Deuteronomy 23 describes what a holy life looks like. God is concerned not just for the major details, but the minors as well. The people of God are called to a life of holiness not just in the assembly of God’s people but in our private lives and in our core values. C.S. Lewis wrote: “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing… it is irresistible. If even ten percent of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end?”
Deuteronomy 23:1 Holiness has been twisted by the modern world, at its heart holiness means “distinctiveness.” If Israel was not different from the nations, she would not influence or draw them to their Lord, who is the source of their distinctiveness. As much as our flesh recoils at the call for separation from the world God calls us to draw and practice lines that separate. Those who could and could not participate in Israel’s public assemblies were those who had been emasculated by crushing or cutting. This refers to the person who had himself castrated for pagan religious purposes. Consequently, he was forbidden to enter the congregation of God’s people. What about the person whose reproductive organs had been damaged or mutilated by accident or illness? Knowing the mercy of God, this person was most likely allowed to participate in the worship of the LORD. But let’s be clear this does not mean that they are excluded from “the community of Israel,” nor does it mean that they are excluded from worship. The assembly referred to the formal gatherings in the Temple for festivals and times of national calamity. Outside of this, the assembly of the Lord did not exist, though the nation did. People who were physically deformed were always accepted as full members of Israel. This obviously excluded them from serving in the priesthood (Lev. 21:21).
Deuteronomy 23:2-6 People were also restricted from the assembly if they were the children of marriages proscribed by the Lord. This included not just the offspring illegitimate children but also marriages between Israel and those outside of the covenant as well as the children of incest. The reason cited for the exclusion of Moabites and Amnonites is that they were the offspring of incest between Lot and his two daughters (Gen. 19:30-38). The expression “to the tenth generation” in some cases meant indefinitely (“forever” as at the end of v. 3) However, there were exceptions. One in particular stands out, the marriage of Boaz to Ruth the Moabitess. Other reasons cited for exclusion were that they did not help God’s people during the wilderness wanderings. They hired the false prophet Balaam to curse God’s people (Nu. 22:1–24:25). Moses recalls how God’s love for His people turned the curses of Balaam into a blessing. God then issued a permanent decree, that no treaty was ever to be made with these two nations.
Deuteronomy 23:6-7 Lesser restrictions were placed on the Edomites and Egyptians and their descendants, they too were not allowed to worship with God’s people, but only to the second generation. Note that God calls Israel not to hate the Egyptians, because they once lived as aliens in their land. Because of Joseph they allowed Jacob and his descendants to live in Egypt until a new dynasty came to power who did not know Joseph. This dynasty likely were a foreign power that conquered Egypt described by Egyptologists as the Phoenician “sea peoples.” God holds a love for the Egyptians both for their past dealings with Israel and later God speaks through Isaiah of blessings for them in the future (Isaiah 19:19ff).
Deuteronomy 23:9-13 This section is directed to the military but applies to the entire nation and begins with the call to purity. Israel would not experience victory in battle against their enemies unless they maintained their holiness even in their army. Two examples are given to illustrate what God meant. A man became unclean when he experienced discharge in the night. This refers either an accidental bedwetting or what is commonly known as a “wet dream,” this is a nighttime emission of semen (Lev. 15:16–17). If this occurred, he was to go outside the camp and wash himself. He was to remain outside the camp until sunset. This law promoted hygiene and hindered the possible spread of disease. Latrines were to be located outside the camp and excrement buried. In the New Covenant all of God’s people are conscripted to warfare. Just as Israel was instructed, so too are we called to cleanliness and purity. The body of a believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit, God lives within us. We are also called to be stewards of the earth. When God created the world, He called man to oversee it. We are responsible for caring for the earth against pollution and contamination.
Deuteronomy 23:14 This verse explains the reason for this call to purity in the camp, the Lord himself was present in the midst of his people. These practices were to call them to be mindful of His presence in their midst. When dignitaries are expected the army goes to extra effort to be spic and span but God though unseen is always present. God was present to protect them from their enemies. But along with protection and assurance God called them be watchful in every area of their lives. Sloth was offensive to him, and soldiers would want to avoid the possibility that the Lord might turn away from them in battle because of their failure to be holy in His presence. We could suggest that hygiene was the key point of these laws but many of these statues were there simply because the Lord decreed it. Their obedience set Israel apart and distinct from the nations.
Deuteronomy 23:15-16 Israel’s values reflect the values of their God and King. They are instructed in how they were to treat their own people and their neighbors. Holiness was more than outward cleanliness; it is also demonstrated their dealings with others, especially their treatment of the oppressed. They were reminded that they were once slaves in Egypt, and they were to care for a slave who had sought refuge with them. They were to provide sanctuary to a fleeing slave and refuse to hand him over to his master. The slave was to be permitted to live among the people, he was not to be mistreated but given freedom to live wherever he wanted. This is a lesson on God’s perspective on slavery as well as His concern for life, liberty, and justice. God’s people were called to provide sanctuary and help to any person in need. God’s Mercy and grace is to fill the heart of God’s people.
Deuteronomy 23:17-18 Holiness extended to sexual behavior as well. The Canaanites practiced prostitution as part of their worship (Gen. 38; Lev. 19:29; 21:9; Deut. 22:21). The Hebrew word for a shrine prostitute is qadesha, meaning “holy one.” Shrine prostitutes were set aside or dedicated to the worship of their pagan god. Israel was to understand how repugnant such behavior was to Him. They were not to serve as prostitutes, either male or female, and were not to expect God to honor their offerings that came from such activities (Rom. 1:18, 24–32).
Deuteronomy 23:19-20 Israel further demonstrated their holiness in their relationships in finances with their kinsmen. They were not to charge interest on loans. A foreigner could be charged interest but not a fellow Israelite. This may not have been interpreted as forbidding commercial loans. But pointed to a neighbor who became impoverished or who was handicapped or unable to find employment and needed to borrow to provide for food for himself and family. God promised to bless those who were open handed. This is of course true today as we find many Scriptures addressing the call to give to those in need.
Deuteronomy 23:21-23 A vow was a promise made to God that was conditioned on God providing a sought benefit. The worshiper would come to the tabernacle (or later the temple) and publicly proclaim, “If God will produce (the desired benefit), then I will donate or do some other action to the poor (or to some other cause).” All vows were voluntary and made at the worshiper’s discretion. God’s Law stated that if an Israelite made a vow to the Lord, he should not be slow to pay it. God always collects what is vowed to him and demands what was promised, otherwise His reality and personality would be questioned. There is no guilt when a person refrains from making a vow. A child of God’s word is his bond, whether the promise was made to the Lord or to another.
Deuteronomy 23:24-25 Finally this chapter considers property rights. This is illustrated with an example of a traveler from some distance who was passing through an Israelite’s vineyard, he was to be permitted to eat some grapes, but not fill his basket. He could fill his hand with grain, but not harvest. This law demonstrated God’s call for His children to respect personal property while calling the property owner to have compassion on long-distance travelers by allowing them to nourish themselves in the fields God entrusted to His people (God is owner of all land).