Justice, Caring and Holiness Precepts
This section begins with instructions on hanging someone. Notice that the criminal was put to death and then hanged (verse 22). "The guilty person was not hanged by the neck; this form of execution was not practiced in ancient Israel. The hanging was actually the impaling [or tying up] of the corpse for public viewing after death by stoning. Everyone would know that individual had brought guilt on the community. The exposure of the corpse was limited to one day. For that day, it reminded people of God's judgment on the sinner" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 21:22-23). Thus, a criminal so hanged had to be buried before sunset (verses 22-23; compare Joshua 8:29). The hanging on a tree of the condemned person's corpse was considered a "curse" (Deuteronomy 21:23). That is part of why Joseph of Arimathea was anxious to take Jesus from the cross and bury Him before the new day, a Holy Day, began (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-54; John 19:38-42). Jesus, when being nailed on the cross, became "accursed" for us—He, being innocent of any crime or sin, took away the curse for the violation of the law (that is, the death penalty) that we, through our sinful conduct, had brought upon ourselves (compare Galatians 3:13; Romans 6:23).
Deuteronomy 22:1-4 gives practical examples on how to love our neighbor: If we find something that belongs to our neighbor, we are to return it to him. We are to take care of the found item until it can be returned (verses 1-3). We are also to assist our neighbor when he needs help (verse 4). And we are not to hide ourselves from helping (compare Isaiah 58:6-7). Rather we are to bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2).
Deuteronomy 22:5 prohibits cross-dressing. A man is not to wear women's clothes and vice versa, according to the cultural norms of the day. This deals with transvestitism or with conduct that could even give the appearance that one is engaged in such a practice. The command does not forbid unisex fashions—that is, attire that is culturally acceptable for both men and women to wear. It should also be noted here that "in the ancient Middle East, dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex was a magical practice intended to bring harm to people. For example, a transvestite male would predict that the soldiers of another army would be as weak as females" (Nelson, note on 22:5).
Verses 6-7 are concerned with the preservation of the environment and wildlife—one is not to take the mother bird and the young birds at the same time, but let the mother go free so that she can continue producing offspring, thus perpetuating the species. If the opposite were done, taking the mother and leaving the young, the young would, of course, die, leaving none of the birds alive.
Verse 8 is another law showing concern for neighbor. In ancient houses, roofs, which were flat, were often used like other rooms, especially during hot weather. Thus, there was a real danger of someone accidentally stepping or falling off the edge of the roof. Therefore, this law was to protect others by requiring that a house have a parapet or railing around the roof's edge to prevent accidental injury. While we do not normally put railings around our roofs today unless it is common for people to walk on them, we would certainly do so around a balcony or very high deck. Indeed, the principle here is simply that we try to anticipate dangers in anything we plan or build and do what we can to protect others from those dangers. This law was simply a practical way to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39)—to take reasonable steps to protect others from injury.
Verse 12 repeats the command from Numbers 15:37-41 that tassels be added to the four corners of one's clothing. One source comments: "To understand the significance of the tassel, we must first understand the significance of the hem. The hem of an ancient Near-Eastern garment was not simply a fold sewed to prevent the threads of the cloth from unraveling. The hem of the outer garment or robe made an important social statement. It was usually the most ornate part of the garment. And the more important the individual, the more elaborate and the more ornate was the embroidery on the hem of his or her outer robe. The tassel must be understood as an extension of such a hem.... Thus, the significance of the tassel (as well as the elaborate hem) is this: It was worn by those who counted; it was the 'I.D.' of nobility. The requirement of a blue cord in the tassels [see Numbers 15:38] lends further support to the notion that the tassels signified nobility because the blue dye used to color the threads was extraordinarily expensive" (Jacob Milgrom, "Of Hems and Tassels," Biblical Archaeology Review,May-June 1983, pp. 61-62).
This supports the common Jewish understanding: "In ancient times non-Jewish royalty wore fringes on the hems of their clothes to indicate their high position. The Torah instructs all Jews to remember that they are a nation of priests with God as their ruler" (Malka Drucker, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 1982, p. 48). However, the explicitly stated scriptural reason for tassels is found in Numbers 15:39-40: "that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord to do them...and so be holy to the Lord." Perhaps, in reminding the Israelites that they were a royal priesthood, the tassels also reminded them that this responsibility required them to obey Him and remain holy. It may even be that the tassels reminded them that God had taken them from slavery and made them a wealthy, blessed people—and that He would continue to bless them as long as they remained faithful to Him.
Today it is the Holy Spirit that reminds us of God's law (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit was not given, or even promised, to ancient Israel at large, so they needed such physical reminders (compare Deuteronomy 5:29). Under the terms of the New Covenant, those physical reminders should not be necessary, as the law of God is being written on our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 31:33). It is true that Christ wore tassels (see Matthew 9:20, the word translated "hem" here and "borders" in Deuteronomy 23:5 referring to an ancient hem with tassels as described above), but He lived His human life under Old Testament rules, including its sacrifices and offerings and its physical reminders.
Deuteronomy 22:13-30 discusses laws of sexual morality. If it was discovered that a newly married bride had engaged in sexual immorality or fornication prior to marriage, she was to be stoned (verses 20-21). If the husband's accusation of fornication prior to marriage was proved wrong, the husband had to pay a fine to his wife's family and was not allowed to ever divorce her (verse 19). This was done to protect the wife, as the husband had to continue to provide for her.
