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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Deuteronomy 25

 

 

Introduction

Here we have a total of six paragraphs on:

  1. limiting the infliction of corporal punishment as a legal penalty (Deuteronomy 25:1-3);
  2. muzzling the ox on the threshing floor (Deuteronomy 25:4);
  3. rules regarding Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10);
  4. a special law regarding wrestling (Deuteronomy 25:11,12);
  5. the law against crooked weights and measures (Deuteronomy 25:13-16);
  6. God's order calling for the extermination of the Amalekites (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

Of special interest in the chapter is the last paragraph containing the Divine instructions to destroy Amalek. It is amusing that Watts wondered, "What practical meaning this section could have had for later generations when the Amalekites no longer existed!"[1] Of course, such instructions would seem totally inexplicable to any liberal who receives the false notion that Deuteronomy was written long after the Amalekites had disappeared from the earth. The true answer to such a puzzle lies squarely in the fact that Moses wrote Deuteronomy at a time when Amalek was indeed a powerful and terrible enemy of Israel, fully deserving the ban here placed upon them by God's specific order. (See more on this subject under Deuteronomy 25:17-19.)


Verses 1-3

"If there be a controversy between two men, and they come unto judgment, and the judges judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his wickedness, by number. Forty stripes he may give him, he shall not exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee."

The purpose of this law is clearly that of restraining the unmerciful, brutal, and often fatal beatings inflicted upon offenders throughout many of the ancient nations of that era, savage practices that have continued into modern times in places like China and Turkey. The Jews themselves, after the manner of strict observance of the letter and total disregard of the spirit of God's laws, made a mockery of this. The purpose of the law is dearly that of restricting such beatings, which were never to exceed 40 stripes, but note that this was the maximum, not the standard penalty for any offence. The judges were supposed to assign such punishments "by number" (Deuteronomy 25:2), indicating that penalties, of five, ten, fifteen or even fewer stripes could be assigned as penalties; but there is no record of where any Jewish judge ever assigned less than the maximum. In 2 Corinthians 11:24, Paul was punished "five times" with "forty stripes save one." Furthermore, there was nothing to prevent the sadistic judges from assigning penalties for two or more offences to be administered simultaneously, thus enabling them to beat offenders to death just exactly like the pagans all around them. One cannot help but wonder if Paul received all of those beatings on a single occasion. "Such barbarous beatings were sometimes fatal."[2]

The restrictions here were indeed an improvement over customs such as those in the Code of Hammurabi, for example, where "sixty stripes" were the penalty[3] for minor offences. Also, as Wright pointed out, "Here, beating could be done only after trial and sentence,"[4] and then it had to done in the presence of a judge, and the prisoner was further protected by being punished lying down (presumably face down) to protect eyes and private parts.

To us it appears that the custom of compelling the sufferer to listen to readings from the Sacred Scriptures while his punishment was being inflicted was just about the most dreadful and insulting part of the whole procedure. Dummelow states that the passages read during beatings were Deuteronomy 28:58,59, and Psalms 78:38.[5]

Reference to the two men in controversy as the "wicked" and the "righteous" hardly conveys the true status of the contenders. Orlinsky gave the correct translation of the terms here as "the innocent" and "the guilty."[6]

The further refinement of language entitles such contenders today to the designations of "plaintiff" and "defendant."


Verse 4

"Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn."

The kind of threshing spoken of here was, "The sheaves were spread out upon a hard, beaten piece of ground, the threshing floor, and over them a pair of oxen dragged a wooden sledge or harrow, about five feet square, upon which the driver stood to add weight to it."[7] Paul quoted this passage in 1 Corinthians 9:9,10 as follows:

"It is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn. Is it for oxen that God careth, or saith he it assuredly for our sake? Yea, for our sake it was written."

