A Conquest of Perfection and Purity
Over the last few weeks, since chapter 20, we have been considering Moses’ pastoral wisdom for the nation, expressed in a series of scenarios, with direction on how to handle each scenario according to the Ten Commandments.
Chapter 23 in particular has been focused on the purity and perfection of the nation of Israel, and while these commands don’t necessarily have a direct correlation in the Ten Commandments, they do spring forth out of a foundational principle. Before ever giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, God gives the nation of Israel a charge, and this charge really serves as a the guiding principle for the nation. You must go all the way back to Exodus 19, before God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, to find this principle. It’s in Exodus 19:5-6
‘Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”
So the charge of the nation, before a command has even been given, is that they would be holy. We’ve talked about this idea numerous times, and just as a reminder, to be holy means to be set apart in perfection and purity. Holiness for the nation of Israel was pre-eminently moral. The call was to a moral holiness, a moral other-ness, a moral distinctiveness.
That purity and perfection, that holiness, is what is on display here in Deuteronomy 23:9-14.
So tonight I want us to consider two unique and graphic commands, and consider what they teach us about the character and heart of God, about the distinctiveness of Israel, and ultimately about Christ.
Let’s begin tonight by examining these twin commands, regarding the nation’s approach to bodily functions.
Now I don’t want to get weird, gross, or graphic, but we do need to consider the full depth and breadth of God’s commands here. So let’s begin with the first.
Direction regarding bodily functions
Direction regarding bodily functions
I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty biological details on nocturnal emissions. If you want to know how this works, call up your high school biology teacher and ask them.
The implication of the text here is two-fold:
Nocturnal emissions happen. They are real. Moses isn’t denying male biology.
Nocturnal emissions aren’t evil in and of themselves. While they are commanded to be dealt with in a specific way, the punishment is not so severe that we must assume that God has a deep hatred toward them or what they entail. You must leave the camp for a day, wash yourself, and return at sundown. A minor inconvenience. But as we’ve seen before, there are far greater punishments for other infractions, from fines all the way up to stoning.
Likewise, there is a dual implication in verses 12 and 13.
The need to “sit down,” or as the King James puts it, ease thyself, is real. Again, Moses is not denyin human biology.
The need to sit down is not evil in and of itself. At this point, there isn’t even the indictment of uncleanness.
So what’s the big deal here? These are normal, run of the mill, every day things that all people experience. I say all people because in Leviticus 15 Moses treats this topic in more depth, and there he draws the rough equivalency between the nocturnal emission for the man, and the menstrual cycle for the woman, similar in that both events involve what Moses calls a bodily discharge, and defecation would also be considered a bodily discharge.
So what is the big deal here? Why is Moses giving direction regarding the basic biological functions of human life?
I want to approach that question from a few perspectives.
First, it seems odd upon a cursory reading of the text that God would make a law or statute regarding something that isn’t necessarily evil in and of itself. We think of the clean and unclean animals mentioned previously in Deuteronomy, back in chapter 14. But in many ways, this is even more odd than that. Why on earth would God regulate something so personal and so fundamental to the human experience as the menstrual cycle, nocturnal emissions, and defecation?
I can think of at least 2 reasons why God would regulate these things.
Practical considerations. The nation of Israel at this point is a few million strong. They’re living in close proximity to one another. The natural penchant of humans is to make messes and leave messes. If you want proof look no further than the bedroom of the average teenager. So if Moses doesn’t implement a specific, explicit law regarding basic hygiene and cleanliness, this nomadic camp of people, turning into a fully developed geopolitical society, would have major problems on their hands. Keep in mind that this is before running water, it is the Middle East, there aren’t rivers flowing just everywhere, and so if you don’t implement a plan to keep everything clean and sanitary, you risk disease, you risk death, you risk total decimation of the population. So at the most basic level, God is making provision for Israel so that he might keep his promise to make them a great people, a great nation. If everyone is dying from diseases, it’s not possible to be a great nation. As simplistic as this sounds, the great empires of world history were great because they figured out sanitation. Sounds weird, sounds simplistic, but the Romans, as the first truly global empire, were able to sustain their dominance on the world stage for over 500 years, because they figured out sewage, garbage, and transportation. These are things we take for granted today. You stick your barrels out, the trash man comes and picks them up, you flush the toilet and it just works, you don’t really think about it. But in order for the society to function, for Israel to prosper, even the smallest items have to be accounted for. And this small item can become a really big problem if not handled correctly and safely. So the Lord commands good hygiene for immensely practical health and safety reasons, in order to preserve his people and preserve his promise.
Theological considerations. As we have seen time and time again, God is showing the people, by these commands, that he is holy. God institutes these laws, the seemingly insignificant or exceedingly off-the-wall commands, to remind the nation of who he is. To give them a 5 senses reminder of his existence and attributes. So when you go back to chapter 22, and you read that you aren’t to wear clothes of the opposite gender, you aren’t to kill the mother with the young, you are to put parapets on your rooftops, you are to sow with a single kind of seed, you are to plow with a single kind of animal, you are to wear clothes of a single fabric, you are to wear tassels, and here in chapter 23, you are to bathe yourself regularly and bury your business, we can infer correctly from the text that all of these things are tassels, as it were, according to 23:12, and what are tassels according to Numbers 15? A daily reminder of who God is. A prompt to remember his commandments, to remember his glory, to remember his holiness. So when you put on your gender-specific clothes made of a single fabric, when you sit in your house with the parapet, when you sow seed of one kind and the flow that same field with a plow pulled by two donkeys or two oxen but not one of each, and when you have to go take a bath and hang out outside the camp for a few hours, and when you take your spade outside the camp to bury your business, every single time you are reminded of who God is and what He has done and what He will do and what your responsibility to him is.
