II. The Second Address by Moses —Covenant Obligations (Deuteronomy 4:44–26:19)
II. The Second Address by Moses —Covenant Obligations (4:44–26:19)
A. The Ten Commandments and the Greatest Command (4:44–6:25)
4:44–5:2 After summarizing Israel’s history since departing Egypt, Moses began to explain the covenant obligations that Israel owed the Lord. In this long section that comprises most of the book of Deuteronomy (4:44–26:19), Moses reviewed for the new generation God’s laws and commands. They were to learn and follow these statutes and ordinances that Israel had received (5:1-2). Notice the imperatives: Learn and follow.
Bible study is good and necessary. But if you get no further than acquiring an intellectual knowledge of the Bible, you haven’t gone far enough. A football team might have an expert understanding of the rules of the game. But if the coach and players fail to put those rules into practice, the only thing they will obtain will be a losing record.
5:3-4 Moses said, God did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with all of us who are alive here today (5:3). But actually, God did make the covenant with their fathers—that is, with the previous generation at Sinai (Horeb). Moses had stated this plainly (4:10-14, 45). In fact, he said it in the previous sentence! (5:2). So this should be viewed as a rhetorical point. In effect Moses was telling those standing before him, “This isn’t merely your father’s covenant I’m talking about; this is your covenant. Your fathers are gone; now you are God’s covenant partners. He expects obedience from you.” When God spoke with the previous generation of Israelites from the fire on the mountain years before (5:4), he was speaking to all future generations.
5:5-6 As Israel’s mediator, Moses had stood between them and the Lord to receive his commands for them (5:5). Here he declared those commands once again. The preamble to the commands sets the context for all the rest: I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the place of slavery (5:6). The law was not given for Israel’s redemption; they had already been redeemed from Egypt when he gave the law to them. No one is saved by keeping the law, then. Rather, the law provided the means for a redeemed people to express their reciprocal love for the holy God who had saved them.
5:7-21 (See Exod 20:1-17 for commentary on the Ten Commandments.)
5:22-27 When God had given his Ten Commandments, the people had reacted in terror at his fearsome presence. The loud voice of the Lord, combined with the fire, cloud, and total darkness on the mountain from which he spoke, was too much for them (5:22-23). They had seen God’s glory and greatness, and surprisingly it hadn’t killed them (5:24). But they weren’t convinced this would last! They felt sure they would die if they heard the Lord’s voice any longer (5:25). So they begged Moses to represent them before God, hear his commands, and relay everything he said: they wanted a buffer. With Moses serving as their mediator, the Israelites promised to listen and obey (5:27).
5:28-33 Unfortunately, the Lord recognized that Israel’s actual obedience wouldn’t prove to be as strong as their words. It would take the new covenant sacrifice of Jesus Christ to make it possible for those who trust him to receive new hearts with the capacity to obey him steadfastly (see Heb 8:7-13). Nevertheless, the Lord agreed to have Moses serve as an intermediary for the people (5:30-31). So Moses urged the new generation to do what the previous generation had promised (see 5:27): Do as the Lord your God has commanded you . . . so that you may live, prosper, and have a long life in the land you will possess (5:32-33).
6:1-3 Many years later, King Solomon would write, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10). But Moses already knew this truth. Fearing God (reverencing and respecting him) was necessary if Israel was to obey him and have a long life (6:2). He therefore urged them to be careful to follow God’s instructions so that they would prosper and multiply (6:3).
6:4-9 These verses are known in Judaism as the Shema, which is the Hebrew word that begins 6:4; it means “listen, hear.” Moses was calling the people to sit up and take notes on what he was about to say because of how important it was. In fact, Jesus would later call it “the greatest and most important command” (Matt 22:37-39). Moses said, Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength (6:4-5). It was vital that the people get this right because if the Israelites were going to survive and thrive in the promised land, the family unit would have to become the primary place where faith in and love for the Lord was modeled and transferred. Parents are to teach God’s commandments and statutes regularly to their children in the everyday events of life (6:7-9).
It’s good for families to read through devotionals together and have formal teaching times. But such things need to be combined with the powerful witness of a godly lifestyle that incorporates God’s Word in each day’s routine. Notice how regularly Israel was told to speak of the things of God: when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (6:7). That purposeful approach to spiritual training, that effort to welcome the Lord to be part of all aspects of life, is how parents can transfer to their children a biblical worldview so that God is their point of reference as they navigate choices. Such was God’s agenda for his kingdom people in Moses’s day, and it’s still true today. This responsibility doesn’t rest with the government, schools, or even ultimately with the church. The family carries the primary responsibility for passing along the torch of faith as the church supports parents in the work. The primary role of the home is to foster gospel evangelization and to disciple children.
Many Jews took the command to bind God’s words on their forehead literally (6:8). They wrote Exodus 6:4-9 on tiny scrolls, placed them in small boxes called phylacteries or frontlets, and tied them to their foreheads. This was the practice that Jesus would have in view when he condemned scribes and Pharisees who enlarged their phylacteries in order to draw attention to themselves (see Matt 23:5).
6:10-12 Writing God’s Word on their minds and loving him with their entire being would be essential for the Israelites, who were about to enter into a land of instant prosperity. There were abundant cities . . . houses . . . cisterns . . . vineyards and olive groves there—none of which Israel had built, filled, dug, or planted (6:10-11). All this new generation of Israelites had to do was take the land and enjoy its riches. (This is a picture of how God’s promises, while in our reach, must be grasped with our hands of faith.) But Moses had spent forty years in the wilderness with these people’s parents! And he knew the sinful human tendency to forget God’s past deliverance and provision when times are good (6:12).
6:13-19 Moses warned what would happen if Israel ceased to fear the Lord and turned instead to follow other gods (6:13-14). In his anger, the Lord would obliterate them (6:15). This taking over of Canaan, then, was no game. Israel was to represent the one true and living God to the surrounding nations. His glory was at stake. So Moses warned them, Do not test the Lord your God as you tested him at Massah (6:16).
Massah means “Testing.” This was the place where Israel had complained against Moses and the Lord because they had no water (see Exod 17:1-17). How quickly they forgot God’s ability to do miraculous things with water, as he had done at the Red Sea. Moses warned the people not to test God as Israel had done at “The Place of Testing,” a location that had borne the name of their rebellion since that time. Yet despite this fierce warning, the Israelites could be confident that obedience to God would bring the prosperity and protection he had promised (6:17-19).
6:20-25 Moses then returned to the theme of teaching future generations. When Israelite children would ask their parents what these decrees, statutes, and ordinances meant (6:20), the fathers and mothers were to give a God-glorifying answer. (Notice the spiritual responsibility entrusted to them. They were expected to be informed and quick to reply with truth.) The answer began with the Israelites as helpless Egyptian slaves (6:21). But God delivered them through great and devastating signs and wonders so that he could bring his people into the land he had promised (6:22-23). Then he graciously gave Israel his law so they would prosper by being careful to follow every one of these commands (6:24-25). This is the kind of teaching that children need today from Christian parents. We must remind them of God’s miraculous acts of grace, exhorting them to trust and obey him for the blessings promised.
B. Remember God’s Faithfulness and Obey Him (7:1–11:32)
7:1-6 Israel’s possession of the promised land would include the hard but holy work of destroying the God-hating nations that lived there. Moses could speak of the conquest as if it were an accomplished fact because the Lord would deliver their enemies into their hands. Though seven nations more numerous and powerful than Israel lived there, Israel would completely destroy them (7:1-2). Doing so was necessary because of the wicked practices of the Canaanites (see Lev 18:1-30; Deut 18:9-14). In this specific instance of history, God’s people were called to execute God’s vengeance.
