Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

The third in a series of studies on Deuteronomy 22-23. This continues the second essay, which examines Deuteronomy 22:30: “A man shall not take his father’s wife, and shall not uncover his father’s wing” (Hebrew:  kanaf).


The Sin of Ham

Another story would almost certainly occur to an ancient reader of the text, especially if he was taking the time to meditate on the contents. It would be obvious that the expression “uncover his father’s wing” refers to the father’s robe, and so recalling the famous story of Ham removing his father’s robe would naturally come to mind (Genesis 9:20-27). Although this story is often understood as a story about sexual impropriety, it is probably rather a story about seizing power.

What is not necessarily clear to the English reader of the story is the significance of the robe in the story of Noah and Ham. Genesis 9:23 in almost all English translations suggests that Shem and Japheth “took a garment,” as if they picked up the nearest robe at hand. But the Hebrew clearly says they “took the garment,” as if we are supposed to know something about the robe they took. The story is, thus, rather indirect, but it apparently goes like this. First, Noah took off his robe in his tent and went to sleep because of the influence of the wine he drank. Ham at some point went into his father’s tent and stole his robe of authority, leaving his father “naked.” When Ham told his brothers what he had done, they took the robe from him and restored it to their father.

The robe of the father was the symbol of his power and authority. Apparently Ham was attempting to force his father into early retirement, so to speak, and take over his place of authority. If his brothers had joined the conspiracy, Noah would have been dethroned and his sons would have taken over by force before he himself stepped down. Thus, even though this story probably has nothing to do with sexual sin, the language of Deuteronomy 22:30 might still evoke the image of an infamous “uncovering” of the father’s garment.[i]  Furthermore, if the sin of Reuben includes an attempt to claim authority for himself, an allusion to Ham might suggest that sexual sins like Reuben’s were usually matters of power struggles. This provides another cultural reason in the context of ancient polygamy for the promulgation of this sort of law.

The Motivation for Deuteronomy 22:30

If I am correct in my earlier exposition that Moses intends his hearers and readers to recall the story of Reuben’s sin, while also remembering the previous related laws in Leviticus, the law of the wings of the garment in Numbers 15:37-39, and the story of Ham, there is one more story that an astute reader might be expected to recall. That story, moreover, suggests a motive for Moses to have given this law in the first place. I am referring to the story in Numbers 16 of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.

Two things about that story especially stand out, matters that some modern readers might not remember, but that Moses himself certainly remembered. First, while Korah was a Levite, Dathan and Abiram, the two other leaders of the rebellion were both from the tribe of Reuben. Second, the story of the rebellion of Korah and the sons of Reuben immediately followed the law of the tassels on the wings of the robe.

What does that mean? If we read Numbers carefully, it clearly implies that Korah, Dathan, and Abiram perversely interpreted the gift of the memorial tassels. Though it is true that law of the tassels declared that every Israelite was holy (15:37-41, especially 15:40) and the blue tassels made all the Israelites priestly guardians of God’s law, the rebels apparently inferred from this that Moses and Aaron had no special place as leaders of the people. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, noting that they wore blue “priestly” clothing and that they were counted as “cherubim,” as also the rest of Israel, and that they were appointed to guard the holiness of Yahweh, seem to have falsely concluded that the hierarchical priestly system of the Torah was an imposition of Moses and Aaron, based upon unholy ambition to be great. In short, the Reubenite leaders imputed to Moses and Aaron the kind of motives they themselves cherished.

It was indeed Korah of the tribe of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben who were ambitious, but their resentment against God’s anointed was contagious. Therefore, even though God’s miraculous judgment against the rebels should have resolved the issue of the authority of Moses and Aaron, it did not. The next day the congregation blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the rebel leaders (Numbers 16:41), leading to another judgment (Numbers 16:49).  Then, because of the lingering bitterness in Israel, Yahweh required leaders of all the tribes to bring a rod to the tabernacle (17:1-7). The rod of the man chosen by Yahweh would sprout, thereby indicating Yahweh’s special favor for that man and his tribe. When the rod of Aaron blossomed with flowers and ripe almonds, the rest of Israel feared that they were going to be consumed by God’s wrath and sought help from Moses (Numbers 17:12-13), thus bringing to a conclusion the proud rebellion initiated by Kohath and the Reubenites.

