Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

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

Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a sojourner in his land. The children of the third generation that are born unto them shall enter into the assembly of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 23:7-8).

This law presents us with more riddles. First, the law forbids Israelites to abhor or detest Edomites and Egyptians, though both nations were idolatrous and their peoples practiced ceremonies at least similar to the nations in Canaan. For example, Ezra 9:1 specifically speaks of “abominations” being practiced by Egyptians, among other nations, using the noun form of the verb “abhor”[i] used in Deuteronomy 23:7. How can we reconcile this law with the fact of Egyptian or Edomite abominable practices? The answer would seem to be that the law presupposes an Edomite or an Egyptian who is not practicing the abominable worship typical of those nations.

Second, if the Moabites and Ammonites are cursed because they did not meet the Israelites with water and bread on the way, why should the Edomites not be similarly cursed? They also did not meet Israel with water and bread along the way. In fact, when Moses sent them a gracious message, asking for help and promising that Israel would only walk by the king’s highway, Edom responded by saying, “Thou shalt not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against thee” (Numbers 20:18). When the Israelites repeated their request, the Edomites appeared in force with an army to stop Israel from going through their land. This is less aggressive than Balak’s attempt to curse Israel, but it is also far less friendly than meeting them with bread and water.  Why, then, should the Edomites get this special favor?

Third, how can the Egyptians be considered less evil than Moab and Amon? The Egyptians not only enslaved and oppressed Israel, they actually made an attempt at exterminating all the descendants of Jacob as a race. It is hard to imagine a more emphatic application of a curse to a nation than utterly eradicating them. And yet, the Egyptians are here also allowed to enter the assembly of Yahweh in the third generation. Why do the Egyptians receive God’s special favor?


What is there in the history of the Edomites that might explain why they are given favor here? But this is not just a question faced by a modern interpreter of an ancient text. An Israelite in the days of Joshua would face the same conundrum. The law of Moses was not only instruction in righteousness; it was also given as a riddle. In Deuteronomy 23:7-8, Moses was instructing Israel in the ways of God by confronting them with another paradox in a context of paradoxes.

The text in Deuteronomy specifically points to the history of Jacob and Essau in the words, “for he is your brother.” That history may seem to compound rather than relieve the tension, for it begins with the two brothers struggling with one another even in their mother’s womb. After that ominous beginning, the story continues to tell of Jacob’s dealings[ii] with Esau and Isaac — among the most well-known stories in the book of Genesis. In that famous story, Esau’s anger and his vow to kill his brother associate the story of Esau and Jacob with the story of Cain and Abel, in spite of various contrasts. The jealous older brother hates the younger brother who has the favor of man and God and determines to kill the younger brother. Though neither Cain nor Esau may have been fully conscious of it, their lust for revenge was ultimately aimed at God Himself who favored the younger brother.

This aspect of the history intensifies the problem. If Esau is like Cain and if the Edomites hate or distrust the Israelites so much that they will not even let Israel go through their territory, why should Edom have more favor than Moab or Ammon? The answer hinted at in Deuteronomy 23:7 is provided in the fact that the story of Esau concludes very differently from the story of Cain. Though Esau and Jacob struggled and had moments that are reminiscent of Cain and Abel, their story did not end in murder and the death of the younger brother. When Jacob returned to the land after a twenty-year exile, his brother Esau welcomed him.  Later, they both buried their father Isaac (Genesis 35:28-29) and there is no more recorded hostility or trouble between them. In fact, Esau voluntary left the land that Jacob had “stolen” from him by deceiving Isaac. He apparently gave up his anger at his brother and accepted that it was God’s will to bless Jacob with the land promised to Abraham and Isaac. His move to the hill country of Seir, therefore, should be seen as motivated by faith in the God of his father (Gen. 36:6-8). This happy ending to the story of Jacob and Esau is the background for the gracious treatment of Esau’s descendants in Deuteronomy 23:7-8.

The other references to Edomites in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 2:4–5, 8, 12, 22, 29) remind us that Yahweh had enabled them to fight giants and defeat them. The land of Seir was Yahweh’s gift to Edom, just as the land of Canaan was going to be Yahweh’s gift to Israel. At the time that Moses spoke his sermon to Israel, Edom could be looked upon with some favor because of the history of Jacob and Esau. We also have to consider that given the relatively short period of time from Esau to the conquest, there may still have been god-fearing Edomites who would sojourn in Israel because they believed in the God of Isaac.