If Israel were to let them live, make a treaty with them, or intermarry with them, they would corrupt Israel and turn their hearts to worship other gods, provoking God to anger and thereby calling down his wrath on his people (7:2-4). The only safeguard against idolatry’s spread was to destroy the Canaanite idols (7:5). The Lord is a holy God; therefore, his people are a holy people (7:6) and must live lives of holiness.
7:7-8 God had not set his heart on Israel because they were an especially numerous or righteous group (7:7). Rather, he did so because he loved them (7:8). This passage reminds us as Christians that we were not saved because we were something special or because we sought God’s help. It all began with God’s love: “he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
7:9-11 Distinct above every so-called god of the nations, the Lord is the only true God. He is faithful not only to bless those who love and obey him, but also to judge those who hate and disobey him (7:9-10). Therefore, the only wise thing Israel could do was to keep the commands and ordinances of God that Moses was laying out for them (7:11). This principle is still applicable to us.
7:12-15 The promises for obedience were tremendous. God would keep his covenant loyalty with Israel, by loving, blessing, and multiplying his people (7:12-13). Their blessings would also include freedom from all the terrible diseases they had suffered in Egypt (7:15). God would withhold no good thing from his people.
7:16-24 But the price of blessing was obedience. And the obedience God required of Israel included the destruction of the Canaanites and the rejection of their gods. Knowing that the people harbored a fear of the Canaanites, Moses pointed to what God did to Pharaoh and all Egypt in order to rescue his people (7:18-19). Even as seemingly weak Israel prepared to walk into the future God had prepared for them, Pharaoh’s mighty chariot army lay at the bottom of the Red Sea. So Moses said, The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you fear. . . . Don’t be terrified of them, for the Lord your God, a great and awesome God, is among you (7:19, 21). The ultimate cure for fear is awareness of the presence and power of God.
7:25-26 The promise of victory was accompanied by a warning not to covet and take any of the spoils of the defeated Canaanites. Just as the gold in the tabernacle was holy because it was devoted to the Lord’s service, so also the gold of the Canaanites was detestable because it was devoted to the images of their gods (7:25). So the possessions of the Canaanites were to be devoted to destruction. Joshua 7:1-26, however, records how an Israelite would disobey this command, cause harm to his fellow Israelites, and pay the ultimate price.
8:1 Moses was a great historian who knew what God’s people had been through. He was also a great teacher who wanted his students to go out from his classroom to great success. Moses never tired of telling his listeners that obedience to God was something they needed to take seriously and keep in front of them if they wanted to experience blessings in the land God was giving them.
8:2-4 God’s classroom for teaching the Israelites humble dependence on and obedience to him was the wilderness, where he tested them to find out if they would keep his commands (8:2). At work here is an important spiritual principle. All believers must go through the wilderness of testing before God will let us reach our destiny. Of course, God knew what the Israelites would do; he didn’t have to test them. But they needed to find out if their faith in God would hold strong in a place where they had to depend on him for everything: food, water, clothing, protection. What they needed to learn was that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (8:3). The manna that sustained their lives arrived by God’s Word, as did everything good they received. Keeping God’s Word and past provision at the forefront of our thoughts in times of testing will bring us spiritual victory.
8:5 Good parents know that their children require discipline in order to become wise and responsible adults. God is the ultimate parent who disciplines his children for their own good. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:11).
8:6-11 In contrast to the hardships of the wilderness, the promised land held out the prospect of abundant water, crops, and minerals. It was a land so rich that when the people enjoyed its bounty they would bless the Lord for giving them such a good land (8:7-10). But with prosperity comes the temptation to forget the Lord . . . by failing to keep his commands (8:11).
8:12-17 The human heart can quickly turn from thanking God for his blessings to puffing itself up with pride (8:12-14). And there’s little worse than a person who has come from humble circumstances through the help and mercy of others turning around and forgetting about them and acting like his change of fortune came about by his own merit, essentially claiming, My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me (8:17). Later, Paul told the Romans, “I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should” (Rom 12:3). Ultimately, to be prideful is to lie to yourself about yourself. “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5).
8:18 To counter arrogance, Moses made one of the great statements of kingdom economics: Remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth. In other words, God gives the ability and opportunity necessary for gaining wealth, and he does so with the specific goal of preparing people to fulfill his kingdom purposes, which include being a blessing to others. God doesn’t give us wealth just so that we can lavish it on ourselves. To separate wealth from God, in fact, is a travesty because prosperity is inextricably tied to his kingdom agenda for his people.
8:19-20 The Israelites were warned that if they acted like the Canaanites, God would treat them like Canaanites: Like the nations the Lord is about to destroy before you, you will perish if you do not obey [him] (8:20). God doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t let his people live as they please.
9:1-3 Moses emphasized the challenge that lay ahead of them on the other side of the Jordan River: the need to drive out nations greater and stronger than Israel, whose inhabitants were like giants (9:1-2). But he quickly assured the people that the Lord would act in advance as a consuming fire, assuring victory (9:3).
9:4-6 Then Moses cautioned against another kind of spiritual pride: Do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord brought me in to take possession of this land because of my righteousness’ (9:4). On the contrary, God was removing the Canaanites from the land because of their great wickedness and to fulfill the promise he swore to . . . Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (9:4-5). In other words, Israel was receiving the promised land because God hates wickedness and keeps his promises. If Israel was tempted to think of themselves as inherently righteous, they needed to nip that idea in the bud. Moses pulled no punches when he said, You are a stiff-necked people (9:6).
9:7-12 That last comment led Moses to offer an extended illustration of the Israelites’ rebellious nature. He said, Remember and do not forget (9:7). Moses wanted to drive home how easy it was for God’s people to go off the rails even in the face of his constant mercy and faithfulness. He reminded them of the quintessential example of Israel’s sin: the golden calf incident (see Exod 32:1-35). Israel had indulged in idolatry and debauchery, breaking God’s commandments while Moses was still on the mountain receiving them (9:8-12).
9:13-21 God was so angry in the calf incident that he threatened to destroy Israel and start over with Moses (9:13-14). Moses was furious too, smashing the tablets of the law on the ground (9:17). He burned the calf, ground it to powder, and put it into Israel’s water source to make them drink it (9:21). Then Moses fell down . . . in the presence of the Lord for forty days and forty nights, fasting because of all the sin [the people] committed (9:18). He interceded for them. An unrighteous people owed their preservation to the prayers of a righteous man and the mercy of a gracious God. Israel’s story consisted of rebellion, divine anger, intercession by Moses, divine grace, repeat. They’d not been chosen for their inherent goodness: we haven’t been either.
9:22-29 Moses was just getting warmed up. He mentioned Israel’s rebellions at several other stops along the way to the promised land (9:22-23). Then, for good measure, he added, You have been rebelling against the Lord ever since I have known you (9:24). In spite of this, Moses prayed for them, appealing to God’s promises to the patriarchs, his reputation among the nations, and his grace (9:26-29).
10:1-5 Continuing his lesson on the events at Sinai and beyond, Moses told the Israelites how God led him to replace the stone tablets of the law that had been broken and to make an ark to put them in. Moses did exactly as the Lord commanded him.
10:6-9 These verses refer to the events of Aaron’s death and the succession of his son Eleazar to the high priesthood (10:6). Moses reminded the people that the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to assist the priests with the work of carrying the ark of the Lord’s covenant (10:8).
10:10-13 Moses then resumed his narrative of his second stint of forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai (10:10). God heard Moses’s prayer and agreed not to annihilate Israel (10:10). Then it was time for the nation to move on to possess Canaan (10:10-11). But doing so successfully, and living there in prosperity under God’s blessing, would require that the people fear the Lord. What does a person do who “fears” the Lord? He walks in his ways, loves him, and worships him (10:12). Such a person takes God seriously—so seriously that he does what God says. To do so is for [his] own good (10:13).
