Law and History: How to Read the Law of Moses

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

In this series, I have offered an interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 which suggests that a simple surface reading of the text does not do justice to Moses’ or God’s intention, that the larger historical and legal context in which these laws were given suggests a much more complicated interpretation of the laws than one might make if he simply read the laws as independently standing statutes. I offered an interpretation of these laws which claims that they allude to or presuppose historical and legal passages. Considered together, the various texts force an ancient reader to see multiple levels of meaning in these laws. Thus, the laws in Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 contain irony and puzzles that open up nuances and meanings hidden from the casual reader.

But, of course, a modern reader might object. Right off hand, I can imagine the following possible arguments. First, one might claim that the view suggested in my essays is too complex. The objector might say that it would be absurd to assume an ancient reader of the law would be able to remember all these associations and put them together. It is simply too subtle to be believable. Second, one might also object that if the law is stated in terms this complex that it loses its “democratic” character. That is to say, if the law is so difficult to grasp, the book of Deuteronomy hardly stands as a sermon to all the people of Israel. It would become the province of specialists, like the priests, rather than God’s word for His people. This seems to contradict many passages in Deuteronomy which clearly imply the law was intended for the whole nation, especially the paragraph containing the first and great commandment which speaks of common Israelites inscribing the law on their hearts and teaching the commandments diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Third, one might object that these laws are first articulated by Moses in order to correct the sins and problems of the patriarchal era. Examples like Tamar are not set forth in Genesis as behavior to be imitated, but as sinful behavior that God graciously forgave. The law of Moses in Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 makes it clear that God disapproves of this behavior.  There is no paradox or riddle here. What was tolerated before Moses is no longer tolerated.

I have stated the first two objections as different issues, but I think they both boil down to objecting that my view makes the law too complicated. The third objection is rather different. No one can deny that God in some earlier ages tolerated behavior that in later times He condemned. The most obvious example is brothers marrying sisters. In the case of the children of Adam and Eve, for example, there is no other option. Cain married a sister. There was no sin in doing so, and God did not disapprove. But in the law of Moses, God forbade the Israelite men from marrying their sisters (Leviticus 18:6ff., esp. vs. 9). In fact, as the law is stated it even specifically forbids Israelites from imitating Abraham, who married his half-sister. This was not, of course, condemning Abraham himself, but it was drawing a historical line between what had been permissible in the past and what would be permissible in the future. An objector to my view could argue that all of the laws about marriage fit into this paradigm.

The Law Loses its Democratic Nature

I will consider each of these objections in order, beginning with the second rather than the first. It seems to me that the second objection derives from the first, but it is also significantly different and deserves separate consideration. If the law is so complex and if understanding the law requires such subtle thinking, how can we say that Deuteronomy is a sermon for the whole people of Israel? How can we say that the law itself is a law for the whole people of Israel? Doesn’t this kind of subtle interpretation take the law out of the hands of the common Israelite (and in our day the average Christian) and place it into the hands of specialists? Doesn’t this make the law the esoteric province of priests?

With apologies to my hypothetical objector, I believe the answer to this question is also rather complicated. To begin with, the fact that Moses is addressing the nation does not mean that he must speak in terms of a lowest-common-denominator paradigm of sermonizing. We might think that a good sermon must be entirely comprehensible by the entire congregation. But what if Moses did not think that way? What if Moses preached a sermon to Israel that was simple and easily understandable at one level and in some places, but was also at the same time deeply subtle and included riddles and paradoxes in other places? Is this possible? In my understanding, this is the character of the Bible as a whole. Children can read the Bible, understand its basic message and profit from it. Scholars can and do devote their entire lives to understanding the Bible and never plumb the depths of it. Centuries of study by the godliest and wisest of men still leave questions unanswered. Can anyone deny this?

What I am claiming for the book of Deuteronomy is simply that it shares the same character as the Bible as a whole. Deuteronomy is a sermon for the people of Israel. The Ten Words were a clear statement of God’s will for His people that everyone could easily memorize and meditate upon. In an age like Joshua’s, when people followed God’s law, I think we can assume that an Israelite farmer could recite the Ten Words from memory and understand their basic meaning. The song of Moses is much more difficult and subtle, but singing it repeatedly would firmly places its subtleties even into the minds of children and lead them to think about God’s ways and God’s law. We should not underestimate the abilities of an “average man” to understand God’s law, assuming he is taught.

