Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

The fourth in a series of studies on Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8.

One wounded by crushing, or cut in the member shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 23:1.[i]

The translation of this verse varies in different English versions. The basic idea is clear enough, however: a eunuch is not to be admitted into the assembly of Yahweh.[ii] Why not? An ancient Israelite who was asked this question would have a ready answer. There are two basic reasons involved. First, the Israelites were chosen to be a nation that bears fruit abundantly, which puts a eunich out of the Israelite community, the holy assembly. Second, the laws for sacrifices and priesthood demand physical perfection, “wholeness” as a sign and symbol of holiness. Neither of these reasons is specified here, but the second is especially clear, given similar rules in other parts of the law.

Sacrificial Animals and Priests

 To begin with the second reason, we need to emphasize that for the “assembly of Yahweh,” the supreme concern is that it must be holy (Exodus 19:6; 22:31; Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:6-8, 26; Numbers 15:40; Deuteronomy 14:2, 21; 23:14; 28:9).  Two sections of the law in Leviticus are obviously relevant. First, there is the law about which animals may be offered to Yahweh. Second, there is a law about qualifications for priestly service. Both laws speak of the kind of injury or defect referred to in Deuteronomy 23:1 and so form part of the presupposed legal context for this law.

According to Leviticus 22, “whosoever offereth a sacrifice of peace-offerings unto Yahweh to  accomplish a vow, or for a freewill-offering, of the herd or of the flock, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein.   Blind, or broken, or maimed, or having a running sore, or scurvy, or scabbed, ye shall not offer these unto Yahweh, nor make an offering by fire of them upon the altar unto Yahweh.  Either a bullock or a lamb that hath anything superfluous or lacking in his parts, that mayest thou offer for a freewill-offering; but for a vow it shall not be accepted.  That which hath [its stones] bruised, or crushed, or broken, or cut, ye shall not offer unto Yahweh; neither shall ye do thus in your land.  Neither from the hand of a foreigner shall ye offer the bread of your God of any of these; because their corruption is in them, there is a blemish in them:  they shall not be accepted for you (verses 21-25)

Why these animals may not be offered is stated in verses 20 and 21, and reiterated in verse 25. There is a “blemish” in them. That is, they are not perfect as God created them — “it must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it.” Defective animals, including specifically animals with “stones crushed,” are not appropriate as representatives or substitutes for God’s image, man. An Israelite in Joshua’s day reading the law in Deuteronomy 23:1 would naturally recall Leviticus 22:24 and its context (22:17-25) and supply the same sort of reasons for excluding a eunuch from the assembly.

That the logic of the law with regard to animals would apply to men as well is clearly seen in reference to the priests. Among the Israelites, the Levites and the family of Aaron were the appointed representatives. Therefore no one from the tribe of Levi or the family of Aaron with a physical defect[iii] could draw near to Yahweh: “And Yahweh spake unto Moses, saying,  Speak unto Aaron, saying, ‘Whosoever he be of thy seed throughout their generations that hath a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or anything superfluous, or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or is scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come nigh to offer the offerings of Yahweh made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God. He shall eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy, and of the holy:  only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I am Yahweh who sanctifieth them.’ So Moses spake unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel” (Leviticus 21:16-24)

The law for the priests, especially in association with the law of the sacrifices, provides theological background for the law in Deuteronomy 23:1. The key is the notion of priesthood.  In other words, just as the priests functioned in Israel as representatives for the whole nation of Israel, so the Israelites as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6) represented mankind. Again, just as animals were to represent men and function as substitutes and representatives for them, so the priestly nation has a special place among all the nations of the world as representatives of the nations, praying for them and offering sacrifice for them. They must, therefore, be holy not only in lifestyle, but even physically to represent mankind as God’s image. They must be whole — the symbolic dimension of being God’s image — as well as holy — the ethical and ceremonial dimension of being God’s image.

However, it is important to note that in the law of Moses, the logic of the matter is actually presented in the opposite order. It is not first animals and then man, priests. On the contrary, the law that specifies that the priests must be whole to approach Yahweh precedes the law concerning the animals. Animals offered to Yahweh must be without defect because, like the priests, they come close to Yahweh.  They represent the offerer like the priest represents the offerer. Priest and offering come into the presence of the holy Yahweh.  Therefore nothing that might be regarded as a blemish or as corruption may be seen in them.