10:14-22 God was worthy of Israel’s complete devotion because he is the Lord of creation to whom everything belongs (10:14). And yet, out of all the nations on the earth, he had his heart set on Israel’s fathers and loved them, choosing them in his sovereign love and election (10:15). The only appropriate response the people of Israel could make was to circumcise their hearts–that is, to bow in submission to God and be stiff-necked no longer (10:16; see 9:6). The God of Israel is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God of justice, love, and mercy who calls his people to show these same qualities to others (10:17-19). Moses’s heartbeat was for God’s people to fear and worship him because of who he is and what he had done for them (10:20-22).
11:1 Therefore—in light of all that the Lord had done for Israel—Moses called them to love God and keep his commands. For God’s people, there is no such thing as professing sincere love for God without obeying him. And the Israelites had the added motivation of the promise that obedience to God would bring untold blessing and prosperity on them in the land he was giving them as their inheritance. In other words, they were promised internal strength and external abundance.
11:2-7 All of Israel’s history had been for the purpose of learning God’s discipline. One reason the generation about to enter the promised land needed to learn the lessons from it was that their children had not experienced or seen the Lord’s discipline as they had lived it (11:2). This mention could refer not only to the children in their tents at that time, but to future generations who would need to learn the lessons of faith (see 11:18-21).
Moses delivered a brief history lesson beginning with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, where God’s greatness, strong hand, and outstretched arm decimated Pharaoh and his army (11:2-4). Then he singled out the sin of Dathan and Abiram, who joined in the rebellion of Korah. On that terrifying day, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them (11:6; see Num 16:1-35), a judgment Moses said his hearers had witnessed firsthand (11:7).
11:8-9 This was a huge contrast to the bright future that awaited Israel in Canaan if they would love and obey God with all their hearts. Moses may have singled out Dathan and Abiram as examples of disobedience because they blamed Moses for dragging them out of Egypt—“a land flowing with milk and honey” (Num 16:13). This was a deliberate dig at God’s promise to lead his people to a land flowing with milk and honey (11:9). If you refer to a land in which you were enslaved as a land of blessing, your moral compass is defective.
11:10-17 Moses compared Egypt with Canaan, reminding his hearers that Egypt had to be irrigated by hand in order for anything to grow (11:10). By contrast, Canaan was watered by rain from the sky (11:11). But this didn’t come from the hand of a fictional Mother Nature, but from the hand of Father God (11:12). So if Israel was careful to obey . . . love . . . and worship the Lord, they could count on him to care for the land and bless their produce (11:13-15). For an agrarian society, that’s everything. But if they turned to worship false gods that couldn’t help them, they would find that their produce wouldn’t grow (11:16-17)—a devastating situation.
11:18-25 The antidote to forgetfulness and idolatry was stated in 6:4-9 and is repeated here in 11:18-21. Israel needed to imprint God’s words on their hearts and minds, and teach them to their children every day in all circumstances (11:18-19). Should they fail in this, they would trip and fall. Should they do it faithfully, their days would be many in the land (11:21), God would drive out their enemies (11:23), and no one would be able to stand against them (11:25). God was providing them with the perfect means to achieve guaranteed results. This is a pattern worth following.
11:26-32 The choices God gave Israel boiled down to two clear options: a blessing for obedience and a curse for disobedience (11:26-28). These choices would be made visible and audible later when the nation came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in Canaan. There they would proclaim the blessings and the curse (11:29-30; see 27:1–28:68; Josh 8:30-35). Like a parent teaching a child an important lesson yet again, Moses cautioned the Israelites to be careful to follow all the statutes and ordinances set before them (11:32).
C. True Worship and False Worship (12:1–13:18)
12:1-4 Another concern loomed large in Moses’s mind—and with good reason. As Israel entered the land God had promised, they would see the various Canaanite worship centers, which were typically erected on the high mountains, on the hills, and under every green tree (12:2). These sites contained sacred pillars and Asherah poles honoring the Canaanite god and goddess of fertility, Baal and Asherah (12:3). Moses knew that the people might be intrigued by forms of worship that sought divine favor for fertile crops and livestock. This kind of perverted worship often included sexual symbols and immoral sexual acts. The Israelites had fallen for such debauchery before (see Num 25:1-9). But Israel was not to worship the Lord this way (12:4).
12:5-7 Instead, Israel was to worship at the place God would choose to put his name for his dwelling (12:5). Rather than permitting worship on any high place or under any green tree, God intended to centralize Israel’s worship. The ultimate fulfillment of this would be at the temple in Jerusalem. Until that was built, the divinely ordained place for worship was the tabernacle. This was the place where Israel would bring burnt offerings and sacrifices and rejoice in God’s presence (12:6-7).
12:8 What they were not to do was what they were doing—everyone [was] doing whatever [seemed] right in his own sight. Previously God had commanded the people to “do what [was] right in [God’s] sight” (Exod 15:26). This highlights a great divide. Will we follow the destructive path that looks good to our faulty eyes? Or will we follow the path of life that God sees and reveals to us?
12:9-14 Moses repeated what he had just said in 12:5-7. When the Israelites entered the land, they were to worship only in the place where the Lord chose to have his name dwell (12:10-11, 14). That location would be the only appropriate place to offer worship and sacrifice—in contrast to all the sacred places (12:13). In other words, God’s people must not worship at the “sacred places” where the Canaanites worshiped their false deities. The Canaanites thought that by worshiping in all the “right” places throughout the land, they could compel or convince the gods to act on their behalf. But Israel didn’t need to guess or discover the right hilltop on which to worship the Lord. He would reveal it. Unfortunately, Israel’s sad history demonstrates that they did indeed seek to worship “on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Kgs 14:23; cp. 2 Chr 28:4).
12:15-16 Though animals could only be sacrificed in one place, this did not prevent Israelite fathers from hunting animals for family meals (12:15). Animals could be eaten freely without needing to be brought to the central sanctuary. But one thing was prohibited: the people were not [to] eat the blood [but to] pour it on the ground like water (12:16).
Consuming blood was strictly prohibited “because the life of every creature is its blood” (Lev 17:14) and “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). Therefore, it was sacred. This prohibition pointed to the ultimate blood sacrifice, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). By Jesus’s own blood, he has “obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).
12:17-28 Any animals and produce to be presented to God in sacrifice had to be brought to the tabernacle to be offered and eaten in the presence of the Lord (12:17-18).
The instructions that follow here (12:21-28) may strike us as unnecessary repetition (see 12:15-19). But we must remember Moses’s purpose—for both his immediate audience and future readers—of driving home the absolute necessity of fearing and obeying God. Given the sinful human tendency to forget, any good teacher of God’s Word knows the value of repetition, as illustrated by the apostle Peter: “I will always remind you about these things, even though you know them. . . . I think it is right, as long as I am in this bodily tent, to wake you up with a reminder (2 Pet 1:12-13).
12:29-32 Moses’s concern over the Israelites’ vulnerability to idolatry also led him to repeat the warning he had given them at the beginning of this chapter (see 12:1-4). He knew that once the people became curious and asked, How did these nations worship their gods?, they would be hooked into thinking, I’ll also do the same (12:30). Therefore Moses warned them that false worship is no harmless sin. What we worship drives how we live: as part of their idolatry, the Canaanites burned their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods (12:31). Worldview matters. Ideas have consequences.
13:1-3 Some might assume that if a self-proclaimed prophet is able to perform a miraculous sign or wonder (13:1), then he must be the real deal. But Satan and his followers have performed and will perform false miracles in order to lead people astray (see Exod 7:11-12; Matt 24:24; 2 Thess 2:9; Rev 13:11-4). Moses said the test of a true prophet is not his magic but his message. No matter what a prophet, magician, or soothsayer did to dazzle the Israelites, Moses said in effect, “It’s his theology that matters.” If a person said, Let us follow other gods, Israel was not to listen to him under any circumstances—no matter what astonishing signs he performed (13:2-3).
