Lesson 10: Chapters 18-20
Moses' Second Homily: The Deuteronomic Code (Ethical Stipulations of the Covenant Treaty Continued)

Almighty God,
Your holy prophets spoke Your divine commands and judgments to the people when their civil and religious authorities failed in their obligations to keep the people on the path to holiness. Jesus Christ is our eternal prophet, priest, and king of the New Covenant people of God. At the Mt. of Transfiguration, in the presence of God's holy prophets Moses and Elijah and the New Covenant hierarchy of Sts. Peter, James and John Zebedee, God commanded that they were to "listen" to Jesus. It is the same command that God gave to the Old Covenant Church when He promised that one day He would send a new Moses to speak His words to the people. Give us the strength and the will to listen to Jesus, Your Supreme Prophet, in the words of Sacred Scripture and to rightly apply His commands taught to us by Mother Church. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The priest's lips ought to safeguard knowledge; his mouth is where the law should be sought, since he is Yahweh Sabaoth's messenger.
Malachi 2:7

From the day your ancestors left Egypt until today, I have sent you all my servants the prophets, persistently sending them day after day.
Jeremiah 7:25

In the previous two lessons, Moses addressed these observances of the Law:

In Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22, Moses laid out God's historical blueprint for Israel's constitutional government, placing limitations on the absolute authority of political and religious leaders. Moses addressed the responsibilities and the limits of authority for four kinds of Israel's representatives:

  1. Judges (Dt 16:18-17:22)
  2. Kings (Dt 17:14-20)
  3. Priests (Dt 18:1-8)
  4. Prophets (Dt 18:9-22)

Chapter 18: The Levitical Priests, Ministers and Prophets

In this chapter the list continues with the responsibilities of Yahweh's chief priests and lesser ministers of the tribe of Levi and the role of Yahweh's prophet.

Deuteronomy 18:1-8
The Levitical Priesthood of Chief Priests and Lesser Levitical Ministers
1 'The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi will be without share or heritage of their own in Israel; they will live on the foods offered to Yahweh and on his heritage. 2 Levi will have no heritage of his own among his brothers; Yahweh will be his heritage, as he has promised him. 3 This is what is due to the priests from the people, from those who offer an ox or a sheep in sacrifice [zevah]: the priest must be given the shoulder, the cheeks and the stomach [qebah/kebah]. 4 You must give him the first-fruits of your wheat, of your new wine and of your oil, as well as the first-fruits of your sheep-shearing. 5 For Yahweh your God has chosen him from all your tribes to stand before Yahweh your God, to do the duties of the sacred ministry, and to bless in Yahweh's name-him and his sons for all time. 6 If a Levite living in one of your towns anywhere in Israel decides to move to the place chosen by Yahweh, 7 he shall minister there in the name of Yahweh his God like all his fellow Levites who stand ministering there in the presence of Yahweh, 8 eating equal shares with them-what he has from the sale of his patrimony notwithstanding.' [..] = literal translation (The Interlineal Bible: Hebrew-English, 509 page).

Deuteronomy 18:1 The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi will be without share or heritage of their own in Israel; they will live on the foods offered to Yahweh and on his heritage. All the Levites are to live on the "first tithes" provided by the people of Israel and the first fruits of the produce and of the flocks and herds (Num 18:20-32; also see the tithing schedule from last week's lesson). This verse seems to suggest that there was no distinction between two groups of the Levites who served Yahweh and the Sanctuary (the chief priests and the other Levites), but this cannot be the correct interpretation. Previously in the Pentateuch, a rebellion was launched by Levites who were led by Korah of the Levitical clan of Kohath. This group of Levites wanted to claim equality with the chief priests; it was a rebellion in which God intervened and destroyed the Levitical leader of the rebellion and all the Levites who supported him as they attempted to offer unauthorized incense, a ritual of worship that was assigned only to the chief priests (Num 16:8-11, 16-35). In addition, the distinction between the chief priests and the other Levites and their roles in serving Yahweh has been made abundantly clear in many passages in the Pentateuch, including these:

Rather this verse should be understood to read: The Levitical priests [and] the whole tribe of Levi ...

Question: Why were the chief priests and the Levites without share or heritage in the Promised Land? See Num 18:20-24; 35:1-8; Dt 14:22
Answer: They were not to be given plots of ancestral land since their lives were dedicated to God in ministerial service. Their heritage was God because God promised to provide for them. The Israelites lived off the blessings of the land and the chief priests and Levites lived off the tithe the Israelites were commanded to give to the ministers of the Sanctuary. The Levites also receive Levitical towns and cities of refuge.

