Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

This is the fifth in a series of studies of Deuteronomy 22:3-23:8.

“A bastard (mazmer) shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh; even to the tenth generation shall none of his enter into the assembly of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 23:2).[i]

The translation “bastard” here for mazmer, common in older translations and implied even in new ones which substitute the less offensive “one of illegitimate birth” (NKJV), is almost certainly wrong, even though the Hebrew word is admittedly difficult. The LXX translation, referring to the child of a prostitute, is also incorrect. Rather, Talmudic exegesis is to be preferred in its identifying the mazmer as one who is born of a “forbidden union.”[ii]

Talmudic scholars were correct to note that the idea of forbidden unions is introduced in Deuteronomy 22:30, where a son is forbidden to marry his father’s former wife. Other forbidden unions are outlined in Leviticus 18, but the law in 22:30 comes rather abruptly into the context. Its insertion is probably for the purpose of making a connection between Deuteronomy 22:30-23:14 and Leviticus 18, as well as provoking our historical attention through an allusion to Reuben. As in Leviticus, the concern is with the holiness of the assembly of Yahweh. The priestly people must be holy to approach Yahweh, just as the sacrificial animals used to represent the priestly people must be unblemished and whole to be used as substitutes for the holy people.

The expression “even to the tenth generation” probably means, “forever.”[iii] It does not seem to mean “until the tenth generation,” as if to imply that from the 11th generation admission to the assembly would be possible. But this is an alternative approach to the text that we will consider. On the surface, what the law appears to be saying is that a child born of a forbidden union could never be a member of the “assembly of Yahweh.” But there are passages in the law itself, as well as in the history which both precedes and follows the law, which suggest that this is a profoundly mistaken reading. An intelligent reader in Joshua’s day would have recalled numerous other passages in his quest to understand this verse that would result in a somewhat surprising interpretation.

History Preceding the Law

To explain what I mean, let’s begin with the history in Genesis. Readers in Moses’ day, cognizant as they would have been of Israel’s history, would have noticed immediately — what a modern reader might not think of — that 23:2 links directly with the story of Tamar’s incest with her father-in-law Judah. This is a famous incident, one that almost rivals — or perhaps more than rivals — the infamous story of Lot’s daughters, alluded to in Deuteronomy 23:3ff., who seduced their father and became the mothers of Ammon and Moab. Though Lot’s daughters committed incest, they were both virgins at the time, and in ancient Israel that counted for something. Tamar, however, was not a virgin. In fact, she was the former wife of two of her father-in-law’s, sons — his son Er, who was wicked in the sight of the Lord and his second son, Onan, who was also judged by God because of his sins.

Onan, Genesis tells us, knew that if a son was born to Tamar, it would not be his son (Genesis 38:9), so he avoided his duty to provide his brother with an heir and was judged by God (Genesis 38:10). What is this about? It is called the “levirate.” In the time of Judah and Tamar, it was apparently a custom, but it is not clear how broadly it was observed or where it originated.[iv] Later it became a law in Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), and it is through the law that we understand the details of the earlier custom in Genesis. Deuteronomy tells us, “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married without unto a stranger:  her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel.

The stipulation that the brethren “live together” seems to imply that the younger brother is unmarried.  In other words, the law is not requiring polygamous marriages. The unmarried younger brother, then, marries his older brothers widow in order to raise an heir to his brother.  This was considered an important obligation, especially because Israel was the seed people.  The fact that Tamar took her side of the obligation so seriously is the reason the Bible regards her as a great woman. If the levirate custom among the patriarchs was informed by their faith in the God of Abraham, and it would seem that it must have been, then for Tamar to seek a son for her deceased husband would have been an expression of her faith in the God of Abraham — even though her method of becoming a mother involved seducing her father-in-law.

