Moses' seventh speech, Part 17, Illegitimate birth
Apr 20, 2013
Moses says in Deuteronomy 23:2,
2 No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord. 3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.
In order to understand this prohibition, we must understand how the nations of Ammon and Moab got their start. In Genesis 19, when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, he saved Lot and his family. As the family fled to the mountains, Lot’s wife looked back and “became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). Lot and his daughters found refuge in a cave, but the disastrous scene was so overwhelming that they thought the whole world was being destroyed, and that they were the only survivors.
Lot’s daughters thought their father was the last man on earth, and so they devised a plan to repopulate the earth through their father (Genesis 19:32). They got him drunk, each in their turn on successive nights, and thereby became pregnant by incest. The oldest daughter named her son Moab (“from father”), and the younger’s son was called Ben-ammi (“son of my father”). Ben-ammi became the father of the Ammonites.
This form of incest was banned in Leviticus 18:7. If Lot himself had been responsible for violating his daughters, he would have violated the law in Leviticus 18:17.
God took the sin of incest very seriously, not only in the case of the Moabites and Ammonites, but also in regard to the Canaanites. God said in verse 24 and 25,
24 Do not defile yourselves by any of these things [forms of incest]; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.
God says He was casting the Canaanites out of the land of Canaan on account of such incestuous practices. Further, God said that any Israelite or “alien who sojourns among you” (vs. 26) who did such things was to “be cut off from among their people” (vs. 29). If, then, the judgment of God for incest was so severe when an Israelite violated the law, we should expect no less upon alien nations who did the same. The law was applied equally to all men.
Some have interpreted this law racially, as if Moab and Ammon were banned on account of their racial heritage. However, Moab and Ammon were not racially distinct from Israel. They were descended from Lot, the son of Haran, who was Abraham’s nephew. The only problem with their genealogy was spiritual, for incest had brought about a generational curse that would be passed down continually until it was removed from each individual by prayer.
If the law had banned Moab and Ammon on account of their race, then Ruth the Moabitess could never have joined the tribe of Judah without changing her race or altering her genetic makeup. But yet we find Ruth not only joining the tribe of Judah, but also becoming an ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:22) and ultimately of Jesus Christ.
The biblical reason for the legal ban upon Moabites, given in Deuteronomy 23:4, is not based upon their genealogy as such, but on the fact that they refused to be hospitable to Israel when they were on their way to the Promised Land. God actually showed respect for the Moabites, on account of their descent from Lot, for we read God’s instructions concerning Moab in Deuteronomy 2:9,
9 Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass Moab, nor provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot as a possession.”
In verse 19 God showed the same respect toward Ammon.
The Moabites, of course, did not trust the Israelites and were in great fear of them as they drew near (Numbers 22:3). Their survival tactic, however, was not to make war with Israel, but to unite with them in an unlawful union. They sent for Balaam, son of Beor of Pethor to come and curse Israel.
The Lord told him not to curse Israel (Numbers 22:12), and so he gave the Moabites an alternate plan. The plan was to entice the Israelites with beautiful Moabite women, so that their hormones would overcome their desire to obey God’s law. Numbers 25:1-3 says,
1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry with Israel.
Moab and Midian conspired together against Israel, but it appears that the judgment of God fell primarily upon the Midianites. Israel made war with Midian shortly afterward, at which time Balaam was killed (Numbers 31:8). It should also be noted that in this war, Israel took 32,000 Midianite virgins captive (Numbers 31:35). These were purified by ceremony for seven days (Numbers 31:19) to remove any generational curses, and this made them eligible for marriage within the community of Israel.
If the Midianites were treated more harshly than the Moabites, and the Midianite virgins could qualify as wives for Israelites, why would Moabites and Ammonites be disqualified? What if a Moabite woman wanted to become an Israelite? Would her genealogy disqualify her? Would she not qualify by undergoing the same purification ceremony as the Midianite women in Numbers 31:19?
What exactly was purified in that ceremony? Was it not the generational curses that people had inherited from past generations? In my view, those ceremonies were rites of passage to citizenship, and they correspond to baptism today. In other words, it was not about genealogy, but about spiritual uncleanness passed down through the generations. When this was cleansed, it removed the impediment to Kingdom citizenship.