The case of Egypt is entirely different. There was no repentance or reconciliation between Israel and Egypt. The story ends in judgment and death. But the story did have a good beginning and Deuteronomy specifically reminds the reader of it. In Joseph’s day, Egyptians trusted in the God of Jacob and accepted Joseph as a prophet of God, exalting him to the right hand of Pharaoh. As long as Joseph lived and the Pharaohs believed in his God, Israel enjoyed a place of special grace and favor in the very best part of the land of Egypt. That favor was not to be forgotten. It remains true, however, that the story of Israel’s relationship with Egypt ended, as I said, badly. Why then should Egyptians be treated with special kindness compared with Moabites and Ammonites, both of which tribes were cousins to Israel?

I should stress here that the way the law is written an ancient reader would surely have asked the questions I am asking. Egypt in the days of Moses had been Israel’s worst enemy. Pharaoh himself was the symbol of Satan attacking the seed of the woman and trying to ruin the promise made to Abraham. Until Haman the Agagite in the days of Esther, no one in the entire history of Israel attempted the kind of total genocide that Pharaoh had attempted. An ancient Israelite in Joshua’s day would not have forgotten the suffering Israel endured in the “house of bondage.”

Remarkably there are 50 references to Egypt in the book of Deuteronomy.[iii] This contrasts with 29 references in Numbers and only 11 references in the book of Leviticus. Exodus, of course, has far more references (123) than any other book. Apart from Exodus, in all the rest of the Old Testament, only Genesis (77), Jeremiah (62) and Ezekiel (51) have more references to Egypt than Deuteronomy. Most of the references to Egypt in the book of Deuteronomy point back to the Exodus. Indeed, Moses’ exhortations to the Israelites to remember their redemption from Egypt constitutes an important theme for his final sermon:

then beware lest thou forget Yahweh, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (6:12).

When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which Yahweh our God hath commanded you? Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt: and Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and Yahweh showed signs and wonders, great and sore, upon Egypt, upon Pharaoh, and upon all his house, before our eyes; and he brought us out from thence, that he might bring us in, to give us the land which he sware unto our fathers (6:20-23).

If thou shalt say in thy heart, These nations are more than I; how can I dispossess them?  Thou shalt not be afraid of them: thou shalt well remember what Yahweh thy God did unto Pharaoh, and unto all Egypt; the great trials which thine eyes saw, and the signs, and the wonders, and the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, whereby Yahweh thy God brought thee out:  so shall Yahweh thy God do unto all the peoples of whom thou art afraid (7:17-19).

Beware lest thou forget Yahweh thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: lest, when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget Yahweh thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; who led thee through the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint; who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not; that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end: and lest thou say in thy heart, My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth. But thou shalt remember Yahweh thy God, for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth; that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as at this day (8:11-18).

Remembering the bondage and deliverance from Egypt is remembering the saving grace of God who fulfilled His promises to Abraham through spectacular judgments against Egypt and wonderful provision for the Israelites. But it is also remembering the wickedness of the Egyptians in bringing Israel into bondage. Since Egypt and the exodus constitute a major theme of Deuteronomy, we are again confronted with the seeming paradox of Yahweh’s graciousness to the Egyptians. Apart from the allusion to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt and the reminder of the good days of Joseph, is there anything in the law to suggest a reason for Egypt’s special treatment here?

I believe there are two possible reasons that may be added to what is specified in the text, part of the background of the law that an Israelite would have recalled as he meditated on Yahweh’s strange ways. First, Egypt had been thoroughly punished for its sins against Israel. The judgments on the land of Egypt listed in the book of Exodus would have utterly ruined the land of Egypt. It may be that Moses regarded Egypt as having paid for its sins because of Yahweh’s amazing judgments on that land.

Second, perhaps because of the judgments Egypt suffered some Egyptians came to believe in the God of Israel. At any rate, we know that the mixed multitude who came out of Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12:38) included Egyptians (cf. Leviticus 24:10). Though the so-called “mixed multitude” seem to either overlap with or be the same as the trouble-makers who are called “rabble” in Numbers (11:4), the fact that these people left Egypt with Israel probably indicates some sort of faith.

In Deuteronomy, Moses refers to “sojourners” who are with Israel at that time and even includes them in the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:10-15). It seems likely that some of these people would be the descendants of Egyptians who left the land with Israel. If they were, it would constitute another irony in the law, for they are only the second generation. Even if there are no Egyptians among them, it would still be significant that second-generation foreigners are being included in the covenant, for that would seem to make them members of the assembly of Israel.

