Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

This is the sixth in a series of studies on Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8.

An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh; even to the tenth generation shall none belonging to them enter into the assembly of Yahweh forever: because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt, and because he hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee. Nevertheless Yahweh thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but Yahweh thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because Yahweh thy God loved thee.Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever (Deuteronomy 23:3-6).

The Surface Meaning

The reference to Ammon and Moab immediately after a law about forbidden unions confirms the view that the mazmer in verse 2 is not simply a bastard. No ancient Israelite hearing the law read or reading it himself would miss the connection between verse 2 and the history in the background of verse 3. Lot’s daughters committed incest with their father and became the mothers of Ammon and Moab. Here were two whole nations descended from a forbidden union, as everyone in ancient Israel well knew.

The Torah thus confronts us with a second irony — irony no doubt intended to provoke the interpreter to stop and read slowly, to think and rethink the meaning of these laws. What is the irony? It may take some thought to pick it up. To begin with, we might have expected, following verse 2, that verse 3 would read, “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh forever, for they were born of a forbidden union.” But that is not what it says. They are indeed forbidden to enter forever, but the reason is entirely different.

Some interpreters have read verses 3-6 as an application of the principle of verse 2, together with added reasons for excluding the Ammonites and Moabites, as if Moses were saying, “not only are they born of a forbidden marriage, they also did not greet you . . .” In this reading, of course, there is no irony. But there is also little sensitivity to the flow of the text itself. Rather than assuming Moses is simply adding an extra reason for the exclusion of the Moabites and Ammonites, we ought to ask: Why should Moses specify an entirely different reason for their exclusion?  The answer is implied in the context. Could it be because of the inexplicit but nevertheless clear relationship between the stories of Lot’s daughters and Tamar?  If, in spite of being mazmer, Tamar’s descendants could enter the assembly of Yahweh with no question, why should the descendants of Moab and Ammon be forbidden forever? There seems to be another reason required and this law supplies it.

Let’s think about the implications. Though Moab and Ammon should have been cursed because of their origin, in fact they were cursed for an entirely different reason. It was not because they were born of an illicit marriage, for grace in such circumstances was possible, as the case of Tamar proves. Furthermore, Yahweh had graciously given the tribes of Moab and Ammon their own land, as Deuteronomy 2:8-23 shows. Moses’ narrative of their conquest is emphatic, for God even enabled the Moabites and Ammonites to defeat the giants who had lived in their lands before them. If Moab and Ammon had continued to trust in Yahweh, as Lot had, they would have been blessed with Abraham. Instead of following Lot’s faith, however, they hired Balaam to curse Israel. Given the opportunity to bless the seed of Abraham — their cousins — by bringing bread and water, they chose rather to hire Balaam to curse their cousins.  Those who curse Abraham shall be cursed. The Abraham covenant supplies the logic underlying these verses.

The verb for hire is singular, not plural, “he hired,” perhaps referring only to Moab, who hired Balaam to curse Israel. Yet, Deuteronomy 23:3-6 includes the Ammonites together with them. The phrase “Ammonite and Moabite” may suggest rather that the two nations cooperated in the hiring of Balaam, for it is an unusual order. Moab was the older brother, so placing Ammon first and associating the two together like this might imply that they were one in the hiring of Balaam. In that case, the singular might not mean “Moab hired,” but something more like “Ammon and Moab together as one hired.”

The severity of the judgment applied to the two nations equally argues strongly that they shared together in the cursing of Israel, but in any case, neither nation blessed the seed of Abraham as they should have, and so they would not be blessed. Since they sought to curse Abraham, they brought on themselves the curse, expressed in the most emphatic language: “Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days forever.” Israel is to regard itself as in perpetual spiritual war with Moab and Ammon.


The story of Ruth both presupposes and illumines the fuller meaning of this law. Consider, first, how the story of Elimelech, who forsook Bethlehem of Judah to go to Moab because of a famine, presupposes this law. The parallel with Abraham leaving the land of promise in Genesis 12:10 is ironic. Abraham was leaving a land that was under God’s covenantal judgment for its wickedness and seeking relief in Egypt. Elimelech was living in Bethlehem, the “house of bread” that should have been under God’s covenantal grace. If there was a famine in Bethlehem, it could only mean that the tribe of Judah had sinned against God and was being disciplined. The right response for Elimelech and other leaders in Bethlehem should have been repentance.

Instead, Elimelech fled for refuge to the enemies of Israel and Israel’s God. His perversity is manifest, for Moab and Ammon had a history of oppressing Israel that did not end in the days of Balaam (Judges 3:12 ff; 10:6 ff). For Elimelech to choose Moab over Judah was precisely similar to the Israelites in the wilderness preferring Egypt over the promised land. Accordingly, his rebellion resulted in his death and the death of his sons.

The wonder of the story of Ruth is that this compromised and spiritually debilitated family still, through Naomi, had enough of a testimony to influence a young Moabite woman so that she would believe in the God of Israel and, like Abraham, forsake her family, her land, her past in order to go the land that God had given to Israel there to serve Naomi and her God (Ruth 1:16-18).

This brings us to note how the law is illumined by the story of Ruth. For the real problem in understanding Deuteronomy 23:3-6 presents itself in the story of Boaz’s treatment of Ruth. I think we have to assume that Boaz is both a godly man and an intelligent reader of Scripture. We cannot assume that he is ignorant of the law of Deuteronomy 23:3-6 because we can clearly see that he is aware of the law of Deuteronomy 25:5-10, though this is also applied in the book of Ruth in a way we might not have anticipated from reading Deuteronomy (Ruth 4:1-12).

If Boaz knew the law in Deuteronomy 23:3-6, why would he have sought the peace and prosperity of Ruth as he obviously did? The law specifically forbids individuals from either Moab or Ammon to be blessed (23:3, 5). A superficial reading of the law might seem to imply that if Boaz married Ruth, their children would be cursed forever. How can Boaz ignore all of this? The answer, of course, is provided in the genealogy of Boaz, for he was a descendant of Judah through Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, so he knew Yahweh had been gracious to his family in spite of the law in Deuteronomy 23:2. Even more, he was also the son of Salmon and his famous wife Rahab (Mathew 1:5)! Boaz, the godly leader of Bethlehem was half Canaanite and the son of a former prostitute.

With both Tamar and Rahab in his family, Boaz would certainly have known that God’s curse against any individual or nation allowed for repentance and salvation. Boaz, in order words, would not have understood the curse in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 as absolute. He would have known and understood that in Adam, all men were under a curse and that God had opened a way of salvation for those who believe. With his family history, Boaz would have been especially aware of God’s grace. His presumed interpretation is the key to a truly Biblical approach to the curse here. But there is more.

Nehemiah 13:1-3

Another passage in the Old Testament, written long after Deuteronomy 23:3-6, is relevant for understanding this law — Nehemiah 13:1-3. Although the stories of Rahab in the book of Joshua and Ruth the Moabitess in the book of Ruth corroborate my approach to the Deuteronomy 23:3-6, Nehemiah 13:1-3 might seem to challenge my approach and even endorse a “racist” reading of the law. The verses in Nehemiah are unquestionably important, since they are the only explicit reference to Deuteronomy 23:3-6 in the rest of Scripture. They offer a partial answer to the question, “How did Nehemiah understand Deuteronomy 23:3-6?” but not necessarily a full answer. In other words, Nehemiah, I will argue, could not have understood the law in Deuteronomy in the harsh, narrow way that some believe.

According to Nehemiah 13, “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 for ever, because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them:  howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. And it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude” (vv. 1-3).

It is clear that the law in Deuteronomy was understood as having a literal sense and application, but it is equally clear that the law is being interpreted in broader theological terms, for the application in Nehemiah is not limited to Ammonites and Moabites. In Nehemiah’s day, it was everyone who was “mixed” that was expelled from Israel. The Hebrew word is erev, translated above as “mixed multitude” and also translated as “foreigners” (NASB) or “those of foreign descent” (ESV). This word is only used five times in Scripture and seems to always denote racially mixed people (Exodus 12:38; Jer. 25:20; 50:37; Ezek. 30:5; Neh. 13:3).

What we saw when we considered this law in Deuteronomy is that the curse is on Ammonites and Moabites not because of their race, even though it was true that they, like most of the tribe of Judah, were descended from a forbidden marriage, but because they cursed the descendants of Abraham. Fundamentally, it was hatred of Israel’s God that provoked Israel’s enemies to oppose her. This is hinted at in the story of the Moabites tempting Israel to commit idolatry to turn their hearts away from Him and bring His curse on them.

With this in mind, it is significant to note the larger context in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is clear that the nations around Israel at the time cooperated together to lure Israel away from her God. Problems with the surrounding nations arose almost immediately when the Jews came back to the land and began to rebuild the temple: “Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity were building a temple unto Yahweh, the God of Israel; then they drew near to Zerubabbel, and to the heads of fathers’ houses, and said unto them, Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as ye do; and we sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assyria, who brought us up hither. But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us in building a house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto Yahweh, the God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us. Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:1-5).

The insincere offer of help turned to open opposition as soon as it was rejected. The “people of the land” did their best to frustrate the Jews’ project and stop the building of the temple. When the temple was finally completed and Ezra came to Jerusalem to lead the Jews in the worship of God, one of the first things he encountered was the problem of intermarriage with the “people of the land”: “Now when these things were done, the princes drew near unto me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of the lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass” (Ezra 9:1-2).

Note that the problem here is not simply that Jews have married people of other lands, as if these people were seeking the true God. The situation here, in other words, is not parallel to that of Rahab or Ruth. These nations are not converting to the true God. Rather, the Jews are being influenced to do “according to their abominations.” This is exactly parallel to the situation in the book of Numbers 25, when the Moabites tempted Israel to commit idolatry.  Ezra the priest led the Jews in repentance in his prayer for the people (Ezra 9:5 ff.), in which he refers to Deuteronomy 7:1-6, which warns Israel not to intermarry with the surrounding pagans because their will turn their hearts away from Yahweh to serve idols. He also alludes to the words of Deuteronomy 23:6, “never seek their peace or their prosperity” (Ezra 9:12).

The Jews repented and with Ezra’s leading they put away their foreign wives (Ezra 10).  Following James Jordan’s reconstruction of the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah, this would have been in the 7th year of Darius” “Here is the historical scenario, as I see it: Jeshua and Zerubbabel and their associates returned to Jerusalem in the first year of Cyrus. They built the altar, and begin rebuilding the temple (Ezra 3). Soon, however, they encountered opposition, which ‘discouraged the people of Judah and frightened them from building’ (Ezra 4:4).  The people left off working on the temple and devoted themselves to building nice homes for themselves and working on the wall (Haggai 1). God in His mercy raised up adversaries who complained about this wall-building, and at the beginning of his reign King Darius forbad them to work on the wall and city (Ezra 4:21). They were not, however, forbidden to work on the temple. Thus, God raised up the prophet Haggai, who told them that they were in sin for not having finished the temple first (Haggai 1). No longer able to work on walls and houses, the people to devoted themselves to rebuilding the temple. This aroused more questions, and another letter was sent to Darius asking about the temple (Ezra 5). Darius gave permission to rebuild the temple, which was completed in the 6th year of Darius (Ezra 6). The next year Ezra arrived, and noted that both the temple and a rudimentary wall had been completed.”[i]

Thirteen years later, in the twentieth year of Darius, Nehemiah came to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and spent twelve years working on the project. Then he returned to serve Darius, but after about a year journeyed to Jerusalem a second time. It was at this second visit that Nehemiah learned that Eliashib the priest had built a room in the temple for Tobiah, an enemy of the Jews (Nehemiah 13:4-9), discovered that Levites were not receiving their due portions (Nehemiah 13:10-14), found Jews breaking the Sabbath, at least partially because of the temptations by the foreign traders (Nehemiah 13:15-22). He also learned that even some of the priests had married foreign women and defiled the priesthood (Neh. 13:23-29). Indeed the children of the mixed marriages could not speak Hebrew, implying that they had turned away from Yahweh to the gods of the nations (Neh. 13:24).

All of this shows clearly that Nehemiah’s application of the law in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 fits with the spirit of the law as it was originally given. Though the law referred to Moabites and Ammonites only, the reason for their being cursed was that they had cursed the seed of Abraham. The issue was not race, but rebellion against the true God. In Nehemiah’s day, the Moabites, Ammonites, and other foreign nations in the area hated the God of Israel and interfered with the rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem. In other words, they cursed the people of Israel in a manner similar to their ancestors in Moses’ day. Intermarrying with idolaters who opposed the worship of Yahweh was, of course, forbidden and Nehemiah simply followed the spirit of the law, as it was originally given, just as Boaz also followed the spirit of the law in recognizing that a Moabitess who trusted in Yahweh should be received into the assembly through marriage.


The law of Deuteronomy 23:3-6, like the laws before it, hint at the grace of God, even while proclaiming His judgment. The Moabites and Ammonites were not excluded because of their shady origins. On the contrary, Yahweh had graciously provided land for the children of Lot, even helping them remove the giants who lived in their lands before them. Yahweh had turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing because He loved Israel (Deuteronomy 23:5), but also because that is the kind of God Yahweh is. His name proclaims His graciousness (Exodus 34:6-7).

Thus, in the cases of Rahab and Ruth also, God turned the curse into a blessing. That the Messiah was born of this special family is profoundly significant. Though he should have been perpetually cursed in Tamar, cursed in Rahab, and cursed in Ruth, the Messiah was blessed in all three of them because Yahweh is the God of grace who turns curses into blessing and through the Messiah undoes the curse brought onto the race through Adam (Rom. 5:11-21).

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

[i] James B. Jordan, “The Chronology of Ezra & Nehemiah (IV),” Biblical Chronology 3 (May 1991).