The real issue with the Moabites was that they tried to unite with the Israelites in an unlawful manner—that is, by fornication. They followed “the counsel of Balaam to trespass against the Lord” (Numbers 31:16).
The same is said of the New Testament church of Pergamum in Revelation 2:14,
14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.
Pergamum is the Latin form of the Greek name, Pergamos, “married to power.” The word gamos means “marriage.”
The church of Pergamos corresponds to the condition of the church from 313-529 A.D., as I explained in my book, The Seven Churches. It was a time when the church became married to power, and some of the church leaders were following the teaching (or counsel) of Balaam by marrying paganism to Christianity in the interest of unification.
The only lawful way for pagans to join the church is to repent and renounce their old ways and to show their faith by taking on the Kingdom way of life. Let those who have faith in Christ be baptized, so that they may become lawful citizens of the Kingdom. But the church ran into the same problems that plagued “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38) in the days of Moses. Since the problems were the same, we can see from the New Testament how to interpret the Moabite ban in the Old Testament.
It was not an outright ban, for there was indeed a lawful way for a Moabite to join with Israel. There was proper “marriage,” so to speak. The ban was against fornication, or unlawful ways of being united with Israel. That is why Ruth receives no condemnation in Scripture, though she is everywhere called a Moabitess.
Deuteronomy 23:2 says that this ban on Ammonites and Moabites was to be in force “even to the tenth generation.” What does this mean? Commentaries tell us that it refers to “an indefinite number.” The Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Jamieson, Faucet, and Brown, says of this verse,
“…even to the tenth generation shall they not enter—Many eminent writers think that this law of exclusion was applicable only to males; at all events that a definition is used for an indefinite number (Nehemiah 13:1; Ruth 4:10; 2 Kings 10:2).”
This is confirmed by The Wycliff Bible Commentary, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer, who writes,
“—even to his tenth generation, i.e., indefinitely.”
How do the commentators interpret ten generations to be an indefinite period of time? The key is found in Nehemiah 13:1-3, where the Scripture itself defines the term in its own paraphrase of the law:
1 On the day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever [olam] enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 So it came about, that when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.
Hence, Nehemiah paraphrased “ten generations” as olam, an indefinite period of time. The Hebrew word olam is from the root word alam, which means “hidden, concealed, indefinite.”
So the ten generations in question do not give us an exact number of years, because each generation itself is an indefinite period of time. It is clear, however, that Moses’ ten generations was the equivalent of Nehemiah’s olam, that is, an age or an indefinite period of time. Certainly, it was not an unending period of time. For this reason, we may view the ten generations somewhat literally, for this is certainly a limited period of time, even if we do not know precisely how many years it is.
The commentators knew this, and so they attributed the prohibition to an “indefinite” period of time. Perhaps they hope that the average reader will not understand the implications of this admission, seeing that the entire belief regarding “everlasting” punishment hinges on a word that is only indefinite, not infinite. And so, in spite of their knowing that olam was indefinite, not infinite, most of them continue to translate the word “everlasting” or “forever.”
Some translators, however, were more honest. Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible renders the phrase in Nehemiah 13:1, “an Ammonite and Moabite doth not come into the assembly of God—unto the age.” Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible translates it, “the Ammonite and the Moabite should not enter into the convocation of God unto times age-abiding.”
At any rate, we are given a biblical example of this in the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law, but Judah bore twins through her—Pharez and Zerah. The twins were born from an illegitimate union that is biblically defined as incest (Leviticus 18:15). Hence, they fell under the ban in Deuteronomy 23:2, for they were of illegitimate birth.
For this reason, it took a full ten generations for the prophecy of Judah to be fulfilled, wherein he had inherited the scepter and was called to bring forth the kings of Israel (1 Chronicles 5:2). David was the tenth generation, beginning with Pharez. This explains the long length of time that it took for God to give Israel a king from the tribe of Judah. It also explains why, when the people demanded a king in the ninth generation, God gave them Saul, who was of the tribe of Benjamin. No Judahite was yet qualified because of the law of Deuteronomy 23:2.
This also gives us another example showing us how the law is prophetic and not merely a moral standard. It gives us the rules and parameters of prophetic history, because it sets forth the mind of God in the divine plan for the nations, and for His Kingdom in particular.
This is the seventeenth part of a series titled "Moses' Seventh Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones