Deuteronomy 23 - Instructions to the Assembly, Various Laws
A. Those excluded from the congregation of Israel.
1. (1) Eunuchs are excluded from the congregation of Israel.
a. By crushing or mutilation refers to those emasculated by either birth defect, accident, or deliberate emasculation.
b. When we read the term the congregation of the Lord, it usually refers to the nation gathered before the Lord in worship, such as when they were gathered at Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:22, 9:10, 10:4, and 18:16). But it doesn't always have this sense.
i. Deuteronomy 31:30 refers to all the congregation of Israel, while Deuteronomy 31:28 makes it clear that "all the congregation" was gathered through all the elders of your tribes, and your officers. So, in some contexts, the congregation can refer to elders and officers. It may very well be that these exclusions from the congregation of the Lord are exclusions not from the religious life of Israel, but from the political life of the nation.
ii. Poole suggests that the idea of the congregation of the Lord is the leadership, or rulers of Israel; these people were barred not from the religious life of Israel, but from the political life of the nation. Trapp agrees, saying on shall not enter the congregation of the Lord: "Shall not go in and out before the people as a public officer". Clarke adds, "If by entering into the congregation be meant the bearing a civil office among the people, such as magistrate, judge, &c., then the reason of the law is very plain."
iii. Isaiah 56:3-5 shows that even eunuchs and foreigners could be accepted before the Lord if they would obey Him, and they would be accepted before the "normal" people who disobeyed God.
c. Why were eunuchs excluded? God's covenant with Israel was vitally connected with the idea of the seed, and emasculation is a "crime" against the seed of man. Additionally, most eunuchs were made to be so in pagan ceremonies where they would be dedicated to pagan gods.
2. (2) Those of unknown parentage are excluded from the congregation of Israel (civil leadership in Israel).
a. It is difficult to define exactly what is meant by the term of illegitimate birth. Some later Jewish writers defined this as someone who was born of an incestuous relationship between Jews; others said it refers to those born of mixed marriages between the people of Israel and their pagan neighbors (as in Nehemiah 13:23).
3. (3-6) Ammonites and Moabites are excluded from the congregation of Israel (civil leadership in Israel).
a. The Moabites and the Ammonites not only treated Israel cruelly on their way to the Promised Land, but they also were a people with a disgraceful beginning. Moab and Ammon were the two sons born to the daughters of Lot through their incest with their father (Genesis 19:30-38).
4. (7-8) Edomites and Egyptians (of the third generation) are permitted to be among the congregation of Israel (civil leadership in Israel).
a. The Edomites were "relatives" of Israel, because Israel's brother Esau was the father of the Edomite peoples. Therefore, Israel was commanded to not abhor an Edomite.
i. Interestingly, one of the most famous Edomites in history was abhorred by Israel - Herod the Great. Many of his spectacular building projects in Judea were intended to not only glorify his own name, but to win the favor of the Jews who despised him as an Edomite.
b. The Egyptians were also to receive more favor than the Moabites or Ammonites, because Israel was a "guest" in Egypt for almost 400 years. Though the years Israel spent in Egypt were hard, God had a great purpose for them. Egypt was like a mother's womb for Israel; they went in as a large family, and came out as a distinct nation.
B. Miscellaneous laws.
1. (9-14) Cleanliness in the camp.
a. God commanded ceremonial cleanliness among the army of Israel; some occurrence in the night probably refers to nocturnal emissions, and the cleansing ceremony for this is described in Leviticus 15:16-18. After observing the ceremonial washing, he may come into the camp again.
b. God commanded sanitary cleanliness among the army of Israel; each soldier was to carry some type of shovel, with which he could cover [his] refuse.
i. This command was given, "partly, to prevent the annoyance of ourselves or others; partly, to preserve and exercise modesty and natural honesty; and principally, that by such outward rites they might be inured to the greater reverence of the Divine Majesty, and the greater caution to avoid all real and moral uncleanness." (Poole)
ii. Some ancient rabbis taught that the holy city of Jerusalem should be considered "the camp of the Lord." Under this reasoning, one had to go outside the camp to relieve one's self. However, for many people, the trip outside the large "camp" of Israel (the city of Jerusalem) was longer than what would be permitted on the Sabbath. Therefore, as a practical matter, the rabbis prohibited a Jew from relieving themselves on the Sabbath day.
2. (15-16) Israel to provide asylum for the foreign escaped slave.
a. "The refugee slave referred to had evidently come from a foreign land. Otherwise there would have been legal complications, since slaves were a valued possession." (Thompson)
3. (17-18) Sacred prostitution banned.
a. Ritual harlot refers to a female prostitute; perverted one refers to a male prostitute, both of which were common among the pagan religions of the Canaanites and others in the ancient world.
b. Later, in the reigns of Asa (1 Kings 15:12) and Josiah (2 Kings 23:7) we are told that the perverted persons (male prostitutes) were expelled from Israel. This means that for some period of time before they were expelled, they were allowed to practice their "holy prostitution," which was an abomination to the Lord your God.
c. The wages of a female prostitute (the hire of a harlot) and the wages of a male prostitute (the price of a dog) were never to be offered to the Lord; this was a common practice among the "sacred prostitution" cults that abounded in the ancient world.
i. A reminder of the principle that the work of the Lord does not need money from immoral or ill-gotten gains.
ii. Even in its most gross forms, this kind of practice has been allowed in the institutional church. "And what a stinking shame is that, that stews and brothel-houses are licensed by the Pope, who reaps no small profit by them?" (Trapp, writing in 1659)
4. (19-20) No interest to be charged to the family of Israel.
a. The mention of food, and the similar command in Exodus 22:25, leads most to understand that interest was prohibited on loans made to the poor for their basic needs, and did not prohibit the taking of interest on loans that were not for relief of the poor.
b. "But since merchants from other nations might come for business reasons to Israel, or make loans on interest to Israelites, foreigners could be charged interest." (Kalland)
5. (21-23) The importance of keeping our vows.
a. You shall not delay to pay it: A vow before God is no small thing; God expressly commanded that Israel should be careful to keep its vows, and to fulfill every oath made, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to.
i. In many circles today, the breaking of an oath is just standard business practice - but before God, it is simply sin.
b. Are vows or oaths permitted for a Christian today?
i. Some think not, because of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:34-37: But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (See also James 5:12)
ii. But, in context of the rest of Scripture, we see that Jesus was not forbidding oaths, as much as telling us that we should be so filled with integrity in our words that an oath is unnecessary.
iii. Jesus answered under oath in a court (Matthew 26:63-64), and God Himself swears oaths (Luke 1:73, Acts 2:30, Hebrews 3:18, 6:13, 17).
c. But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you: Vows are never required by God; many times it is better not to make a vow.
d. But when we do vow, that which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform. As it says in Ecclesiastes 5:4-5, When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed. It is better not to vow than to vow and not pay.
i. Many vows are just plain foolish - "I'll never do that again" is a foolish vow, and it is foolish and unwise to demand such a vow from someone else.
ii. Of course, there is a vow we all can and should make - a vow to praise God: Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises unto You (Psalm 56:12); So I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may daily perform my vows. (Psalm 61:8)
6. (24-25) The right to glean is given to travelers.
a. When you come into your neighbor's vineyard: The idea is that, as one was traveling, they had the right to pick off a few grapes or heads of grain to eat along the way. It wasn't the right to harvest from your neighbor's fields, but to provide for your own immediate needs.
b. This is the law Jesus and His disciples were operating under when they plucked heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands (Luke 6:1-5). They were accused by the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath, but not of stealing grain, because the Pharisees knew this law in the book of Deuteronomy.