Question: Who were the Levitical priests? See Ex 6:18-20; 28:1-4, 40-43; 29:1-30; Heb 5:1; Sirach 45:7-22/27.
Answer: They are the chief priests who were the descendants of Moses' brother Aaron of the tribe of Levi and the clan of Kohath. God made a covenant with Aaron and his descendants. They alone were qualified to minister at Yahweh altar of sacrifice and in the Tabernacle (Tent of Testimony).

Question: Who were the lesser ministers? Num 1:49-53; 3:6-13; 8:5-6, 14-19.
Answer: The lesser ministers were all the other Levites of the three clans that made up the tribe of Levi (Gershon, Kohath and Merari) who were not descendants of Aaron. They served the chief priests and were responsible for guarding and transporting the Sanctuary.

Question: What limitations were placed on the Levitical lesser ministers that separated them from their brothers in the tribe of Levi who where chief priests descended from Aaron? See Lev 1:5-6-9, 11-17; 2:16; 3:1-5, 8, 13; 4:7, 20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 26; 6:2-6; 6:18, 22; 7:1, 6, 28-36; chapter 8; Num 3:9-10; 18:1-24.

  1. They were not anointed or ordained and did not wear the priestly garments.
  2. They could not serve at the altar or offer the sacrifices.
  3. They could not touch the sacred vessels.
  4. They could not forgive sins.
  5. They could not eat the sacred meal of the sin sacrifices.
  6. They were not eligible to receive the priestly portions of sacrifices.
  7. Their term of service was limited to age 50.
  8. They could not enter the Tabernacle.
  9. They served the chief priests as "dedicated" men.
  10. They guarded and transported the Sanctuary.

Question: What was the function of the priesthood of Aaron? See Ex 28:1-4; Lev 3:20, 35; 6:1/6:8-6/13, 17/24-23/30; 7:32/22-36/26; 16:2, 29-34; Dt 33:10; Mal 2:7.
Answer:Prerogatives of the chief priests:

  1. It was the duty of the priesthood of Aaron to proclaim the Law.
  2. The priests were anointed and ordained to serve at the altar, offering the communal and individual sacrifices of the people.
  3. They wore liturgical vestments when ministering in the Sanctuary.
  4. The priests served in the Holy Place of the Tabernacle.
  5. The High Priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year on the Feast of Atonement.
  6. They had the authority to forgive the sins of the people and to eat the sin sacrifices in a sacred meal.
  7. The priests restored communion with God by sacrifice and prayer.

Question: How was the power of the Old Covenant priesthood limited? What blessing couldn't they offer God's covenant people? See Heb 5:3; 7:27; 10:1-4 and CCC 1540.
Answer: Old Covenant priesthood was powerless to offer the gift of eternal salvation through their sacrifices. The sin sacrifices had to be repeated over and over again, while the single, perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross offered atonement for the sins of all of mankind in every age.

Question: What were the three tiers of the ministers who served God and the people at the Old Covenant altar and Sanctuary? See Lev 21:10-12; Num 3:3, 6-9.

  1. The consecrated High Priest who served for life.
  2. The chief priests who served for life.
  3. The lesser ministers of the Levites who served the chief priests and the Sanctuary until age 50.

Question: What did the Old Covenant ordained priesthood, the lesser ministers and the religious hierarchy prefigure in the New Covenant Church of Jesus Christ? See CCC 1541; Heb 7:20-27 and 8:1-3.
Answer: The Old Covenant institution of ministry and service prefigures the New Covenant priests and deacons who serve the people and Yahweh in the Church founded by Jesus Christ; like the priests who served God at the altar, our priests represent Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass. Jesus Christ is our eternal High Priest who continues to offer His one perfect sacrifice in the heavenly Sanctuary for the salvation of mankind; the deacons serve as our lesser ministers of the Sanctuary.

Deuteronomy 18:3 This is what is due to the priests from the people, from those who offer an ox or a sheep in sacrifice [zevah]: the priest must be given the shoulder, the cheeks and the stomach [qebah/kebah].

There were portions of the people's communion sacrifices that were legally assigned to the officiating priest. The Hebrew word zevah identifies the sacrifice as a communion offering that was eaten in a sacred meal with only the fat and blood given to God on the altar fire (see Lev chapter 3). Communion sacrifices could be male or female animals from the herd or flock. There appears to be a discrepancy between the priest's portions listed in Leviticus 7:32-34, which were the breast and right thigh, and the animal parts in this passage. However, if the portions indentified as the priest's in Leviticus 7:32-34 are the parts of animals from the flock and the parts indentified here are the upper parts of the right foreleg, the jowls (which includes the tongue), and the fourth stomach (the maw; qebah/kebah in Hebrew) of cattle, there is no discrepancy.(1)

Deuteronomy 18:4 You must give him the first-fruits of your wheat, of your new wine and of your oil, as well as the first-fruits of your sheep-shearing. In addition to the first fruits of the herd and flock, the priests received the first of the produce and wool shearing. Giving these gifts, given as required by law to the Levites, were an expression of obedience and gratitude to God (Num 12-13).