13:3-4 The Lord would permit apparent wonder workers to appear because he was testing the Israelites—to see if they would love God, keep his laws, worship him, and remain faithful to him (13:3-4). The Lord does the same to us today. Though he never tempts us, he does permit us to encounter temptation in order to test our faithfulness and reveal what is in our hearts.
13:5 A false prophet or dreamer who attempted to lead Israel astray was to face death because to entice God’s people to follow idols is to urge rebellion against the Lord. Idolatry was not to be tolerated.
False doctrine is not to be tolerated in the church either. Though the church does not have authority to carry out capital punishment, it does have the authority (and responsibility) to carry out church discipline and exclude people from church membership who propagate false teachings about the essentials of the faith and seek to lead Christians astray.
13:6-11 Sadly, the temptation to fall into idolatry could come from an intimate source, like a person’s brother . . . son . . . daughter . . . wife or closest friend (13:6). The issue of Israel’s love for God and the nation’s moral and spiritual purity was so paramount that it superseded even love of family (see Matt 10:37). The sin in such a case was the same as that committed by the false prophet overtly enticing people to worship other gods (13:6). So not only was the offense to incur the death sentence, but the family member whom the offender tried to lead away from the Lord was to cast the first stone to put him [or her] to death (13:8-9). The resulting fear that would fall on those who heard about it was for a good purpose: they [would] no longer do anything evil like [that] (13:11). The death sentence was meant as a powerful deterrent.
13:12-17 Idolatry among God’s people had the potential to infect an entire city in Israel (13:12-13), so if anyone was found guilty of tolerating it, the inhabitants of [such a] city were to be struck down with the sword, and the city was not to be rebuilt (13:14-16).
Unfortunately, though, Israel failed to carry out these steps over the centuries as its people fell steadily captive to the allure of the false religions around them. In time, even Jerusalem itself would be declared by prophet after prophet to be a stronghold of idolatry. Degrading worship practices were even carried out in secret in the rooms of the temple. Yet most of the nation’s kings and people failed to listen, much less work to purge the evil from their midst.
13:18 Moses told the people that the only way to avoid having God’s judgment fall on the nation was to keep his commands and to do what is right in the sight of the Lord. When we adopt a spiritual perspective on life—God’s perspective—we see that his way is always best. Following God’s Word points us to the best path for our good and for his glory.
D. Food, Tithes, the Sabbath Year, and Pilgrim Festivals (14:1–16:17)
14:1-2 Moses warned the Israelites against following the gods of the nations. He also warned them against following their various religious practices. God had given Israel very explicit instructions regarding how they were to worship him. The relevant portions of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy provide explicit details. Therefore, an Israelite had no excuse if he chose to depart from God’s way and engage in unapproved spiritual activities.
The Lord prohibited Israel from practicing the mourning rituals of the nations. They were not to cut themselves or make a bald spot on their head on behalf of the dead (14:1). Such customs were banned because they were part of the Canaanite religions and were thus unfit for God’s holy people (14:2).
14:3-21 A major day-to-day aspect of Israel’s covenant with God involved keeping the nation’s food laws. Why God permitted some foods and prohibited others has been long debated. Some say God gave these lists of prohibited animals out of concern for the Israelites’ health. They point out, for example, that pigs (14:8) can carry diseases and that vultures (14:12) feed on rotting flesh. This is a popular argument, but Scripture does not give health concerns as justification for the prohibition. Furthermore, Jesus would later declare all foods clean (see Acts 10:9-15).
Another explanation for the food laws was that the prohibited animals were used in false religious rites and thus were out of bounds for the Israelites. But the evidence for this is lacking as well. While the custom of boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk may have been a Canaanite religious practice that was forbidden to Israel for that reason (14:21), the bull was a significant symbol in the religions of the ancient Near East that was nonetheless permitted in Israel’s sacrifices.
We have only one clear reason why God declared some food clean and some unclean for Israel: You are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God (14:21). The food laws, then, were another way of setting Israel apart from the other nations to be the unique people of God.
14:22-29 The laws of the tithe, or tenth (14:22), were another way of reminding the Israelites that everything they had came from God’s gracious hand. They were to bring their tithes from their crops and livestock to the central sanctuary and eat part of them in a communal meal of rejoicing before the Lord (14:23-26). Part of the uneaten tithe provided for the needs of the Levites (14:27). Every third year, the entire tithe was stored away for the Levite . . . the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow (14:28-29). If the Israelites were faithful in this way, the Lord would bless them in all the work of their hands (14:29).
God’s kingdom agenda for his people’s money is the opposite of the world’s advice. According to the world, hoarding our money leads to prosperity. But God says that giving is the way of blessing (see 2 Cor 9:6-8). God does not call us to give generously to him so that he can make us rich, however. That’s the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which only results in prosperity for its preachers.
Giving to God first is crucial because it shows how much you value him, and it expresses your faith in his ability and willingness to provide for you. When Israel gave the Lord their tithe, they were not saying that ten percent belonged to God while the other ninety percent belonged to them. Instead, giving a tenth to God was their way of acknowledging that everything they had was from God.
Giving to God is a test of our faith. Israel lived in an agrarian society, so the people were dependent on their harvest to survive. When they gave God the first portion of their crops, they were trusting him to bless them and provide for their needs so that they could feed their families and be charitable to others. The Lord calls followers of Jesus to put this principle into practice today.
15:1-3 The instructions about giving in 14:22-29 led Moses to a related subject, the seventh or Sabbath year, in which debts were cancelled (15:1). That sounds like an impossible way to run a country to us, but it was part of God’s original plan and will for Israel. Though a creditor could collect a debt from a foreigner, he was to forgive what he had lent to his fellow Israelites (15:2-3). This is a reminder that God’s kingdom does not operate according to the principles by which the banker downtown conducts business.
15:4-6 If the people would obey these principles of generosity, the Lord would bless them in the land, and he would ensure that there would be no poor among them (15:4-5). Moreover, if they were financially obedient, God would guarantee that Israel would lend to and rule nations, but they would never borrow from or be ruled by those lands (15:6). Sadly, history would show that Israel was unfaithful to God’s economic commands. Too often the church similarly fails to exercise biblical justice by taking action that helps the oppressed, transforms communities, and empowers the poor through opportunities.
15:7-11 Moses continued the emphasis on compassion and generosity. God commanded the Israelites to help the poor who were among them. They were not to be hardhearted or tightfisted (15:7). But God also knew the human heart’s tendencies, so he had Moses add a stern warning. If someone realized that the seventh year, the year of canceling debts was near, and therefore chose not to give to a poor brother in need, that cheapskate would stand guilty in God’s eyes (15:9).
What at first seems a harsh judgment toward someone who hadn’t robbed anyone, but had only held on to his own money lest he make a poor investment boils down to this. God commanded his people to trust him and to be generous. This is an important kingdom principle. Giving to others as God commands is crucial because it shows how much you value him, and it expresses your faith in his ability and willingness to provide. The Sabbath year with its debt forgiveness and care for the poor was not really about financial transactions; it was a test of whether God’s people would trust him even when doing so didn’t make sense on the ledger. Furthermore, to provide for someone in need is the fulfillment of the second most important commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:28-31).
Don’t suppose that 15:11 contradicts 15:4. Verse 4 was a statement of God’s will for his people if they obeyed. Verse 11 is a sad mention of what God knew would become reality because of sin. He thus required his people to be generous toward the needy.
15:12 Commands regarding the Sabbath year continue in 15:12-18. A fellow Hebrew who was too poor to repay his debts could sell himself to his debtor as an indentured servant. But in the seventh year he was to be set free (see Lev 25:39-42).