All of that being said, however, I also have to wonder, who can read the law of God and not see that it establishes a hierarchical system? The whole nation of Israel is a priestly nation (Exodus 19:6). But that does not mean that there are no Israelites who are “more priestly” than others, for the tribe of Levi has special privileges and responsibilities not given to the other tribes. And within the tribe of Levi, the family of Aaron has special privileges and responsibilities not given to other families. Furthermore, within the family of Aaron, the firstborn sons have special privileges and responsibilities not granted to the others in Aaron’s family. Israel’s law system includes provisions which define a hierarchical society. It not only assumes, it requires specialists, including specialists in the law.

There is no reason to claim that this system removes the law from the “common man.” It simply requires that the common man seek counsel from the Levites when they confront difficult issues of interpretation and application. Similarly, it requires that the Levites seek counsel from other Levites or priests when they face matters they cannot adequately handle.  Levites and priests, too, might not be able to answer questions put to them, so that they would be required to ask the High Priest to consult Yahweh Himself through the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30; Numbers 27:21). The law of Moses establishes a hierarchical system. To be sure, it has what we might call “democratic” elements, but the notion that the law contains difficulties and subtleties does not contradict the idea that the law addresses the whole nation and all the people, for God provided teachers of His law to lead the whole people to deeper understanding and love, as He also does in the New Covenant (Ephesians 4:11-16).

This View is too Complex

The first objection I mentioned is simply that the view I set forth is too complex. How could the average Israelite be expected to understand the kind of subtleties I claim are to be found in Deuteronomy? By answering the second objection, I have already partially answered this one. The answer is twofold. First, the law contains many teachings, basic instruction, that would be perfectly comprehensible to the “average” Israelite. I am not claiming that every word of the law is a paradox or riddle that would be hard to understand. The Ten Words in particular define the basic covenantal ethic of Israelite society and they are totally accessible. Second, God gave teachers to Israel, specialists who were supposed to devote their lives to study the law and to teach it to the people of Israel. Consider Ezra: “For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of Yahweh, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances” (Ezra 7:10).

But this answer is not enough. The fact is that if the “average” Israelite were educated in the law, few of the subtle aspects of Deuteronomy would be beyond him. First, as I pointed out previously, at the time of Joshua, the whole written Scripture was just Genesis through Deuteronomy. This is not a vast corpus. The people had been commanded to gather together locally every Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3). What would they do? Obviously, I think, they would read the law and talk about it. They would probably also sing and pray. The weekly Sabbath worship should have informed the “average” Israelite about the subtleties of the law through the repeated reading of Genesis through Deuteronomy and the instruction given by local leaders.

Second, we need to think more carefully about the situation of the “average” Israelite. Why should we assume that he would not notice what we can notice? Remember, everything was personal to them. They were the tribes and the people who came out of Jacob’s loins and Egypt’s bondage. What Israelite would forget the story of Reuben? What Israelite would not know the story of Lot, or the story of Tamar? When Moses pronounced God’s condemnation of acts similar to those of Reuben or Tamar who would not easily recognize it and ask questions about Moses’ meaning?

To regard my suggested interpretation as too complex or difficult for the average Israelite in Joshua’s day is unfair to the intelligence of the so-called “average” man of any age. No doubt there are subtleties in the law that the “average” man could not understand and concerning which he would seek help from teachers and specialists. But, at the same time, the “average” man, hearing the law read over and over each Sabbath, meditating on the law in his daily life, and seeking understanding could understand much. In a godly era like the days of Joshua, the teachers of the law in Israel would have supplied any gaps.

The Law Corrects the Sins of the Past

The third possible objection is that we do not need to read these puzzles and paradoxes into the law, because there is another approach that adequately addresses the matter: the book of Deuteronomy is simply correcting sins of the past. What had been tolerated in the patriarchal era would no longer be permissible. Cain married a sister. Abraham married a half sister. Neither of them sinned in so doing, but the times had changed. In Deuteronomy, Moses defined permissible and impermissible relationships differently. No paradox or riddle is necessary. This view could be combined with the first two objections or be set forth as an independent argument.

As I have already stated, there are changes in the laws over time. Brother-sister marriage was permitted in earlier times but was indeed forbidden later. These sorts of change in the law do not mean that a complex reading of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 is unnecessary. On the contrary, I offer three arguments to demonstrate that a complex reading is the Biblical approach.

