As with last week’s post, I’d like to look at these three chapters thematically (using themes entirely made up by me).
Banking and Economics
The ordinance against lending at interest is repeated, but this time there is an exception – it’s okay to lend at interest to foreigners. If we take that to mean actual foreigners – such as travelling merchants – I suppose it makes sense (since they may be borrowing for business purposes, whereas a local may be more likely to be borrowing out of desperation). But if ‘foreigner’ refers to anyone outside of the faith community, it just becomes yet another in-group/out-group thing.
Still, I find it interesting that while I have heard arguments made that Christians shouldn’t be borrowing on interest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard, say, a Duggar or a Gothard say that banks shouldn’t be allowed to charge interest. It’s a little strange to see such a “live and let live” attitude when both these ministries are so vocal against homosexuality.
When taking collateral for a loan, the lender is not allowed to take a mill or an upper millstone. This makes perfect sense in any society where bread is a staple food. If someone is taking out a loan because they’ve had a bad harvest, taking away their ability to process their food would be absurdly cruel (and forcing them to pay for the use of someone else’s mill could very well cement their desperation). In modern terms, we might talk about repossessing someone’s car when it’s the only way they can get to work, for example.
Later on, a widow’s garment is added as something that’s off limits for collateral. In this case, if a widow is taking a loan out of desperation because her husband did not leave her with the means to provide for herself (and potentially her children, as well) after his death, taking her clothes on top of everything else would just add insult to injury.
When collecting on a loan, the lender may not go into the recipient’s home to take the collateral. Instead, they had to stand outside and have it brought to them by the loan recipient. If the recipient is poor, the collateral can be taken, but must be returned at the end of the day, “that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you” (Deut. 24:13).
When I posted about this to my Facebook page, I had someone ask if this was related to rules against stealing: “because taking something that doesn’t belong to you shouldn’t be okay just because someone else owes you money?” I answered that I think it has more to do with the idea of the home being sacred. Putting something up as collateral is clearly seen to be a legal exchange, so the issue here would have to do with sovereignty in the home.
There’s a bit about paying all labourers (even if they are sojourners) for their labour before the end of the day. The reasons for this are given in the text: “for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it” (Deut. 24:15).
There is a prohibition against owning “two kinds of weights” (Deut. 25:13-14). This goes back to the prohibition against using “dishonest standards” that we saw in Leviticus 19:35-36. The implication here being that the seller might use a heavier weight when displaying quantities, but a lighter when when actually measuring quantities for sale.
Law & Order
According to Deut. 24:17, justice must be blind. A person may not be treated differently in legal matters just because they are a sojourner or have no father (except, I suppose, in those ways that have been specifically allowed).
If someone is found guilty and sentenced to receive a beating, the number of hits (I assume this would be with a cane) must be proportional to his crime, and no greater in number than 40.
Stealing, treating people like slaves, or selling people (“one of his brethren,” so this would not apply to sojourners) are all punishable by death. This is odd given some of the other things that have been said about Hebrew slaves. I found this very interesting, in no small part because of the easy conflation between slavery and theft.
It also seems to sum up the change in how slavery is viewed in Deuteronomy. In Deut. 15, Hebrew slaves are discussed, but there’s no mention of selling them. But the specification regarding “treat[ing] him as a slave” (Deut. 24:7) is new. What does it mean to treat someone like a slave? Except, perhaps, if we look back to Deut. 15 and the stipulation that Hebrew debt slaves must, at the end of their term, be sent away with payment for service. In other words, does “treats him as a slave” refer to withholding payment?
Lastly, there’s a rebuke to the concept of inheritable guilt: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16). Hopefully, this isn’t meant to literally mean that every man shall be put to death!
Regardless, it’s a rather direct answer to, for example, Exodus 20:5-6, or Exodus 34:6-7.
Sex & Marriage
Cultic prostitution is right out. Israelites are not allowed to become temple prostitutes, nor are they allowed to bring one into the temple “in payment for any vow” (Deut. 23:18).
Also interesting is the term “dog” used as an insulting term for a male prostitute (yes, this whole bit specifically addresses both male and female prostitutes).
A newly married man shouldn’t go out with the army “or be charged with any business” (Deut. 24:5), which I take to mean business that would require travelling. Rather, he should remain at home for a full year.
I get this. Given the lack of emphasis on dating and getting to know each other as a couple prior to marriage, it strikes me as a very good idea for the married couple to have an opportunity to get to become familiar with each other before kids are added to the mix. Having a kid, I can attest that the amount of time my husband and I have left to recharge our relationship batteries can be very limited (and that can mean even as little as just having a conversation that is not about – and interrupted by – our child). I credit our having a solid foundation and learned mutual understanding with our being able to “recharge” in short-hand.
I mean, I suspect that the justification probably had more to do with giving men a change to conceive a potential heir before they must return to their national duties, but I could certainly see a side benefit.
On divorce, we’re told that a man may divorce his wife if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1-1). All he has to do is write a bill of divorce and put it in her house (with no mention of alimony or what happens with the children).
If the wife remarries and then is either divorced again or is widowed, her first husband cannot remarry her, because “she has been defiled” (Deut. 24:4).
The indecency that might be found is unspecified, but Collins writes:
Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.89:
There is no legislation concerning divorce in the Hebrew Bible. The practice is simply assumed. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 became the focal text for discussions of divorce in later tradition. Verse 1 envisions the case of a man who divorces a woman “because he finds something objectionable about her” – most probably impurity or sexual misconduct. There was a famous debate about the meaning of the phrase between the schools of Shammai and Hillel in the first century B.C.E. The Shammaites attempted to restrict the man’s power of divorce to cases of adultery, but the school of Hillel ruled that divorce was permitted “even if she spoiled a dish for him.” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.89)
Matthews adds a few more possibilities:
Divorce was an option for an Israelite man whose wife had committed some “indecency” (Deut 24:1-2). This was probably adultery, although other ancient Near Eastern law codes also list childlessness (CH 138) and taking a job outside the home (CH 141) as grounds for divorce (ANET, 172). (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.121)
Matthews adds the observation that “there is no law in the biblical text allowing a woman the right to divorce her husband,” even though we have seen some protections against, for example, unsubstantiated accusations.
The other question raised in this passage if about the declaration that the wife “has been defiled” (Deut. 24:4). James Bradford Pate has collected a few thoughts on the term in Why Was the Ex-Wife Defiled?
Most interesting is that she is defiled only insofar as her first husband is concerned, since there is nothing to prevent any other man from marrying her. This suggests that it is not a description of her state, but rather of the marriage between both of those people. And the fact that another man saw her as worthy of marrying suggests that whatever indecency the first husband saw in her may not have really been an issue.
Another theory James covers is that bracketing of the marriage to the first marriage may make the interim marriage an adulterous action, even if she was legally married to her “lover” at the time.
It could also be to curb frivolous divorces, or to discourage seeing women as property that can be thrown out or reclaimed at will. Or that the second marriage “utterly alienates her from her first husband […] It’s like her second marriage seals the deal that her first marriage is over.”
The last bit relating to marriage has to do with the Levirate Marriage, where the brother of a man who dies without an heir must marry his wife. Her first son is then counted as the deceased brother’s heir, rather than her current husband’s. You may remember an example of this (almost not) in practice from Genesis 38, where Tamar’s husband dies and she subsequently marries his whole family, one after another.
The only real Deuteronomical variation is the specification that this only apply “if brothers dwell together” (Deut. 25:4).
If he refuses to try to impregnate his brother’s wife, she gets to spit in his face and take his sandal, so that his family name should henceforth be known as “The house of him that had his sandal pulled off” (Deut. 25:10). The association between the removal of the sandal and shame is an interesting one, and has some interesting implications for God’s demand that Moses remove his shoes before approaching him in Exodus 3.
Mutilation & Illness
Those afflicted with leprosy must be very scrupulous in doing everything the priests tell them to do.
Those with crushed testicles or with their penises cut off may not enter the assembly of God. Commenter BHitt on The King and I argues that this has to do with the priestly desire for everything to fit into easily-defined categories, as we discussed last week in relation to wearing the clothing of the opposite gender. In this case, a man without testicles or a penis doesn’t fit neatly into the male category, and “things that violate this order are unholy and must not come in contact with designated holy spaces/items.”
Bastards are also forbidden entry in the assembly – “even to the tenth generation” (Deut. 23:2). As are Ammonites and Moabites, also to the tenth generation. The reason for the latter two groups being that they did not offer proper hospitality to the Israelites leaving Egypt, and because they hired Balaam to curse the Israelites.
But because the Edomites are related to the Israelites, their third generation may enter the assembly. As can the Egyptians from the third generation, “because you were a sojourner in his land” (Deut. 23:7), which seems like a rather radical reversion of previously expressed feelings toward Egyptians.
If two men are fighting, and the wife of one tries to rescue her husband by crushing the other man’s “private parts,” her hand should be cut off (Deut. 25:11-12).
I got a kick out of BHitt’s comment on how oddly specific the situation seems:
Yeah, sounds like the author had a very specific incident in mind. “No balls-grabbing, and you know who you are! Even if you do have a ‘history’ with a certain priest and even if said priest called you a certain name when you left him to marry a total douchebag!”
Owen Ball and David Wong of Cracked offered a rather amusing theory as well, taking this passage in light of the prohibition on those who have damaged genitals entering the assembly of God from Deut. 23:
“Emasculated by crushing?” Gah! Everything in the Bible has to be understood in context of the times these people were living in. And, apparently, these people lived in a time when “crushing” the nuts was so common that the crushed-nuts victims were an entire demographic that had to be accounted for in the law. Call these commandments savage if you want, but if you were God, how many nuts would you have to see “crushed” before you overreacted? We’re thinking the answer is two.
