Deuteronomy: A Covenant of Honor and Responsibility

Picking up in our continuing series in our study of the book of Deuteronomy, we come to chapter 25. 

Scripture and Commentary

Deuteronomy 25:1-3

Here two men have come into conflict of such a matter that it is brought before those who have been appointed as judges. This “dispute” (ESV) is to be heard and considered by the judges in accordance with the rules previously established in chapter 19, and deciding between the two who is the “innocent” (ESV) and the “guilty”(ESV).(1) When the judges render their decision, and should they decide that the action of the guilty deserves to be punished, the punishment is to be swift, and is to be administered before the judge who serves as a witness. Further, this punishment was not to be degrading to the person receiving it. Further, this punishment had a legislated limit that it could not go beyond.

It could be argued, that such a passage, in principle, undergirds the American concept of a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” enshrined in our (United States) Eighth Amendment protections. Justice was demanded in such an action, and justice often requires an administration of punishment. Indeed, Christ himself was made the victim of those who rejected God’s law when he was subjected to the scourging of the Roman soldiers. Such an action was intended to dehumanize through excessive punishment.(2) There are two principles that also underlie this law: supervision and proportionality.(3) The overseeing of the application was the responsibility of the judge, and since not all violations are equal, the punishment should fit the crime. 

In the end, the object was restoration to the community.(4) Violations of the law disrupted the harmony of the community. While there were certain crimes so serious that the only available penalty was death (e.g. murder, adultery, incorrigibility) God’s law seeks harmony for the society, to protect the dignity of the offender, and to protect everyone’s pride.(5)

Deuteronomy 25:4

This brief ordinance seems somewhat out of place, but like the ordinance that allowed the passerby and the worker to partake of some of the crop without it being considered as theft, the animal working in the field eating some of the crop in his labor was not wasted.(6) Moreover this law is meant, in principle to speak to matters that didn’t just respect the care of one’s animals, but to work, the value of work, and the necessity of pay for work.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10

Moderns find the idea of levirate marriage somewhat disturbing, but this comes from our concept of marriage being primarily an emotional act, rather than act that regards creation and the ordinances of God. However, what is in sight, and what must be considered, is the inheritance and title to the land which is based in family rights. In the biblical concept of government, the family is the primary unit, since it is what produces the next generation.(7) The biblical book of Ruth gives us insight into the use and application fo the law in the historical context. 

We must not think that this system as a means to somehow abuse women; rather it served to protect the dignity of women by keeping them attached to the family of their husband. This is demonstrated by the public shaming of the close family member who refuses to do his duty, both to his family and his God.

Deuteronomy 25:11-12

Another passage that many find troubling is this ordinance. This passage likely follows from the same set of laws found in Exodus 21 regarding assault. This instance though is one of great seriousness.

A wife decides to intervene and aid her husband as he struggles with an opponent. The underlying assumption here is not that this is a quarrel that has come to blows, but any situation wherein a man may engage in a fight.(8) The specific crime is that she goes to attack the next generation by the genitals. The implication being that she intends to castrate or maim her husband’s opponent, not merely stop the fight.

What is often seen as most troubling is the punishment that is prescribed, which seems—in most translations—disproportionate to the offense and unique among the punishments prescribed in the law, namely mutilation. The most similar historic law, found in Assyrian law codes, prescribes the cutting off of a finger so there has been a question raised in modern scholarship as what precisely is meant by the term translated “hand”, given that the word seems to have a broad range of meaning.(9,10) However the punishment is to be understood, it is to be seen as responding to an act meant to dishonor and disinherit a member of the community and, as such, the law possesses a religious overtone capitalizing upon a focus on fertility as seen as the immediately preceding ordinance on the duty of the brother-in-law.(11)

Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Justice is even to be maintained in regular, daily economic transactions, as such it is not merely some “good idea”, in regard to some sense of self-interest, but it is a concrete ideal.(12) This law finds its parallel in Leviticus, and is meant to establish rules of fair trade.(13) Honesty and well-being gained through trust in the ability to engage in commercial enterprise are hereby enshrined in law.(14) In using fair weights and measures, moreover that those weights and measures are based upon an established, and verifiable standard, one is upholding truth. Moreover, those who seek to gain through such false means are declared an “abomination” to Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