15:13-18 Furthermore, the newly released servant was to be set up with everything he needed to make a successful fresh start (15:13-14). A Hebrew, that is an Israelite, was to give generously to his former servant based on how the Lord had blessed him (15:14). He was also to remember that he was once worse off than an indentured servant—he was a slave in the land of Egypt (15:15). To any Israelite who considered it too much of a financial hardship to lose a valuable worker and have to give him a generous severance package on the seventh year, Moses gave this reminder: getting six years of hard work without having to pay a hired worker is a good deal (15:18). Nevertheless, if a servant loved his situation, provision was made for him to stay with the family he served for life (15:16-17).
Sadly, Israel would fail to keep the sabbatical years and the rules surrounding the Year of Jubilee that are discussed in this passage and elsewhere (see Lev 25:1-55). And since the Lord warned them that if they rejected his commands and rebelled against his way, he would cast them out of the land so that the land could enjoy its Sabbath rests (see Lev 26:33-35), that is exactly what would happen (see 2 Chr 36:20-21).
15:19-23 The following verses deal with giving up possessions to the Lord. Moses had just mentioned the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt (15:15), so they knew well that every firstborn male among their animals belonged to God (15:19). These creatures, the best of the herds and flocks, were to be brought to the sanctuary for sacrifice. Those which had a defect could be eaten at home like any other animal, provided the blood was properly drained first (15:20-23).
16:1-4 There were three festivals on Israel’s annual worship calendar that required all males to make a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary. The first was Passover, the seven-day festival celebrating God’s deliverance of the people out of Egypt (16:1). On it, they were to sacrifice a Passover animal from the herd or flock and eat unleavened bread with it, in remembrance that they left the land of Egypt in a hurry (16:2-3). In this way, they would remember for the rest of their lives the day God set them free (16:3). The command to eat unleavened bread was so serious that there was to be no yeast . . . anywhere in their territory during those days (16:4). The word “yeast” is frequently representative of sin in Scripture.
16:5-7 The command for the men to appear before the Lord at the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem was underscored by the corollary that a Passover celebration was prohibited in any town in Israel except the place where the Lord . . . chooses to have his name dwell (16:6)—which would eventually be Jerusalem. The first Passover and the liberation from Egypt were considered the birth of Israel as a nation, so requiring Passover to be observed as a national holiday reinforced the importance of this festival and God’s deliverance. The tents would have been those erected by the worshipers as temporary quarters during the festival (16:7).
16:8-11 The next national gathering was the Festival of Weeks (16:10), also known as Pentecost (from the Greek term meaning “fiftieth”), which occurred fifty days after the festival of Firstfruits. This was a joyful celebration of God’s abundant provision in the harvest and was marked by a freewill offering given in proportion to how the Lord had blessed them throughout the year (16:10). There was a joyful communal meal at the central sanctuary that was to include the Levites and the marginalized (16:11).
16:12-15 The third pilgrim festival was the Festival of Shelters, also known as the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths (16:13). This was a seven-day observance in which the Israelites were commanded to build and live in temporary shelters as a reminder of God’s care for them during their wilderness wanderings (see Lev 23:42-43). It also celebrated God’s provision in the fall harvest.
16:16-17 Moses’s summary of these festivals reminded the men that, as the heads of their families, they were to lead the way in worshiping the Lord (16:16). (This principle carries over into our time.) They were also to bring a gift in keeping with their means and reflecting how the Lord had blessed them (16:17).
E. Leaders (16:18–18:22)
16:18-20 Biblical Israel was a theocracy, meaning that the country had a form of government in which God served as the nation’s King. This meant that the nation’s civil leaders, its judges and officials, were charged with judging the people with righteous judgment (16:18)—just as the Lord would. As a nation in covenant with God, Israel was accountable to the law of Moses, the statutes and commands that God had given the people through his servant Moses. To break God’s holy requirements by, for example, accepting a bribe to pervert justice could cause Israel to forfeit the land God was giving them (16:19-20). God’s leaders—those of yesterday and today—are not to pursue selfish gain but to pursue . . . justice alone (16:20).
16:21–17:1 The theocratic nature of Israel’s government is clearly seen in these verses. Moses suddenly seemed to change subjects from the duties of judges to forbidden forms of worship. But the two topics were intricately related because in Israel, even the civil rulers were responsible for guarding the nation’s purity of worship and punishing offenders. Moses put the leaders on alert to watch for violations of true worship (16:21–17:1).
Israel was the only theocracy ever ordained by God. And as much as some believers might wish it were so in America, this country is not a theocracy. More importantly, our kingdom calling as the church is not to make it so. Nevertheless, we can (and should) call our civil leaders to account based on the righteous standards of God’s Word. If they refuse to acknowledge the objective standards of justice and righteousness set by the Creator, we can seek to replace them with leaders who will.
17:2-5 Since the proper worship of God was the most serious issue in Israel, judging the cases of those accused of violating it was a serious matter. Moses had already established a system of justice in the wilderness to hear and rule on cases, so what he laid out here was not entirely new. An accusation of false worship that came to the attention of the authorities needed to be thoroughly investigated (17:2-4). If the accusations proved true, the guilty party was to be put to death (17:5).
17:6-7 The accused could not be condemned on hearsay or the testimony of just one person. He or she could only be executed on the testimony of two or three witnesses (17:6), who not only had to stand by their testimony but also had to take the lead in putting the guilty person to death and purging the evil from Israel (17:7).
17:8-13 As for cases that a local judge felt were too difficult for him to decide, Moses instructed the people to set up something of a supreme court at the central sanctuary in the promised land. There the case would be heard by both the religious and civil leaders, the Levitical priests and the judge who [presided in a given] time (17:9). Their verdict would be final. Moses emphasized this by stating repeatedly that the parties involved in the case must do exactly as instructed, without exception (17:10-11). The leaders were ruling on God’s behalf, so judgment had to be followed. No appeals would be heard. Anyone who failed to listen to the priest or the judge would pay the consequence: death (17:12).
17:14-20 Next God provided instructions for that momentous day when Israel would become a monarchy. That switch in governmental approach, however, wouldn’t mean that God ceased to be Israel’s King. Rather, the divine King would rule through a human king. The Lord would still bless the nation, as long as the king obeyed him and upheld his law. Israel’s history demonstrates that their kings were, for the most part, failures. It would require God himself coming in human flesh to be the King that Israel needs.
In its early years in the promised land, Israel would be ruled by judges and priests. But the book of Judges reveals how imperfectly that system would work. Eventually, Israel would clamor for a king like all the nations around them (17:14; see 1 Sam 8:4-5).
In advance of that day, Moses specified that Israel’s king had to be an Israelite and not a foreigner (17:15). Moreover, he must not acquire many horses—which would require going back to Egypt in violation of God’s command (17:16). He was also not to acquire many wives or acquire very large amounts of silver and gold (17:17). And, most importantly, he was to write a copy of this instruction for himself and read from it all the days of his life so that he would not turn from this command (17:18-20).
Later, King Solomon would be called the wisest man who ever lived. Nevertheless, in his sinfulness, Solomon broke all of these commandments for kings by accumulating horses in the thousands, seven hundred wives who led his heart astray, and wealth that could not be counted. (Just because a person has access to wisdom doesn’t guarantee he’ll use it.)
18:1-8 Levitical priests (18:1) were those men in the tribe of Levi set apart by the Lord to offer sacrifices and administer other duties in the tabernacle (and later in the temple). Not all Levites were priests—only those who were the descendants of Aaron. The others were also consecrated to serve God by assisting the priests with the tabernacle and its furnishings.
