DEUTERONOMY 24, 25, 26 and 27
The subject of legitimate divorce was as live a topic in Jesus’ day as the question of legitimate marriage is in ours. Two ‘schools’ of rabbis – Shammai and Hillel – disputed whether a man could divorce his wife for ‘any and every reason’ or whether it was only ‘in the case of adultery’. The question was put to Jesus in Matthew 19:3-10 and was based upon today’s reading in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Both positions were strongly held by different parties and Jesus came down strongly on the more ‘conservative’ interpretation that divorce was only permitted on grounds of adultery, rather than a lack of skill at producing a full Sunday roast dinner! It is significant that Moses began the chapter with an “If…”, since he was not recommending divorce, but regulating how it should be applied if the parties insisted on separating. In essence, all the passage says is that a twice-divorced person cannot return to their original spouse if they have married someone different in between. It is a similar situation to the existence of poor people in the land: God says that there ought not be any of them – if Jews truly act lovingly towards their neighbours – but that in practice, the poor will always be with us.
Deuteronomy 24:7 absolutely forbids the kind of forced slavery – by kidnap – that was seen in the Roman Empire and later up to the 18th Century. Kidnapping is punishable by death!
The remainder of chapter 24 shows an expectation by the Lord that Israel will be generous, merciful, and gracious towards those who are weak, disadvantaged, and vulnerable, and will not impose unkindly their economic rights towards these people. Be merciful, just as God is merciful.
In chapter 25, it makes it clear that no physical legal punishment should exceed 40 lashes, since the culprit would be degraded as a human being (as God’s image); in practice, the Jews restricted a punishment to 39 lashes (see 2 Corinthians 11) just in case they miscounted.
25:4 – Being forbidden to muzzle an ox who was helping in the harvest is actually only partly to do with animal welfare, but (as we see in the New Testament) is much more concerned that those whose full-time work is to preach the gospel receive their living from the gospel – i.e. from the generous giving of the members of the church. If we are stingy in this, then we dishonour those full-time workers and we limit the reach of the gospel too.
Sandals, sisters-in-law, and sons is an interesting ritual, but the heart of it was to prevent a man’s inheritance passing out of his family line. The accounts of Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) and Ruth (Ruth 4:1-12) illustrate this perfectly.
Deuteronomy 26:16-19 is a restatement of the terms and conditions of the Old Covenant (which is a King-Vassal type of covenant). The construction of an altar of plastered stones on Mt Ebal was a continuation of the conditions that set this in place. Curses and Blessings chanted from each side of a deep valley must have sounded dramatic – and no-one after that could say that they hadn’t heard it!
Deuteronomy 27:26 states that “Cursed is everyone who does not do everything written in the Law”. Later, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:10 quotes this verse to show that another way is required to obtain righteousness – i.e. by faith. James 2:10 backs this up. As 21st Century believers, we should be eternally grateful that the basis of our salvation is by faith, rather than works since it is clear that ‘works’ never worked!