Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bible Commentary - Deuteronomy 24

In this chapter, Moses gives us instructions on divorce, the handling of pledges and several other laws.

Like the last chapter, this chapter contains a mixture of laws that cover several topics.  However, the bulk of the material here relates to theft: taking a possession as a loan is lawful; taking a possession by theft is unlawful.  My big theme in Deuteronomy has been analyzing most of the book as "specific stipulations" that correspond with the "general stipulations" listed in the Ten Commandments of Deut 5.  This chapter, therefore, can be viewed as the author delving into a detailed analysis of what constitutes theft and related provisions.

The first part of this chapter is still related to adultery (7th commandment), because adultery generalizes to the subject of marriage.  The first thing I noticed in this passage is that it is the man who is authorized to divorce his wife, and not vice versa.  This likely reflects the power of the husband in Hebrew culture, as the head of his household.  We have seen this male authority reflected in a number of ways, and this is just one more way.  I would be willing to guess that if the woman wished to divorce, in most cases the man would assent.  However, it appears that the man is clearly the authority in this scenario, as the woman requires his permission to divorce.

While this appears to create a scenario of abuse (i.e. the husband abusing the wife without her having any recourse), there were likely paths of recourse for the wives of abusive husbands, either through her birth family or through the town elders.  Spousal abuse is rarely (if ever) addressed in the bible, either in the narrative sections or the legal sections.  Protection against abuse would have been enshrined in traditional or cultural mores that frame the often-confusing backdrop of the Pentateuch.

One instance where spousal abuse is briefly discussed in Gen 31:50 where Leban warns Jacob that if Jacob ever mistreats Laban's daughters then the LORD will see and take vengeance.  Jacob often had a difficult relationship with Leah and to an extent Rachel as well, but there is no evidence he ever intentionally abused them.

Another element I find interesting is that divorce involves a written certificate, since writing is rarely discussed in the Pentateuch.  We know that the king is commanded to write out a copy of the law (Deut 17:18), that Moses (and God) wrote down the law at Sinai (Ex 24:12, 31:18 and others), and that the curses of accused infidelity were written on paper and then washed off (Num 5:23).

Writing things down is not unheard of, but it is somewhat rare.  I think it's important in this case to have written evidence of divorce because having sex with a married woman is punishable by death.

Anyway, the specific law in this passage is that having bee married twice, it is unlawful for the woman to remarry her original husband, and I don't know why.  She is free to marry someone else, however.

Verse 5 reaffirms the laws given in Deut 20, that a newly married man is exempt from military service for one year.

Beginning in verse 6 are a series of laws related to loans and other subjects.  First, I need to explain what a pledge is.  A pledge, in short, is a piece of collateral that is held by the creditor.  If the loan is not repaid, then just like collateral the creditor becomes owner of the pledge.

The reason why it is forbidden to take millstones as a pledge is because these were needed for milling out grain to make bread.  Taking a millstone away from its owner prevents that person from cooking bread, which we can suppose was essential to their diet at the time.

Similarly, in v. 10-13, it is talking about a man who is so poor that the only thing he can give for a pledge is his cloak, a standard garment akin to a shirt.  The law commands the Israelites to return such a pledge to the man before sundown, so that he might sleep in it and not get cold.  This would leave the loan non-collateralized, which is why it's a risk for the creditor to give the pledge back.  Verse 10 is meant as a sign of respect, that the person can bring the pledge out rather than you go in to take it from him.

Verse 7 makes kidnapping illegal, which relates to theft because the Hebrew literally says "if a man is found stealing any of his brothers from the sons of Israel..."

Verse 14-15 commands the Israelites to pay a hired worker before sundown rather than keeping the wages overnight, as this is like "stealing his wages".  Note that this protection extends to both Israelites and foreigners.

Verses 8-9 seem unrelated to theft: it is a reminder to obey the laws governing skin diseases that we read in Leviticus.  This is the only direct reference to the Levitical laws that we have seen, which means that Deuteronomy must have been written with the knowledge of Leviticus.  Since Deuteronomy also references the histories contained in Numbers, Exodus and Genesis, these books must have all been written with common knowledge.  Leviticus has always been the odd-book out, because it contains very little of the historical narrative that we find in the other four books (including Deuteronomy).  Some of the laws in Leviticus are repeated in the other books, but now the Levitical code is directly mentioned.  This passage also contains the unusual phrase "Levitical priests", which did not occur in any of the previous books.

I don't know why this is here; it doesn't relate to any commandment in particular.

Verses 17-18 continues with the theme of not taking excessive pledges from the poor, as well as "not perverting justice".

Verses 19-22 also relate to theft by legalizing the poor to harvest in another man's field after his own harvesters have passed through.  This is different from the command in Deut 23:24-25, which legalizes eating from a man's field.  In that passage, it is legal for anyone to pick from a field they pass through no matter the time of year, but illegal to reap from that field.  In this chapter, it says that a man should harvest his field in one pass, and that anything left behind is left for the poor.  That means that the poor can harvest and reap from a field once its owner has passed through it.  We see this later in the book of Ruth when Ruth (a poor widow) goes to the field of Boaz and follows his harvesters reaping.  That is, Boaz's harvesters were still in the field and Ruth was following behind them reaping whatever they left behind, whether in field, vineyard or olive grove (the three staple crops of Israel).

Verse 16 is also out of place here.  It makes for a peculiar contrast to Ex 34:7 and even Deut 23:2-3.  It's hard to explain how we should not put someone to death for the father's sin, but the LORD "visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children".  I explained Ex 34:7 at the time by saying that it was probably a reference to the implicit effect of sinful fathers, whose sins harm their children whether the LORD wishes it or not.

On the other hand, v. 16 in this chapter is referring to legal punishment, whether the Israelites should kill children for the sins of their fathers.  To that question, the answer is no.  I think the key expression might be "visits the iniquity"; what does it mean for a father's sin to "visit" that man's descendants?  To me, that seems like a broad and vague statement that might not reference specific punishment.  I feel that in my own life, the sins of my own ancestors "visit" me in part by shaping the environment in which I grew up.  Even though I never knew my great grandparents, nor did I know well my grandparents, I do know that their decisions shaped my own parents growing up, who in turn have affected me in a lot of ways.

Both the good and the bad have been passed down and shape me in part.  That is the first message of the bible, and we see it in the sins of Adam and Eve opening the door to death in the world, which has "visited" all of us.  However, we would be remiss to ignore the second message of the bible, which is God's power to redeem sin, to turn darkness into light (Gen 1:3-4) and to take all good things and even bad things and to transform it into a greater good.

Even when God's actions are judgment and destruction (such as Sodom, Egypt or Canaan) we should remember that his forbearance is greater than his judgment, but even in his judgment there is a redemptive purpose.  The fallacy of man is to see judgment and not perceive the redemptive purpose.

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