Why were men with crushed testicles, bastard children, Moabites and Ammonites, and to a lesser extent, Egyptians and Edomites forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord according to Deuteronomy 23:1-8? These verses are admittedly difficult verses to interpret for a number of reasons, but I think that they speak powerfully to the church today that is seeking to know how to respond to those struggling with various matters of identity.
One thing is sure: a preacher needs no illustrative material at the outset of his sermon to arrest the attention of his congregation after reading these verses!
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD. 2 “No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD. 3 “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever, 4 because they did not meet you with bread and with 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. 5 But the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you. 6 You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever. 7 “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. 8 Children born to them in the third generation may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:1-8, ESV)
Rather than understand these verses to speak essentially to a person’s external characteristics, I think it is better to understand that verses 1-2 forbade people from God’s assembly in the Old Testament who were emasculated as a sign of their recognition of another god or were children born to cult-prostitutes who carried on the same tradition as their parents. The idea is not that those who were accidentally injured, for instance, were forbidden. Further, the people referenced here would have likely claimed their condition as their identity with pride. Typically, they were sex workers in the worship of false gods.
The Moabites and Ammonites mentioned in verses 3-6 were sworn enemies of the Lord with a long history of enmity, and these nations had been conceived of an incestuous and illegitimate union (Genesis 19:30-38).
Commentators differ on how verses 1-8 should be read, and most acknowledge that it is hard to be certain since there are difficulties however these verses are read. The writings and commentaries of Peter Craigie and J. G. McConville are helpful if you want to research these concepts further. So, this is not the final word on the subject, but I think it is worth humbly considering that these who were forbidden were cut off more for matters of the heart than external factors. Because of that, there was hope for those who repented.
What other Scripture illuminate our understanding regarding the man who was emasculated? God demanded physical perfection of animals offered as sacrifices (“Any animal that has its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut you shall not offer to the LORD” Leviticus 22:24.) God demanded that the sons of Aaron, the priests, be physically perfect to do their work:
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Speak to Aaron, saying, None of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, 20 or a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the LORD’s food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. 22 He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, 23 but he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the LORD who sanctifies them.” (Leviticus 21:16-23, ESV)
Strikingly, God did not forbid priests so injured to enter the assembly. In fact, they were even invited to eat the bread of his God. The afflicted man just couldn’t go through the veil to perform priestly functions.
Other people forbidden from the assembly were those who were either liable to spread disease (e.g. lepers (Leviticus 13-14)) or those who were ritually unclean (e.g. various bodily emissions (Leviticus 15)).
It’s easy to understand however, that the Lord would not want the influence of a sojourner in the land who was a male prostitute in his assembly. The man who bragged that he was disfigured in the name of other gods and wanted to worship with Israel, build friendships, and then invite God’s people to false worship ceremonies at a site down the road was an obvious threat to the very covenant fidelity to which Yahweh was calling his people.
Bastard children have usually been social outcasts across cultures. In that day, it seems, those identified by this term often embraced their status as workers in pagan rituals like their parents. They were forbidden to the tenth generation, which would be difficult to track if it were meant literally. More likely, the tenth generation concept meant that bastard children were forbidden forever. The number ten carries that idea of completeness or “forever” in Scripture. Verse 4 says that ten generations is to be interpreted as “forever” regard to the prohibition of the children of Moab and Ammon. Again, it is easy to understand that they would have brought an aggressive agenda towards syncretism had they been welcome in the assembly.
What about the children of Moab and Ammon? God, in Moses’ sermon— essentially the whole of Deuteronomy—in the plains of Moab, had already commanded that when the people took possession of the Promised Land they should establish assembly meetings. At two of the solemn assemblies (the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14)), even the sojourners were to be present as visitors.
But Moab and Ammon were sworn enemies of Israel with a deep history. They simply weren’t welcome, even to the tenth generation. The Egyptians and Edomites? They were forbidden for three generations, and then they would be able to join the assemblies. But the enmity of Moab and Ammon was different.
The obvious question that arises in the wider scheme of biblical history is this: “Why was Ruth, the Moabitess, later allowed to join Israel?” Some suggest that if ten generations were taken literally and do not really mean “forever” but only “forever-until-ten-generations-pass,” then she must have been past the tenth generation having lived several hundred years after Moses. Others suggest that only the males were forbidden from these nations and that a female like Ruth would have been seen differently.
But, I think it is better to understand what happens with Ruth as an interpretive key to the whole section. Why is Ruth admitted? It is because she does not enter the assembly as a curious sojourner. A Syrian or Babylonian might do that, but not Ruth as a Moabitess. No, she left behind her identity, and she had to do so. She absolutely and entirely renounced and abjured all allegiance and fidelity to her former nation and identity when she told Naomi “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth the Moabitess did not enter the Lord’s assembly. Ruth the Israelite did.
So with each of the other categories in Deuteronomy 23. People could come to the Lord, but not while claiming certain identities that were inherently sinful and signified rebellion. People today can come to the Lord from whatever background they are, mutilated however they might be, and they are welcome to become one with God’s people if they reject their former identity and embrace a new identity in Jesus Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The general equity of this law remains. While sinners of many different kinds are welcome to visit God’s house to hear the word of God, the elders can forbid some due to their influence. Many years ago, a man visited the congregation I pastored and informed the elders that he intended to come regularly to worship. He also told us that he was a polygamist. He had one wife at the time but was seeking more. He promised that he would not seek other wives in our midst, but his behavior towards single women had already raised red flags. We listened, we reasoned with him, and when it was it was obvious that he was not about to change, we firmly told him that he was not welcome in the worshipping assembly even as an observer. For the purity of God’s people, those who brazenly cling to their sin and want to lead others to sin and false worship can and sometimes must be excluded. In the same spirit, the Apostle Paul urged the Corinthian church to remove the leaven of bad influence, albeit with a slightly different application (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
The good news for people of all backgrounds is that if they will renounce their sin and sinful identities, then they are welcome. Those who claim the true God as their own, who claim his salvation as their salvation, and his law as their law will know the promises of Isaiah 56:3-8 are their own:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant- 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 8 The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (ESV)