First, whatever may be said about my interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8, the fact is that we cannot escape the basic idea of paradox and subtleties in the law, including intentional apparent contradictions. One of the more obvious ones, which has been widely recognized from ancient times, came up in the previous discussion. On the one hand, the law specifically forbids Israelites from mixing wool and linen in their clothing (Deuteronomy 22:12). This is not because the mixture implies sin or compromise. Quite to the contrary, the mixture is too holy for the common Israelite. Only the priests were to wear garments of mixed cloth. On the other hand, the law also required Israelites to wear tassels with a blue cord (Deuteronomy 22:12; Numbers 15:38). That meant a mixture of cloth since only wool could be dyed. The cord on the tassel is an insignificantly small part of the garment, but the mere fact of including a small piece of dyed wool on a linen garment would make the association between the common Israelites and the priests. The “contradiction” in the law was intended to make a theological point: that all Israelites were priests in a secondary sense. This is a feature of Mosaic law that modern interpreters must take into account.

Another surprising example appears in a festschrift for James Jordan. Peter Leithart drew attention to a “missing” law in Leviticus 18, one that must have created no little confusion for ancient priests: “There is no explicit prohibition against uncovering the nakedness of a daughter. I demonstrate below that daughters were excluded, but in a passage that explicitly excludes aunts, sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, step-daughters, and granddaughters, the absence of a direct prohibition of father-daughter incest is so startling that it must be deliberate and meaningful.”[i]

No doubt Israelites in Joshua’s day would have pondered the meaning of this omission, but they did not face a glaring contradiction here and it was clear from the general structure of the chapter that father-daughter incest was forbidden, even though mysteriously unmentioned.  As Leithart points out, silence may be a form of emphasis. When one expects to find a particular literary feature but it is absent, that absence becomes a puzzle that forces readers to think. The absence of a father-daughter prohibition in Leviticus, therefore, drew attention to the subject. In Ezekiel’s day the emphasis was intensified and the mystery heightened by the introduction of an apparent breach of the unstated law by Yahweh Himself.

By way of background to Ezekiel, we must remember that Israel is called God’s son in the Exodus (Exodus 4:22) and the people His sons and daughters (Deuteronomy 32:19). In fact, the father-son image dominates and characterizes the entire book of Deuteronomy.[ii] In a passage that Ezekiel specifically points to, Yahweh is described as Israel’s father and mother (Deuteronomy 32:1-18). Later, Jerusalem is frequently pictured as the daughter of Yahweh (2 Kings 19:21; Psalm 9:14; Isaiah1:8; 10:32; 16:1; 37:22; 52:2; 62:11; Jeremiah 4:31; 6:2; etc.).[iii] With this literary background in mind, when Ezekiel describes Yahweh as having found Jerusalem as an infant girl, raised her as His daughter, and then married her, the metaphor is striking (Ezekiel 16:1-14).

Leithart suggests that the father-daughter incest seemingly implied by Ezekiel finds a solution in the revelation of the Son in the New Covenant: Under the Old Covenant, Israel was forced to puzzle over the revelation that Yahweh is both Father and Husband to Israel. The jarring implicit incest offered a puzzle designed to arouse Israel to consider a plurality within the life of Yahweh, the possibility of an eternal divine society. Perhaps, they would begin to suspect, Yahweh is both Father and Husband to Israel because Yahweh is Himself both Father and Son. Ultimately the knot is undone by the gospel’s fuller uncovering of the Triune life, its revelation of a Father who so loves His daughter that He sends His son to give Himself and ultimately, as Jonathan Edwards put it, to introduce her into the family of the Triune life and the bride of His Son.”[iv]

Second, my understanding of the law is confirmed by passages subsequent to the law which indicate that ancient Israelites discovered complex layers of meaning in the law. To take one example related to our passage, consider the rest of the Old Testament witness concerning Moab. We have already pointed out in a previous essay that Boaz’ relationship with Ruth suggests that Boaz, a child of a mother from a condemned nation, realized that Deuteronomy 23:3-6 was not intended to exclude godly individuals who would repent and seek the God of Israel. But the later history of Israel is suggestive as well.

