Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 24:1-25:4

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Deuteronomy 24:1-25:4

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Divorce; Concern for Others Mandated 

Moses, because of the hardness of the hearts of the people, allowed for divorce—although Christ later explained that "from the beginning" it was not so. For converted Christians, only a few valid reasons for divorce exist—such as fraud before marriage, sexual immorality while married and desertion by an unconverted mate (compare Matthew 19:3-9; 1 Corinthians 7:12-15). Indeed, in Matthew 19, Christ was apparently explaining that people had been applying even the words of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 far too liberally, taking the word "uncleanness" to mean anything the husband didn't like and allowing him to divorce his wife for virtually any reason at all. In fact, in Christ's day it was not even necessary to state a reason. A husband had only to tell his wife, "I divorce you" before witnesses. The same liberty was, in this corrupt tradition, not extended to wives. With this understanding, we can perhaps see how the certificate of divorce, while a concession to human weakness, could actually prove helpful to a wife whose husband wrongfully divorced her, allowing her to remarry and still be provided for (compare verse 2). Yet, if her next marriage ended in divorce or widowhood, the first husband was not permitted to take her back after she had become the wife of another man in the intervening time. This law is still valid today.

Verses 6 and 10-13 demand mercy and compassion for a poor person who had to give a pledge or security for a debt. The creditor was not allowed to accept certain necessities as a pledge (verses 6, 17), and he was, in any event, to return whatever he had received from a poor person as a pledge before sunset (verses 12-13). Further, he was not given the right to go into the poor person's house without permission to get the pledge (verse 10), thus preserving personal privacy and dignity. Although a poor person might find himself in a temporary financial predicament, he was still made in the image of God as a potential member of His very family, and thus was to be treated with respect.

In the same context, an employer was to pay his employee his wages on time. In ancient times, employees or hired servants were paid daily, and God declares it to be "sin" not to do so—regardless of whether the employee was an Israelite or a foreigner (verses 14-15). The principle is that employees be paid at mutually agreeable intervals.

Verse 16 sets forth an important principle: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin." We are all individually responsible for what we do. Parents must teach their children, but the children must choose. The same is true for converted children who can teach their unconverted parents God's way of life—but it is again the parent's responsibility to accept or reject the truth.

Verses 19-22 address compassionate conduct again—this time of landowners towards the poor. Rather than greedily harvesting every last sheaf in the field, or every last grape or olive, God commanded generosity. Thus, some of the harvest was to be left for the stranger, the fatherless or the widow, i.e., the poor in the land, "that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." He reminds Israel that they, too, had been slaves in the land of Egypt, and how much they would have appreciated it if such a law had been in Egypt for them (see verse 22).

Deuteronomy 25:1-3 demand justice in court. A wicked person is to be condemned, and a righteous person is to be acquitted. In ancient Israel, to inflict physical pain on a convicted criminal was not considered inhumane, cruel or unusual. Rather, it was to satisfy the victim's demand for some sense of justice, to deter others from committing crime and to reinforce to the criminal himself the fact that sin and crime brings pain and suffering. We might ask ourselves whether it is more "humane" to lock up a convicted criminal for months or years in a tiny cell, caging him like an animal. God saw to it, however, that the offender was not to be "humiliated" in the sight of Israel when he received the beating—the maximum number of blows could not exceed 40. Thus, rather than being inhumane, this law recognized the guilty person as a human being whose dignity should be preserved. In other nations, people were sometimes beaten with a lash or rod to extract a confession (Acts 22:24). This was not allowed under God's code of law. Blows were to be used only to punish after guilt had been established.

Verse 4 of Deuteronomy 25 teaches compassion for animals. An ox that works should be fed. Indeed, to restrain an animal from eating food is frustrating and torturous to the animal. Moreover, there is a practical benefit: To keep an ox engaged in its job of treading grain, it is best to allow it to eat the very grain it is treading. The principle even has practical applications in the human realm. Paul would later apply it to the ministry, who for their service should have their living expenses paid out of the tithes and offerings collected from the members and supporters of the Church (1 Corinthians 9:7-11). This also allows them to devote more time to their ministerial responsibilities rather than an outside occupation.