When two unmarried people engaged in fornication and were discovered, the perpetrators had to marry each other (verse 28) unless the father of the girl refused to consent to the marriage. In that case, the man who had enticed the virgin still had to pay "money according to the bride-price of virgins" (Exodus 22:16-17). If two people engaged in adultery, that is, where at least one of them was married to someone else, then both perpetrators were to be stoned (verse 23). The concept of adultery even included a "betrothed," though not yet married, woman, as she was already considered to be the "wife" of the new husband (verses 23-24). Then there was the matter of rape. If a sexual relationship involving a betrothed woman occurred in the city where other people were nearby, but the woman did not cry out for help, this was considered adultery and not rape, since the woman could have been heard if she had cried out, thereby demonstrating her disagreement with the sexual encounter. On the other hand, if a rape of a betrothed woman occurred in the isolation of the countryside, where her cries for help would have been to no avail, then the matter was declared a rape and only the rapist had to die (verses 25-27).
Don't Get Mixed Up
Deuteronomy 22:9 forbids sowing a vineyard with different kinds of seed. Verse 10 prohibits plowing with an ox and a donkey together. And verse 11 prohibits wearing garments of different material. Let's examine these three prohibitions in more detail.
The prohibition against wearing certain clothes is actually quite specific. Note that the words "such as" have been added to verse 11. It should actually read, "You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, wool and linen mixed together." That the mixing of wool and linen is really the issue here may also be seen in Leviticus 19:19, which clearly states, "Nor shall a garment of mixed wool and linen come upon you." Wool is an animal product, while linen is a plant product. Such should not be combined, as they produce clothes of lesser quality. Further, the Jamieson, Fausset & Brown Commentary (JFB) notes that research has determined that wool blended with linen may sometimes increase static electricity to the point of causing heat rashes in hot climates (note on Leviticus 19:19). Thus, with the prohibition being so specific, synthetic fabric does not even appear to be an issue here, or fabric that is part synthetic and part wool or that is part synthetic and part linen. It should also be noted that the prohibition is against a particular fabric being an improper blend. It apparently does not prohibit wearing wool and linen at the same time or even as different parts of the same garment.
The purpose of the prohibition against sowing different kinds of seed may have been twofold. First, it may have been "directed against an idolatrous practice, viz., that of the ancient Zabians, or fire-worshippers, who sowed different seeds, accompanying the act with magical rites and invocations" (JFB, note on Leviticus 19:19). But this law was evidently also given to prevent the intentional or unintentional cross-pollinating of different kinds of plants, as this would produce substandard hybrids. The same commentary notes that "those who have studied the diseases of land and vegetables tell us that the practice of mingling seeds is injurious both to flowers and to grains. 'If the various genera of the natural order Gramineae, which includes the grains and the grasses, should be sown in the same field, and flower at the same time, so that the pollen of the two flowers mix, a spurious seed will be the consequence, called by the farmers chess. It is always inferior and unlike either of the two grains that produced it, in size, flavor, and nutritious principles. Independent of contributing to disease the soil, they never fail to produce the same [result] in animals and men that feed on them'" (note on Leviticus 19:19). For other examples, cucumbers should not be planted near watermelons because they will cross and produce a perversion. Likewise, the various members of the muskmelon and cantaloupe family should not be planted near pumpkins or certain types of squash, as they will mix. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with planting peas or beans among corn, or planting two pasture grasses together. In that case, there is no problem as each seed continues to reproduce only after its own kind.
With today's scientific knowledge, there is much planned hybridization. However, much of it is controversial because, generally speaking, with most "improvements" or advantages come corresponding disadvantages or weaknesses. Hybrid plants grown for human food have often proven less healthful.
Several reasons have been offered for the prohibition against yoking an ox and a donkey together for plowing. One explanation is that an ox is a clean animal, while a donkey is unclean. Also, it has been shown that the ox cannot tolerate the smell of a donkey, so that both animals don't really work together harmoniously. They pull unequally and, sometimes, even against each other. The Soncino Commentary suggests that the "underlying principle is prevention of cruelty, since the ass which is weaker than the ox would suffer in such a combination." The JFB Commentary expresses all of these thoughts, stating: "An ox and ass, being of different species and of very different characters, cannot associate comfortably, nor unite cheerfully in drawing a plow or wagon. The ass being much smaller and his step shorter, there would be an unequal and irregular draft. Besides, the ass, from feeding on coarse and poisonous weeds, has a fetid breath, which its yoke-fellow seeks to avoid, not only as poisonous and offensive, but producing leanness, or, if long continued, death; and hence, it has been observed always to hold away its head from the ass and to pull only with one shoulder" (note on Deuteronomy 22:10). All of this certainly serves to illustrate a spiritual principle the apostle Paul brought out in the New Testament. In light of everything that was just pointed out, we can perhaps better understand Paul's point in 2 Corinthians 6:14, where he says, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers." Indeed, this lesson may be found not only in the rule about plowing, but also the ones concerning seeds and fabrics. For while these precepts have value in the physical realm, they illustrate a spiritual reality: Don't get mixed up with this world.