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Bible: What Does Deuteronomy 20-23 Teach Us About Israel's Civil Laws?

Updated on September 15, 2016

Moses and the Law


Withdrawal From War

Moses encourages Israel not to fear when they go to war against numerically superior armies, “for the LORD your God is with you” (v. 1).

The priest must remind Israel of this fact when they are on the verge of battle (vv. 2-4).

Military officers will give men four opportunities to withdraw from conflict:

(1) If they built a house, but did not dedicate it yet (v. 5);

(2) If they have planted a vineyard, but have not eaten of it yet (v. 6);

(3) If they have betrothed a woman, but have not married her yet (v. 7);

(4) If they are afraid and faint-hearted, lest they cause the feeling to spread (v. 8).

After the officers issue these excuses, they must assign captaincies for the armies (v. 9).

Regarding military campaigns, verses ten and fifteen underscore the fact that Israel first offered peace to a “very far away” city.

If that city accepted the offer, its people would pay tribute to the Israelites and serve them; if not, only then will God’s people besiege it and totally annihilate every male.

However, they would keep the women, children, livestock, and other goods as “plunder” (vv. 11-14).

For those cities designated for destruction, Israel must give no offer of peace; this policy will keep pagan abominations from contaminating God’s people (vv. 16-18).

Moses even instructs Israel on the art of laying siege to a city (vv. 19-20).

If they know that the siege will take a long time, the people must not chop down fruit-bearing trees; they may use only trees that they know do not bear fruit to build their siege works.

Israel's Civil Laws

How shall we apply Israel's civil laws?

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Deuteronomy 21

To determine who is responsible to make atonement for a murder victim whose assailant is unknown, elders and judges measure the distances from the murder site to the surrounding cities (vv. 1-2).

In an act of atonement, the elders of the nearest city break an unyoked heifer’s neck in an uncultivated valley possessing “flowing water” (vv. 3-4).

With priests as witnesses, these elders will confess their innocence of having committed or seen the murder; at the same time, they will wash their hands over the dead heifer, and pray for God to provide Israel’s atonement (vv. 5-8a).

This procedure removes the “guilt of innocent blood” (v. 9).

Another situation finds an Israelite man desiring to marry a woman from a dispossessed people (vv. 10-11). He must follow this procedure before the consummation:

(1) Bring her to his home;

(2) Have her head shaved and her nails trimmed;

(3) Put off the clothes of her captivity, signifying her desire to change her lifestyle or national loyalty;

(4) Remain in his home; and

(5) Mourn for her parents for a month (vv. 12-13).

If the marriage fails, he must free her; the LORD does not permit selling her, for such an act is immoral. Mistreating her in any way God, of course, also forbids (v. 14).

Considering a case reminiscent of Jacob’s, Moses provides a solution to the issue of firstborn inheritance rights (vv. 15-17).

He finds that the firstborn son of the unloved wife should receive a double portion of the inheritance.

[Thus Esau, the firstborn of Leah, obtained the birthright, though he traded it away; Jacob also stole the blessing from him (cf. Gen. 25:29-34; 27:1-40)].

The Stoning of Moses and Aaron


In still another case, Moses renders a judgment on the incorrigible son (vv. 18-21).

The parents must bring this adult son forcibly (?) to the elders at the gate, and witness to the young man’s unholy, rebellious lifestyle (vv. 19-20).

All the men must then stone this fellow to death, thus putting fear into everyone’s heart (v. 21).

[Can modern society transfer this judgment into its penal system, or can it work only in a theocracy?]

Speaking of capital punishment, an individual hanged for a “sin deserving of death” must not remain on the “tree” overnight, but men must bury him on the day of his death (vv. 22-23a).

As an accursed one, his body would defile the land (v. 23b; cf. John 19:31; Gal. 3:13).

Sexual Morality


Deuteronomy 22

Next, Moses considers “The Case of the Lost or Fallen Possession” (vv. 1-4).

The one who finds any item, whether animal or clothing, must not “hide himself” (ignore [v. 1], or avoid responsibility [v. 3]).

He must either bring it back to his brother (v. 1), or keep it until the unknown or long-distance brother who lost it comes to reclaim it (v. 2).

