The larger context

This particular prohibition does not stand alone. It is one of a group of like prohibitions recorded in Deuteronomy 23, which, though unpleasant to contemplate, should be considered together. We will consider the exclusions noted in verses 1-8. These are:

  • A man who, in whatever fashion, has become a eunuch. The NET Bible has: “A man with crushed or severed genitals”. The NIV: “One who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting”;
  • An individual not of legitimate birth. The ESV has: “No one of a forbidden union”; NIV: “No one born of a forbidden marriage”; and NET Bible: “A person of illegitimate birth”;
  • An Ammonite or Moabite;
  • An Edomite or Egyptian to the third generation.

Entering the assembly

The key question to resolve is: What is meant by the phrase “they shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh”? The “assembly” itself was the national gathering of the people of Israel for special purposes. So, we find that once they were in the land the word is used for a gathering of the people:

Hence in Joshua 8:34-35 there were two groups mentioned: “all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant (Heb walking) among them”. The strangers conversant among them were of foreign descent and were not classified as belonging to the assembly. Note too, that in 1 Chronicles 13:1-2 “all the assembly” was not present, only their representative leaders.

In Nehemiah 13:1-3 we have an application of the law of Deuteronomy 23. In that text, ten generations interpreted as “for ever” and “not entering the congregation” is interpreted by Nehemiah as not marrying into the nation. If that is so, why was Ruth’s marriage acceptable?

As noted in our previous article on Ruth the Moabitess (Vol 22 No 5 Sept–Oct 2016), the answer lies in the fact that she renounced her Moabite citizenship and embraced Israel’s God. Hence the decision of Nehemiah 13:3 to separate from their wives was based on the fact that the foreign wives had not become proselytes (ie: converted).

With this in mind, the prohibition of “not entering into the assembly” relates to a foreigner who desired to reside in Israel but was not prepared to take on Israel’s religion. After some time, it would only be natural for that person to seek participation in Israel’s civil and religious affairs. They were permitted to serve in Israel’s civil arrangements (proof: Zelek the Ammonite was in David’s army – 1 Chron 11:39) but the law of Deuteronomy 23 prevented them from being part of the national assembly when it came together to make decisions of national or religious importance.

The comment on the children of Edom and Egypt in Deuteronomy 23:8 we note is expressed in a positive way: “The children…shall enter into the congregation of the LORD in their third generation”. This suggests that one committed to the hope of Israel from the people of Edom or Egypt did have some degree of involvement in Israel’s worship, but had to wait until the third generation to enter fully into the congregation of Israel.

Why three generations? It would seem that faithful involvement by such a family, fully demonstrated their commitment to Israel. Their former identity has effectively disappeared, and none could, after such a period, dispute their fealty to Israel.

It should be noted that another exclusive feature of “the congregation” is that you had to be over 20 years of age to be enrolled in the numbering of the congregation (Num 1:18) which implies that to participate in any decision-making process you had to be of a certain age.

Another question arises: In Ezekiel 18:20 we have a principle that the sons will not suffer for the sins of the fathers. So why should the children be disbarred from the assembly by virtue of their birth? The answer lies in the fact that the principle in Ezekiel 18 deals with moral issues and their corresponding rewards – something entirely different from who can and cannot be considered as part of the assembly of Yahweh.

Birth didn’t disbar a person from being a proselyte, but it did have consequences in connection with entering the assembly as a national participant in any decision the assembly made when it came together.

Let us now consider each of the classes of people barred from entering Yahweh’s assembly.

The eunuch

This unfortunate circumstance may have arisen by accident, in battle, or deliberately for some set aside for high office, such as happened to Daniel in Babylon. Here was a captive young man of high birth, of dazzling intellect and capacity, nominated for special service to the king. He was a eunuch as a matter of policy under the cruel Babylonians to ensure service without family distraction to his new masters. This may have been the case too with “a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure…” (Acts 8:27).

As indicated previously, exclusion from the assembly did not prevent someone from privately approaching God in an acceptable manner. The eunuch must not consider himself as having no fruit or contribution; he was not “a dry tree” (Isa 56:3). Rather, Yahweh declared, there would be a joyful reward for those eunuchs who “keep my sabbaths… choose the things that please me…And take hold of my covenant” (Isa 56:3-4). This was kingdom behaviour and an attitude with a joyous kingdom prospect: “I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off ” (Isa 56:5).

The exclusion in Deuteronomy was to highlight the perfection Yahweh sought from “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. This was particularly emphasised in the priesthood (Lev 21:16-21). Physical blemishes were given this prohibition to highlight that spiritual blemishes—unremedied—would give rise to the ultimate exclusion before “the judge of all the earth”.

