When one considers the law section of the Bible known as the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible – it is easy to think of them simply as codes and regulations like we have in modern law. Yet we need to remember there are various literary genres contained in what we know as the Law of Moses – Genesis through Deuteronomy. There are certainly legal stipulations such as those associated with the sacrificial section or the civil law of ancient Israel, but there also historical narratives such as Moses leading Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, prophetic portions such as Balaam’s pronouncements in Numbers, genealogies like the one found in Genesis 5, and even Hebraic poetry like that found in Genesis 4:23-24.
Another interesting thing to note in the book of Deuteronomy is the presence of what we might call proverbial sayings. When Moses is speaking, perhaps rather than viewing what he is saying as simply a legal stipulation for Israel, we might want to remember what this book truly is. Deuteronomy is not simply a collection of laws, but it is Moses preaching a sermon based on Israel’s history and the law the Lord had given them to prepare them to go into the land of Canaan. Understanding this can bring deeper understanding and even a few “Aha” moments when reading this book.
For a case in point, consider Deuteronomy 22:9-12.
You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together. You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself. “
What kind of laws are these? Traditionally, God’s law has been categorized as either moral, judicial, or ceremonial laws. These categories are helpful, as far as they go. But there’s the rub – they only take us so far in applying God’s Word as we have to be careful to consider the context in which texts are found.
For instance, above we have a law about not yoking an ox and donkey together. What kind of law is it if we try to put it into one of these three categories? Is it moral? Not on the surface – it is about an ox and donkey! Is it judicial (or civil)? Maybe, but then this makes it seem that God questions our basic common sense. Who would really try to yoke these two animals together? Seeing it as a civil law makes it read like the laws of our modern bureaucracy which feels obligated to regulate the details of field-plowing. So is it ceremonial? Not really, for these laws do not involve sacrifice or worship.
One place to help us understand texts such as these is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The WCF says there is a general equity to be found in God’s law. Equity in legal terms means a developed understanding of the law that is developed to enlarge or supplement a narrow, rigid system of law (29.4). So the WCF is in effect saying there are principles of law found within the judicial laws of the Old Testament that enlarge upon narrow interpretations of those laws. That is how we see Jesus applying the Old Testament law. When he was accused for breaking the Sabbath for picking some grain to eat with his disciples, he appealed to David’s eating of the consecrated bread of the priests to justify his actions (Matt. 12:1-8). Likewise, in the epistles Paul twice took an Old Testament law about not muzzling ox to encourage the church to pay its pastors (I Cor. 9:8-10; I Tim. 5: 17-18). The key to applying the law appropriately is meditating on the law and gaining the wisdom of “general equity.” We are to read the law and then study with a prayer such as, “Lord, based on the principles or pictures seen in this law, what would you have us do to live righteously before you?”
So let us now turn our attention to the first verse or “law” found above. In verse 9 the Israelite was commanded not to sow two different types of seed in his vineyard. It sounds like the vineyard was to grow grapes only; if he wanted wheat he was to put that in another, separate field. To not do so would be, according to the text, to defile the fruit from both the vine and the wheat stalk. Yet is this all God is concerned with here?
Given the above, remember the time when Jesus was talking about leaven in bread, and his disciples hearing him began worrying about having enough to eat? Recall that he rebuked them for their crassness, their hardness of heart, for taking things too woodenly? I believe the same is true here in this sermon of Moses. God is talking about something really important and most of us are so uptight about getting every law in the right box, every grain of wheat in the right field, that we miss the whole point of the sermon. For look at the context of what follows:
If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her…”
The rest of this chapter is about inappropriate sexual relationships, from a new husband realizing his new wife is not a virgin to a man raping an engaged woman. So consider this for a moment. If I said, “A bird in the hand beats two in the bush,” then began teaching you about contentment, you would recognize that my earlier statement was not about bird watching or eating chicken, but was functioning proverbially as a metaphor. That is the way it is here. The terse little laws of verses 9-12 are connected to what the rest of the chapter is teaching about sexual relationships.
In particular, if a man took a woman for his wife, but suspected that she was not a virgin, he was to argue his case before the elders. In return, the parents of the wife were to bring out “evidence of her virginity,” presumably the stained bedclothes of the wedding night (New Geneva Study Bible) to prove her virginity. If the man was wrong, he was to pay a fine for humiliating her publicly and was not allowed to divorce her. If he had the evidence to substantiate his charges, then the unfaithful woman, who had allowed more than one seed to be sown, was to be put to death.
In other words, what we can draw from this proverbial saying and teaching is that a man is to “ensure that only one seed is sown in his vineyard.” Wives throughout Scripture are compared to vineyards (Ps. 128:3; Song of Songs 4:12). When God wants to be direct, he says, “You shall not commit adultery.” When he wants to warn, and make us think of adultery like someone might do in a sermon, he speaks of a defiled garden sown with different seeds and rotten fruit.
Meditating further on the text above and looking at the context of the chapter should lead us to derive four proverbial sayings:
- Ensure that only one seed is sown in your vineyard.
- Do not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever.
- Keep the fabric of marital fidelity from being torn.
- Clothe yourself with the Word of God.
Would not following these principles help the church to live in holiness?