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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Deuteronomy 24

8. Laws arising from the eighth commandment 23:19-24:7

The eighth commandment is, "You shall not steal" (Deuteronomy 5:19). All these laws have some connection with respecting the possessions of others.

"Respect was to be shown to all those dignified by the status of covenant servant to the Lord. This section of stipulations was designed to guarantee this sanctity of the theocratic citizen by regulations which assured peace, prosperity, and liberty within the covenant commitment to all God’s people, but especially to those classes whose welfare was jeopardized by various circumstances." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 187.]

Introduction

B. An exposition of selected covenant laws Chs. 12-25

Moses’ continuing homiletical exposition of the Law of Israel that follows explains reasons for the covenant laws that arose from the Ten Commandments. This address concludes with directions for celebrating and confirming the covenant (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The section contains a mixture of laws previously revealed to the Israelites and other laws not previously revealed in the code given at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:19). This is instruction preached rather than codified as comprehensive legislation.

"The specific laws in this section were given to help the people subordinate every area of their lives to the LORD, and to help them eradicate whatever might threaten that pure devotion." [Note: Deere, p. 283.]

"Placement of the instruction about worship at the sanctuary in first position indicates clearly its priority for Deuteronomy, which assumes that the starting point for the proper, full, and exclusive love of the Lord (the primary demand of the first and second commandments and the Shema) is found in the way Israel carries out the activities of worship." [Note: Miller, p. 129.]

There is an obvious general movement from laws dealing with Israel’s religious life (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) to those affecting her civil life (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 22:8) and finally to those touching personal life (Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 26:15).

Two insightful writers suggested the following outlines for these chapters. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 218-331; and Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARAV 1 (1978-79):105-58.]

CommandmentMerrillKaufmanDescription
1Deuteronomy 12:1-31ch. 12Fidelity
2Deuteronomy 12:32 to Deuteronomy 13:18ch. 12Worship
3Deuteronomy 14:1-21Deuteronomy 13:1 to Deuteronomy 14:27Name of God
4Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 16:17Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 16:17Sabbath
5Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Authority
6Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Murder
7Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:18Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:19Adultery
8Deuteronomy 23:19 to Deuteronomy 24:7Deuteronomy 23:20 to Deuteronomy 24:7Theft
9Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4False witness
10Deuteronomy 25:5-19Deuteronomy 25:5-16Coveting

". . . the entire second discourse of Moses (Deuteronomy 5-26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments . . . and commands of God." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 129.]

In contrast with the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), the Deuteronomic Code, as some scholars prefer to call this section (chs. 12-26), is a popular exposition rather than a formal legal code. Its purpose was to explain to the generation entering the land all the laws that needed clarification, emphasis, and application, in view of Israel’s imminent entrance into Canaan. These laws reflect a centralized, monarchical society.

The value of this section of Scripture to the Christian today lies primarily in its revelation of the heart, mind, and will of God. The modern student of these chapters should look for this kind of insight here. This is the revelatory value of the Law.

Verses 1-5

Marital duties and rights 24:1-5

A discussion of divorce and remarriage fits into this context because both practices involve respect for the rights of others. The first of the two situations Moses dealt with in this section concerns a married, divorced, and remarried woman (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

"In modern society, marriage and divorce are not only regulated by law, but are invalid unless conducted or decreed by accredited officials in accredited places (churches and register offices, or law-courts in the case of divorce). In Israel, however, both were purely domestic matters, with no officials and scarcely any documents involved; the bill of divorce was the exception, and it was essential, to protect the divorced woman from any charge of adultery, which was punishable by death (cf. Deuteronomy 22:22)." [Note: Ibid., pp. 133-34.]

Moses allowed divorce for the "hardness of heart" of the Israelites, but God’s preference was that there be no divorce (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:24; Malachi 2:16; Matthew 19:8). This, then, is another example of God regulating practices that were not His desire for people, but that He permitted in Israel (e.g., polygamy, etc.). The worst situation envisaged in these verses is divorce, remarriage, divorce, and then remarriage to the first spouse. The better situation was divorce and remarriage. Still better was divorce and no remarriage. Best of all was no divorce.

The Egyptians practiced divorce and gave written certificates of divorce, so perhaps the Israelites learned these practices from them. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:417.] Divorce was common in the ancient Near East, and it was easy to obtain. [Note: Thompson, p. 244.] However, the Israelites took marriage more seriously than their neighbors did.

The reason for the granting of the divorce by the husband, who alone had the power to divorce, was "some indecency" in his wife (Deuteronomy 24:1). This could not have been simple adultery since the Israelites stoned adulteresses (Deuteronomy 22:22). However it is debatable whether the Israelites enforced the death penalty for adultery. [Note: Henry McKeating, "Sanctions Against Adultery in Ancient Israelite Society," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11 (1979):57-72.] It could not have been just suspicion of adultery either since there was a specified procedure for dealing with that (Numbers 5:5-31). Two schools of rabbinic interpretation of this phrase developed in time. Rabbi Hillel’s liberal position was that God permitted a divorce "for every cause" (Matthew 19:3), for example, burning the husband’s food. Rabbi Shammai’s conservative position allowed divorce only for fornication (sexual sin). Jesus said that God permitted divorce for fornication, but He warned against remarrying after such a divorce (Matthew 19:9). [Note: See Appendix 1 at the end of these notes for a detailed discussion of the major interpretive problems in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. See also Appendix 2 for some suggestions for preventing divorce.]