The case of the Ethiopian eunuch is heart-warming. He “had come to Jerusalem for to worship”. Having a deep understanding of the Law, and with Philip’s exposition, beginning from Isaiah, of the work of Jesus, he was able to declare: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and was baptised. His physical condition was no impediment to becoming, equally with all others, a brother in Christ.

The illegitimate

The person described thus, is not so much a person born out of wedlock, but one “born of a Jewish father and a heathen mother” (Strong). This was the relationship where the foreigner had not forsaken their gods, something that so angered Nehemiah centuries later (Neh 13:23-28).

These, too, were prohibited entry into the assembly of Israel for ten generations (the expression is generally taken to mean a permanent exclusion – see Neh 13:1).

Yet scripture again provides a compelling example of a man of enormous faith and accomplishment who fits precisely this definition. This, of course, was Jepthah the Gileadite ( Jud 11:1-2). Cast out by his half-brothers, “the son of a strange woman” became the divinely strengthened hero and saviour of Israel. His name is inscribed in the roll of the faithful (Heb 11:32). Yes, Yahweh can and does in grace and love, set aside “the letter” for “the spirit” – our salvation depends on it.

We remember too that the Jewish leaders sought to apply Deuteronomy 23:2 to our Lord. “We be not born of fornication”, they declared in John 8:41. Though not even the spiritual children of Abraham (John 8:39), their arrogance further exclaimed, “we have one Father, even God” (8:41). But Jesus identified their true father in John 8:44, “Ye are of your father, the diabolos”.

It is possible to be “illegitimate and not sons” (Heb 12:8). Our Father seeks true sons and daughters, as He always has. He has brought us into His family in Christ – what a blessing.

Ammonite or Moabite

It is confronting to contemplate that, after his wife’s hankering for Sodom’s ways and being divinely turned into a pillar of salt, Lot ignorantly and drunkenly fathered Ammon and Moab.

At about the same time a newly and divinely invigorated Abraham fathered Isaac with his divinely enlivened wife, Sarah. A contrast which is horrifying and wonderful at the same time.

Though close relatives of Israel, the descendants of Ammon and Moab were excluded from their assembly for showing open hostility and opposition to the inheritance God was providing.

In relation to Ruth’s position as a Moabite, the reader can refer to our previous article under the heading “Ruth the Moabitess” in Vol 22 No 5 (Sept–Oct 2016).

But why these particular exclusions?

Having made the above comments, we are still left with the question: Why does God identify these particular matters as giving rise to exclusion from “the congregation (assembly) of Israel”? As we contemplate that question, we note that each has relation to physical or moral impediments to producing seed, according to divine requirements, to be part of the divine family.

In the first case, physical mutilation makes reproduction in the godly line physically impossible. In the second case, children are produced, but moral failing incurs God’s displeasure and exclusion from the congregation. Nehemiah’s reaction as we noted, highlights that fact of Godly disapproval. And in the case of Lot’s two children, Ammon and Moab, the circumstances of their begettal surely highlight a moral failing on the part of “just Lot”. In the beginning, God clearly defined His requirements for marriage and procreation. Genesis 1:27-28 define the divinely approved relationship: “male and female created he them”. The record continues: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish (fill) the earth”.

Procreation outside of this divinely established arrangement incurs divine displeasure. Inclusion of a eunuch in this list, while not always involving an element of immorality, is there to highlight the spiritual lesson.

Yet God’s grace and mercy always applies

In the three circumstances of Deuteronomy 23:1-3 considered above, there is a notional absolute prohibition. But “absolute” was not quite absolute. The examples of Ruth, Jephthah, Daniel and the divine acceptance of faithful eunuchs in Isaiah 56 demonstrates that a sound faith and allegiance to Israel’s God opened the door to becoming a true Israelite in the community of the nation.

Conclusion

Yahweh in His Word, sometimes to our chagrin, will not let us turn our face away from the grim, unpleasant issues of life. We want to turn the page. But we do so at our peril. We must read Deuteronomy 23 and similar passages of our heavenly Father’s inspired Word, although we may not wish to. Here is flesh; the carnal mind. Mutilated sometimes; illegitimate too. And sometimes even hostile to the purpose of God, who desires to bring us lovingly into His family. We can only respond on our knees. Yahweh wants us to wholly follow His Son. He wants no blemish in us. We fail often, yet His love and grace will bring us back when we seek Him with our whole heart “that (we) may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col 4:12).