On the one hand, almost every reference to Moab in the Old Testament is negative (Judges 3:12, 14–15; 1 Samuel 14:47; 1 Kings 11:33; 2 Kings 1:1; 3:4–5, 7, 10; Isaiah 15:1 ff.; etc.). The general perspective is that Moab hates Yahweh and Israel and that it therefore deserves the judgment that comes upon it. On the other hand, when David was in trouble, he sought help from the king of Moab (1 Samuel 22:3-4). He did not go to Edom or Ammon, but to Moab. Why? The obvious answer would seem to be that it was because David’s ancestress, Ruth, was from Moab. Perhaps the story suggests some sort of family connections or friendship between Moab and David, though there may be nothing more here than the king of Moab’s enmity to Saul. In any event, this does not bear fruit in the salvation or blessing of the nation, for David later has to go to war against Moab and he punishes them severely (2 Samuel 8:2).[v]  The fact that Moab served David (a blessing for the Moabites) and that there was a Moabite among David’s mighty men (1 Chronicles 11:46) does indicate that David did seek the blessing of Moab and allowed a Moabite to have a special place in his kingdom. He did not understand the curse of Deuteronomy 23:3-6 as absolute.

It is even more remarkable to note that this long-standing and fierce enemy of Israel is promised Yahweh’s gracious salvation: “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, declares Yahweh (Jeremiah 48:47). Israel had been forbidden to seek the peace or prosperity of the Moabites, but David and Jeremiah understood that in His grace, God would overturn the curse. No doubt they would have also understood the historical allusions in Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 and seen the ironies and puzzles in them.

Third, consider the case of Jonah. He knew that God shows Himself to be gracious even to His enemies. Jonah understood that though Yahweh pronounces terrifying curses, He is the God who delights to change the curse into a blessing. When, therefore, Yahweh sent Jonah to Nineveh, Jonah understood from the beginning that Yahweh’s declaration of certain judgment in 40 days included an implicit but unstated promise of salvation should Nineveh repent. Where did Jonah learn of this? Through his reading of the law and prophets and through his study of the history of Israel. Nothing in the message that God gave to Jonah suggested the possibility of mercy. But Jonah understood the implicit and hidden message included in the condemnation of Nineveh. After all, if Yahweh simply intended to destroy Nineveh, there would have been no prophetic visit, unless it would be like the angels’ visit to Sodom, to remove a godly remnant before the fire would fall from heaven.

Reasoning like Jonah’s requires one to go beyond the surface of the text and consider other contexts, especially the most important context of all:  the Bible’s depiction of the character of Yahweh. Who is Yahweh? What kind of a God is He? Jonah knew the answer that Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 teaches between the lines of its seemingly judgmental laws.


This entire essay illustrates what James Jordan argued in his introduction to the Biblical worldview, Through New Eyes: “Before the modern era, and before Gutenberg, there were few books. The few men who wrote books wrote them very carefully. As a result, ancient writings, including the Bible, are very tightly and precisely written. Every word has its place. This fact is generally ignored by “liberal” scholarship, which usually assumes that any part of the Bible is a sloppy conflation of several sources. This viewpoint grew up to explain apparent contradictions and paradoxes in the text. A proper reading of any ancient text, including the Bible, would take the apparent contradictions as stimuli for deeper reflection.”[vi]

The oddness of Deuteronomy 22:30-23:8 is intentional. Like God’s message to Jonah, Moses’ sermon included layers of meaning not explicitly stated in the text, but which a sensitive reader should pick up on a meditative reading. Indeed, the whole Bible is written as both revelation and riddle. Its message is hidden from the proud and foolish who hate their Creator, but is open to those who love their heavenly Father and seek Him with all their heart.

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

[i] From Peter J. Leithart, “The Knotted Thread of Time,” The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift for James B. Jordan (Peter J. Leithart and John Barach, eds.; Eugene, Oregon:  Pickwick Publications, 2011) 58-59.

[ii] See  Ralph Allan Smith, Hear My Son:  An Examination of the Fatherhood of Yahweh in Deuteronomy (Monroe, LA:  Athanasius Press, 2011).

[iii] The expression “daughter of Zion” should be understood as “daughter Zion.” Zion is not a mother, but the daughter.

[iv] Op. cit. p. 73.

[v] Apparently some Jewish commentators suggest that the king of Moab killed David’s parents and David’s severity was a response to Moab’s treachery.

[vi] James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock, 1999) 14.