On the surface, Tamar’s union with Judah belongs explicitly to the class of forbidden unions (Leviticus 18:15). In fact, given her status in Judah’s family she was guilty of a form of adultery as well as incest. On any understanding of the Hebrew word mazmer Tamar’s children should be excluded from Israel’s assembly, for her union with Judah was forbidden and adulterous. The children would be illegitimate from any and every perspective. This should mean (or should seem to mean), then, on a literal or narrow interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:2 that Judah’s sons by Tamar could not belong to the assembly of Yahweh, even to the tenth generation, which, as we have shown, probably means “forever.”

Passages in the Law

But remarkably this is not the way the law describes them. Descendants of Perez and Zerah — Tamar’s twin sons — are counted as the legitimate sons of Judah and are included in the assembly of Yahweh (Numbers 26:20-22) with no questions asked. Thus, in both the history previous to Deuteronomy and in the law included in Numbers, we are confronted with a case that seems to present a striking exception to the rule in 23:2. How are we to understand this? One possible way might be to consider the curse “even to the tenth generation” as “only till the tenth generation,” though this seems contrary to the natural sense of verse 3. But would that approach actually help? Was the Exodus nine or ten generations after Tamar, so that the generation to enter the land was the eleventh or later?

There are some difficult details here. If we consider a generation to be 40 years, then there would be approximately 10 generations in the 430 years (Galatians 3:17) from Abraham to Sinai, leaving us rather short on generations from Judah to Sinai. If we consider a generation to be 30 years, then there would be about 14 generations from Abraham to Sinai, which would get us close enough to having 10 generations from Judah to Sinai, at least in terms of the raw numbers.

Passages After the Law

How does that work out when we look at the recorded genealogy in 1 Chronicles?  Below is the list from Judah to David (1 Chronicles 2:3-16). I add markers to count the generations beginning from Perez and Zerah, the sons of Tamar, considering them as generation.

2:3. The sons of Judah: Er, and Onan, and Shelah; which three were born unto him of Shua’s daughter the Canaanitess.  And Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of Yahweh; and he slew him.

2:4. And Tamar his daughter-in-law bare him Perez and Zerah [1].  All the sons of Judah were five.

2:5 The sons of Perez: Hezron, and Hamul [2].

2:6 And the sons of Zerah:  Zimri, and Ethan, and Heman, and Calcol, and  Dara; five of them in all [2].

2:7 And the sons of Carmi [?]:  Achar, the troubler of Israel, who committed a trespass in the devoted thing.

2:8 And the sons of Ethan [2]: Azariah [3].

2:9 The sons also of Hezron [2], that were born unto him: Jerahmeel, and Ram, and Chelubai [3].

2:10 And Ram [3] begat Amminadab [4], and Amminadab begat Nahshon [5], prince of the children of Judah;

2:11 and Nahshon [5] begat Salma [6], and Salma begat Boaz [7],

2:12 and Boaz begat Obed [8], and Obed begat Jesse [9];

2:13 and Jesse begat his first-born Eliab [10], and Abinadab the second, and Shimea the third,

2:14 Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth,

2:15 Ozem the sixth, David the seventh [10];

2:16 and their sisters were Zeruiah and Abigail. And the sons of Zeruiah:  Abishai, and Joab, and Asahel, three.

In this genealogy, we have 10 generations from Judah to David, a period of about 600 years. If every generation is recorded, it would make the average length of one generation to be about 60 years for a very long period of time. To say the least, this is rather unlikely.  Comparing 1 Chronicles with other genealogies, it seems that there may be persons left out of the list here. Perhaps the genealogy is shorted to get the round figure 10 from Judah to David, suggesting that David is the perfect realization of Judah and the ideal representative of the tribe’s royal lineage.

The genealogy from Perez to Nahshon, however, seems to work considered as a full genealogy, for there are five generations for a period of about 200 years, giving 40 years per generation.

Perez to Herzon (2:5)

Herzon to Ram (2:9)

Ram to Amminadab (2:10)

Amminadab to Nahshon (2:10)

If this is correct, the generations of the Exodus, wilderness wandering, and conquest would not be anywhere near 10 generations from Judah. I assume that this, or something rather close to this is the case. This means that the 10 generations in Deuteronomy 23:2 cannot be referring to the time from Tamar to the Exodus, with the Exodus or wilderness generation being the first generation free from the prohibition of 23:2.