Divorce not permitted by God followed by remarriage, which involved post-marital adultery for the woman, resulted in the moral defilement and uncleanness of the woman (Deuteronomy 24:4; cf. Leviticus 18:20; Numbers 5:12-14).

The point of Moses’ legislation was that when a couple divorced and then wanted to remarry, the woman’s first husband could not marry her again if she had married someone else following her divorce. Evidently Israel’s neighbors would divorce their mates, marry someone else, and then remarry their first spouse after their "affair." This ordinance would have discouraged hasty divorce as well as strengthening second marriages in Israel. [Note: For discussion of other possible purposes, see J. Carl Laney, "Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the Issue of Divorce," Bibliotheca Sacra 149:593 (January-March 1992):9-13.]

"Thus the intent of the legislation seems to be to apply certain restrictions on the already existing practice of divorce. If divorce became too easy, then it could be abused and it would become a ’legal’ form of committing adultery." [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 305.]

One scholar argued that the giving of a certificate of divorce implies not only a legal permission for divorce but also the legal permission for the woman to remarry. He also believed that the improper behavior for which divorce was allowed was behavior that fundamentally violated the essence of the marriage covenant. [Note: Sprinkle, pp. 529-32 and 546-47.]

Jesus taught His disciples not to divorce (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12). Matthew included Jesus’ clarification of the condition for divorce that God permitted (Matthew 19:9; cf. Deuteronomy 24:1), but Mark did not. Paul restated Jesus’ point (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) and added that a believing spouse need not remain with an unbelieving mate if the unbeliever departs (i.e., divorces; 1 Corinthians 7:12-16). After a divorce he encouraged remarriage to the former spouse or remaining single (1 Corinthians 7:11). [Note: Some of the best writings on marriage, divorce, and remarriage are these. For the view that God permitted divorce and remarriage for immorality and desertion, see John Murray, Divorce (scholarly); Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage (popular); and Tim Crater, "Bill Gothard’s View of the Exception Clause," Journal of Pastoral Practice 4 (1980):5-10 (popular). For the view that God permitted divorce and remarriage for unlawful marriages, as the Mosaic Law specified unlawful marriages, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer, "The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence," Theological Studies 37:2 (June 1976):197-226 (scholarly); J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth (popular); and Charles C. Ryrie, You Mean the Bible Teaches That . . ., pp. 45-56 (popular). For the view that God permitted divorce and remarriage in Israel for unfaithfulness during the betrothal period, see Abel Isaksson, "Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple," pp. 7-152 (scholarly); and Mark Geldard, "Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce," Churchman 92 (1978):134-43 (popular). For the view that God permitted divorce but not remarriage, see William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce (scholarly). A helpful general resource is James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective.]

The second situation Moses dealt with in this section concerns a recently married male (Deuteronomy 24:5). Such a person did not have to participate in military service for one year. The reason for this provision was so the man could establish a strong home and begin producing descendants. Both strong homes and descendants were essential to God’s purposes through Israel. Going into war and dying was a type of stealing from his wife.

Verses 6-7

Stealing livelihood and life 24:6-7

To take a millstone from a person amounted to depriving him of his ability to grind his meal to make his daily bread (Deuteronomy 24:6). Evidently a small millstone is in view here, not a large one that required an animal to turn. Kidnapping violated the right to freedom of choice that God wanted every Israelite to enjoy (Deuteronomy 24:7; cf. Exodus 21:16).

9. Laws arising from the ninth commandment 24:8-25:4

The ninth commandment is, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Deuteronomy 5:20). There may be a deliberate descending order of hierarchy in the list of offended parties in this section beginning with the highest to the lowest. [Note: Kaufman, pp. 141-42.]

Verses 8-9

Leaders 24:8-9

The reference to Miriam recalls her misrepresenting Moses and her punishment (Numbers 12:1-15). The Israelites were to be careful to submit to the Levites if the Israelites contracted leprosy. Miriam had given false testimony against a Levite, Moses, and had contracted leprosy as a result.

Verses 10-15

Debtors 24:10-15

The Israelites were not to take advantage of their poorer brethren because of their vulnerable condition. God looked out for them. They were not to withhold their clothing and wages from them (cf. James 5:4). Specifically they were not to humiliate a debtor by entering his house and demanding repayment of a debt. They were to allow the debtor to initiate repayment. Perhaps the connection with the ninth commandment is that by taking the initiative the creditor was saying something about the debtor that was not necessarily true, namely, that he was unable and or unwilling to repay the debt.

Verse 16

Individual responsibility 24:16

The Israelites were not to punish children for the crimes their parents committed. To do so charged them with guilt unjustly.

". . . it was a common thing among heathen nations-e.g., the Persians, Macedonians, and others-for the children and families of criminals to be also put to death (cf. Esther ix. 13, 14 . . .)." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:420.]

In the cases where God executed the families of criminals, He may have done so because the family members were also responsible for the crime (Deuteronomy 24:16; cf. Joshua 7:24-26). In any case God has the right to do things that He does not allow His people to do. It is one thing for children to suffer physically and socially because of their parents’ sins (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). It is something else for human authorities to punish them for criminal acts that they have not committed.

Verses 17-22

The indigent 24:17-22

God guarded the rights of aliens (non-Israelites living in Israel), orphans, and widows since they were not as capable of defending themselves as other Israelites were (Deuteronomy 24:17-22).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 24". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-24.html. 2012.