Deuteronomy 19:14-15; 22:1-4,8; 23:24-25; 24:6,14-15
Living in Community with the Powerless
The book of Deuteronomy is, for a large part, a commentary on and an application of the covenant that God established with the nation of Israel when He brought them out of Egypt and delivered them to the promised land of Canaan. Moses, in his last opportunity to address the nation of Israel, provided an interpretation of the context, meaning, and application of the ten commandments and how they are to be a part of their daily lives. The first four commandments deal with the appropriate way that people are to relate to God, and Moses' commentary and law concerning those was laid down in earlier chapters. Deuteronomy 17:8 - 26:19 deals primarily with the last six commandments that provide guidance on the way that God's people are to relate to each other.
The people of God should have a dramatically different world view from those who do not know God, from those who have not placed their trust in God. The covenant that God has with His people requires something in return; that our love for him would lead us to seek to obey His will in our lives, not our own.
Matthew. 7:21. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart and life of every genuine Christian believer, obedient people of faith will always seek to do the will of God. Though they may sometimes express concern about knowing what that will is, those concerns are usually applied to specific situations and not to the general guidelines for living that God has establishes in His Word. “Doing God’s will” is simply a matter of giving Him total authority in our lives and responding appropriately to that authority. By doing so, we submit to His authority, and the rules for living that He has set down.
Some argue that the Old Testament record is no longer relevant since we are “no longer under law, but under grace.” This is an inappropriate conclusion to come to, based upon a dramatic misunderstanding of the Old Testament message, particularly when salvation was always attained by faith, and never successfully by keeping of the law. Jesus’ coming did not do away with the law:
Matthew 5:17-20. Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus taught that there is a very real and consequential judgment upon those who know God, yet live in disobedience. Those who are “least in the kingdom of heaven” are still in the kingdom of heaven, so Jesus is referring to people who have placed their faith and trust in God. There is more to righteousness than a simple profession of faith that bears no fruit. Yet, the bearing of works for the sake of works rather than bearing fruit that is a natural part of faith is not an indication of salvation.
The legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees is not saving righteousness, but rather what the religious leaders believed constituted righteousness: keeping the law. Many people today think that they have a place in heaven simply because they are good people who keep the commandments. However, every single proponent of salvation by works knows in their heart of hearts that they are not perfect and have broken at least part of the law, leaving them fundamentally hopeless in their knowledge of their true unrighteousness. Jesus returned the original meaning to the law by illuminating its context and purpose, presenting the “keeping of the law” in the manner that God had originally intended: placing it in their hearts.
The Ten Commandments, given to Moses, are the beginning of God's covenant with those who are faithful to Him, and establish the basic context for obedient living. People who consider that list as ten finite and simple commands are missing the breadth of God's purpose in giving them. Actually, when we look at the general pattern of western moral and civil laws, most of those that involve regulations on civil conduct can be grouped with one or more of those last six of the Ten Commandments.
This section of Deuteronomy is a record of the commentary that Moses drew from the Ten Commandments, establishing some guidelines for maintaining relationships among people, particularly concerning dealing with those who are poor and powerless. For example, we find in these passages Moses’ description of what it means to steal, and how we are to live together in a community where an understanding of what stealing means, and a conscientious effort is made to provide for one another is fully applied. We find that there is a wide range of transgressions that constitute theft, and the godly alternative is to protect, honor, and care for our neighbors, rather than to take advantage of them. God has created man as a social animal, and many of our needs are met through our relationships with others. However, as children of God, those relationships should reflect the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we seek to honor God in both our relationship with Him and with other people. Consider some of the imperatives that Moses presents in Deuteronomy 19 - 24.
Deuteronomy 19:7. Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt separate three cities for thee.
Just as is the case today, we live in a wicked world, one where violence or the threat of violence often wins the day. In such a violent place it is common for those who are innocent of any wrongdoing to be treated unjustly by wicked, sel-centered, and angry people. As the LORD presented His plan for His people, He commanded the Israelites to build three distinct cities. These cities would not be ones that were taken from the Canaanites in conquest. These cities would be built for a very specific purpose: to serve as a refuge for those who are threatened by injustice. These three cities would be governed as places of refuge that serve to specifically give assistance to the innocent; to separate out those who are innocent from those who are guilty.