We are, therefore, back where we started — faced with an apparent contradiction in the Scripture or with literary irony. Liberal interpreters typically write off these kinds of phenomena as the result of sloppy redactors, who were not careful enough with their editorial work. With multiple redactors editing the text, strange things happen. One problem with this view is that there are so many examples of literary brilliance and amazing correspondence that we have to believe that there were quite a few idiot-savant redactors — men who are intellectually quite dull, but who unknowingly produce something like literary miracles. At some point, this takes more faith than believing, as I do, that the Scriptures were inspired by God.


We seem to have this: The descendants of Judah through Tamar should have been prohibited from joining the assembly of Yahweh, but they were not. Quite to the contrary, Tamar’s descendant through Perez, Nahshon, the son of Amminidab, was a prince in Israel at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 6:23; Numbers 1:7; 2:3; 7:12, 17; 10:14; Ruth 4:20; 1 Chronicls 2:10). Thus, they were especially blessed among the descendants of Judah, in that Nahshon was the prince of the tribe of Judah (Numbers 2:3) and as such is given special honor, both in his position in the camp and in the order of presenting offerings (Numbers 2:3; 7:12) — both of which are matters that Israelites in his day would have noted well.

I suspect that it was passages like this — and there are many more — that formed Jonah’s understanding of Yahweh. Jonah knew that Yahweh is a gracious God, one who delights to forgive sins and to bless the unworthy. In fact, it was precisely because Jonah knew that Yahweh is a good Shepherd that seeks the lost sheep and receives the prodigal home again with joy that he ran away when told to warn Nineveh of the coming judgment. He understood God’s grace, but did not share God’s gracious attitude.

Thus, the rule of Deuteronomy 23:2 is not merely a rule. The law contains an ironic allusion. On the one hand, it calls attention to Yahweh’s holiness and intolerance of all evil.  However, the example of Tamar virtually shouts out loud to the reader of this law. How does this relate to her case? The “strict” law actually emphasizes the exception to the law in God’s graciously blessing the children of Tamar and exalting Nahshon to preeminence in Israel. A statute which seems to be so strict, but which alludes obviously to a well-known case of the rule being broken is a riddle, not a law. What may seem to be rigorous and harsh actually, by alluding to the exception, proclaims that Yahweh is the gracious God who forgives and receives the unworthy. In a context which has already alluded to Reuben’s sin and to circumcision as the sign of the covenant in contrast with being a physical eunuch, this kind of irony should not be considered odd.

This does not mean that the rule as a rule does not stand. It does. As the verses which follow demonstrate, exceptions to the rule reveal the grace of God presupposed in all of the law, while at the same time, the rule itself must be taken literally and seriously as God’s law for His people. How does one know when to make exceptions? The story of Tamar shows us.  Judah understood immediately that she was more righteous than he. She sought a child for her husband because she believed in the Abrahamic covenant and its promises. God heard her prayers and blessed her, so that she could become the ancestress of the Messiah Himself.

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

[i] Unless otherwise stated, translations here are from the American Standard Version.  However, I have changed its “Jehovah” to “Yahweh,” which is generally considered a more accurate rendering of the tetragrammaton.

[ii] The ESV and the NRSV both follow this understanding.

[iii] The exact expression is only used twice in the entire Old Testament, but the addition of “forever” in verse 3 seems to remove any uncertainty.  Nehemiah 13:1 confirms this reading, “On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God forever . . . .”

[iv] Laws from the Middle Assyrian Period of Mesopotamian history witness something like the Biblical law of the levirate, but there are detailed differences and given the fundamentally different religious faiths, the motivation and meaning of the superficially similar laws must be very different.  On the whole, however, our sources for ancient customs are too sparse to allow us to make definitive statements.  What can be said, however, is that the meaning of the levirate law in the Bible functions as part of a worldview that fundamentally differs from Israel’s neighbors.  For ancient Near Eastern laws, see Raymond Westbrook, ed.,  A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, (Leiden:  Brill, 2003).