Courtesy and Common Sense

1 “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it. You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again.

“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.

“If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.

“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. 10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. 11 You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.

12 “You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.– Deuteronomy 22:1-12 ESV

Let’s face it. These are some strange-sounding commands that appear to have little or nothing in common. They come across as a set of random rules dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected circumstances. After all, what does returning your brother’s lost ox have to do with building a parapet on your roof? And what do the verses which seem to be addressing cross-dressing have to do with the proper procedure for gathering eggs?

As Moses has revealed before, God was deeply concerned about all aspects of His chosen peoples’ lives. He has provided the Israelites with little leeway. And while many of these commands begin with the familiar phrase, “you shall not…,” they come across less as hard-and-fast prohibitions forbidding certain behaviors than they do as common-sense advice for living. And while, at first glance, they may appear to be somewhat heterogeneous in nature, they share a common theme.

Life within the nation of Israel was to be communal. God had declared the entire nation to be His chosen people. Each of the 12 tribes with each of their various clans formed a collective whole. And within that community, God expected His people to live together in unity, expressing their love for Him through acts of compassion and concern for one another.

Earlier on in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave the people of Israel the following command, which became the central part of the Shema, the daily prayer of the Jewish people.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

Love for God was a central tenet to the Hebrew faith. But that love had to have an outlet. It had to be expressed in acts of obedience. And many of the commands God gave to the people of Israel were other-oriented. In other words, they dealt with the interpersonal relationships between fellow Jews. The way they treated one another would be a powerful and visible expression of their love for God.

That is why, when Jesus was asked by the Jewish religious leaders to name the greatest of all the commandments, He stated: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT). But then, He quickly added, “A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39 NLT). Then Jesus summed up His answer with the following point of clarification: “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40 NLT).

It is impossible to love God without expressing love for others. And the apostle John makes that distinction quite plain.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

That simple, yet profound message seems to be at the core of all the commands found in this section of Deuteronomy. For the most part, they are all horizontal and interpersonal in nature – they flow from one individual to another. And yet, they are concrete expressions of love for God. They display concern for His creation, whether it’s your brother who lost his ox, the ox itself, a bird in its nest, a guest in your home, or the animals used to plow your fields.

Verses 1-4 seem to be dealing with issues concerning common courtesy. If your neighbor has lost his ox, you should show concern. This is nothing more than the Golden Rule lived out in real life. Jesus Himself expressed this sentiment when He said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT).

The Mosaic law put a high priority on the personal interactions between fellow Jews. In fact, Leviticus 19:18 contains the following command: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” That’s fairly straightforward and, apparently, not up for debate. To show disregard for your neighbor by neglecting to return his lost ox would be a blatant display of hatred toward God. That’s a convicting and condemning thought.

Even the verses dealing with women and men wearing the clothing of the opposite sex seem to be dealing with interpersonal relationships. It most likely has to do with deception. While there is an obvious moral component to these verses, the context has to do with love for one another. A woman dressing in the clothes of a man would have no implications unless her actions were meant to deceive others. She would be attempting to portray herself as something other than what she really was. And the same would be true of a man who dressed as a woman. For either to do so would be considered an abomination, a disgusting and immoral act. But again, the emphasis in the verses seems to be on the interpersonal relationships between individuals.

The inference seems to be that a woman who dresses as a man is trying to deceive others. She would be attempting to cover up her true, God-given identity, with a false one. And the same would apply to a man who dressed in a woman’s clothing.

Verses 6-7 veer in what appears to be a totally different direction, dealing with the collection of eggs found in a nest. This seems to deal with the proper treatment of God’s creation. God made man to be the steward over His creation.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28 ESV

The plants, birds, and animals were to serve as sources of sustenance for mankind, but they were to be treated with proper care and concern. Man was not free to abuse God’s creation. So, if someone discovered a bird’s nest containing eggs or recently hatched chicks, they were free to take the eggs or chicks, but they were not to take the hen. This would allow the hen to produce future eggs. Proper care for God’s creation would have long-term benefits. “Do this so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:7 NLT).

The building of a parapet or safety wall around the roof of a home was just another common-sense practice that expressed concern for others. While it might require added construction expense, it would be the right thing to do. If it could prevent the inadvertent death of an innocent individual, any additional cost in money or time would be well worth it. What price can you put on a human life?

In verses 9-11, we have a series of commands prohibiting the mixing of seeds, animals, and fabrics. Again, at first blush, these rules seem odd and unnecessary to us. But they display God’s concern for every aspect of Israelite life. While these restrictions may come across as petty to us, there was a method to God’s seeming madness. All of these things are tied to the pagan practices of the Canaanites. So, while these restrictions have practical applications tied to them, they are really designed to separate the Israelites from the nations around them. The blending of two types of seeds was a common practice among the pagans, because they believed doing would have a mystical benefit to crop production. The combining of dissimilar things was thought to have magical benefits. But God would not allow the Israelites to do things the world’s way. And from a practical standpoint, the combining of these things was ineffective and unhelpful. An ox and donkey will not plow well together. Two different types of cloths will not wear well together. Two different types of seeds will produce a less-than-perfect harvest. So, the Israelites were to do things God’s way.

The final command contains a reminder, not a prohibition. This verse sums up all that Moses had just told them by reminding the Israelites to live their lives set apart unto God.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: Throughout the generations to come you must make tassels for the hems of your clothing and attach them with a blue cord. When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do. The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” – Numbers 15:37-40 NLT

Every area of their lives was to be different and distinct. From the way they treated one another to the way they interacted with God’s creation. As His chosen people, they were to live distinctively different lives – for their own good and His glory.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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