THE PRESENCE AND FAVOR OF A HOLY GOD DEMAND THAT ISRAEL GUARD THE SANCTITY OF THE WORSHIP ASSEMBLY AND THE MILITARY CAMP
Keil: From the sanctification of the house and the domestic relation, to which the laws of marriage and chastity in the previous chapter pointed, Moses proceeds to instructions concerning the sanctification of their union as a congregation: he gives directions as to the exclusion of certain persons from the congregation of the Lord, and the reception of others into it (vv. 1–8); as to the preservation of the purity of the camp in time of war (vv. 9–14). . .
Jack Deere: Verses 1-8 dealt with the need for maintaining the purity of the religious assembly. Verses 9-14 are concerned with the purity of the war camp.
Michael Grasso: Deuteronomy 23:1-18 shows that anyone who comes into the presence of God must be holy. These laws restricting access to God and regulating holiness and purity remained in place until the coming of Christ who has so thoroughly cleansed his people that they now have perfect access into his presence.
I. (:1-8) GUARDING THE SANCTITY OF THE WORSHIP ASSEMBLY
Eugene Merrill: The “assembly” (q h l) refers here to the formal gathering of the Lord’s people as a community at festival occasions and other times of public worship and not to the nation of Israel as such. This is clear from the occurrence of the verb “enter” (b ) throughout the passage (vv. 1-3, 8), a verb that suggests participation with the assembly and not initial introduction or conversion to it. Furthermore, Israelites with such handicaps are elsewhere assumed to have been full members of the community with the only restriction being their ineligibility for the priesthood (Lev 21:20). Our text, then, more fully clarifies the extent to which deformed Israelites could participate in the cultus and does not speak to the issue of whether or not they belonged to the covenant community. It is everywhere assumed that they did. Their exclusion from the worship assembly, as discriminatory as such a policy might seem, was to underscore the principle of separation from paganism, where such deformities were not only acceptable but frequently central to the practice of the cult.
Daniel Block: The phrase to “enter the assembly of the LORD” (qehal yhwh) occurs six times, leaving no doubt that guarding the sanctity of the congregation is the primary concern of verses 1–8. The expression “assembly of the LORD” refers to those who have gathered before Yahweh for an audience with him, that is, to hear him speak. Whereas earlier texts had highlighted the inclusive nature of worship (12:7, 12; 16:11, 14), for the first time Moses raises barriers to the assembly. His text divides into two unequal parts, verses 1–6 and verses 7–8. The first part erects walls around “the assembly of the LORD,” while the second opens the doors to outsiders.
Duane Christensen: The reasoning behind the laws restricting entry into the assembly of YHWH in 23:2–9 suggests the principle that only those who are perfect physically and not the product of some unnatural union should be members of the covenant community in ancient Israel. The situation is somewhat similar to a superficial reading of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). The holiness of God demands perfection in those who would approach his presence. In the gospel of the NT, this perfection is found in Christ, who provides the means of access to God for all people, regardless of their imperfections, whether moral, physical, or spiritual. The follower of Jesus stands in God’s presence as perfect—clothed in the perfection of Jesus himself.
A. (:1-6) Categories of Exclusion
1. (:1) Emasculated Men
“No one who is emasculated, or has his male organ cut off,
shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: A key phrase, the assembly of the Lord, occurs six times, serving as a uniting theme for the passage (once each in the opening and closing verses, four times in between). The prominence of the phrase, combined with its total absence in the remainder of the book of Deuteronomy, is noteworthy. Normally the term assembly simply means a gathering of people. Deuteronomy uses the term for Israel gathered at Mount Horeb (5:22; 9:10; 10:4; 18:16), and of the whole community addressed by Moses on the plains of Moab, at the border of the Promised Land (31:30). The phrase assembly of the Lord probably refers to the community gathered specifically for worship, including sacrificing to God, and thus has a more focused meaning. Perhaps Deuteronomy is distinguishing between Israel as a political nation that includes Canaanites and the worshiping community from which they are excluded.