In the previous verses, an example is given of one who kills another by accident without any malicious intent or forethought: while felling a tree the head of the axe comes loose and kills another. Such a person is not to be held under judgment. However, an angry brother, family, or others may seek the death of the one who held the axe. These three cities served as a refuge, a place where someone in this situation could run for sanctuary.
Deuteronomy 19:8-10. And if the LORD thy God enlarge thy coast, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers; 9If thou shalt keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day, to love the LORD thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee, beside these three: 10That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee [for] an inheritance, and [so] blood be upon thee.
God’s purpose is that His cities would always be a place of refuge for the innocent. In a perfect world there would be no need for refuge as people would treat one another within the context of their love for God and love for one another. Consequently God’s promise is simple: if the people would keep His commandments, then more cities would be places of refuge. Note something important here, a point that is true when the scripture teaches on the subject of keeping commandments. The foundation for keeping commandments is given in verse 9: to love the LORD thy God.
Keeping commandments is not done by following a list of rules. Keeping commandments is the natural fruit of one who loves the LORD. Just as the LORD works to protect the innocent, it is a natural response of those who love the LORD to join Him in that work. People who truly place their trust in the LORD and love Him will always serve as an advocate for the innocent. It is these who are referred to as “great” in Matthew 5:19.
However, God is also a fair and just Judge. While protecting the innocent, God also works to appropriately judge the guilty. Consequently, when we observe the commandments, we find the words, “Thou shalt not.” The “shalt nots” are some basic behavioral patterns that will never be acceptable to one who truly loves the LORD. Consequently for those who love the LORD, the “shalt nots” are not rules, but rather lists of behaviors that would never be a part of an obedient life. However, for the lost, these are a set of hard and fast rules that deserve prompt judgment. We might be reminded of:
Deuteronomy 5:17. Thou shalt not kill.
The word used for “kill” is important. We have already been shown that an accidental death does not constitute what this word implies. There are numerous examples of God’s commands to the Israelites to destroy enemies in battle, and to serve as His hand of judgment upon wicked nations. A better translation might be “Thou shalt not murder,” for the word used here refers explicitly to the killing of another with malicious intent, or the willful killing of one who is innocent and defenseless.
Deuteronomy 19:11-13. But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: 12Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away [the guilt of] innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.
Note that the cities of refuge were not to be used as a sanctuary for those guilty of the crimes for which they are charged. If one enters the city who is guilty of murder, that individual is to be turned over to his/her accusers for appropriate judgment. Note, however, the reasoning behind this command: That Israel would not be responsible in any way for the shedding of innocent blood, for to shelter the murderer is to share in his guilt.
Deuteronomy 19:14. Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it.
This command is repeated in Proverbs 22:28, "Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set." The key to understanding this verse lies in the in the application of the word "landmark" that was intended by the writer. It is clearly the object of this sentence, and understanding what the writer meant by a landmark should illuminate the true meaning of the verse.
In pursuing the truth of the verse, we might first assume a few figurative uses of the "ancient landmark." If this word were to refer to traditions, then one might think that this is a call to keep traditions unchanged. The children of Israel held closely to their traditions and by so doing maintained their identity and their mores for daily living. Removal of these traditions from their culture would be considered as anathema to its orthodox members.
If this word were to refer to signposts, then one might think it refers to the signs that guide people from town to town. Such signposts could be either literal or figurative. A literal signpost might be placed on a road to guide foreigners to their intended destination and to remove such a resource would be an ungodly act. A figurative signpost could be a doctrinal position that guides the disciple towards an intended spiritual or cultural destination, and the removal of such doctrine would challenge the integrity of their system of beliefs.
Such speculation on the interpretation of this text comes from an incomplete exegesis. Convincing arguments for these interpretations can be made, but the basis for such arguments do not include sufficient scholarship concerning the actual use of the Hebrew word that is rendered, "ancient landmark." We will come closer to our intended understanding of the verse by investigating more closely what is generally meant by this term. When we do so, we find that these ancient landmarks were stacks of stones, placed at a location for a particular purpose. Before stating the defense for this position, we could stop at this point and arrive at still more interpretations.
Stones were stacked to build altars to both the pagan gods and to the Lord. If this verse were referring to a prohibition on removing these landmarks, one could develop a theology that necessitates the preservation of pagan altars. Little illumination is needed to observe that this is not a reasonable interpretation.