Since the Levitical priests received no inheritance of land, they were to be supported by a portion of fire offerings brought by the Israelites (18:1). They were also to receive the firstfruits of their produce and flocks (18:4). If a Levite wanted to go to the central sanctuary to serve, he was entitled to a part of the sacrifices there along with whatever he [might] have received from the sale of the family estate (18:6-8). Though the Le-vites did not receive land inheritance like the other tribes, they were given cities to live in throughout Israel, along with pasturelands for their animals (see Num 35:1-5).
18:9-11 Moses turned immediately from teaching about true worship to warning about that which is false. The various demonically inspired customs of the nations mentioned here were intended to influence or manipulate the gods to act in favor of the person seeking their help (18:9). The most horrific practice of the nations was to sacrifice one’s child in the fire to the gods (18:10). In 2 Kgs 3:26-27, we find an example of this being practiced.
The rest of the forbidden occult practices can be summarized in three basic categories, beginning with divination (18:10). Divination is an attempt to get secret knowledge by interpreting omens or looking to astrology. Lest you think of this as an ancient practice, many people today get up every morning and read their horoscopes before they make any decisions—yet they refuse to seek the guidance of the God who made them, which is found in the Scriptures.
The second category is magic, which includes sorcery and spells (18:10-11). This is not to be confused with the art of illusion practiced by entertaining magicians, like those we see today. Moses was talking about witchcraft, through which humans attempt to accomplish in the spiritual realm what human power alone can’t pull off.
The third category is spiritism, which involves the attempt to get in touch with spiritual intermediaries by contacting the dead or going into some kind of trance or hypnotic state to talk with a spirit guide or some other being on “the other side” (18:11). Holding séances and playing with Ouija boards are modern expressions of spiritism.
18:12-14 All of these practices are detestable to God. These religious acts were the very reason that God was driving out the nations and giving their land to Israel (18:12). Therefore, God called his people to be blameless and not follow the ways of the world (18:13-14).
18:15 In this verse we find a wonderful prophecy: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. Here Moses told the people that the Lord would provide another mediator after he was gone—an in-between person who would speak on God’s behalf and help the people to access God. But the Israelites who listened to Moses couldn’t have fathomed how God would fulfill this prophecy.
Centuries later, Jesus Christ would rise up from among his brothers, fully human (see John 1:14; Heb 2:14-18). But God the Father also declared him to be fully divine, his own “beloved Son,” and commanded the disciples to “Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5). The apostle Peter declared that Moses’s words were fulfilled in Jesus (see Acts 3:22-23). He is our perfect mediator: “There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).
18:16-19 Previously, when God gave Moses the law, the people were so terrified by God’s voice and his fire that they thought they would die (18:16). And so, God said he would send them a mediator. God warned that he would hold accountable whoever did not listen to this prophet, the Messiah (18:18-19). Indeed, there are serious consequences to ignoring Christ: it’s a matter of life and death.
18:20-22 God also gave Israel a measuring stick to hold up against any prophet who claimed to speak in his name. The Lord assured them that if someone claimed to be his prophet, and yet his message did not come true, he was most certainly not a prophet. Rather than be afraid of such a false prophet (18:22), Israel was to put him to death (18:20).
F. Relationships and Daily Life (19:1–26:19)
19:1-3 There were numerous regulations covering every aspect of life that Moses wanted to review with the Israelites before he sent them over the Jordan into Canaan. These chapters cover a wide range of them, beginning with his command to establish three cities (19:2) as “cities of refuge” (see Num 35:6-34; Josh 20:1-9). A person who committed manslaughter (19:3) could flee to one of these cities and be safe from the victim’s relative who was bent on revenge.
19:4-13 Moses then offered an example of someone causing an accidental death without harboring any previous hatred toward that person (19:4-5). By having the three cities spaced throughout the land, Israel allowed the person who committed manslaughter a city of refuge within a close enough distance that he could get to it before being overtaken. By contrast, someone who had clearly hated his neighbor and killed him in cold blood was to be given no refuge. That person was to be put to death in order to purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood (19:11-13).
19:14 Moving a neighbor’s boundary marker was a serious offense. To do so was to encroach upon someone else’s rightful property, essentially stealing land that God himself had allotted to the tribes of Israel (see Exod 20:15). Anyone who dared take land that God had given as a gift to someone else was under God’s curse (see 27:17).
19:15-21 Moses had already established the principle that the testimony of two or three witnesses was necessary for a suspect to be condemned (19:15). But there must have been cases in which only one witness was available. And if a sole witness insisted on bringing a case to Israel’s leaders at the central sanctuary, he needed to know that he was as much on trial as the accused since his charge could not be corroborated. In such cases, both parties were to stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and judges in authority (19:16). If the witness proved to be a liar, his punishment was severe: Do not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot was the rule used to discipline him (19:18-21).
This command has often been referred to by the Latin expression lex talionis—that is, the “law of retaliation.” This means that the punishment was to fit the crime. This, however, has been misunderstood and criticized over the years as sanctioning revenge, when in fact God intended it to do exactly the opposite. This was not street justice but was administered by God-ordained authorities, and it limited the punishment to fit the crime. In other words, if someone knocked out your tooth, you couldn’t bust out three or four of his in response. Through this law, God wisely prevented both leniency and excess punishment in his legal system.
20:1-4 Moses’s next message for Israel concerned how to conduct themselves during war, especially in the forthcoming battles for the promised land. This message was as much for General Joshua as it was for the people and their military commanders. It seems that every army Israel met was larger than they were in number, and yet God constantly commanded and assured his people, Do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God . . . is with you (20:1).
The priest was to lead the way into battle and give the troops a divine pep talk beforehand, reminding them not to fear the enemy because the Lord would fight against their enemies and give Israel victory (20:2-4). This exhortation was extremely important. The previous generation of Israelites died in the wilderness because they had succumbed to fear of Canaan’s inhabitants and failed to trust that God would provide for them (see Num 13:1–14:45). Therefore, the current generation needed to learn from the mistake of their ancestors.
We too often fail to follow the Lord and do as his Word commands because we fear the world—what they will think of us or do to us. Instead, we must trust that our King will provide the means to accomplish the kingdom agenda that he commands of us.
20:5-9 God permitted soldiers exemption from a given battle if they met any one of four conditions. The first three were related: if they had built a house and hadn’t been able to live in it yet; if they planted a new vineyard whose fruit they had not enjoyed; or if they were engaged and waiting to be married (20:5-7). Each of these involves a lack of fulfillment in pursuing one of life’s basic pleasures. They may have been chosen by God to illustrate the ways in which he intended his people to enjoy the good land he was giving them. The fourth exemption involved a soldier with a cowardly heart. He was sent home, not for his own sake, but so that he wouldn’t demoralize his brothers, which could have disastrous consequences (20:8).
20:10-14 Israel’s approach to war was not indiscriminate, as Moses’s instructions make clear. Enemy cities outside the promised land were to be offered terms of peace, which they could accept on the condition of becoming forced laborers of Israel (20:10-11). Refusing the offer, however, led to siege, the death of all a city’s men, and the taking of their goods as plunder (20:12-14).
20:15-20 But no such offer of peace was to be made to the Canaanites. Israel was to completely destroy every living thing among them (20:16-17). Otherwise, survivors would teach the Israelites to do all the detestable acts they [did] for their gods and cause the people to sin against the Lord (20:18). This matter was crucially important because Israel had already demonstrated a propensity to adopt the false religious practices of the surrounding nations (see Num 25:1-18). Also, Israel was to refrain from the common practice in ancient warfare of punishing a defeated enemy by decimating its land (20:19-20). After all, Canaan was to be Israel’s possession.
21:1-9 No detail of Israel’s life escaped God’s notice and concern, as Moses’s address makes clear. The cold case of an unsolved murder (21:1) required a sacrifice because life was precious to God and because the victim’s blood had to be atoned for. So God instituted the unique ceremony described in these verses to satisfy his holiness and purge the land of the innocent blood spilled (21:9).
