Key Verse: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37–40
Applying Old Testament laws today
In Deuteronomy 22 we meet a collection of regulations so diverse that we have a hard time organizing them around a common theme. Some laws occupy only one verse (for examples, see vv. 5, 8, 12, 22 and 30), others from two to nine verses.
Naturally the question arises: How should we use these various laws today, after Christ bas come and inaugurated the new age? Must we apply them in the same way in order to be faithful to the Bible?
The Westminster Confession of Faith gives us a helpful answer in Chapter 19, Paragraph 4:
To [Israel] also, as a body politic, [God] gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
Interpreting and applying these judicial laws given to Israel requires that we discern the “general equity” or pith of the divine requirement, as we heard Calvin say several lessons ago. The laws expired along with the theocratic state of Israel, but their underlying principles remain.
What then is the principle underlying the various laws in Deuteronomy 22? We have chosen to organize these diverse regulations around the common theme of “mutual responsibility” or looking out for one another’s best interests.
Involved in our brother’s affliction (read 22:1–4)
“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall certainly bring them back to your brother” (22:1).
This “simple” requirement bas three dimensions: an outward duty (respecting property rights) and an inward attitude (compassion), both flowing from a Godward relationship (atonement).
The Bible condemns the “finders, keepers; losers, weepers” mentality. If we find anything that our neighbor lost (ox, sheep, coat), anything damaged or injured (donkey), we are to safeguard it until he comes looking for it or to help him recover from his loss.
People have a habit of looking the other way when the plight of another person calls them to get involved. Our individualistic culture expects each person to paddle his own canoe. The church suffers damage when believers abandon their responsibility to get involved in a co-believer’s suffering. Being our brother’s keeper roots in divine forgiveness, which frees us to concern ourselves with our fellow believer’s needs.
Order and honesty in apparel (read 22:5)
“A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all who do so are an abomination to the LORD your God.”
Although some translations make it sound as if the woman is being prohibited from wearing men’s clothing, the original is broader: she may not wear “anything that pertains to a man”—which could include something like military weapons as well. Proper clothing shows regard for God and for our neighbor. By creating mankind male and female, God designed them to be and remain different. Wearing clothes designed for the opposite gender obscures this creational order by disguising oneself to others.(Question 1)
Respecting limits in the creation (read 22:6–7)
This regulation regarding bird nests is directed against human brutality in using the creation.
Harvesting eggs is permissible, but killing the mother isn’t. Such brutality betrays a lack of self-control and restraint. The LORD adds a motive here: “that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” (Question 2)
Liability for safety (read 22:8)
The houses built in ancient cities had flat roofs that served as verandas for social entertainment. Building a parapet around the perimeter was a safety measure to prevent people from falling off the roof.
Modern equivalents would include building a fence around a swimming pool, providing safety goggles in the workplace and equipping public buildings with adequate escape routes in case of fire.
Daily reminders of covenantal differentness (read 22:9–12)
Perhaps the most acceptable interpretation of these verses is that the LORD requires certain distinctions in daily activities (labor and dress) to teach Israel daily lessons about spiritual distinctiveness from the heathen. In Numbers 15:37–41 we learn that Israelites were to make tassels on the corners of their outer garments, putting a blue thread in the comer tassels. All of these visible reminders pointed them to the law, to their sinful hearts and to the LORD.
The “material world” functions as a parable for spiritual truth. These are then pedagogical provisions, divine lessons from daily life for teaching covenantal uniqueness. (Question 3)
The apostle Paul echoes the same lesson to the Corinthians: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).
Sexual sins (read 22:13–30)
The first situation addressed here involves a husband’s complaint that his new bride was not a virgin (vv. 13–21). Serving as proof in a judicial process, the “cloth” mentioned in verse 17 refers to the sheet stained by the blood of their first intercourse. If his complaint was false, the husband was to be punished for having defamed his wife (and her family), and was forbidden ever to divorce his wife.
Particularly this last “punishment” might sound unusual to us, since it seems to punish the wife rather than the husband! But by means of this provision the wife is protected economically, since if she were divorced no one would ever marry her, leaving her unprotected. Because the woman is the more vulnerable of the two parties in a divorce, marriage favors the woman: within this divine institution, the woman enjoys the greater benefit.
Next follow regulations about cases of unlawful sexual relations, both voluntary and forced. Adulterers (both man and woman) must be executed (v. 22).
Notice the balance here: both are subject to the same penalty. This balance was absent in the case of adultery brought to Jesus for adjudication (see John 8:1–11). In the case of voluntary sexual consent between a man and an engaged woman, both parties were to be stoned (vv. 23–24). Voluntary consent was assumed if this sin occurred in a town, where neighbors would have heard the woman scream if she had wanted help. By contrast, if out in the countryside a man raped an engaged woman, only he must be put to death (vv. 26–27). If a man raped an unengaged woman, he was required to pay her father the dowry and to marry her, with no right to divorce her (vv. 28, 29). Finally, the LORD forbids adultery with the wife of one’s father (v. 30; in a polygamous society, this was not necessarily one’s mother). Both the death penalty (Lev. 20:1) and a special curse (Deut. 27:20) applied to this particularly heinous sin.
For us to apply these verses we must determine whether or not the sanction of capital punishment must be enforced against adulterers today. In his sermon on Deuteronomy 22, John Calvin advised:
For nowadays if a man would believe many men, there should be no laws to punish faults and offenses. And they allege that it is done to shun other inconveniences: yea, but shall we in the meanwhile give way to all lawless behavior, and shake off all yoke and all correction from us? What then would come thereof in the end, but beastly confusion in all places? And therefore although sometime there may be fear of false accusations and slanders, yet must we not leave [abandon] the use of chastisements and corrections, so far forth as reason and indifference require, but remedies ought to be provided against them,….
Reason and fairness are useful measures for legislating modern punishment against sexual immorality. The punishments stipulated for Israel, Calvin says, are like mirrors and living pictures, by which God teaches us the depravity of these sins and warns us of His sure vengeance upon those who refuse voluntarily to restrain themselves from such wickedness. How foolish, then, for magistrates to ignore sexual immorality or to punish it as if it were no worse than petty thievery. (Questions 4 and 5)
In summary, then, mutual responsibility within the covenant community requires respect for our neighbor’s property, for the creation, for our neighbor’s safety, for spiritual distinctiveness and for human sexuality. Imagine the inter-personal harmony and social well-being in this kind of community! Many of the Old Testament prophets preached about a coming kingdom characterized precisely by this mutual love. Our Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed the coming of this kingdom. And the New Testament church is—until Christ’s return—the clearest visible manifestation of that kingdom. That’s the line of covenant history, extending back beyond Pentecost and Easter, beyond Bethlehem and the prophets, all the way to Moses and Mount Sinai, back to the banks of the Jordan River. It’s all our history, unified in our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Questions for Reflection and Reply
1. Does this verse prohibit women serving in the military, or simply their serving as combat soldiers? Discuss whether or not a ‘dress code’ is a useful means to teach children and young people about maintaining sexual differences.
2. Mention several applications of the principle of respecting limits in creation. In the light of both God’s permission (gathering eggs) and prohibition (leave the mother bird alone), how should Christians evaluate today’s widespread concern about endangered species?
3. Should Christians today wear visual reminders of their differentness, like jewelry using the cross? If so, what are some dangers of this? If not, how must we apply these verses today?
4. Does the Bible require capital punishment for adulterers? Why (not)? Should the civil government punish adultery today? If so, what would be “reasonable” and “fair” punishments? If not, why not?
5. Think about the Old Testament requirement to execute adulterers and other criminals. Read 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. Explain why the apostle did not expect the Roman state to execute these former “criminals.” In the light of your answer, does Scripture disqualify penitent adulterers, divorcees or homosexuals for church office solely because of their former sin? Why (not)?