Stones were also stacked to build memorials. For example, when the Nation of Israel crossed the Jordan to enter the Canaan land under the leadership of Joshua, twelve stones were taken from the river and stacked as a memorial of the event. When children would ask, "What is the meaning of these stones?," opportunity to recount the event would be provided. Certainly, the removal of such memorials would not be looked on favorably.
When faced with such a broad array of subjective interpretations, it is useful to abandon such logical arguments and pursue an understanding of the meaning of the object, "landmark" that was held by the writer and the intended readers. This will bring us yet one step closer to its correct interpretation. One way of ascertaining usage is to look at other applications of the word in scripture. The Hebrew word that is rendered, "landmark" is literally, "boundary," and is used at least five other times in the Old Testament to refer specifically to the boundary stones that are used to mark the land owned by individual farmers as well as that allotted to the tribes of Israel. This is a meaning quite different from any previously stated. It is also a meaning that is consistently applied across the other uses of the word in scripture, and its application is also consistent. These scriptures refer to the iniquity of moving boundary stones as a method of adding to one's landholdings. This was a simple way to steal land from one's neighbor. Based on this simple word study, the meaning of this verse is neither figurative nor complex. It is simply an imperative that instructs landowners to refrain from moving the boundary stones that marked the borders of their properties, and by so instructing, provides guiding reference to a specific sin and to a more general application of that same type of sin: stealing.
Exodus 20:15. Thou shalt not steal,
Stealing can be defined as despising anyone's ownership of property, and exercised by depriving any owner of its use. This can range from taking a pen from the office of an employer to taking time away from someone against their choice (hear that telemarketers?) to the kinds of theft we often think about when we think of stealing.
Deuteronomy 19:15-20. One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. 16If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; 17Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; 18And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; 19Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. 20And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. !
Conflicts certainly arise among people, conflicts that may range anywhere from simple disagreements to acts of crime and violence. Christians are not insulated from the consequences of the sinful acts of others, nor are they any less capable of committing such sin themselves. It is a simple matter to exercise a spirit of arrogance, pride, or greed by committing some act of dishonor towards another individual or towards a group. As God was preparing the people of Israel to enter the promised land, the culture of the land was an ugly mosaic of sin, much as it is today. People took advantage of one another for their own gain in a unimaginable variety of ways. In establishing the legal system that the Jews would use to enforce some standard of societal behavior, here Moses first sets down a rule that will protect the innocent against false accusations. This rule, like all others that Moses penned, are aimed clearly at maintaining the safety and security of the people, and not as a punitive act of God. One person alone could not be easily trusted, so one person's word against another would not hold up in court. For an accusation to be made, two or more witnesses would be necessary. To further protect the innocent, the law placed harsh penalties for false witness. An example of bribed witnesses is given in 1 Kings 21:10-14. By requiring multiple witnesses, and by holding those witnesses responsible for their statements, justice could be served and the peace and welfare of the innocent could be preserved.
Exodus 20:16. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,
This is only one example of bearing false witness. God's people, when led by the Holy Spirit, are not going to be led to lie and to cheat others. It is only when the power of the Holy Spirit is quenched by selfish desire, does one bear false witness, and by so doing is committing a sin against society and a sin against God.
PROTECT OTHERS FROM HARM
Deuteronomy 22:1-4. Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt in any case bring them again unto thy brother. 2And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, or if thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it unto thine own house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother seek after it, and thou shalt restore it to him again. 3In like manner shalt thou do with his ass; and so shalt thou do with his raiment; and with all lost thing of thy brother’s, which he hath lost, and thou hast found, shalt thou do likewise: thou mayest not hide thyself. 4Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again.
Part of living in community is caring for one another. When a person of faith observes another person who is in distress, the Holy Spirit will not lead the person of faith to indifference, but move that person in compassion, remembering the compassion and mercy that God has for us. Very few cattle farmers are not familiar with the exercise of chasing cattle that have escaped the perimeter of their fenced fields. If a farmer sees another farmer's livestock running loose, it is obvious that the loss of the livestock is a real loss to that farmer's ability to make a living. I have vivid memories of chasing dairy cattle back to their home fields in upstate New York, unknown to many as one of the largest dairy regions of the United States. That cow running loose represents an investment of a couple thousand dollars to our neighboring farmer, and we would certainly desire to appropriate his help if one of our own cattle got loose. Several of our family members were sitting one evening at the dinner table when a small group of cows went running past the kitchen window. Without pausing to even state an alarm, everyone jumped out of their seats and ran out the doors of the house in a collective effort to keep the cattle off of the nearby highway and direct them back home. There was no consideration given to the Law of Moses. There was no time spent to determine what response would make us ‘righteous’. Chasing down those cattle was simply the natural response of our character. This is a good illustration of how the Law is applied in the lives of the faithful.