Why not? The reasons is clear, Biblically: defects of any sort remind of the death and the curse. It is as if the defect reminds God of sin and the curse. In other words, a blemish or corruption in the body of the priest would function as the exact opposite of the covenant memorial that reminds God of His covenant grace (Genesis 9:12-17). The laws here suggest the following parallel: just as when God sees the rainbow, He remembers His covenant grace, so also when He sees a blemish, He remembers man’s sin and the curse.

I hasten to add an important qualification that a modern reader might miss. Ceremonial wholeness and corruption are not regarded as a soteriological categories. As can be seen from Leviticus 21:22, laws about physical defects do not imply that a man disqualified as a priest was also to be excluded from the blessings of salvation. In fact, the law explicitly addresses the matter, specifying that a descendant of Aaron who was not qualified to serve as a priest was still allowed to partake of the “bread of his God.” This included the most holy things (Lev. 21:22). Thus, priestly service as such and the blessings of salvation, symbolized by the holy food, are distinguished.

Since Israelites in Moses’ day would have this background in mind when they read the law in Deuteronomy, they would not assume that a man who was physically defective would be excluded from salvation, only that he would not be qualified to be a priestly representative in the assembly of Yahweh. The priestly nation, like the priests themselves and the sacrifices offered to God, had to be perfect. But they represented other peoples and nations that were far from perfect. Even so, Gentiles who trusted in God could be saved, though they could not become members of the assembly of Israel — unless they were circumcised and went through the whole process of joining the Israelites.[iv]

Abraham and Circumcision

The other background for this law is in the meaning of the people of Israel as the seed people. I think an ancient Israelite meditating on the law would make the association, but perhaps in a manner different from a modern reader. For modern men, the simple physical fact that a eunuch cannot have children is enough to draw attention to the inappropriateness of him being a member of the assembly of Yahweh. But an ancient reader is likely to have made another association that is related.

First, he might note that of all the physical defects listed in Leviticus, only the defect related to child-bearing is mentioned in Deuteronomy. This is especially appropriate in a section of the law related to the Seventh Word. Second, the ancient reader would certainly note that the word “eunuch” itself is not used here — as it is in some modern translations — but rather expressions describing how one becomes a eunuch. This is significant, I believe, because the reference to the male member being “cut off” could be associated with the ceremony of circumcision. But was it? I believe that I can show in the ancient mind that circumcision was associated with castration.

We might not relate the two ideas, but the apostle Paul himself shows us that the association between cutting off the male organ entirely and circumcision was a natural association, even though he refers to it sarcastically: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted?  In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”  (Galatians 5:11-12). If they like circumcision so much, Paul says, let them cut all the way, not just the foreskin.  Though he is speaking ironically, Paul’s language here is grounded in the nature of circumcision itself, for circumcision is, in fact, a sort of ceremonial and symbolic castration.  Though this may not be obvious to a modern reader, the story of the gift of circumcision as the sign of the covenant points to this meaning.

Let’s recall the story of Genesis and the gift of circumcision. The book of Genesis repeatedly emphasizes that Abraham and Sarah were both too old to bear children. As far as childbirth was concerned, they were both “dead.” So, the birth of Isaac was a miracle.  In the book of Hebrews, this miracle of an elderly man and woman having a child is referred to in in exactly that language: “By faith even Sarah herself received power to conceive seed when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who had promised:  wherefore also there sprang of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand, which is by the sea-shore, innumerable (11:11-12). In Greek it is very clear that the one who was “as good as dead” was Abraham. He was as good as dead because he was too old to have a son.[v] It was at this time and to a man in this condition that God gave the covenant sign of circumcision: “And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11).

Also, it was specifically at this impossible time that Yahweh renewed the promise of descendants without number and changed Abram’s name to Abraham, adding emphasis to his fatherhood. God also promised that Sarai — who was also given a new name, Sarah — would bear the covenant heir. The story reflects God’s perfect but strange faithfulness. Yahweh keeps His covenant promises in a way that boggles the imagination. He waits till Abram and Sarai are physically “dead,” as far as childbirth is concerned, and then gives them new names and a new ceremony connected with the promised child. He tells Abram to cut off the skin of the organ of reproduction. Abram “cuts off” precisely what he needs to bear seed because the organ for bearing seed is already dead.

