Key Verse: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” Ephesians 5:1–2
The uniqueness of Old Testament legislation
Throughout these Bible studies on Deuteronomy, we have been emphasizing that Old Testament legislation is qualitatively different from so-called “case laws” that governed Israel’s neighbors.
Two traits distinguish Israel’s laws from “case laws.”
First, Old Testament law is preached law. That is to say: the LORD, who is the Lawgiver, wraps His laws with reasons, motives and goals that root in His character and in His activity on Israel’s behalf. “Do this or don’t do that,” the LORD tells Israel, “because you are my purchased people.” Or again: “Because I am holy, you shall be holy—different from all your neighbors.” Israel’s covenantal faithfulness was for the sake of the land, of coming generations, and of her flocks, herds and crops.
Second, Old Testament law proceeds from atonement. Think back to our study of Deuteronomy 12, where the LORD’s first order of business was to specify Israel’s worship and atonement at “the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name for His dwelling place” (Dt. 12:5, 11, 13–14, 18, 21, 26). The sanctuary was the place of atonement, the place from which power and purity proceeded throughout the land of Israel. Her social and economic relationships, her military expeditions and festival celebrations, all of her life was directed by (not dominated by!) the religious-cultic experience of atonement.
Remarrying one’s divorced spouse (read 24:1–4)
These two features help us probe more deeply into the LORD’s instruction regarding remarriage. Please read these verses carefully to see clearly that they are dealing with neither marriage nor divorce, but with the remarriage of a divorced couple.
Deuteronomy 24:1–4 consists of but one sentence. Several subordinate clauses describe the circumstances leading up to the “main point,” which is: “[the woman’s] former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled.”
These are the circumstances: husband A divorces his wife, who marries husband B; husband B either divorces her or dies, whereupon the way seems clear for husband A to remarry his former wife. “No!” says the LORD. “Not in Israel!”
So far the instruction is clear.
Take some time to reflect on the LORD’s application of these verses in Jeremiah 3:1:
They say. “If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?” “Would not that land be greatly polluted? But you have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return to me,” says the LORD.
Obviously the LORD is applying this legislation about divorce and remarriage to His own relationship with Israel. As you continue reading Jeremiah 3, you come upon this surprise in verse 8:
Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce;….
Still more surprising is the LORD’s instruction to the prophet in verse 12: .
Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: “Return, backsliding Israel,” says the LORD; “I will not cause my anger to fall on you. For I am merciful,” says the LORD; “I will not remain angry forever.”
In light of this prophetic application of Deuteronomy, it seems clear that what the LORD forbids His people to do (take back one’s divorced spouse) He permits Himself to do!
Our Lord Jesus Christ: Greater than Moses
There is another “moment” in redemptive history when this legislation was discussed and preached: in Christ’s ministry. Jesus reminded the Pharisees that Moses’ permission of divorce, by which the LORD sought to govern an apparently existing practice, was occasioned by Israel’s hardness of heart (cf. Mt. 19:1–9; Mk. 10:1–9). Such permission, Jesus insisted, was not God’s original intention, for at creation God had established the permanent, monogamous union of husband and wife.
Let’s pause a moment to remember that our focus in this lesson is on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which prohibits a divorced couple from remarrying. What do we learn about this passage from our Savior’s teaching?
This legislation was given to an atoned community which was simultaneously a sinful, weak community. Jesus’ remark about Israel’s hardness of heart is a key that fits more locks. Israel received many divine permissions that show the incompleteness of the Old Testament dispensation. Take, for example, God’s permission to demand interest from foreigners, a law that seemed to permit loving one’s brother but despising one’s enemy, the foreigner. With the appearance of Jesus Christ the Father brings His people back to the beginning—to that time when all of humanity enjoyed peace and fellowship within every institution and relationship, when divorce and ethnic isolation didn’t exist.