Jack Deere: Excluding an emasculated male may refer to a person who intentionally had himself castrated for pagan religious purposes. At any rate this regulation was probably never meant to exclude a eunuch committed to obeying the Lord (Isa. 56:3-5). However, some say this law was meant to exclude all eunuchs regardless of the reason for their castration. If so, then the law probably reflected the fact that a eunuch could no longer choose to have children with God’s help. Something of the image of God in the man had been destroyed. The law would therefore have symbolically taught the need for worshipers to be perfect before God, as the sacrifices offered to God were to be without physical defects.
Utley: “or has his male organ cut off” This refers to a severed penis (“a place of pouring fluid”). This would be another way of describing a eunuch (cf. Mt. 19:12). These two damaged males are the first in a series of those who are excluded from attendance at the assemblies of Israel (i.e., events at the tabernacle). Their exclusion is symbolic of the purity and wholeness of God’s people seen as a kingdom of priests (cf. Ex 19:6 and Lev. 21:17–23; 22:17–25). Later in the OT many of these excluded ones are included (e.g., Ruth the Moabitess and the eunuch of Isa 56:3–5 and Acts 8:26–40). It is also possible that this practice of damaging a male’s sexual potential was part of Canaanite practices. Many of the seemingly unusual prohibitions in the Mosaic legislation were directed at a total break with Canaanite society and worship practices.
2. (:2) Illegitimate Children
a. Command of Exclusion
“No one of illegitimate birth
shall enter the assembly of the LORD;”
Daniel Block: Moses’ second exclusion identifies the subject by the rare word mamzēr (NIV, one “born of a forbidden marriage,” v. 2a). While the etymology of the word is uncertain, linked to the preceding this seems to refer to offspring of prostitutes (cf. vv. 17–18) who lived at pagan cult sites. Moses’ earlier warning concerning improper worship (12:30–31) and the linkage of the tenth generation in verse 2b with Ammonites and Moabites in verse 3b reinforce this interpretation. Since Israelites traced both of these peoples to an incestuous act (Gen. 19:37–38), mamzēr may refer to one conceived through incestuous intercourse (prohibited in Lev. 18), or more broadly to one born of illicit sexual relationships (Deut. 22:13–29).
Gerald Gerbrandt: Potentially this could include children born through incest, adultery, unmarried parents, and perhaps even mixed marriages between an Israelite and a foreigner. The time frame for the exclusion, to the tenth generation, is probably a colloquial way of saying “forever” (cf. vv. 3b and 6), since a literal reading results in roughly 250 years.
Jack Deere: Possibly, however, the term refers to the child of an incestuous relationship, the child of a cult prostitute, or the child of a mixed marriage (i.e., an Israelite married to an Ammonite, Moabite, Philistine, or others). Again the stringent punishment inflicted on such a person would help deter Israelites from entering this kind of marriage.
b. Continuation of the Exclusion
“none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation,
shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”
3. (:3-6) No Ammonites or Moabites or Their Descendants
a. (:3) Command and its Continuation
1) Command of Exclusion
“No Ammonite or Moabite
shall enter the assembly of the LORD;”
2) Continuation of the Exclusion
“none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation,
shall ever enter the assembly of the LORD,”
b. (:4) Rationale
1) Withheld Normal Hospitality and Provisions
“because they did not meet you with food and water
on the way when you came out of Egypt,”
2) Pursued Extreme Malice
“and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.”
c. (:5) Goodness of God
“Nevertheless, the LORD your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the LORD your God loves you.”
Daniel Block: Previously Moses had noted Yahweh’s love as the motivating force behind his election and rescue of Israel from Egypt (4:37; 7:8) and his lavish blessing (7:12), but here it underlies Yahweh’s protection from hostile military and spiritual forces.
Eugene Merrill: The emphasis here, however, is not on the ancestry of the Ammonites and Moabites but on their hostile behavior toward Israel in the transit from Egypt to Canaan. They had refused the normal Eastern courtesies of hospitality (a matter not referred to elsewhere in the tradition) and, indeed, had hired Balaam to curse Israel (v. 4; cf. Num 22:5-6). This was to no avail as it turned out, for the Lord turned the curse into a blessing because of his love (i.e., his covenant favor) for Israel (v. 5; cf. Num 23:5-12,26; 24:13). Nevertheless, because of this attitude of hatred and belligerence by the Ammonites and Moabites toward Israel, they were to forever be precluded from the assembly (v. 3) and as nations were never to receive kind treatment at Israel’s hands (v. 6). Subsequent history reveals how careful Israel was to keep this in mind (cf. Judg 10:7–11:33; 2 Sam 10:1-19; 2 Kgs 1:1; 3:4-27).
d. (:6) Perpetual Curse
“You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.”
David Thompson: God says when it comes to these kinds of people:
1) You shall never seek their peace. 23:6a – Don’t make peace deals with them.
2) You shall never seek their prosperity. 23:6b – Don’t seek their prosperity.
3) You shall not detest them because you were an alien in their land. 23:7 – Don’t hate them.
4) You shall let third generation people into the assembly. 23:8 – Protect worship through time
B. (:7-8) Categories of Inclusion
1. (:7a) Edomites
“You shall not detest an Edomite,
for he is your brother;”
2. (:7b) Egyptians
“you shall not detest an Egyptian,
because you were an alien in his land.”
Michael Grisanti: An abominable or repugnant nature is determined by a person’s character, values, or culture. God prohibits his covenantal nation from treating the Edomites and Egyptians as loathsome, and the three-generation time frame provides sufficient time for people of these ancestries to demonstrate their enthusiastic desire to function as part of the Israelite community.
Peter Craigie: The Edomite was a brother of the Israelite; according to Hebrew tradition, the Edomites were descendants of Edom/Esau. The sojourn in Egypt, though in its latter days a time of hardship, had nevertheless been the period in which the growth toward Israel’s nationhood had begun (26:5). Thus, for varying reasons, Edomites and Egyptians were to be treated differently from Ammonites and Moabites. If either Edomites or Egyptians took up residence in Israel, then the children of the third generation of immigrants could be granted admission to the assembly of the Lord. After the lapse of three generations, there would be no doubt that the Edomites and Egyptians resident in Israel were genuine in their desire to become full members of the worshipping family of God.
3. (:8) Generational Qualification
“The sons of the third generation who are born to them
may enter the assembly of the LORD.”
Daniel Block: Verse 8 qualifies the openness of Israelites toward Edomites and Egyptians. In three generations, presumably once those who were alive at the time of Israel’s exodus and desert sojourn have died, their descendants may be welcomed into Yahweh’s assembly, provided they, like genuinely pious Israelites, were devoted exclusively to Yahweh (cf. 6:4–5) and lived in keeping with the covenant.
Gerald Gerbrandt: By allowing the descendants of Edomites and Egyptians into the assembly of the Lord, this passage demonstrates that for Deuteronomy the community of Israel is not defined simply by ethnicity.
II. (:9-14) GUARDING THE SANCTITY OF YOUR MILITARY CAMP
Duane Christensen: The people of Israel were commanded to keep their camp pure from all forms of pollution. The individual soldiers were to be “on guard against any evil thing” (v 10). In executing their commission they must keep themselves from moral pollution in terms of overt sin or contact with idols and the accursed things found in the camps they plundered. They must also keep themselves from ceremonial and natural pollution of all sorts, such as an “event in the night,” which is normally understood to be an involuntary nocturnal emission of semen (cf. Lev 15:16–18). If this were to occur at home, a man needed only to wash himself; but in the army he must “leave the camp” and remain outside until after sundown so as to maintain ritual purity (vv 11–12). Since the camp of YHWH must have nothing offensive in it, even the latrine was to be located “outside the camp” (vv 13–14).
