The next group of laws describes certain people who may not come into the holy place to worship the Lord. This is the defining right of a member in good standing of the community, so the people described here are, in effect, being excluded from community membership itself. The reasons for exclusion reflect Deuteronomy’s ongoing concerns: rejecting pagan practices, upholding lawful marriage, maintaining wholeness and purity, and showing compassion to those in need.
23 Moses: No emasculated man, either by crushing or severing his male organs, may come and worship the Eternal. 2 No one born from an illegal or incestuous union may come and worship the Eternal. This prohibition stays in effect for 10 generations. 3 No Ammonite or Moabite may join the Israelite community and come and worship the Eternal. This prohibition stays in effect for 10 generations. 4 This is because they wouldn’t give you any food or water when you came out of Egypt and because they hired someone to curse you instead—Balaam (Beor’s son) from Pethor in northwest Mesopotamia.[a] 5 But the Eternal your God wouldn’t listen to Balaam, and He turned his curse into a blessing for you because the Eternal your God loves you. 6 Don’t ever make peace with them, and don’t align with them, for as long as you live.
These ordinances seem unduly harsh, but two ideas are at play. First, Lot’s sexual relations with his daughters bring forth the Ammonite and Moabite peoples, so this command is a commentary reflecting on that event. Second, these restrictions are only temporary. God requires a ritually pure and completely devoted people (both internal and external) in order to bring forth the “messianic seed of woman.” One day the physically maimed and social outcasts will be fully integrated into the people of God. Although Isaiah 56:3–5 models this expectation, Jesus makes it a reality.
Moses: 7 Don’t be hostile toward the Edomites because they’re related to you. And don’t be hostile toward the Egyptians because you were once foreign residents in their land. 8 The great-grandchildren of an Edomite or Egyptian may join the Israelite community and come and worship the Eternal.
9 When you go to fight your enemies, maintain strict standards of moral and ritual decency in your camp. 10 If a man becomes ritually impure because of a nocturnal emission, he can’t remain in the camp. He has to stay outside that day. 11 But when evening comes, once he’s washed himself in water, he may come back into the camp at sunset which begins the new day. 12 Designate an area outside the camp as a latrine. 13 When you go there to relieve yourself, bring the spade you carry with your equipment and turn the soil to cover your excrement. 14 Treat your camp as a sacred place because the Eternal your God will be walking around in it. He travels with your army to bring you victory and defeat your enemies. If He saw something indecent, He’d leave the camp.
15 Don’t send back any slaves who escape from their masters and come to you. 16 Let them live with you in any of your cities, anywhere they choose, wherever seems good to them. And don’t take advantage of them!
17 Neither the women nor the men of Israel shall become cult prostitutes. 18 The Eternal, your True God, will not accept income from male or female prostitution in payment of a vow in His house. Both kinds of cult prostitution are horrifying to Him! 19 You may not charge interest to a fellow Israelite who borrows money or food or anything else you could charge interest for. 20 You may charge foreigners interest, but you may not charge interest to your fellow Israelites. If you follow these instructions, the Eternal your God will bless you in everything you do in the land where you’re going to live when you cross the Jordan.
21 When you make a vow to the Eternal, your True God, pay it promptly. He will be looking for you to fulfill your promise; and if you don’t, it will be a sin. 22 It isn’t a sin to make a vow in the first place. 23 But whatever you do say, you must fulfill completely: you made a vow of your own free will to the Eternal your God, and you must keep your word.
The law in verses 9-14 is loosely connected with those in the preceding group by the theme of someone being excluded from a community that is defined by the Eternal One’s presence. In this case, however, both the exclusion and the community are temporary.
The concern for “decency” in this law doesn’t relate to moral or immoral acts, but rather to personal bodily functions that should be kept private and discrete. Otherwise, they expose too much of the person to community view. They’re described literally as a form of “nakedness.” In this context, being “unclean” means needing to deal with a private matter before being able to reengage the community.
An essential principle in the Old Testament is that what is unclean must never come into contact with what is holy. The Eternal One’s presence is supremely holy, thus the concern for decency in the camp where the Eternal One travels with the army.
24 When you’re passing through another Israelite’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want there, but don’t carry any away in a container. 25 When you’re passing through another Israelite’s field, you may pluck the grain with your hand and eat it, but you’re not allowed to bring a sickle to cut down the grain and carry it away.
- 23:4 Hebrew, Aram Naharaim