Deuteronomy 23, the Bible, and the Rabbis

Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 343.

“The day of the assembly of witnesses was also of general importance, on account of…questions that were discussed. [One] question arose thus. A heathen of Ammonite descent came before the meeting, asking whether he could be legally accepted as a proselyte. Gamaliel had turned him away with the sentence of the written law, ‘Moabites and Ammonites may not be received into the congregation of God, even in the tenth generation.’ The disputants treated this question with warmth, and Gamaliel endeavored to have his view carried. Joshua, however, carried his view that the sentence of the Law no longer applied to those times, as, through the aggressions of their conquerors, all nations had become mixed together and confused beyond recognition.”

Where do I begin? I have so much to say!

As a graduate student, I’m supposed to come up with topics that interest me. This will be one of them, for I’ve encountered it throughout my academic career. Deuteronomy 23 excludes certain people from the assembly of the Lord. That sounds pretty racist and non-inclusive, but it’s in the Bible.

Within the biblical writings, there’s disagreement about this issue. Isaiah 56 says God will welcome eunuchs and make his house a place of prayer for all people. That seems to go against Deuteronomy 23, which bans eunuchs, Ammonites, Moabites, and others deemed sub-defective (a Joan of Arcadia term).

The book of Ruth is about a Moabitess who joins the community of Israel. That appears to violate Deuteronomy 23, though, as we shall see, there were rabbis who disagreed and saw consonance between the two.

So did God change his mind and become more inclusive after the exile, which is when many scholars date Isaiah 56? Not necessarily, for Nehemiah 13:1 asserts that Deuteronomy 23 still stands. So there were different ideas on what exactly God wanted in terms of certain Gentiles and eunuchs.

Now, to the rabbis. I’m surprised that there were rabbis who felt that they could simply eliminate a law from the Torah. We’ve seen this before, as one rabbi asserted that a biblical law on adultery didn’t apply in his generation because there were too many adulterers for it to be practical (see here). But there were also rabbis who went out of their way to uphold the eternity of the Torah. For example, Ezekiel and the Torah have contradictory laws, and some rabbis try their best to reconcile them. As far as they’re concerned, the Torah is God’s perfect law, whose precepts will last forever. They wouldn’t eliminate a law just because it doesn’t look practical!

The same goes with Deuteronomy 23. Deuteronomy 23 bars Moabites from God’s assembly, yet Ruth the Moabitess joined the Israelites. Is this a contradiction? Not according to some rabbis, who like to point out that Ruth was a Moabitess, not a Moabite. So I guess they believe in Deuteronomy 23.

Also, the rationale of the rabbi who tries to get rid of Deuteronomy 23 is humorous. It reminds me of something someone told me about W.E.B. Du Bois, or maybe it was Frederick Douglass. Whites in old times liked to appeal to the curse of Ham in Genesis 9 to justify slavery. The problem is this: how do we know who’s descended from Ham? We’re all mixed in terms of our race. So if society decides to enslave all Hamites, they’ll have a hard time sorting them out, since most people are probably descended from a Hamite in some way, shape, or form. Who would be the slave, and who would be the master?

And this applies to other issues as well. Armstrongites like to make a big deal about how the United States and Britain are descended from Israel, as if they know this for a fact. But how can we make that claim? There’s no pure line of descent, as if there are pure Brits who are descended from Israel in a linear fashion. Genealogy is more complicated than that.

The problem with that one rabbi’s argument, however, is that he seems to undercut the special status of the Jewish people. If racial or national groups no longer matter because we’re all mutts anyhow, then what’s that do to the status of the Jewish people as a nation chosen by God? Is there a distinct group of Jewish people?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Deuteronomy 23, the Bible, and the Rabbis

  1. Byker Bob says:

    Interesting thoughts, James. One idea that occurs to me is that the Jewish people have been fairly successful in preserving themselves as a racial or genetically similar group, and their customs. This has been done for thousands of years. There are not too many groups that can make this claim, although Armenians certainly come to mind. As a people, Armenians also suffered a genocide at the hands of the Turks, a genocide that Hitler may well have used as his inspiration for the Holocaust.

    To my knowledge, there is at best statistically negligible influence of the Hebrew or Aramaic languages on the English language, or any of the Romantic languages. If you could point to one Jewish cultural influence on English speaking peoples, it might be circumcision.

    The concept of the eunuch has always baffled me. I understand that powerful men did not wish to share their women with servants, which is, I believe the rationale for such mutilations. We can only imagine how this act of barbarism might affect a man’s nature, personality, and sexuality. I believe that Yahweh might have been making a statement about the practice in general by declaring eunuchs unclean. Who would not be appalled at the prospect of his children being mutilated?



  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Byker Bob,

    That’s a possibility. Many also attribute the law to God’s desire for Israel to be populous.


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