Deuteronomy 18:5 For Yahweh your God has chosen him from all your tribes to stand before Yahweh your God, to do the duties of the sacred ministry, and to bless in Yahweh's name-him and his sons for all time.

It was the duty of the priests to stand as the people representatives before Yahweh's sacred altar. It was a sacred duty passed on from one generation to the next of the descendants of Aaron, Israel's first High Priest. Only the chief priests could pronounce Yahweh's blessing over the people (Num 6:22-27) at the conclusion of the Tamid worship services (Lev 9:22).

Deuteronomy 18:6 If a Levite living in one of your towns anywhere in Israel decides to move to the place chosen by Yahweh, 7 he shall minister there in the name of Yahweh his God like all his fellow Levites who stand ministering there in the presence of Yahweh, 8 eating equal shares with them-what he has from the sale of his patrimony notwithstanding.'

Any Levitical priest or lesser minister who wanted to serve in the Sanctuary had the right to serve there and to receive their due portions from the tithes and sacrifices. When in service, the Levitical minister could not be deprived of any additional revenue from his permanent place of residence.(2)

Deuteronomy 18:9-12
The Israelites must reject all Prophets who do not serve Yahweh
9 'When you have entered the country [land] given you by Yahweh your God, you must not learn to imitate the detestable practices of the nations there already. 10 There must never be anyone among you who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire of sacrifice, who practices divination, who is soothsayer, augur or sorcerer, 11 weaver of spells, consulter of ghosts or mediums, or necromancer. 12 For anyone who does these things is detestable to Yahweh your God; it is because of theses detestable practices that Yahweh your God is driving out these nations before you.'
[..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, pages 509-10).

Before introducing the office of God's holy prophet, Moses gives a list of other means of attempting to predict the future apart from God, which he emphatically condemns. The warning against false prophets has already been given (i.e., Dt 13:2-6/1-5), but in this section Moses begins by indentifying false prophets before he defines what it means to be a true prophet.

The offering of children in sacrifice was an attempt to bribe the gods to favor the parents. The prophet of Yahweh was God's representative to the people whose mission was to reveal God's will to His people. Any other form of seeking to know the future or the will of God was to seek a rival to God's holy prophet.

Deuteronomy 18:13-22
The True Prophet
13 'You must be faultless in your relationship with Yahweh your God. 14 For these nations whom you are going to dispossess have listened to soothsayers and mediums, but Yahweh your God does not permit you to do this. From among yourselves, from among your own brothers, 15 Yahweh your God will raise up a prophet like me; you will listen to him. 16 This is exactly what you asked Yahweh your God to do-at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, when you said, 'Never let me hear the voice of Yahweh my God or see this great fire again, or I shall die." 17 Then Yahweh said to me, 18 "What they have said is well said. From their own brothers I shall raise up a prophet like yourself; 19 I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him. Anyone who refuses to listen to my words, spoken by him in my name, will have to render an account to me. 20 But the prophet who presumes to say something in my name which I have not commanded him to say, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die."

Question: Who is the first man to be called a prophet of Yahweh in the Pentateuch? See Gen 20:7.
Answer: Abraham is called a prophet by King Abimelech, meaning that the king considered Abraham to have a privileged standing before his God and was therefore a powerful intercessor.

Question: What three authorities of the covenant people were anointed to serve in their offices? Quote a relevant Scripture passage for each office.
Answer: Prophets, priests, and kings were anointed to serve in their offices:

Question: How were the people to know if a prophet was legitimately chosen by God?

Answer: He had to be an Israelite, he had to only speak the words God put in his mouth, and he had to teach the people with authority. He also had to be 100% accurate in his teachings (in agreement with the Law) and in his predictions, or he was not a true prophet.

Question: What were the people's obligations in response to a prophet?

Answer: They had to listen to God's prophet and to obey or they would face divine judgment. If the prophet proved to be false, he had to be put to death.

Since that passage speaks of the future prophet like Moses in the singular (verses 15, 18-19), both Jewish and Christian tradition has seen this passage as referring to the promised Redeemer-Messiah of Genesis 3:15. The New Testament Gospels identify Jesus with the promised prophet like Moses:

Question: For Christians, what single event in the Gospels unquestionably reveals that Jesus isn't just "a prophet" but that He is the promised prophet in Deuteronomy 18:18-19? See Mt 17:5; Mk 9:7; Lk 9:35). What did Jesus say about the origin of the words He spoke? See Jn 14:24.

Answer: God's command in Deuteronomy is that the people must listen to the prophet like Moses that He will send to speak His words. On the Mt. of Transfiguration, when Jesus revealed Himself in His glory to the Apostles Peter, James and John in the presence of Moses and Elijah, the Apostles heard a voice from heaven commanding: "This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him" (Mt 17:5; emphasis added). The command to "listen," found in all three Synoptic Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, is the same command as in Dt 18:19. And, in fulfillment of Moses' prophecy that the future prophet like him would speak the word of God, Jesus testified ... And the word that you hear is not my own: it is the word of the Father who sent me.

Jesus may have also revealed to the Jewish crowd that He is the prophet Moses prophesied to the people and who Moses wrote about for future generations in Deuteronomy 18:18-19, when Jesus said: Do not imagine that I am going to accuse you before the Father: you have placed your hopes on Moses, and Moses will be the one who accuses you. If you really believed him you would believe me too, since it was about me that he was writing; but if you will not believe what he wrote, how can you believe what I say? (Jn 5:45-47). And, in his teaching at the Temple after Pentecost, St. Peter spoke of the promise of Christ's Second Coming and referred to the prophecy of a prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 19: Then he will send you the Christ he has predestined, that is Jesus, whom heaven must deep till the universal restoration comes which God proclaimed, speaking through his holy prophets. Moses, for example, said, "From among your brothers the Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me; you will listen to whatever he tells you. Anyone who refuses to listen to that prophet shall be cut off from the people." In fact, all the prophets that have ever spoken, from Samuel onwards, have predicted these days (Acts 3:20-24). Later, addressing the Sanhedrin and giving his witness of Jesus as the Christ, St. Stephen will refer to the same prophecy (Acts 7:37).

The prophet became God representative to the people when the civil and religious authorities failed to be holy leaders. In the name of God, they chastised priests and kings who failed the people, like Samuel (1 Sam 3:19-4:1) and Nathan (2 Sam 12:1-15), and they called down the curses of covenant lawsuits upon an apostate covenant people, like the prophets Isaiah (Is 1:2-4; 34:8), Jeremiah (Jer 1:16; 11:1-8), Ezekiel (Ez 11:10-12; 17:19-21), Hosea (2:4/2-15/13; 12:3/2), and Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 24:31-36).

Chapter 19: Cities of Refuge, Boundaries and Witnesses in Civil Trials

Yahweh said to Joshua, 'Speak to the Israelites and say to them, "Choose yourselves the cities of refuge of which I spoke to you through Moses, to which anyone who has accidentally (unintentionally) killed someone else may flee, and which will serve you as refuge from the avenger of blood.
Joshua 20:1-3

Moses' homily now turns to judicial and military matters that are under the direct supervision of the four main types of authorities listed in Deuteronomy 19:1-20.

Deuteronomy 19:1-3
Cities of Refuge
1 'When Yahweh your God has annihilated the nations whose country [land] Yahweh your God is going to give you, and you have dispossessed them and are living in their towns and in their houses, 2 you must set aside three towns, centrally placed in the country [land] which Yahweh your God is giving you for your own. 3 You will keep the approaches to them in good order, dividing the area of the country [land] which Yahweh your God is giving you as your heritage, into three parts, so that any killer [manslayer] can flee to these towns.
[..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 511).

The command to establish cities of refuge is also found in Exodus 21:13-14 and in Numbers 35:9-34. This passage is referring to the cities of refuge only on the west side of the Jordan River. The cities were to be located in areas that provided easy access for someone seeking refuge.

Question: In Numbers 35:13-15, how many cities of refuge did God command were to be established and where were they to be located?
Answer: God ordered the people to established six cities of refuge: three cities of refuge on the west side of the Jordan River in Canaan and three on the east side of the Jordan River in the Transjordan lands occupied by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the two clans of Manasseh.(3)

Deuteronomy 19:4-13
Examples of Persons Eligible for Refuge
4 Here is an example of how someone may save his life by fleeing to them. 'If anyone has struck his fellow accidentally, without any previous feud with him 5 (for example, he goes with his fellow into the forest to cut wood; his arm swings the axe to fell a tree; the head slips off the handle and strikes his companion dead), that man may take refuge in one of these towns and save his life. 6 It must not be allowed that the avenger of blood, in the heat of his anger, should pursue the killer and that the length of the road should help him to overtake and wound him fatally; for the man has not deserved to die, having had no previous feud with his victim. 7 Hence I am giving you this order: You must set aside three towns, 8 and if Yahweh your God enlarges your territory [land], as he swore to your ancestors that he would, and gives you the whole country [land] which he promised to give to your ancestors-9 provided that you keep and observe all the commandments which I am enjoining on your today, loving Yahweh your God and always following his ways-then, to those three towns you will add three more. 10 In this way, innocent blood will not be shed in the country [land] which Yahweh your God is going to give you as your heritage; otherwise you would incur blood-guilt. 11 But if it happens that a man has a feud with his fellow and lies in wait for him and attacks him and fatally wounds him and he dies, and the man takes refuge in one of these towns, 12 the elders of his own town must send there and have him taken and handed over to the avenger of blood, to be put to death. 13 You must show him no pity. You must vanish the shedding of innocent blood from Israel, and then you will prosper.
[..] =
literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 511-12).

An "avenger of blood" was a male blood relative of the person who was killed who took up the obligation to seek justice for his dead relative.

Question: What determines if a killing is intentional or unintentional?
Answer: The intent and the past conduct of the person who killed another person.

Question: The procedure for seeking refuge is listed in this passage, in Numbers 35:11-15, 22-29 and in Joshua 20:4-6. What must the killer do and what must the town provide?
Answer: The killer must flee to one of the sanctuary towns and explain his case to the town elders. The elders will admit him and give him a place to live. They will protect him until he is brought to trial. If it is proved by trial that he killed unintentionally, he can continue to live in safety from the family of the victim until the high priest dies. The high priest's death will atone for his sin and he will be free to go his way. If someone seeks revenge after this, they will answer for murdering an innocent man. If a trial proves that the man intentionally killed, then he will be put to death with a member of the family of the victim (the blood avenger) taking part in the execution.

Deuteronomy 19:13 You must show him no pity.
The presiding judge and the judicial court must show no pity to one who is justly condemned for his sins.

Question: How is Jesus both our High Priest whose death atones for our sins and our blood avenger?
Answer: Jesus is both our High Priest and our blood avenger because His death has atoned for our deadly sins in the family of man, and He crushes the head of the serpent, Satan (Gen 3:15), as our blood avenger for the crimes against humanity in the sin and death Satan brought into the world.

If the Israelites expanded their borders, they were to establish additional cities of refuge. However, they failed to expand to the entire area promised by Yahweh; therefore more cities of refuge were not established.

Deuteronomy 19:14-21
Respect for Boundary Markers, Witnesses in Civil Trials, and the Repeat of the Law of Limited Retaliation
14 'You must not displace your neighbor's boundary mark, positioned by men of old in the heritage soon to be yours, in the country [land] which Yahweh your God is about to give you. 15 'A single witness will not suffice to convict anyone of a crime or offence of any kind; whatever the misdemeanor, the evidence of two witnesses or three is required to sustain the charge. 16 If someone gives false evidence against anyone, laying a charge of apostasy, both parties to this dispute [riv = covenant lawsuit] before Yahweh must appear before the priests and judges then in office. 18 The judges will make a careful enquiry, and if it turns out that the witness is a liar and has made a false accusation against his brother, 19 you must treat the witness as he would have treated his brother. You must banish this evil from among you. 20 The rest, hearing of this, will be afraid and never again do such an evil thing among you. 21 You must show no pity.

'Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.'

[..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-English, vol. I, page 512-13).

The sacrosanct status of boundary markers was a legal tradition in the ancient Near East (see Job 24:2; Prov 22:28; Is 5:8; Hos 5:10). Boundaries between properties were usually marked by stones-as will be the ancestral lands given to tribal members in the Promised Land. It is a moral offence to attempt to claim property that rightfully belongs to another (a violation of the tenth commandment). Such a person who commits this offense is to be cursed (Dt 27:17). The laws concerning boundaries in the Bible are similar to those laws found in other law codes of the region, for example the Code of Hammurabi and in the Assyrian law codes (also see Job 24:1-2 and Prov 22:28).

Question: According to Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 17:6, how many witnesses were required to find someone guilty of a capital offense or any offense?
Answer: Two or more; a person could not be put to condemned for any offense on the testimony of only one witness.

The Pharisees brought Jesus a woman accused of adultery (Jn 8:1-11), hoping to trap Jesus into either going beyond His authority in a Roman province by condemning her to death according to Jewish Law (Lev 20:10) or forgiving her and letting her go free, which would be a violation of the Law and something the Messiah could not do. Jesus asked for the one among them who was guiltless to cast the first stone (Jn 8:7). Adultery was a death penalty offense by stoning for men and women who were found guilty (Dt 22:22). In asking for someone to step forward to cast the first stone, He was seeking the witnesses against her. Under the Law, a witness had to be truthful and without guilt in his testimony. If the witnesses lied (there had to be at least two), they could be stoned themselves. The elder members of the crowd, who were most familiar with the implications of the law, were the first to leave, followed by all other men in the crowd.

The prohibition against giving false testimony is one of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:16; Dt 5:20) and is also listed in greater detail among the laws in the Book of the Covenant (Ex 23:1-2). If there was any suspicion of collusion or false testimony, the judges were to investigate thoroughly.

Deuteronomy 19:19 ... you must treat the witness as he would have treated his brother.

This command is addressed to the court. If the witnesses are found to be false, the court was to give them the same penalty they had planned for the person they accused. Punishment of a false witness is the only time the punishment phase is carried out by the court as the wronged party, since the purpose of the false witness wasn't just to condemn an innocent person, but the intent was also to subvert the ability of the court to judge correctly. In Jesus' trial, the witnesses contradicted each other's testimony, but the judges ignored their duty (see Mt 26:59-61; Mk 14:55-56).

Deuteronomy 19:21 You must show no pity. Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.' Once again (as in verse 13), the judges and the judicial court must base their verdict on the merits of the law and not on sympathy for the accused (also see Dt 16:18-20); nor must they hand down a verdict that was unjust. The second part of the verse is the command to be just and to not exact vengeance-the punishment must fit the crime. A man cannot be put to death for knocking out the tooth of another man. The law of reciprocity, also called the law of limited retaliation, is known in Latin as Lex talionis. The law of reciprocity has already appeared in a similar formula in the Book of the Covenant (Ex 21:25) and in the Holiness Code (Lev 24:17-20). By imposing a punishment that is just and equal to the crime/damage, the law aims to limit excesses of vengeance. The same law is found in the Code of Hammurabi and in the Assyrian laws, but what is different in those codes is that the wealth and status of the individual were taken into account, whereas under Yahweh's justice all classes of society were equal under the law. The expressions "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" etc. are not necessarily meant to be taken literally. In cases of bodily injury, the judges usually imposed monetary fines. In the Code of Hammurabi, if a nobleman knocked out the tooth of someone of his same rank, his tooth was to be knocked out, but if he knocked out the tooth of a commoner, he paid one-third mina of silver to his victim (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, page 175). According to Jewish tradition, the punishment for personal injury was a monetary fine (The Jewish Study Bible, page 411; JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, page 185).

Chapter 20: War and the Rules for Combatants

Bear with your share of difficulties, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one on active service involves himself in the affairs of civilian life, because he must win the approval of the man who enlisted him; or again someone who enters an athletic contest wins only by competing in the sports-a prize can be won only by competing according to the rules; and again, it is the farmer who works hard that has the first claim on any crop that is harvested. Think over what I have said, and the Lord will give you full understanding.
2 Timothy 2:3-7

Chapter 20 consists of three laws about warfare:

  1. Preparing the army for battle (verses 1-9).
  2. The treatment of conquered populations (verses 10-18).
  3. The preservation of fruit trees near besieged cities (verses 19-20).

In these instructions, Moses presents five ways in which God will guide His people during armed conflict:

  1. God's promise when faced by danger (verses 1-4).
  2. God's provision in emergencies (verses 5-9).
  3. God's peace extended to enemies who surrender (verses 10-11).
  4. God's power over willful opposition (verses 12-18).
  5. God's preservation of what is good in the midst of war and destruction (verses 19-20).

Deuteronomy 20:1-4
The Priestly Address before Battle
1 'When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, you must not be afraid of them; Yahweh your God is with you, he who brought you out of Egypt. 2 When you are about to join battle, the priest must come forward and address the people. 3 He must say to them, "Listen [shema], Israel: today you are about to join battle with your enemies. Do not be faint hearted. Let there be no fear or trembling or alarm as you face them. 4 Yahweh your God is marching with you, to fight your enemies for you and make you victorious."

Horse drawn chariots were among the most technologically advanced weaponry armies had in this period in history. War chariots were essentially platforms pulled by horses with a driver and a soldier who launched spears or shot arrows. The speed and maneuverability of the chariot gave a tremendous advantage. At the time the Israelites invaded Canaan, the Canaanites had war chariots and the Israelites did not (see Josh 4:11).

Question: What additional duty of a priest is mentioned in this passage?
Answer: The priest(s) must give a spiritually uplifting address to the troops before going into battle, reminding the soldiers of God's presence with His holy warriors and His gracious protection of His people in times of danger in Israel's past history. The priest's presence makes Israel's battle a holy war.

Question: Can you remember a previous battle where a priest accompanied the Israelite soldiers into battle? See Numbers 31:5-6.
Answer: Aaron's grandson, the priest Phinehas, accompanied the Israelite army into the battle against the four kings of Midian.

Also see priests of Yahweh accompanying Israeli troops into battle in 1 Sam 4:11; 14:3, 18, 36ff; 23:2-12; 28:6.

Deuteronomy 20:5-9
Exemptions from Combat
5 'The scribes will then address the people, as follows:
"Has anyone built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him go home, in case he dies in battle and someone else performs the dedication.
6 Has anyone planted a vineyard and not yet enjoyed its fruit? Let him go home, in case he dies in battle and someone else enjoys its fruit.
7 Has anyone contracted to marry a girl and not yet married her? Let him go home, in case he dies in battle and someone else marries her."
Finally, the scribes will say to the people:
8 "Is anyone frightened or faint hearted? Let him go home, in case he makes his brothers faint hearted too!"
9 Then, when the scribes have finished speaking to the people, commanders will be appointed to lead them.

Priests were to be appointed to accompany the army into battle, but the civilian officials (scribes/elders) are referred to in connection with requirements and responsibilities like determining who was eligible for the four military exemptions that are listed. After spiritually uplifting the troops and the dismissal of certain men because of approved exemptions, commanders were appointed to lead the army by the priests and civilian officials (scribes/elders).

Question: What were the four conditions that made a man eligible for exemption from battle?

  1. If a man had built a new house
  2. If a man had planted a vineyard that had not yet produced its first harvest*
  3. If a man was betrothed and had not yet married the woman
  4. If a man suffered from excessive fear and was faint-hearted

* The law stipulated that newly planted fruit bearing trees and vines were only available for common use in the fifth year (Lev 19:23-25).

The first three deferments ensured that young men who had made certain important steps in their adult lives should be able to complete them before risking their lives. Jeremiah 29:5-6 mentions the same activities and the enjoyment of the fruits of those activities as the blessings of a normal life, while Deuteronomy 28:30 speaks of the failure to complete those activities as curses for failing to be obedient to the covenant.

The fourth deferment was for cowardly behavior or tender-heartedness. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word is "soft-hearted" (JSP Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, page 188). The cowardly fleeing from the field of battle could cause panic among the troops, and the tender-hearted would be unable to make themselves kill, thus wasting their own lives and perhaps the lives of others.

Deuteronomy 20:10-20
The Treatment of Gentile Captured Towns outside Canaan and Towns within Canaan
'When you advance on a town to attack it, first offer it peace-terms. If it accepts these and opens its gates to you, all the people inside will owe you forced labor and work for you. But if it refuses peace and gives battle, you must besiege it. Yahweh your God having handed it over to you, you will put the whole male population to the sword. But the women, children, livestock and whatever the town contains by way of spoil, you may take for yourselves as booty. You will feed on the spoils of the enemies whom Yahweh your God has handed over to you. That is how you will treat towns far away and not belonging to the nations near you. But as regards the towns of those peoples whom Yahweh your God is giving you as your heritage, you must not spare the life of any living thing. Instead, you must lay them under the curse of destruction [herem]: Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzities, Hivites and Jebusites, as Yahweh your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the detestable things which they do to honor their gods: in doing these, you would sin against Yahweh your God.

Question: How were towns outside of Canaan to be treated differently from Gentile towns within the Promised Land?
Answer: Towns within the Promised Land were to be put under herem-the curse of total destruction. Other towns were to be offered peace terms. If those towns refused the peace terms, however, after their were conquered the men were to be put the death but the women and children were to become slaves and the booty was to be divided among the soldiers.

Question: What reason is given in this passage for the towns in Canaan to be put under the curse of herem (total destruction)?
Answer: Their evil practices of pagan worship will seduce the Israelites and pollute God's Holy Land and God's holy people.

Question: Why was the judgment against the people who inhabited Canaan so harsh?
Answer: Maintaining their holiness as a covenant people meant life or death to the Israelites. Israel's security and prosperity and the preservation of the "promised seed" of the Messiah depended on Israel's exclusive loyalty to Yahweh and their rejection of the influences of the pagan world. The Pentateuch has continually pointed to the Canaanite practice of the ritual murder of children as the reason for forestalling their influence and is presented as the reason they deserved annihilation.

The first rule concerning towns outside of the Holy Land presupposes that the Israelites may be engaging in battle and besieging towns outside of the Promised Land. The treatment of the towns in Canaan is consistent with previous commands concerning the inhabitants of Canaan (Ex 23:31-33; 34:11-16; Dt 7:22-26).

The third command concerns trees near besieged towns.

Deuteronomy 20:19-20
The Treatment of Trees near Besieged Towns
19 'If, when attacking a town, you have to besiege it for a long time before you capture it, you must not destroy its trees by taking the axe to them; eat their fruit but do not cut them down. Is the tree in the fields human, that you should besiege it too? 20 Any trees, however, which you know are not fruit trees, you may destroy and cut down and use to build siege-works against the hostile town until it falls.

In this passage God emphasizes that man has personal responsibility in the wise use of the blessings of the earth that God has given to him (Gen 1:29-30). Fruit trees that provide food must be preserved at all cost. Non-fruit bearing trees can be used to make siege equipment (ladders, battering rams, etc.) but cannot be destroyed at will for no reason.(4)

Questions for group discussion:

Question: Was it possible for a false prophet to produce what seemed to be miracles? What was the test for a false prophet and what was his punishment? See Dt 13:1-6; 18:20-22; Jer 23:11-14.
Answer: Yes. However, one could judge the worth of the prophet not on his supposed miracles but on the fruit his teachings produced-did he teach obedience to the covenant and to the Law of God? Did his teachings promote holiness in the people and in himself, and was the prophet 100% correct in what he predicted? If he was proved to be false, the verdict against him should be banishment or death.

The inspired writer of Acts of Apostles tells the story about a magician called Simon Magnus (Simon the Great) in Acts 8:9-25. Simon converted to Christianity and was baptized. When Simon offered the Apostles money for giving him the power they had through the laying-on-of-hands (Acts 8:18), St. Peter saw that Simon's attraction to Christianity was more an attraction to the Apostles' acts of power through the ministry of the Holy Spirit than a true conversion experience. Peter told him to repent his sins and truly turn to God. The rest of the story of Simon is told in Bishop Eusebius' fourth century AD Church History (chapter 13) where it is related that Simon went to Rome where he performed many wonders for crowds of people and became an opponent of St. Peter's efforts to win the Romans to Christianity by claiming that he and not Peter spoke for God. In the end, Simon became a heretic. Simon's magic, which overcame his baptism and reinforced Satan's control over him, led to his death. His name is reviled and he is held up as an example of the first Christian heretic and false prophet.

Question: What sacrilege that consists in buying and selling what is spiritual in return for what is temporal is named for the false Christian prophet Simon Magnus?
Answer: It is the sacrilege of simony.

In the sacrilege of simony, a person tries to equate material things, like money, with spiritual blessings such as divine grace, and that person treats the latter as though he or some other human being had full ownership of what really belongs to God. Simony includes both agreements that are forbidden by divine law and those which Church law forbids in the greater protection and reverence for spiritual goods. For example, to promise prayers only in exchange for a certain sum of money is simony forbidden by divine law, while to confer sacred orders or to obtain some position of authority within the hierarchy of the Church in return for money or its equivalent is simony forbidden by ecclesiastical law. When simony is committed against divine law it is always a mortal sin. Its gravity in other cases depends on the serious nature of what is bought or sold and the degree of scandal that might issue from the act (see The Catholic Dictionary, page 408).

Question: What examples can you give of false prophets who claim to speak for God but who are leading the people away from the truth of God's Word preached by His Church?


1. The JPS Torah Commentary identifies the Hebrew word qebah as the fourth stomach of an animal from the herd, also called the "maw. " This passage cannot be referring to the portion from animals from the flock because sheep and goats do not have multiple stomachs (see The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, page 171). The maw was a favored dish in ancient times and many recipes have been found among ancient Greek manuscripts. The noun zevah is never used for secular slaughter; therefore, this passage is speaking of an altar sacrifice (The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, page 375).

2. In the period of the United Monarchy, King David divided the chief priests into twenty-four courses/classes, and he did the same with the lesser Levitical ministers. One group of chief priests and one group of Levities would serve in the Temple for a one week period twice a year during ordinary time (from Saturday afternoon Tamid to Saturday morning Tamid the next week). During the annual festivals, all the priests and Levites were to serve at the Sanctuary/Temple (see 1 Chr 23:6-32; 24:1-31). The priest Zechariah was fulfilling the weekly duty of his course of the priests of Abijah (1 Chr 24:10; Lk 1:5) when the angel Gabriel announced the birth of his son (Lk 1:5-25).

3. In the Book of Joshua the towns of refuge are listed (Josh 20:7-8):
On the west side of the Jordan River (Josh 20:7; north to south)

4. The exception to this law was in the Moabite War when the collision of the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom were told by God's prophet Elisha to destroy the land of Moab, including all the fruit-bearing trees (2 Kng 3:19, 25).

Michal Hunt, Copyright 2011 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references: * indicates Scripture is quoted or paraphrased in the citation

Dt 18:1-8

CCC 1539-47

Dt 18:10

CCC 2116*

Dt 18:19

CCC 436, 783, 873, 904