21:10-14 The next item involved an Israelite soldier who wanted to marry a woman among the captives from one of the cities outside of Canaan (21:11). The woman was allowed to undergo a certain physical and spiritual ritual to separate her from her old life, including a month-long period of mourning for her father and mother (21:12-13)—either because they had been killed or in recognition of the fact that she would not be going back to them. A provision was also made for divorce if the husband was not pleased with his wife, but he could not sell her or mistreat her in any way (21:14). Though other nations often brutally mistreated women during times of war, this law provided a woman of a subjugated country with protection if a soldier wanted her for a bride.
21:15-17 Discussion of marriage to a foreign captive led to another marriage issue, the case of polygamy and fathering sons by more than one wife. Polygamy was tolerated in Old Testament times, but it was never God’s standard for marriage—which was to be between one man and one woman (see Gen 2:22-24). Importantly, the culturally accepted practice of taking more than one wife always led to problems among God’s people. (See, for example, the experiences of grief that polygamy brought into the lives of Jacob, David, and Solomon.) Jealousy was just one of those problems; it could cause one wife to push her son forward as the favorite, even if he were not the firstborn. Nevertheless, fathers were strictly forbidden to play that game and were commanded to give their firstborn sons two shares of their estates, because those sons—whether or not their mothers held their fathers’ hearts—had the rights of the firstborn (21:17).
21:18-21 Next Moses dealt with another difficult family situation. It’s important to understand that this passage isn’t advocating the death penalty for mere juvenile delinquency. The son in view here was not a teenager who had been acting foolishly once in a while or fell into sassy speech on occasion. This was a son who, though his parents would discipline him, refused to repent of his rebellion (21:18). Instead, his stubborn and rebellious nature mirrored that of Egypt’s hard-hearted Pharaoh, and it even included his being known as a glutton and a drunkard (21:20). Such rebellion was a capital offense in God’s eyes, because left unpunished it would destroy Israel’s home life and eventually the entire covenant community. The bottom line here is that this young man refused to submit to the Lord as his King and to his parents as his God-ordained authority. The elders of the parents’ city were to recognize the seriousness of this sin and stone the rebel themselves to purge the evil from Israel (21:20-21). Once again, Scripture uses the threat of capital punishment as a deterrent.
21:22-23 These verses describe a sentence reserved for those who received the death penalty. Their bodies were hung on a tree—probably as a warning to others not to repeat whatever offense had led to their demise (21:22). But interestingly, the corpse could not be left there overnight because anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. To leave them there would defile the land (21:23). Undergoing God’s curse is what Jesus Christ did for us. But he died for our wrongs, not his. He redeemed us by his death on the cross—being hung on a tree—and enduring God’s curse against sin in our place (see Gal 3:13).
22:1-4 Moses continued in chapter 22, teaching on a wide variety of subjects. Clearly, the command to care for a brother Israelite’s ox or sheep or any other possession that was lost (22:1-3) was a practical way to live out the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).
22:5 The prohibition against a woman wearing male clothing and vice versa is a reminder of the gender distinctions that God designed. Men and women equally share in bearing the image of God, but he has designed them to be distinct from and complementary toward one another (see Gen 1:27). The gender confusion that exists in our culture today is a clear rejection of God’s good design.
In many places, homosexuality and transgenderism are aggressively promoted by the government and school systems. Whenever a nation’s laws no longer reflect the standards of God, that nation is in rebellion against him and will inevitably bear the consequences. When that happens, the people of God should promote his kingdom agenda through biblically based kingdom political involvement and sincere love for others. This is to be done not by violent revolution from the top down, but by social transformation based on spiritual principles that work from the bottom up. What God wants from his people is not revolution, but transformation.
22:6-8 The command to leave a mother bird behind while taking her chicks or eggs (22:6-7) is not much different than what a farmer does today in gathering the eggs and leaving the mother hen to guarantee a continual food supply. The command to build a railing (22:8) around the flat roofs of Israelite houses to keep someone from falling off was another example of neighbor love. Both promote the application of wisdom in daily life.
22:9-11 The common theme in these verses is the mixing of unlike things. Teaching the Israelites to recognize distinctions would help them see the importance of being holy and distinct in a sinful world. Paul uses a similar idea to Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together (22:10) when he warns believers not to enter into partnership with unbelievers: “Don’t become partners with those who do not believe” (2 Cor 6:14). The verb Paul uses can be literally rendered, “unequally yoked,” which is exactly what God prohibited the Israelites from doing—unequally yoking an ox and a donkey together. Though believers must live in this fallen world, God wants us to live lives that are holy and separate from the wickedness around us.
22:12 The tassels mentioned here served as visual reminders to obey God’s laws (see Num 15:37-41).
22:13-21 The chapter ends with instructions for violations of the marriage covenant. These statutes defended the sanctity of marriage, the purity and innocence of virginity, and the honor of a woman’s reputation. Remember that Moses’s purpose in his final messages to the Israelites was to exhort them to renew their commitment to faithfulness to God’s covenant before entering the promised land. One of the ways they were to express faithfulness to God was by honoring the covenant of marriage. The same is true for us.
Given human sinfulness, God knew there would be marital problems. So he gave Moses regulations to be applied in the case of a husband who came to hate his wife, accused her of shameful conduct, and gave her a bad name by claiming she wasn’t a virgin when he married her (22:13-14). If this were true, she was to come under the death penalty (22:20-21). Sexual immorality of any kind was forbidden. But if her parents could prove her pre-marital purity by providing evidence of her virginity, her husband was given a stiff fine by the city elders and prohibited from ever divorcing his wife (22:15-19). Being prepared to show evidence of virginity was a customary practice that perhaps involved a blood-stained cloth from the wedding night.
22:22-24 Marriage is a sacred creation of God meant to be revered as holy. Adultery by married people was a capital offense under the Mosaic law, and an engaged woman was treated the same way as a married woman in a case in which sex was consensual. Israel’s violations of her covenant with God were described as spiritual “adultery” (see Hos 2:2), another indicator that God holds marital fidelity in high regard.
22:25-30 Rape too was a capital offense if the victim was engaged. If she wasn’t, the perpetrator had to pay the victim’s father a fine, marry the woman, and live with her for the rest of his life to provide for her because he stole her virginity (22:25-29).
In verse 30 Moses prohibited a man from marrying his stepmother (22:30). Note Paul’s application of this principle in his letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 5:1).
23:1-8 The prohibition that is included here against a eunuch participating in worship when the people gathered at the tabernacle (23:1) was not a matter of the person’s sin; it was a ceremonial rule meant to teach Israel the need for perfection before the Lord. The ban on people of illegitimate birth would have meant primarily those born of a union between an Israelite and a non-Israelite (for instance, a Canaanite). Their ban was permanent, which is the practical meaning behind the idea of the tenth generation (23:2). The Ammonites and Moabites were also barred because of their cruel treatment of the Israelites during their travels in the wilderness and because the Moabites hired Balaam to curse Israel (23:3-6). Israel’s brother the Edomites and even the Egyptians, however, were to be treated decently (23:7-8).
23:9-14 Throughout the Pentateuch, we’ve seen many times how seriously God took every detail of his people’s lives—even their camp hygiene. There was a righteous way to be cleansed from bodily emission (23:10-11) and to dispose of daily waste (23:12-14) in order to keep the camp ceremonially clean so that holy God could dwell among his people.
23:15-16 The Lord wanted a particular group—fugitive slaves—to feel welcome in the Israelite camp. These were most likely slaves who had escaped (23:15) from the nations surrounding Israel. The righteous thing to do was to give these people sanctuary rather than returning them to their masters, even letting them live (23:16) where they wished in the cities to which they fled.