“Mark” or “remember” is the first word of this ordinance. Specifically the people of Israel are to keep in mind the hatred and depravity shown to them by the people of Amalek when the young nation was in its most vulnerable situation as having just left the place of their bondage. Like those from chapter 23 who were merely excluded from having a place in the covenant people, Amalek’s curse is that he is to be wiped out, that there is to be an eternal hostility ever-present in the mind of the Israelite.(15) Amalek, in the sight of God, forfeited any chance of reconciliation in attempting to wipe out his people.

Application

Honor is a foreign concept in modern, western culture. We often attempt to attach it to dignity or value, and while it may have, in certain instances, parallels to them, honor stands somewhat alone. In that sense honor should be a considered as a limited resource possessed by a person and that is accumulated by the adherence to and performance of behaviors that are in line with community expectations. 

Westerners are fixed with an idea of introspection, that there is an idea that we are stirred by our conscience to do things because they are simply the “right thing to do”. Yet, how often do we sit, wringing our hands trying to figure out just what should we do in a situation. Moreover, even when we do know what is the “right thing” to do in a situation, we often resist, afraid of what others would think. The truth is, as much as we would like to think that we are separated from the biblical author’s world and their way of thinking about it, we are steeped in it. All that we’ve done is moved the goalposts from how we wish to be seen by the community, to how we wish to see ourselves. 

Most of our issue with the law, as it is presented in Deuteronomy, and by extension in the other books of the Pentateuch, is that God wrests away certain elements of authority that we think we should have, and makes people take responsibility for their actions. God doesn’t play favorites, and he doesn’t sugar-coat. God lavishes people with tremendous freedom, but has no tolerance for the foolishness of injustice and treachery. God expects injustice to be punished, in the here and now, with hopes of correction and restoration, but that punishment—as tendered by men in his service—to be tendered with mercy and consideration of the honor possessed by an image bearer, demonstrated in vv1-3. God cares about animals in their work, as seen in v4. He is also harsh against those who would attack the next generation, as demonstrated by publicly shaming a brother-in-law who refuses a societal expectation, in vv5-10 or punishing through amputation of the woman’s hand in vv11-12. God cares about how people conduct themselves in business, seen in vv13-16. And God will avenge himself on those who stand against his purposes and his people vv17-19. 

God has expectations that he expects his creatures to embody, and in doing so they honor him, and he gives greater honor. Honor and responsibility go hand in hand in God’s economy, and with that responsibility comes accountability. Because we are unable, as fallen creatures to completely fulfill the requirements of God, he has graciously provided the means, through Christ who did, that suffices and all who believe will reap that benefit.

Notes

  1. NKJV, AV, and the Lexham English reads “righteous” and “wicked” at this point. The underlying Hebrew at this point has a very broad meaning that encompasses wide understanding at this point that encompasses an understanding of the terms both legally and morally.
  2. Rousas J. Rushdoony. Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy. Chalcedon Publishing. Valencia, CA. 2008. p.410-1
  3. Walter Brueggemann. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary Series: Deuteronomy. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. 2001. p. 241
  4. Rushdoony. p. 410
  5. Brueggeman. p. 241
  6. Rushdoony. p. 414
  7. Ibid. p. 417
  8. Ibid. p. 423
  9. Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Baker Publishing. Grand Rapids, MI. 2011. p. 121-4
  10. Scholarship at this point is somewhat divided on what the Hebrew term translated “hand” is actually referring to, ranging from somewhat minor (e.g.ritual depilation of the pubes) to extreme (e.g. clitoridectomy) (see Sandra Jacobs article “Instrumental Talion in Deuteronomic Law”). I am inclined to translate the word as “finger”, as such would follow the practice enshrined in similar law codes: the removing of a finger as opposed to a hand en toto, as seen in the example provided by Copan.
  11. Rushdoony. p. 428-9
  12. Brueggeman. p. 243
  13. Rushdoony. p.431
  14. Brueggeman. p. 243
  15. Brueggeman. p. 244

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