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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Is the law in Deuteronomy 23:1-4 abolished in Isaiah 56:3-8?
Deuteronomy 23:1-4 contains a list of those excluded from the “assembly of the Lord.” It includes those sexually mutilated, children of forbidden marriage, and two specific ethnic groups—Ammonites and Moabites. Yet in Isaiah, God stated that He will not exclude eunuchs and foreigners from among His people. A situation is announced that appears to make the old law irrelevant. The Lord seems to be more open and loving in Isaiah than in Deuteronomy. Is that the case?
1. Look at the Larger Context: In the Old Testament the exclusion of the ethnic groups mentioned in the passage was not applied indiscriminately. We know, for instance, that Ruth, the Moabite, voluntarily joined the Israelite faith (Ruth 2:10). Deuteronomy makes clear that Edomites and Egyptians were not permanently excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
Two reasons are given for the exclusion of the nations. First, the Ammonites and Moabites did not show compassion to the Israelites when they needed it. Second, the Moabites in particular tried to corrupt the people of Israel. Exclusion on those grounds is supported by Jesus (Matt. 25:41-46), Paul (1 Cor. 5:1-5), and John (3 John 9-11).
The exclusion of eunuchs was probably not applied indiscriminately; we know that such mutilations were part of the religious and cultic practices of the nations. The most probable reason for their exclusion from the assembly of the Lord was their divided loyalties. The text also excludes persons of “a forbidden marriage” and their descendants (Deut. 23:2, NIV), usually taken to designate a child who was born as a result of cultic prostitution and was therefore dedicated, along with his future descendants, to a particular deity. The Lord was rejecting a pagan practice by excluding them from the assembly. The connection of this law with the passage of Isaiah is a little more complex and open to several possibilities.
2. A Case of Abrogation? A superficial reading of Isaiah could give the impression that a new prophetic message replaces the old, but that is hardly the case. First, the Lord announced to foreigners that they would be welcomed to His temple and that their sacrifices will be acceptable (56:7). Eunuchs would have access to the temple and their memory will be preserved there (verse 5). But those promises were conditional and, consequently, did not set aside the law. The nations and the eunuchs could join the people of God only if they kept the Sabbath and established a covenant relationship with the Lord. Otherwise the law of exclusion was still valid.
3. What Is the Assembly of the Lord? There may be some weaknesses in the previous interpretation. Therefore, let me mention another way of addressing the question. The Hebrew word “assembly” (qahal) often designates the totality of Israel as a worshipping community, but it can also designate a more technical group of Israelites. This assembly was most probably formed by adult males as a legal governing body. It was distinguished from the totality of the people of Israel (1 Chron. 13:2-4), had authority to divide the land by lot (Micah 2:5), make judicial decisions in cases of alleged crimes (Jer. 26:16), perform legal executions (Ezek. 16:40), and counsel the king (1 Kings 12:3).
If the phrase “assembly of the Lord” in Deuteronomy 23:1 carries that technical meaning, as seems to be the case, then the groups are only excluded from taking part in the governing of the nation; their influence was limited. In that case the text in Isaiah is not directly related to Deuteronomy 23:1-8. This is supported by the fact that Isaiah is discussing the future condition of all foreigners, while Deuteronomy mentioned only four nations.
In the case of the eunuchs, their concern was not that they were excluded from the temple by being eunuchs. The text presupposes that they had access to the temple. Being unable to have descendants, they wondered whether their memory would go into oblivion. The Lord promised to give them “within [His] temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters” (Isa. 56:5, NIV).
The Lord, always the same, has always loved people from all nations; particularly the undeserving. That includes me … and you.