When we consider the narrative of chapters 16-17 in the larger context of Israel’s wilderness wandering and the literary account of the book of Numbers, we realize the central significance of the story. The climactic rebellion of the Israelites in Numbers 14, of course, is the most important single example of Israel’s unbelief and rebellion against Yahweh. But from that time until the final year of the wilderness wandering (Numbers 20 ff.), there is one and only one story in the book of Numbers: the story of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and its consequences.[ii] It is as if to say that the rebellion of Korah and the Reubenites reveals the true nature of the people of Israel as a whole and the reasons for their being disciplined in the wilderness.

The importance of the Reubenite rebellion is further reinforced by Moses drawing attention to it again later in Numbers: “Reuben, Israel’s firstborn, the sons of Reuben: of Hanoch, the family of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the family of the Palluites; of Hezron, the family of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the family of the Carmites.  These are the families of the Reubenites, and those who were numbered of them were 43,730.  The son of Pallu: Eliab.  The sons of Eliab: Nemuel and Dathan and Abiram.  These are the Dathan and Abiram who were called by the congregation, who contended against Moses and against Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against Yahweh, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up along with Korah, when that company died, when the fire devoured 250 men, so that they became a warning.  The sons of Korah, however, did not die”  (Numbers 26:5-11).

As the above makes clear, the sons of Korah did not join their father in his rebellion against Moses and, ultimately, Yahweh Himself. They were faithful. But the leaders of Reuben were rebels and their families were consumed with them. Unlike the rest of the tribe of Levi and the family of Korah, the other Israelite tribes continued to harbor the hostility provoked by Dathan and Abiram. For Moses, this rebellion was one of the most important instances of unbelief in the whole 40 years in the wilderness, second only to the rebellion of Numbers 14.

Moses included a law like Deuteronomy 22:30 because he believed it was important to keep the tribe of Reuben in its place and use Reuben’s sin in Genesis as a reminder to the tribes of God’s judgment. As it says in Numbers 26:11, “they became a warning.” The well-known stories of the rebellion in the wilderness led by Reuben would naturally occur to the Israelites through Moses allusion to the story in Genesis.

This may sound far-fetched to some readers. Again, we have to ask, would an ancient Israelite have made these connections? Did Moses intend these connections? I believe Moses certainly intended these connections, but let’s consider the ancient reader. Perhaps on a first reading of Deuteronomy 22:30 our hypothetical reader would miss the multiple layers I have suggested.[iii] But as he continues to read Deuteronomy, he will notice other verses.

What will he think, for example, when he reads or hears chapter 27? In this chapter, Moses directed the Israelites to conduct a special covenant renewal ceremony when they entered the promised land. Six tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people (Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin) and six tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal to curse (Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali) (Deuteronomy 27:11-13). The Levites shout out twelve curses and all the people answer “Amen.” One of the twelve curses is almost an exact repetition of Deuteronomy 22:30. Of all the things that could be cursed and of all the sins that could be emphasized, why was this sinmentioned?[iv] Obviously, Moses is making another allusion to the story of Reuben and doing so in the most emphatic manner possible, with the whole nation pronouncing a curse on anyone who imitates the sin of Reuben.