Again, one who witnesses a brother’s animal fall down must not “hide,” but help him lift up the beast (v. 4).

Curiously inserted in verse five is a prohibition against transvestism.

Not taking a mother bird with her chicks or eggs from a fallen or perched nest manifests compassion—a quality Yahweh wants Israel to cultivate, even when it pertains to caring about lower forms of life (vv. 6-7).

Making a parapet for the roof of a new house prevents “accidental” death from falling (v. 8). [This law shows concern for the safety of workers].

Verses nine through eleven teach the “segregation” principle.

Putting together seeds, animals, or fabrics (for example) that do not match or work well together will only lead to defilement, crookedness, or discomfort.

Tassels on clothing help keep the garment in place (v. 12).

Moses explains various laws of sexual morality next (vv. 13-30).

(1) A man falsely charging a new wife with fornication will pay a hefty fine to the virgin’s parents, who produce evidence (a cloth) of her virginity and show it to the city elders (vv. 13-19a).

Despite detesting her after consummating their marriage, the man must stay married to her until death (v. 19b).

On the other hand, if the man’s charge proves true, the harlot will suffer stoning at the hands of the men of the city (vv. 20-21).

(2) Both adulterers, likewise, suffer capital punishment (v. 22).

(3) A betrothed virgin (who commits fornication and does not claim rape) and her illicit partner must be stoned at the gate of the city (vv. 23-24).

If the man has raped her, then only he dies; the virgin goes free, for she is innocent (vv. 25-27).

(4) Men who fornicate with unbetrothed virgins must marry them and pay their fathers a dowry; they must also remain married until death (vv. 28-29).

(5) Marrying one’s stepmother is prohibited (v. 30).

Barred Groups

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Deuteronomy 23

Moses lists three groups prohibited from entering “the assembly of the LORD”: eunuchs (v. 1), ones of illegitimate birth (v. 2), and Ammonites and Moabites (v. 3).

For the latter two types the ban extends to ten generations; “ten generations” almost seems to amount to the equivalent of “forever.”

The Ammonites and Moabites will apparently always hate Israel (v. 4).

God stood Balaam’s curse on its head, and caused blessings to abound to His beloved people (v. 5).

[Where does the Scriptures say that Balaam actually tried to curse Israel?]

Israel should not maintain any ties with these nations (v. 6).

On the other hand, Edomites and Egyptians may enter the assembly, but not before the third generation (vv. 7-8).

Since the LORD, the holy God of Israel, walks in the midst of their camp (v. 14), He will not allow anyone who becomes unclean by “some occurrence in the night” to stay inside (v. 10).

The unclean one must stay outside the camp until evening when he may rejoin the rest of the army after washing himself (v. 11).

Israel makes provision for a designated area outside the camp, a latrine of sorts, where the soldiers must cover their wastes (vv. 12-13).

Termed “Miscellaneous Laws,” the next section covers the following subjects:

(1) How to deal with runaway slaves (vv. 15-16)

Israelites must not oppress runaway slaves either by sending them back to their masters, or by making them their slaves (See Philemon).

(2) What to do with ritual prostitutes and their money (vv. 17-18)

Moses categorically prohibits the existence of ritual prostitution in Israel; money earned from this perversion is not welcome in the “house of the LORD.”

(3) Who “gets charged” interest (vv. 19-20)

Israelites may charge interest to foreigners, but not to brothers.

(4) Vow-keeping (vv. 21-23)

Those who make vows to God, but do not keep them, are sinning; abstaining from making a vow, however, is not sin.

(5) The proper and improper ways to stem hunger on a neighbor’s land (vv. 24-25).

If an Israelite has hunger pangs, he may pick some of his neighbor’s grapes or pluck some of his grain, but he must not make himself a feast or harvest his crops (cf. Matt. 12:1-8 for Jesus’ application of this principle).

© 2013 glynch1


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    • glynch1 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Yes. God exiled His people from the Land because of their sin; they are now scattered throughout the world. However, one day He will bring them back and save the elect among them when Jesus comes again to set up His kingdom.

    • Zubair Ahmed profile image

      Zubair Ahmed 

      5 years ago

      Nice information you shared here. Is it true that in the bible God banished the people of Israel from the land due to their disobedience?


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