The Importance of Historical Context

The reading of Deuteronomy chapter 21 to 25, has some commands that sound strange to our modern Western ears. Take for example the first strange command:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” – Deuteronomy 21:10–13 [NKJV]

If we look at this text from the viewpoint of our modern post-French Revolution and post-American “Bill of Rights,” this command sounds strange and cruel and unjust.

Although the reality of the 20th and 21st centuries teaches us that this reality is even much worse than God’s command in the Torah. Rule number one for the interpretation of the ancient text is that you must interpret and understand the ancient text within the historical context in which it was written.

You cannot judge a text that was written over 3000 years ago with the cultural standards of the 21st century in the West, or of the 20th century.

Let us start with the atrocities of the Armenian massacre by the Turkish people. One and a half million people were massacred over a few weeks. Tens of thousands of women, wives, and daughters were raped in front of their fathers, and brothers and their children were cut in pieces in front of their mothers and fathers before they too were massacred.

We can continue on into World Wars I and II, and the terrible things that the Japanese did in Korea and Manchuria. The comfort houses that they organized for their soldiers with young girls that had not even passed puberty.

Now when you read the Torah and you see this command that God is commanding Israel – you might be filled with self-righteous indignation, but consider this: You are not to ravage her on the battlefield. You have to take her as your wife, not just jump her and rape her and then kill her or take her as a sex slave as ISIS did in Syria and Iraq, or like the Palestinian Arabs did in the massacres in Hebron on the 24th of August, 1929.

The Torah limits your rights over a beautiful woman captive and actually makes you control your animal instincts and put them under control for a month.

You can’t just take the captive beautiful woman and act like an animal. Stop! Cool down and control your appetites and passions, and respect the rights of the captive to self-dignity.

After a month you have to make her your wife before you can have sex with her. There is no ancient law either before the Torah or contemporary with the Torah, or even after the Torah, that takes such a high road toward the victims who are captives of war.

Yes, in the 12th century BCE world, throughout the entire Fertile Crescent (from Mesopotamia to Egypt), you will not find anything even close to the sensitive and considerate and morally upright legal document which is the word of God (the Torah).

Consider also the following: If this beautiful woman, after being a month in your home, refuses to become your wife, and does not like you, you don’t touch her, you release her and give her the freedom to go and to do whatever she likes.

She is a free woman and cannot be forced to be either your slave or your concubine. There is no such thing as a law this gracious in any country of the ancient world, and not even in most of the world today.

The God who created the world gave us a just and righteous law from A to Z… even if you consider the issue of slavery and the rules and limitations that the Torah places on a slave owner, the Torah of God was head and shoulders above any of the rules of Egypt, Babylon, Greece, or Rome, not to mention the Viking kingdoms of Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

I am writing you this because many Christians have inherited a negative attitude toward the Law of Moses given by the Lord who created the heavens and the Earth.

Please consider the following law:

“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray, and hide yourself from them; you shall certainly bring them back to your brother. And if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until your brother seeks it; then you shall restore it to him. You shall do the same with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment; with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he has lost and you have found, you shall do likewise; you must not hide yourself.” – Deuteronomy 22:1–3 [NKJV]

Does your country have a law like this today? Does United States law command you legally to take care of your neighbors’ cat or dog if they run astray and you see them wandering on the highway a mile or two from your neighbor’s house?

I lived in the United States from 1962-1964 and from 1967-1969. I lived in South Georgia, in the country, and I have lived in Miami, Florida and Rochester, Michigan, and in Nashville, Tennessee.

From my experience, most of the Christians that I knew in Rochester, Michigan, and in Miami, and Nashville, would not even get close to or touch their neighbor’s cat or dog, and much less so if their neighbor had a donkey or a sheep or a goat.

The only place where I lived that I could imagine that this command might be observed would have been in Dasher, Georgia. In Dasher the community was homogeneous.

The majority of the families were descendents of German Christians who came to America and settled on the edge of the swamps near the Florida border. They were a community very much in the sense of the word community. They were also so intermarried that they were almost all one family.

There in Dasher these laws would have been observed in the 1960’s. As for today I have my doubts! I would be happy to be corrected by the Coplands and Hams and Wisenbakers…

In chapter 22 the commands of the Lord continue to amaze me. Consider the command to protect and preserve the bird species:

“If a bird’s nest happens to be before you along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, with the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” – Deuteronomy 22:6,7 [NKJV]

These laws were given by God to Israel long before there was any sensitivity to nature or ecology. Here is a quotation from the publication of an intergovernmental organization (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services):

According to the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by IPBES, the biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82 percent, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction—all largely as a result of human actions.

25% of plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. In June 2019, one million species of plants and animals were at risk of extinction.

At least 571 species have been lost since 1750, but it is likely that there are many more. The main cause of the extinctions is the destruction of natural habitats by human activities, such as cutting down forests and converting land into fields for farming.

Take into consideration that the Torah is at least 3,250 years old(!), it was written in a world that had no sensitivity to nature or the preservation of species or to biodiversity.

Get some appreciation for the consideration of the word of God for things that are outside your church experience and appreciate the God who created the heavens and the Earth and loved you and me so much that He sent His Son, Yeshua, to die for me and for you…

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.