23:17-18 Cult prostitution involving both genders was prevalent in Canaan, so Moses had to continually warn Israel not to be tempted by this heinous evil or patronize a Canaanite cult prostitute (23:17). Furthermore, they were not to bring a prostitute’s wages . . . into the house of the Lord (23:18). Such wicked forms of “worship”—whether one was visiting a cult prostitute or acting as one—were contrary to the sexual ethic the Lord had established.
23:19-20 The law’s command to Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) came into focus again in the matter of charging interest on a loan. God did not allow an Israelite to charge interest to a fellow Israelite, although it was acceptable to charge interest to a foreigner (23:19-20).
23:21-23 Vows to God were completely voluntary, but once made they were to be kept, or else it was counted against the person as sin (23:21).
23:24-25 An Israelite could also love his neighbor by not taking advantage of his vineyard or standing grain. It was acceptable to pluck grapes or heads of grain to eat while on a neighbor’s property, but this did not give anyone license to show up with a sickle and a container and start harvesting (23:24-25).
24:1-5 Divorce was not part of God’s ideal for marriage, even though he permitted it here. Jesus told his disciples that this concession was made because of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts—that is, their refusal to submit to divine standards (see Matt 19:8). God allowed for divorce when the husband found something indecent about his wife, that is, something unacceptable. This protected the woman and freed her to remarry (24:1). Better by far was the mandate that Israel should help a newly married couple get off to a good start by giving the husband one year off from service in the army. This would allow the couple time to adjust to their life together and prevent a new bride from losing her husband in war before having a chance to enjoy married life and possibly conceive (24:5).
24:6-7 In ancient Israel, there were no refrigerators or freezers in which to store food, no closets full of extra clothes, no heaters to turn on at night when the weather got cold, no banks or ATMs. A man worked each day, got paid each evening, and bought or harvested his food for that night’s dinner. So taking his grindstones or even the upper millstone as security for a debt was cruel because it meant that he couldn’t prepare his daily bread (24:6).
Even worse was kidnapping a fellow Israelite to enslave or sell him, an offense rightly punishable by death (24:7). This is a stiff warning against human trafficking.
24:8-9 A serious skin disease was a matter of great concern, since it required the affected person to be quarantined and to endure extensive procedures with the Levitical priests in order to be pronounced clean again (24:8; see Lev 13:1-46; 14:1-32). Moreover, Moses reminded the people what God did to Miriam when she opposed Moses’s leadership (24:9). Her skin became “diseased, resembling snow” (Num 12:10).
24:10-13 If anything was to mark the people of God, it was compassion for those in need—a trait in short supply both then and now. God was even concerned about the dignity of an Israelite debtor, who was to be spared the humiliation of having his lender barge into his house, scoop up whatever he wanted for his security on the loan, and walk out with the debtors’ neighbors watching (24:10-11). If the debtor was a poor man who had nothing to offer but the garment he needed to sleep in at night to keep warm, the lender was told to return it to him by sunset, an act of kindness that God counted as righteousness (24:12-13).
24:14-22 Continuing this focus on compassion, Moses pointed out that workers deserved their wages in a timely manner—even more so if they were poor and had no other way to eat. God held employers liable if they cheated their workers (24:14-15). Out of a similar emphasis on compassion, fathers and children did not have to answer for each other’s sins (24:16). Moreover, a widow or resident alien was not to be denied justice simply because of personal powerlessness (24:17). The repeated motivation for the Israelites to obey these laws was that they were once slaves in Egypt (24:18, 22). Of all the peoples who should understand the pain of injustice, it was the Israelites. Therefore, they were commanded to care for the three most vulnerable groups within their society: the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow (24:19-21).
This leads us to an important side note. Know that if you have been comforted by God, he expects you to share that comfort with others who have experienced similar suffering. “He comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1:4). Your experience of God’s blessings should lead you to bless others.
25:1-4 The theme of justice in Israel continued with the demand that when a dispute between men was heard in court, the judges would hand down a ruling that ensured acquittal for the innocent and punishment for the guilty, in keeping with the seriousness of the offense but not going beyond it (25:1-3). God even cared about justice being offered to the animals that served the Israelites (25:4), as an example of the fact that “he who threshes should thresh in hope of sharing the crop” (see 1 Cor 9:4-12).
25:5-10 Israel also had a law that provided a way for a man who died without a male heir to keep from having his name blotted out from Israel. If brothers lived on the same property and one died without a son, the living brother was to marry the widow and raise up a son for his brother (25:5-6). If the brother refused to do his duty, the widow could haul him before the elders of his city and subject him to a humiliating ritual that would leave him with a disgraceful nickname (25:7-10).
25:11-12 This points to the fact that having and raising children was highly valued in ancient Israel. “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, offspring, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons born in one’s youth. Happy is the man who has filled his quiver with them” (Ps 127:3-5). Thus, harming a man’s reproductive ability incurred a severe penalty.
25:13-16 Justice and honesty in business were not options for Israel: they were required. To use differing weights on a scale for buying and selling merchandise was dishonest, greedy, and deceptive to one’s neighbor (25:13-14). The Lord demanded an honest weight (25:15). Anything less was detestable to him (23:16). The Israelites should not be tempted to put a “thumb on the scales,” so to speak, when God had promised to prosper them in everything they did if only they would honor and obey him.
25:17-19 In case Israel needed to be reminded of what happened to people who mistreated God’s chosen ones, Moses left a stern command for Israel to annihilate the Amalekites (25:17) for the shameful way they had treated the weakest among God’s people in the wilderness (25:18). God didn’t even want a memory of Amalek left anywhere on earth (25:19).
26:1-3 Moses frequently called his hearers to remember what God had done for them and to do the things he required of them once they entered the promised land. One of these requirements was the joyful bringing of the first of all the land’s produce to the Lord at the central sanctuary. This offering of the firstfruits of their harvest was an opportunity for the people to remind themselves and declare publicly that God had indeed given them the land as promised and that the produce was the proof (26:2-3).
26:4-11 After presenting their firstfruits offering, the people would recite a saying in which they recounted their history and struggles from the days of Jacob to the day they stood before the Lord. Jacob, or Israel, was the wandering Aramean, which is a reference to his father Abraham’s years in Aram on his way to Canaan. Jacob married Rachel, who was from the Aramean side of his family. Jacob’s family was small when he went down to Egypt under Joseph’s protection, but the Israelites became a great, powerful, and populous nation whom the Egyptians . . . oppressed (26:5-6). When the Israelites cried out to God, he delivered them and brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey (26:7-9). The firstfruits ceremony gave each family the opportunity to bow down in gratitude to the Lord and rejoice along with the Levites and the resident aliens who also were blessed by God’s gracious hand (26:10-11).
26:12-15 There is debate as to whether the tithe prescribed here to be brought in the third year was the regular third-year tithe Moses had already taught about (see Deut 14:28-29), a one-time offering like the firstfruits offering above, or a second tithe to be made every third year. This was for the Levites, resident aliens, fatherless children and widows—those who had no other means of support (26:12). The worshiper was to declare that he was giving the whole tithe and not holding anything back (26:13-14). Based on this confession, he could pray for God’s blessing on his people and his land (26:15).
26:16 At the conclusion to this lengthy message about Israel’s covenant obligations to the Lord, Moses called for the people’s complete commitment to the Lord and obedience to his statutes and ordinances as contained in his covenant. But their obedience was not to be grudging or mechanical. As people who were called to love the Lord their God with all of their being, they were to obey him willingly and fully, heart and soul.
26:17-19 The people responded by affirming that the Lord was their God and that they would walk in his ways, keep his statutes, commands, and ordinances, and obey him (26:17). God responded with his covenant promise that if his people would keep all his commands, he would elevate them to praise, fame, and glory above all the nations and make them a holy people to himself (26:18-19). Nothing else could compare.