When we are living in community not only are we to not steal from our neighbors, but the commandment of Exodus 20:16 is taken a step further: obedience to this command includes protecting the neighbor's ownership of his property. Living in community means to take care of the needs of those around us when opportunities present themselves. To fail to restore the neighbor's cows to him when such restoration is possible is as much an act of theft as to keep the wandering cattle for one's self.
Deuteronomy 22:8. When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence,
The home of those who lived in ancient Canaan were made predominantly of stone and wood. The roof of the home was flat, providing more space that was used for many things. Scriptures reveal many activities that took place on roof tops. In the hot summers rooftops would be used for bedrooms. Peter went to the rooftop to pray when he was given a vision of tolerance. Protection of our neighbors goes even a step further with this command. When the house is built, a parapet, or low wall is to be built around the perimeter of the roof to prevent a person from falling from the roof to the ground, sustaining injury or death. Mosaic law held that to fail to do so constitutes negligence, and should a person be injured from a fall from the house, the house owner would be responsible for the death. Likewise, the community would be responsible for the death, and all would be held ceremonially unclean for their sin. Though the statement here describes the unintentional taking of a life, the underlying principle involves a new idea: human life is to be highly respected. Valuing life was not a priority in the cultures of the day, but God values life to the full, and children of God are commanded to do likewise. The true expression of agape love always does likewise. All life is valuable and is worthy of protection. Verses that follow verse eight go so far as to extend the responsibility of protecting life to that of a bird, an animal, a living being that is created by God.
There is no person more defenseless in this world than an unborn child. If we are called to protect life, what is our appropriate position concerning the value and dignity of the unborn? Since abortion became legal in the United States more than 50 million unborn children have been put to death simply because they were not wanted. The practice has become so much a part of our modern culture that it has become acceptable to those who profess faith in God. The biblical narrative is clear: those who love God are to protect life, not destroy it.
Deuteronomy 23:24-25. When thou comest into thy neighbour’s vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure; but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel. 25When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbour, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbour’s standing corn.
The economy of the ancient middle-east was agricultural, and of course, food was locally grown and distributed. One of the laws that Moses laid down here was intended to take the care of a needy neighbor even a step further than that in the previous verses. When passing through a vineyard, one is free to eat any edible food that is there if they are hungry. However, if one takes any food away from the field, they are guilty of stealing from the farmer. Because ours is not an agricultural society, and food cannot be picked from the neighbor's field, this command might seem a little confusing or irrelevant. However, our society often provides ways to meet the needs of the hungry through social services and welfare. With no such organizations in the ancient middle-east, the alternative was this law. By allowing the hungry to eat from the fields, the farmer is taking part in providing for the hungry. This small contribution is a gift to the hungry person just as if it is gift to the Lord, and God observes its giving in the same context. A member of the Christian community, when observing the needs of those around him/her, will be moved to compassion by the power of the Holy Spirit and take the initiative to try to meet that person's needs. A gift given to someone in need, when given as to the Lord, is just as much a worthy sacrifice as the gifts given directly to the work of the church. The world tends to diminish the worth of the poor. It would be a sinful tragedy for God's people to do the same.
Deuteronomy 24:6. No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge: for he taketh a man’s life to pledge.