It’s as if in His laws to Israel the LORD adapted Himself to her pre-Golgotha situation. Israel was given half a load, whereas the New Testament church receives the full load of Christ’s commandments. The bud of covenant blessing and duty has reached full flower now for all those who by faith have been engrafted into Christ. (Question 1)
Marriage protected by exemption from public service (read 24:5)
What is stated negatively in verses 1–4 is put positively in verse 5. A man recently married is exempted from public service (military or otherwise) for one year. This protects the family from the untimely death of the husband/father and avoids his prolonged absence from the home immediately after the wedding. Clearly the LORD intended to promote the growth of the family. Calvin distilled the law’s meaning for all time this way:
…men ought to avoid all occasions which serve to estrange them from their wives, and to the disordering of their house. We are already of ourselves overly frail and weak, and though no further occasion be offered, we see how many swerve aside from their duties, and are so ticklish that they cannot hold themselves quiet and still in their vocation. (Question 2)
Limited collateral in Israel (read 24:6)
When an Israelite made a loan to a fellow countryman, he was prohibited from taking as collateral the millstones or the upper millstone. Every Israelite home had a small milling machine which served as a basic kitchen appliance for making daily bread. To take the millstone(s) as collateral would cause real hardship, perhaps equivalent to taking the refrigerator as collateral today.
Kidnapping (read 24:7)
In Bible times kidnapping was followed not by a demand for ransom, but by the kidnapper selling the victim into slavery in return for money or merchandise. Even though the victim did not die, he or she was cut off from God’s people, from the blessings of the covenant, and therefore really from life itself. The only suitable punishment for the kidnapper was execution.
Leprosy (read 24:8-9)
These verses assume that Israel remembers the LORD’s earlier instruction about leprosy (see Rev. 13–14). Moses here exhorts the people to be diligent in following those instructions pertaining to a variety of infectious skin diseases denoted by the term leprosy.
More on collateral (read 24:10–13)
It seems clear that the person asking for financial assistance is a poor Israelite. In such a situation, the lender may not enter the poor man’s house, but must wait outside. This protects the poor man’s privacy and permits him to choose what he will offer as collateral for the loan. This procedure secures the dignity and honor of the borrower.
The poorest of the poor would be able to offer only their clothing as collateral. In this case, the lender was forbidden to take the outer garment as pledge. This garment doubled as a bed covering at night, so that its use as collateral would have exposed the poor man to the chilly night air.
Honoring the poor employee (read 24:14–15)
Poor men who labored within Israel were to be paid at the end of each day. To be paid on a weekly or a monthly basis would have caused too much hardship. Daily wages were needed for daily bread.
Added to this requirement was the motivational reminder that the LoRD listens to the cries of the poor. As a former slave people, every wealthy Israelite ought to remember that fact, especially when dealing with the poor.
Individual responsibility (read 24:16)
This legislation concerns the application of capital punishment. The principle involved is that each person was to pay for his own sin; the person responsible for the crime was to bear its punishment. There were to be no substitutions. This in no way contradicts the LORD’s assertion in the second commandment that He “visits the sins of the fathers upon the children,” which refers to repercussions and consequences of sin, not to its legal punishment.
Respecting the stranger, orphan and widow (read 24:17–22)
This is the fourth class of needy people among Israel mentioned in this chapter. Justice for the oppressed, limits upon collateral for loans and provision for the hungry during harvesting are expressions of compassion and kindness.
Grain, olives or grape clusters left behind by harvesters could be taken, without the penalty [or stealing, by a stranger, an orphan or widow. These people didn’t own any land and were therefore threatened with exclusion from the blessings of the land. This divine legislation sought to guarantee that they might nevertheless share in the fruits of Canaan in a way that protected their honor and dignity. Rather than looking for a “hand-out,” the poor could invest their own labor in harvesting their food. Their benefactors, generous farmers, were simply reflecting the compassion of their Father, Redeemer and LORD. (Questions 3 and 4)
Questions for Reflection and Reply
1. Illustrate the truth that the New Testament church has been given more than Israel, in terms of (1) blessings and (2) obligations.
2. Read 1 Corinthians 7:29–33. Mention some “marital cares” that are proper and some that are not. Mention specific ways in which the Christian community can reduce stress on Christian marriages.
3. Defend or criticize, on the basis of Scripture, this statement: It is part of the church’s task to relieve world poverty.
4. Mention diaconal practices that would be consistent with the Bible whereby we can respect the dignity of poor co-believers today. How can we employ “the law for gleaners” in the church today? Where does the Bible teach the “no work, no eat” principle?