On a slightly more serious note, Claude Mariottini has a very interesting discussion of the law in three parts on his blog.
He first discusses the possibility that this could be an application of the lex talionis, or the legal principle of “an eye for an eye.” But this is difficult to call because there is no actual reference to injury, only that she “puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts” (Deut. 25:11). Without injury, the punishment of amputation would not fit with the talionic principle.
If, however, it is assumed that there is injury and the man becomes unable to sire children, it is still difficult to fit into the lex talioniz because “it is difficult to understand how the cutting of the woman’s hand would be comparable to the man’s loss of his testicles, since the talionic law requires the punishment to be comparable to the injury inflicted. The punishment inflicted upon the woman, the amputation of her hand, is not equal to the man’s injury, the loss of his testicles.”
Mariottini then explores the possibility that the issue could have to do with values rather than injury. Specifically, that it could be “a rejection of the woman’s sexual aggression and the offensive nature of the attack as a violation of social sexual mores present in the Israelite society.”
The sexual norms in Israelite society declared that sexual contact between a married woman and a man other than her husband was absolutely forbidden. Thus, the punishment required by the violation of these sexual norms emphasizes the gravity of the offense of a married woman initiating sexual contact with another man.
Another interpretation is that the action could be construed as an attack on both literal and metaphorical manhood:
If the Deuteronomic law deals with the issue of shame, then this law is addressing an act that brings shame on the man who was attacked by a woman. […] To be the loser in a fight was shameful in itself, but to lose a fight because a woman interfered by grabbing his genitals was a shame that a man could not bear. Such an act would bring intense shame for that man in a patriarchal community.
The woman’s act would bring shame on the husband because he won the fight because his wife grabbed his opponent’s genitals. The action would bring shame on the woman because she violated the sexual norms of her society by touching the genitals of a man who was not her husband.
The laws in this category are seriously awesome. Like, really really awesome. Starting us off with a bang, “you shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you” (Deut. 23:15). I would have liked it better if it just unequivocally came out against slavery, but this is huge!
The runaway slave should, instead, be allowed to dwell “in the place which he shall choose within one of your towns, where it pleases him best; you shall not oppress him” (Deut. 23:16).
According to Collins, this rule is made even more awesome in light of local cultural context:
In contrast, the laws of Hammurabi declared that sheltering a runaway slave was punishable by death. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.90)
Some theft is made permissible. It is allowed to go into someone’s vineyard or standing grain and eat “as many as you wish” (Deut. 23:24), so long as you do not put any in a vessel or use a sickle. I take this to mean that that theft is okay so long as the thief does not take more than they need to satisfy immediate needs. The rule is intended, I imagine, as a sort of implicit charitable system, a kind of welfare safety net by which community resources are used to ensure that people aren’t starving to death.
Once crops are harvested, farmers must not go back for any forgotten sheaf or remaining gleanings. Rather, these are to be left for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. This is a repetition of the rule we saw in Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 23:22 and, again, seems to be essentially a welfare system.
Farmers are prohibited from muzzling their oxen while treading out grain. I’m assuming that this is so that the oxen can graze while they work, which is why I included it in the humanitarian category.
When preparing for war, soldiers must be careful to mind their ritual purity. Anyone who is “not clean by reason of what changes to him by night” (Deut. 23:10), he must go outside the camp for the whole day, then bathe before he can return. I assume this refers to nocturnal emissions?
There’s a lot of concern for the ritual cleanliness of the camp, which sometimes translates to literal cleanliness. Soldiers must leave camp with a stick whenever they want to use the bathroom, and use the stick to dig a hole to poop into. Once they have defecated, they must bury their excrement. This must be done “because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp” (Deut. 23:14), and no one likes shit on their shoes.
(While a hilarious image, I don’t think I buy the explanation I’ve seen from several bloggers that presumes a corporeal god who can, actually, step in poop. Rather, I think that it’s more likely that the camp is essentially turned into a sacred space as a way of inviting God’s protection and aid in achieving victory.)
That being said, it’s rather disappointing that the reason given for not crapping where you eat and sleep is cast in purely ritualistic terms, rather than hygienic ones. Though the result may be the same. After all, an army decimated by cholera probably won’t be winning any wars.
When making a vow to God, don’t dawdle in fulfilling it. If your heart wasn’t in it, you shouldn’t have made the vow in the first place. After all, “if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you” (Deut. 23:22).
And then, after a few groaners and a whole lot of awesome, we get: “when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut. 25:19).
Because the Bible can’t just tell people to feed the hungry, or protect the poor from exploitation through usury, or help runaway slaves without also adding it a bit about ethnic cleansing.