Because society diminishes the value of the life of the poor, it's members often exploit the poor for their own gain. The poor are often the most defenseless and are easily exploited. This verse refers to such exploitation. Today's homes often have the finest tools for preparing meals. Middle-income people will have electronic appliances that heat, cool, bake, and complete a variety of other tasks necessary for providing meals for the family. In the culture of the ancient middle-east, the kitchen appliance that was most common, and most needed, was the millstone. Actually, it was a set of millstones, one that would lay flat, and upon which the grain to be milled into flour would be placed. Then, the upper stone would be set upon the lower, and usually through a rotating action, the milling would take place. What would happen if a creditor were to demand that a poor borrower secure his loan by taking his millstone? To do so would take away the poor man's livelihood, hence exploiting him, taking from him the one thing that would hurt the most. This is a command that is meant more for the lender than the borrower. The empowered member in the transaction can manipulate and force the powerless to sacrifice what may be of tremendous importance to him in order to meet the demands of the more powerful to whom the object of transaction is meaningless. As children of God, we must always listen to the Holy Spirit's lead when we are dealing with those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
My wife and I have had the opportunity to take part in missionary trips in America and overseas, often being hosted by people who desire to show their appreciation for the visit by tremendous sacrifice. We have sat at dinner with people when we knew that their generosity was costing them dearly. We were moved to find ways of giving them gifts prior to our leaving that would more than compensate them for their sacrifice without embarrassing them, though I was aware that many in our groups did not. When serving the poor, we must be sensitive to the sacrifices that they feel obligated to make, accept them gracefully and with love, and find ways to repay the kindness. In this way we will not take away the person's livelihood, but will bless them by accepting their gift, and doubly bless them by giving to them also.
Deuteronomy 24:7. If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you.
Slavery was common in the ancient near east, as it was common all around the world. Slavery is indicative of the blatant disregard that people have for others, and is a natural expression of a sin-filled culture. Though the practice was accepted by their society, Moses made it clear that this is not appropriate behavior for one who seeks to be obedient to a loving and caring LORD. One who is filled with the Holy Spirit, and lives a life based upon agape love would not find this law a concern, for they would never be comfortable taking part in the practice. However, slavery was so much a part of their culture that people who professed to love the LORD often owned slaves.
Note that Moses does not refer as much to the practice of slavery as he refers to the selling of a member of the children of Abraham into slavery. Such an act is a product of theft and murder. The law is clear: anyone who takes part in this practice is to be put to death. Note also that the punishment has a purpose: to remove evil from the nation. A body of faith cannot remain healthy as long as it tolerates evil, for that evil will eat at the fellowship like a cancer. Consequently, the law often proscribes the removal from the assembly those who blatantly despise the LORD by their sinful and worldly state.
Deuteronomy 24:14-15. Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: 15At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the LORD, and it be sin unto thee.
The poor and needy were treated the same under the Hebrew law whether they were Jews or Gentiles. In what ways are the poor oppressed in our society? The denial of the rights and dignity of the poor are violated all around the world, and such actions constitute theft. One can easily steal the rights and dignity of those who cannot defend themselves. Most nations that are characterized by their poverty are in that state simply because of a government that oppresses them by denying them the resources that are available to them, keeping the poor under subjection, and keeping those resources for the rich elite. Most of the foreign aid that America sends to these nations is kept by those in and around their governments. Aid organizations have often been charged with malfeasance concerning the distribution of gifts given to them by unsuspecting, though generous, benefactors. A few years ago a very well-known children's relief organization collected many millions of dollars using a popular television actress as their spokesperson. After operating for several years, an investigation revealed that the organization could only identify the gift of a single blanket that was given. American industry has joined this global oppression by moving many of its manufacturing operations into economically depressed nations where workers can be exploited by paying them salaries that are but a small fraction of what American employees require. By so doing, they are taking advantage of the poverty in those nations and creating unemployment at home. The lower payments to workers mean bigger profits for the company shareholders and elite staff, perpetuating the ages-old economic dichotomy that separates the "haves" from the "have-nots", the rich from the poor.
When one considers the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal," most people can confidently state that they are not thieves. When the question is brought to bear, most people might think back to a day when they did take something that did not belong to them. It might have been the toy of a friend or acquaintance, or some small item shoplifted from a store. When we look at stealing from this narrow perspective, we miss the intent of the commandment, and overlook many other areas where we might find ourselves guilty of transgression. We see from these verses that we can take from others much more than simple property. We can steal dignity, hope, and livelihood. We can steal the same by keeping it for ourselves when there is a need to share. Let us be continually aware of the ways we treat others to be assured that we are not exploiting those who we have the power to oppress, and through that awareness, contribute to our community in ways that will restore the dignity, value, livelihood, and property of those less fortunate than ourselves.