"In spite of Paul's question, this law does show a respect for animals similar to that in Deuteronomy 22:6f."[8] "The claims of the lower aspects of creation upon human sympathies are typical of the Scriptures. God indeed cares for animals, but he cares more for human beings (1 Corinthians 9:9)."[9] Paul made excellent use of this passage in his argument for the adequate support of Christian teachers and preachers. In portions of our society today, however, it is not the adequate support of preachers that needs attention, but a more diligent effort on the part of preachers to "do the work of an evangelist."

Oberst has this:

"It is well to note here that no eating privileges are mentioned for lazy or non-working oxen! "The laborer is worthy of his hire," but "He that will not work, neither let him eat!" The Church of our Lord has no room for mercenaries, hirelings, or leeches."[10]


Verses 5-10

"If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her unto him for wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her. And it shall be that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel. And if the man like not his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband's brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband's brother unto me. Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand, and say, I like not to take her; then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto the man that doth not build up his brother's house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The House of him that hath his shoe loosed."

The custom of Levirate marriage was in existence long before the times of Moses, for it is specifically referred to in the instance of Judah and his two sons who, in turn, became husbands of Tamar. The custom evidently continued throughout the Mosaic dispensation, because, the captious question of the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-28) was founded on the requirements of this law. The thing in focus here is the case of a man who would not fulfill his obligation toward a deceased brother's wife. The result of such a ceremony would be the public disgrace of the unwilling brother.

"And have no son ..." (Deuteronomy 25:5). In view of Numbers 27:4ff, in case a man had one or more daughters, such a marriage would not be needed, for the daughters could inherit and continue the name. Therefore, "The KJV is preferable to the RSV here in the rendering `child' instead of `son.'"[11]

"`Levir' is the Latin word for `brother-in-law,' and this is the origin of the term Levirate marriage."[12]

Adam Clarke, quoting Jewish Talmudists and other Jewish authorities stated that the injunction here for spitting "in the face" of the unwilling brother was carried out by "spitting on the ground in his presence."[13] A number of scholars such as Jamieson, Alexander, and others, have accepted this explanation as being reasonable enough, but what we probably have here is just another case in which the Jews "made of none effect the Word of God by their tradition." Keil declared dogmatically: "Spit in the face ... This is the meaning of the words (Compare Numbers 12:14), and not merely spit on the ground before his eyes, as the Talmudists render it with a view to diminishing the disgrace."[14] Cook also understood the meaning here as did Keil, saying, "This action was intended to aggravate the disgrace conceived to attach to the conduct of the man."[15]

Before leaving this, we should note: "So shall it be done unto the man that doth not build up his brother's house (Deuteronomy 25:9). "House" in this place does not mean house at all, but "household." "The Hebrew language conspicuously lacks abstract terms."[16] The significance of this in understanding the Bible is phenomenal:

"This linguistic quality leads to a concreteness in the Hebrew mind. That mind does not think in philosophical nuances, but in pictures and in terms of mundane experiences. This outstanding feature of Hebrew Christian tradition (the Bible) means that our holy religion is historically rooted ... it could not possibly be an armchair philosophy, it grew out of the experience of men."[17]

In harmony with such a view is the truth that the N.T. writers were men of the outdoors, skilled in reporting what was done, what they saw, what Jesus did, etc., men utterly incapable of being deceived in such a thing as the resurrection, or in anything else!


Verse 11-12

"When men strive together with one another, and the wife of the one draweth near to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets; then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall have no pity."

This is the only case of mutilation commanded as a punishment in the whole Bible. Even the "Lex Talionis" should be understood more as an admonition for judges to make the penalty fit the crime than as an order to cut off hands or to put out eyes.

What is envisioned here is an instance in which a woman presumably destroys the testicles of her husband's opponent. It is that presumption which apparently lies behind the severity of the penalty. Also, if the "Lex Talionis" should be invoked in such a case, the hand would be a reasonable substitute for what the woman took away from the man.