A. (:9) Call to Maintain Purity in the Military Camp
“When you go out as an army against your enemies,
then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: Although hidden in the NRSV, this passage opens with When you go out (AT), marking it as another in the series dealing with war (cf. 20:1–20; 21:10–14) . . . Uncleanness is incompatible with the presence of God.
Daniel Block: in this context the danger is internal and theological; the Israelites are to guard themselves against every spiritual danger.
IVP Bible Background Commentary: Since the army is engaged in a holy war, they must maintain themselves in a state of ritual purity consistent with God’s holiness. Thus matters of personal hygiene are elevated to reinforce the need to keep both person (see Lev 15:16–17) and place clean. Obviously, there would be health value in digging latrines outside the camp, but such mundane activities here are keyed to preventing the ritual impurity that would cause God to abandon them (see Deut 8:11–20+).
B. (:10-14) Call to Avoid Uncleanness in the Military Camp
1. (:10-11) Avoid Uncleanness Due to Nocturnal Emissions
a. (:10) Command of Expulsion from the Camp
“If there is among you any man who is unclean
because of a nocturnal emission,
then he must go outside the camp; he may not reenter the camp.”
b. (:11) Conditions for Reentry of the Camp
“But it shall be when evening approaches,
he shall bathe himself with water,
and at sundown he may reenter the camp.”
Daniel Block: This policy would obviously exclude those in this state of impurity from military action. However, concern for holiness superseded concern for military efficiency. Impurity itself is perceived as an active malevolent force whose power can only be checked by ablutions. Even in battle the holy people of Yahweh were to be represented by holy troops.
2. (:12-14) Avoid Uncleanness Due to Uncovered Excrement
a. (:12-13) Hygiene Instructions
“You shall also have a place outside the camp and go out there, 13 and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement.”
Eugene Merrill: The second kind of contingency has to do with defecation, another form of emission. Inasmuch as there is usually forewarning in such circumstances, it must be done in a designated and prepared place outside the camp (v. 12).
b. (:14) Holiness Rationale
“Since the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy; and He must not see anything indecent among you lest He turn away from you.”
Utley: “the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp” This is a possible reference to the Levites carrying the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Exod. 25:10–22), which took the place of the shekinah cloud (e.g., Exod. 13:21–22; 14:19–20; 16:10; 19:9, 16; Lev. 16:2, 13) as the symbol of the divine Presence after Israel crossed the Jordan.
Daniel Block: Yahweh’s presence within the camp is the precondition to military victory. These clauses portray him as a divine commander inspecting his troops; if he finds any cause of defilement as he walks about the camp, he will abandon them, forcing them to fight their own battles with their own resources. The expression “anything indecent” expands these instructions to anything that causes contamination: corpses, other bodily excretions, unclean animals, and so on.
Eugene Merrill: The rationale for the legislation in both kinds of impure practices lies in the fact that the Lord was there in the camp with his army, “moving about” (mithall k) as its commander to bring deliverance and victory. This stem of the verb speaks of the Lord’s intimacy with his people, his face-to-face encounter with them (cf. Gen 3:8) and desire to have fellowship with them (cf. Lev 26:12). But even more than this, he is a holy God, one who demands holiness of his people (cf. Lev 19:1-2). Bodily emissions of the kind described here are of the most private and personal nature and must not be witnessed by others or cause them to become contaminated. In the language of the text they are “indecent” (v. 14), even for the eyes of the Lord.
Michael Grisanti: The potentially impure activities envisioned in the above verses are not intrinsically sinful or impure. However, since the nation is soon to embark on holy war against Canaan, they need to take great care to maintain their ritual purity lest they offend their covenantal Lord, who will go before them and fight on their behalf.
Brown: This statement about Israel’s holy God provides a threefold testimony to his omnipresence (in your camp), omnipotence (to protect you) and omniscience (that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you). For the Hebrew people, their everyday conduct was determined by the nature of God. Because he is holy they were to be like him: ‘Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7–8).
Jack Deere: Even in a person’s most private moments the holy God was with him, observing his behavior.