Then, the ancient reader of Deuteronomy encounters another striking verse when he comes to chapter 33:6, though for the modern reader there is a translation problem.  The NASB has “May Reuben live and not die, nor his men be few,” and the ESV translates it as “Let Reuben live, and not die, but let his men be few.” This is not an entirely modern problem. Even the LXX translation of the Bible into Greek misinterprets the Hebrew: “Let Reuben live, and not die out, a

and let him be many in number.[v] The New American Standard Version and the LXX interpret the verse as a blessing.  The words, “Nor let his men be few,” mean, obviously, let his descendants be numerous.  That is the kind of blessing God promised to Abraham and it might seem appropriate here at the beginning of the blessing of the tribes, for, as Driver notes, the general tone of the chapter is very positive.[vi] The Hebrew text, however, pronounces a curse on Reuben. In fact the thought of Deuteronomy 33:6 is so close to the Jacob’s curse in Genesis that it “could even be taken as an interpretation of Jacob’s words in verse [Genesis 49:]4 . . . ‘you shall excel no longer,’ construing ‘excel’ as ‘exceed, abound.’[vii]

In the history of Reuben, this curse came to fulfillment, as the tribe dwindled both in number and in importance. But we can imagine a reader in the days of Joshua being surprised at the statement and then reflecting on Reuben and his tribe from the stories of Genesis to Numbers. The allusions to the sin of Reuben in Deuteronomy 22:30 and 27:20 would then be seen as reminders of the judgment pronounced against a tribe that led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, a tribe whose curse would weigh heavily upon it.

Multiple allusions to Reuben’s sin and then a curse pronounced on the tribe of Reuben in a context that pronounces blessings on the other tribes provokes questions that only find an answer in the history of the Reubenites’ rebellion in the book of Numbers. It is not at all far-fetched to suggest an ancient reader or hearer would have made these connections. On the contrary, it is hard to imagine a serious reader not noticing at least the connections suggested above.


We have seen here that in a relatively straightforward statement of apodictic law, we have multiple historical allusions, or at least presupposed background knowledge, which give this law a rich and complex meaning which could not be read from the surface of the text alone. The sins of Ham, Canaan, and Reuben reverberate in the background, most especially Reuben, though the double association may imply similarity between the two rebellions.  Israel’s special calling to be a holy nation, a priestly people, is suggested in the use of the word “wing” and this provides a subtle link with the next verses and their concern with the “assembly of Yahweh,” which could be defined as the “winged nation,” the “cherub nation.”  Uncovering the father’s wing, then, is undermining his honor as a member of the “winged nation,” the most profound disrespect a man could offer to his father, as Reuben did to Jacob.  Perhaps this could also be seen as what the Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram, attempted to do to Moses and Aaron.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.

[i] See:  James B. Jordan, “Rebellion, Tyranny, and Dominion in the Book of Genesis,” in Tactics of Christian Resistance, ed. Gary North (Tyler, Texas:  Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983) 38-80, esp. 48-52. Of course, literally speaking it was Noah who uncovered himself, but that was in the privacy of his own tent. Ham had to invade Noah’s privacy to see him uncovered, so in a sense, Ham “uncovered” Noah.

[ii] The other material in chapters 15-19 are law, not narrative. The account of rebellion at Kadesh in chapter 14 is followed by laws in chapter 15. The story of the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and its consequences in chapters 16-17 is followed by laws in chapters 18-19. Then, in chapter 20, when we read another story of the wilderness wandering, we are already in the final year. The whole 38 years of wandering is thus characterized by stories of rebellion. First the rejection of the land (14), then the rebellion of the Reubenites (16-17), and finally the rebellion of Moses and Aaron (20), the tragic end of the great leaders’ lives.

[iii] I do believe that the use of the word “wing” in 22:30 would be enough of a surprise that an ancient reader would begin to ask questions about what the verse is saying. It is not a long jump to begin to consider the various layers of meaning.

[iv] The same question may be asked of the other sins on the list and of the list as a whole. The sins on the list seem to be chosen in general as sins typical of the Canaanites in the land, whose influence Moses warned against.

[v] Melvin K.H. Peters, trans,. Deuteronomy (Provisional Edition) in A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004) 41

[vi] In his words, “Compared, as a whole, with the Blessing of Jacob, the Blessing of Moses may be said to be pitched in a higher key; the tone is more buoyant; the affluence, or other distinctive character, of the various tribes is portrayed in more glowing colours:  ease, tranquillity, and contentment are the predominant characteristics of the age.”  S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy in The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1902) 386.

[vii] Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996) 322.