The ceremony of circumcision given in this historical and theological context, then, apparently functions as symbolic castration. To understand this let’s go through it step by step.  First, consider that in this ceremony, the man’s foreskin is cut off. Why? We need to remember that typically the part symbolized the whole. Cutting off the foreskin would have been a symbolic confession that Abraham is impotent and cannot bear seed for the kingdom of God.  For Abraham, circumcision was a ceremonial recognition of his actual physical condition, as well as his spiritual need for Yahweh’s blessing. For those of his household who were still young enough to bear children, it would have been a confession of their spiritual condition.

Second, we need to ask if they would have understood the meaning of the ceremony. If one thinks about it — and given the pain involved, we can be sure they did — it seems relatively obvious. Certainly Abraham and those around him would have asked themselves, why this ceremony? What does it mean to cut off the foreskin? Why is this ceremony connected with the promise of innumerable heirs? Why is the promise and the ceremony given to Abram when neither he or Sarai can bear children? All of these questions are inescapable and considering them all together leads rather ineluctably in one direction. The result of considering these questions would have been a theology of circumcision as ceremonial death, a confession that only Yahweh can give the covenant heir.

This is the logic: Abram was not able to bear seed because he was dead and Sarai was also dead.  What should be done? The symbolic solution is to, cut off the dead instrument so that a seed may be born.  (We see why Abraham believed in resurrection.) From the time of Abraham onward, every child born of a circumcised Israelite father would be regarded symbolically as a miracle child like Isaac, born of a dead father through Yahweh’s wonder-working power.

If anyone was slow to remember Abraham, the next verses in Deuteronomy 23:2-3, reminding Israelites of the illegitimate births of Moab and Ben-ammi, would surely have triggered the association, for the story of Lot’s sons is sandwiched between the story of the covenant sign in Genesis 17 and the fulfillment of the promise in Genesis 21. Abraham was circumcised (Genesis 17). God visited him, reiterating the promise (Genesis 18). Then, God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, saving Lot (Genesis 19). God protected Sarah from Abimelech (Genesis 20). And finally, Yahweh blessed Abraham and Sarah with a child (Genesis 21). The gap between the promise and fulfillment is filled with the story of Lot. The two stories therefore would be associated in the minds of an ancient Israelite. If one missed the implied background of Deuteronomy 23:1 on his first reading, Deuteronomy 23:2-3 would provoke him to think again.

For the ancient Israelites, of course, the story of Abraham and the gift of the covenant sign of circumcision would have been among the most famous and most popular stories in the Bible. When Moses preached Deuteronomy to them, the story of Abraham would stand out for special reasons beyond the fact that the only “Bible” they had would have been Genesis to Numbers. They were about to enter the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 12, four hundred years previously. With their own eyes and in their own lives, they were witnessing the same strange and wonderful faithfulness Yahweh had shown to Abraham. Moses, therefore, reminded them repeatedly of Abraham and the promise that was about to be fulfilled. Careful readers of Deuteronomy will have Abraham on their minds constantly as they consider this book.[vi]

Moses and Circumcision

That Israelites saw circumcision as a sort of ceremonial castration seems to be confirmed by another story, the story of the circumcision of Moses’ son: “And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that Yahweh met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his feet; and she said, Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me. So he let him alone. Then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood art thou, because of the circumcision’” (Exodus 4:24-26).

This is a mysterious story, but certain aspects are apparent. First, since Moses had not circumcised his son, either Moses himself or his son was going to be “cut off” from the covenant people in the most literal way possible.[vii] Yahweh was going to put “him” to death for violating the most basic covenantal form, the covenant-entrance ceremony of circumcision.  Second, circumcision is a “bloody” ceremony, part of the larger sacrificial system in which blood is shed as a symbol of the death of the offerer. In the immediate context, circumcision as a blood sacrifice points to the Passover (Exodus 4:22-23). Circumcision, like other aspects of the sacrificial system, then, signifies death through the shedding of blood.

The obvious connection with Passover here makes clear to the modern reader what might not be apparent to us from Genesis 17. An ancient reader of Genesis 17, however, would probably have immediately noted the aspect of ceremonial death involved in a blood-shedding covenant ceremony. Though we might miss the literary associations on a first reading, upon consideration it should be clear that the incident with Moses and its connection with Passover shows that “passing over” rather than judging depends upon seeing the blood of the sacrifice. Yahweh passed over Gershom or Moses when He saw the blood just as He would pass over the houses of the Israelites who had smeared blood on their doors.

