with you” Deut. 23:15. The Code of Hammurabi condemned a man who hid a runaway slave to death. In Israel a slave fleeing from a foreign owner was to be given refuge and not to be oppressed because he had been a slave. The Scripture’s view of the value of human beings and how that value is affirmed is dramatically different from the view held by other ancient societies. You and I need to be careful how we “label” others. Race, creed, religion, education, position, wealth-all these are unimportant. What counts is that each person is precious to God and is to be respected by us. “Do not charge your brother interest” Deut. 23:19–20. Archeologists have found documents from cultures contemporary with the Old Testament that state interest rates. Some laws limited the rates that could be charged, but 15th-century contracts found at Nuzi, in northern Assyria, record interest rates of 50 percent! The principle here is clear. We are to help those in need, not oppress them further for our own profit. The slumlord who charges high rent for substandard housing is in clear violation of the principle underlying this Old Testament regulation. “Her first husband . . . is not allowed to marry her again” Deut. 24:1–4. Divorce and remarriage were permitted in Israel, even though they involve failure to achieve God’s ideal of lifelong, monogamous relationship. This particular law, however, sets one clear limit. A person who has been divorced, remarried, and divorced again cannot marry his or her first spouse a second time. It’s likely that the purpose of this law is to strengthen the second marriage by making it impossible for a remarried spouse to return to his or her first marriage partner. Divorce is never God’s ideal. And marriage is not to be treated so lightly that it becomes little more than a game of musical chairs. We are to do everything possible to maintain and strengthen marital commitment. “Not even the upper one” Deut. 24:6. It was common in Israel for a lender to hold some object owned by a borrower as security for a loan. This law mentions millstones, used daily by every Israelite family to grind the grain for making bread, to establish another principle. Nothing could be done by a lender which would limit the borrower’s ability to make a living or to maintain his own life. Modern law applies this principle when it protects the family house and car when a person files for bankruptcy. The law reminds us of God’s concern for each individual. Every person has a right to the resources needed to make a living and to support a family. When we limit the opportunities of some in society, we in effect take away their upper millstone.
Ways of Worship (Deut. 26)
“Let’s sing that chorus again!” I can get very enthusiastic singing choruses. (I have a loud voice.) And I enjoy informality in worship services. Once I might even have argued that only the spontaneous and informal could accurately represent corporate worship. If I ever did argue that case, I now confess that I was wrong. What convinces me is the frequent inclusion in the Old and New Testaments of worship liturgy: words and phrases that were repeated by worshipers. This chapter contains a liturgy used at the Festival of First fruits, and a liturgy used when delivering tithes to the local storehouse every third year. Each includes affirmations that remind the worshiper just why he or she is appearing before the Lord, and who the Lord is to him. If you attend a church that is rich in liturgical expression, join in thoughtfully. Listen to the words of your liturgy as though hearing them for the first time. Declare them from your heart. For liturgy can and often does capture in succinct and powerful form the basic realities of our faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the most ancient of Christian affirmations. If you do not know it, why not memorize it now?