Verses 13-16

"Thou shalt not have in thy bag diverse weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in thy house diverse measures, a great and a small. A perfect and just weight shalt thou have, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have; that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee. For all that do such things, even all that do unrighteousness, are an abomination unto Jehovah thy God."

What is referred to here is the tools of the dishonest trader, the trader who bought by heavier weights and larger measures, and sold by the lighter weights and smaller measures. Such dishonesty was the universal practice of the Canaanite, and the Jews quickly learned it from those whom they displaced in that land. In time, Israel itself became, in this regard, only "another Canaanite." In Amos 8:5, the Jewish traders stated in the presence of Amos that they desired the removal of the sabbath day that they might set forth wheat, "making the ephah (the measure) small, and the shekel great." The promise here, "that thy days may be long in the land," is not so much a promise to individuals as it is to all of Israel, that if they would refrain from the wicked practices of the Canaanites that Israel would be continued in the promised land for a much longer time. It was precisely because they failed to heed such warnings that God finally removed them, when they were carried away by the Assyrians. Hosea 12:7 has, "He (Ephraim) is a trafficker, the balances of deceit are in his hand." Ward tells us that, "The word here rendered `trafficker' is actually `Canaanite.'"[18] Thus, the Israelites themselves were gradually transformed through following the Canaanites in their wickedness, becoming at last "Canaanites" themselves! (See more on this in Vol. 2 in my commentary on the minor prophets, pp. 198,199.)

The sin of cheating customers through the use of dishonest weights and measures is widespread in every country of the world this very day. The very existence of such government agencies as the Bureau of Weights and Measures, and the constant staff of inspectors in every state to enforce the laws in this area speak eloquently of the prevalence of the problem.


Verses 17-19

"Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when Jehovah thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget."

As Cook said, "The Amalekites lived in the Sinai peninsula and could not have failed to know of God's will with reference to Israel, yet they manifested hostility and provoked the sentence here pronounced against them which was executed at last by Saul (1 Samuel 15:3ff)."[19] Harrison called the Amalekites, "the most savage and inhuman of the Canaanite peoples."[20] As we have pointed out literally dozens of times in this series, this additional mention of the crimes of Amalek carries with it details of his wickedness that are not found in Exodus 17:8-16, where their hatred of Israel first came into focus. "He tailed you ..." (Deuteronomy 25:18).[21] This is the literal meaning of' "smote the hindmost of thee." The Hebrew expression here has the meaning of "cut off your tail," just as in English, "to skin," means to take off the skin.

One encounters an incredible amount of nonsense written on this order to destroy Amalek, many commentators professing to have a much higher morality than God Himself! Well, of course, Christians would not be commanded to do such a thing, but in those days, there was no Gospel, and God's manner of dealing with corrupt people was not only fair and just in the light of what those people were, but it was also absolutely necessary to protect Israel against the total destruction that those people would eventually have wrought against Israel had not God ordered them cut off before such a thing could occur. If this is doubted, let the reader study the Book of Esther, where Haman, the Amalekite (!), managed to get a law passed through the King of Persia, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians that altereth not, that every Jew on earth would be brutally murdered and all of their property given as booty to the king of Persia!. This was the real spirit of Amalek; and that is why God ordered him to be liquidated.

The importance of this passage looms significantly in another direction also. We have noted the liberal surprise that this order was included at a time, in their thinking, long after the times of Moses and in a period when the Amalekites had already perished as a significant people. What is wrong in such notions is the hypothesis that SOME LATE WRITER produced this book. The simple and obvious truth is that MOSES wrote it. He alone would ever have included such instructions as these. At the time that critical scholars would like to locate the author of Deuteronomy, "Amalek had long since disappeared from the earth, having been exterminated by Saul and David. These instructions could not have originated at a time later than Moses."[22] It is encouraging that current writers are also seeing the impossibility of late-dating Deuteronomy. As Cousins said, "This law (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) would be irrelevant at a later date. "[23]

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 25:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/deuteronomy-25.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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