Returning then, to Deuteronomy 23:1, to speak of castration in a law about who is qualified to be a member of the assembly of Yahweh would certainly have provoked the meditative reader to recall the stories of Abraham and Moses and to consider the meaning of circumcision as symbolic castration — a confession that the holy seed could only come through the miracle of God’s special grace.

What does that mean for our context? It means that the law is ironic in a sense. A man who was actually castrated could not enter the assembly of Yahweh. Only a man who was symbolically castrated could enter. The one who was symbolically castrated had died through circumcision, confessing that he was not worthy to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. The one who was physically castrated was physically unable to fulfill his responsibility as a member of the covenant community and was excluded from the assembly. The irony of the law remains, for by drawing attention to castration, the law reminds the Israelites that none of them are truly qualified, that they only stand in the assembly of Yahweh by grace.


The law excluding the eunuch from the assembly of Yahweh was intended not only to exclude those who were actual eunuchs, but also to remind the Israelites of story of the “eunuch” Abram and the sign of circumcision, by which every man in Israel confessed his unworthiness to be a seed-bearer for the holy nation. The irony of God’s grace would have been apparent to anyone who meditated on the deeper meaning of the law.

Also, importantly, the law does not exclude eunuchs from salvation. Isaiah later makes this clear when he writes the following: “Thus says Yahweh, ‘Preserve justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come and My righteousness to be revealed. How blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who takes hold of it; who keeps from profaning the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’ Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to Yahweh say, ‘Yahweh will surely separate me from His people.’ Nor let the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says Yahweh, ‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.’”[viii] (56:1-5).

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

[i] This is a slightly edited version of Young’s Literal Translation, along lines suggested by Keil and Delitzsch.

[ii] Jeffrey Tigay (Deuteronomy [JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996] 211) suggests there were two sorts of emasculation.  “These are two types of emasculation, the first accomplished by destroying the testes, the second by some type of castration.  It is not clear whether this law applies to all who have these conditions or only to those who acquired them voluntarily.”

[iii] The same Hebrew word for “blemish” or “defect” is used both of animals and men.  In the law of Moses, the Hebrew word appears in the following verses:  Leviticus 21:17–18, 21, 23; 22:20–21, 25; Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 15:21; 17:1.

[iv] Here, qualifications for men and women were different and the process would have been somewhat complicated after the conquest, since all the families of Israel had already been given specific plots of land. A male convert could be circumcised and presumably join one of the tribes, but he would not receive a plot of land, unless perhaps he married into an Israelite family. Still, it would have been theoretically possible for a Gentile to “become” an Israelite.

[v] His own father apparently had Abraham at a much later age, but that is not apparently relevant.  In Abraham’s case, he was too old to have a child.

[vi] References to Abraham in Deuteronomy abound. His name occurs 7 times in Deuteronomy compared with only one reference each in Leviticus and Numbers. Though Exodus refers to Abraham 9 times, Deuteronomy has numerous references to the “fathers,” which include Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Altogether Exodus has only 13 total references to Abraham and the fathers (Exodus 2:24; 3:6, 13, 15–16; 4:5; 6:3, 8; 10:6; 13:5, 11; 32:13; 33:1), whereas Deuteronomy refers either to Abraham or the fathers in 35 verses (Deuteronomy 1:8, 11, 21, 35; 4:1, 31, 37; 5:9; 6:3, 10, 18; 8:3, 16, 18; 9:5, 27; 10:15, 22; 11:9, 21; 12:1; 13:6, 17; 19:8; 27:3; 28:11, 36, 64; 29:13; 30:5, 9, 20; 31:16; 32:17; 34:4).

[vii] As James Jordan points out, in the immediate previous context, it is the firstborn of Egypt who are referred to. In verse 24, the “him” is not specified.  Thus, the “he” is ambiguous.  Jordan takes it to be Gershom, Moses’ firstborn son. It seems to me to be better to take it as Moses. But the basic point does not change either way.  See:  James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant:  An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, Texas:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1984) 243-260.

[viii] I am sure it is not necessary to point to the irony of the word “cut off” in this context, but I did it anyway.