Perhaps participation in the wilderness wanderings constituted a form of covenant initiation that obviated the necessity to wait for another generation. It was, after all, an exceptional era. In any case, if there were a small but significant group of Egyptian sojourners, they would constitute a group of people like Ruth or Rahab, who had left their own people and land to follow Yahweh. Grace to such people fits the rest of the context and its odd message of God’s mercy in judgment.


The text itself points to the answers for the questions the startled reader would naturally ask. Why special favor shown to Egyptians and Edomites? The short answer is, “because of the history of their relationship with Israel.” Their different histories, of course, show different reasons for God’s gracious law, as the words of Deuteronomy 23:7 point out. Though it may surprise the reader at first, God’s grace toward Egypt and Edom, however remarkable, fits well the context which reminds readers of Tamar and suggests the possibility of grace to anyone who comes to Yahweh in faith.

The law in 23:7-8 points to the historical relationships between Israel and Egypt and Edom. These are not, therefore, abstract laws, but highly personal laws which were written in the light of living relationships. Covenant faith and obedience were the basic issue, not race. Why then even mention nations? Because men’s faith in God is usually formed in a social context, including worship, festivals, feasts, and other ceremonial occasions. Relationships among groups, too, are as real and personal as relationships between individuals. The histories of any of the peoples mentioned could change — and did — either for better or for worse. Just as Egypt had been a friend and protector at one time and a demonically inspired enemy at another, other nations, too, could have a varied history. The judgment pronounced upon them could be changed, just as the judgment on Levi pronounced by Jacob in Genesis 49:5-7 was changed into a blessing when Levi’s descendants proved faithful to Yahweh.

The entire set of laws from 22:30-23:8 are written in such a way that they raise questions that find no simple answers. In the end, I believe we have to say that these laws, while they stand as law, are also riddles that point to the character of God as a gracious Savior in spite of man’s sins. They remind Israel that in Adam, the whole race of man is condemned, but that Yahweh has provided a way of salvation for those who trust Him and seek His kingdom, as Tamar did.

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

[i] The verb translated “abhor” or “abominate” is found in these passages in the Old Testament:  Deuteronomy 7:26; 23:7; 1 Kings 21:26; Isa 14:19; 49:7; Ezekiel 16:25, 52; Amos 5:10; Micah 3:9; Psalm 5:6; 14:1; 53:1; 106:40; 107:18; 119:163; Job 9:31; 15:16; 19:19; 30:10; 1 Chronicles 21:6.  The noun form is much more common, used 118 times in the Hebrew Bible. In Deuteronomy, the noun form appears 17 times and these verses provide a context for the meaning of the verb (Deuteronomy 7:25–26; 12:31; 13:14; 14:3; 17:1, 4; 18:9, 12; 20:18; 22:5; 23:18; 24:4; 25:16; 27:15; 32:16). The abominations Israel is to avoid include idols and everything associated with idolatrous worship, unclean foods, and various kinds of sexual immorality (cf. every use of the noun in Lev. 18:22, 26–27, 29–30; 20:13).

[ii] It is important to remember that the story of Jacob deceiving Isaac is actually the story of Rebekah deceiving her husband in order to prevent him from committing a serious sin. It is not a story of Jacob being greedy and stealing a blessing. It is a story about Isaac being foolish and forgetting the word of God to Rebekah (Genesis 25:33).  God’s plan had been made clear to Isaac and Rebekah even before the boys were born.  For Isaac to attempt to reverse God’s plan was dangerous.  Rebekah saved him from himself.

[iii] Deuteronomy 1:27, 30; 4:20, 34, 37, 45–46; 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21–22; 7:8, 15, 18; 8:14; 9:7, 12, 26; 10:19, 22; 11:3–4, 10; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:1, 3, 6, 12; 17:16; 20:1; 23:4; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 26:5, 8; 28:27, 60, 68; 29:2, 16, 25; 34:11.  The word “Egyptian” is used in Genesis 20 times, in Exodus 57 times, in Leviticus 1 time, in Numbers 4 times, and in Deuteronomy only twice. The word “Pharaoh” appears in Genesis 93 times, in Exodus 115 times, and in Deuteronomy 7 times, while not appearing at all in Leviticus and Numbers. The combined numbers of the various “Egypt-related” words shows Egypt is a major theme in Deuteronomy, with 59 occurrences in 49 verses.