Now these are both implicit reasons for God to implement these rules and regulations. But there are two explicit reasons right here with the text that we must turn our attention to next.
Holy War, Holy Warrior, Holy Warriors
Holy War, Holy Warrior, Holy Warriors
Moses takes great care here to remind the nation that they are to maintain purity. He bookends these particular commands with this stark reminder: keep yourselves from evil, be holy, because the Lord is in your midst.
Moses here emphasizes one action of God, yielding two results, which provide the reasoning for the holiness and cleanliness, the purity and perfection of the nation of Israel. The actions is that the Lord walks in the midst of the camp, and the outcomes are that he delivers them and defeats their enemies from before them.
Now this is a truly incredible verse, and truly serves as the hinge upon which at least chapters 21-29 turn, and perhaps indeed the hinge upon which the whole book of Deuteronomy turns. The reason that Israel must be holy, is not for the sake of holiness itself though that is a noble, albeit tertiary outcome. The reason Israel must be holy is in order to respond to the presence of God within the camp as deliverer and defeater. And this is the whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy, is it not? God preparing the nation for the conquest. God giving his people directives to guide their takeover of the promised land, to assist them in navigating their inheritance.
Let’s break this down further: Yahweh walks in the midst of the camp. This is a stop along the road of the Biblical doctrine of dwelling, which we studied extensively in recent weeks in our Romans class. God’s intent has always been to be with his people, to dwell with them. And we often think of God’s dwelling as bringing comfort, or peace, and that is certainly true, especially when you consider the promises of Revelation 21, that the permanent and eternal future dwelling of God amongst his people is accompanied by the extermination of death, pain, tears, and darkness. But we see here that the dwelling of God amongst his people is also accompanied by deliverance and defeat of the enemies of His people.
We see this reality fulfilled in the book of Joshua, during which the nation of Israel goes on a tear against Jericho, and we see that God does exactly what He said He will do. He delivers Israel and defeats their enemies at Jericho, and he reveals himself directly and physically to Joshua as a warrior to boot.
This then is part and parcel of God’s dwelling with His people. This lends itself then to the vision of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 10:18 “Then the glory of the Lord departed from the threshold of the temple and stood over the cherubim.” God’s glory departs from the midst of the people. He is now no longer walking among them, as He did in Deuteronomy 23, and so we arrive in Ezekiel 11:9 ““And I will bring you out of the midst of the city and deliver you into the hands of strangers and execute judgments against you.” where God declares, in the ultimate twist of irony, that He is finished delivering them from their enemies, and will now deliver them to their enemies because of their disobedience.
So then for God to walk with his people, he also must deliver them and defeat their enemies before them. The two go together.
The response of the people must be holiness, purity, perfection. Notice the text, your camp must be holy, and Yahweh must not see anything indecent among you, or he will turn away from you. To have God turn away from His people is the ultimate curse, because it stands as the polar opposite of the ultimate blessing: May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you. In other words, if the Lord is facing toward you, you are a recipient of divine favor. If the Lord turns his face away, a curse rests upon you.
I also want you to notice briefly here that there is an order of operations. The defeat and deliverance is a given. That part is not in question. The holiness is simply a response. This stands separate from other passages that expressly tie the holiness of the nation to their deliverance and the defeat of their enemies. This passages gives a subtle hint back to Genesis 15, in which God demonstrates once and for all that He alone fulfills the covenant. Even when Israel fails, God will remain faithful and uphold his part of the covenant, and indeed not only that but even hold up Israel’s part as well.
The sum total then is this: if Israel is to conquer as they were destined to, they must be an army of holy warriors, led by a holy warrior, engaged in a holy war. This is not war like the neighboring nations engaged in, for the sake of pillage, plunder, and violence. This is a new type of war, a type of war intent upon moral purity and uprightness, about demonstrating Israel’s distinctiveness and God’s holiness. This is a nation of law and order, separate from the chaos and anarchy of their neighbors. This is a nation of mercy and peace, separate from the ruthless warmongering of their neighbors. This is a nation of cleanliness and purity, separate from the filth and license of their neighbors.
Once again, then, let us return to our three guiding principles. What do we learn from these verses about God, about Israel, and about Christ? Let’s consider.
The cleanliness and purity of Yahweh
The cleanliness and purity of Yahweh
Let’s ask ourselves now, out of our understanding of God’s emphasis on cleanliness and purity for the nation of Israel, what do we learn about God? Simply, that He is a God of cleanliness and purity, and he decrees that cleanliness and purity for His people, both on a practical level and on a spiritual level. As I mentioned before, when the Israelites have to go outside the camp to ensure that the camp stays clean and pure, they are reminded of who God is, and they are also reminded of His moral requirement for them: to be clean and pure. David understood this. God’s holiness is so absolute, so transcendent, that only those who are totally clean and total pure can enter into His presence, can walk with Him. Listen to the words of Psalm 24:3-4
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood And has not sworn deceitfully.
The clarion call of Isaiah as he begins his prophecy in Isaiah 1:16 is the same:
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil,
God’s standard for His people reflects his character: cleanliness and purity.
The cleanliness and purity of Israel
The cleanliness and purity of Israel
These commands are designed to promote the cleanliness and purity of Israel specifically in distinction from the surrounding nations and cities. Historical data suggest that many ancient cities were plagued with disease and putrefaction, precisely because no direction existed regarding cleanliness and sanitation. Israel would have stood out amonst their neighbors as a nation that was clean and healthy. You may recall the story of Daniel and his three friends, as they were being inducted into the Babylonian Empire, that they asked the king’s officials to be allowed to eat and live as they were convicted from God’s Word, and after just 10 days, they were healthier than those who had eaten the king’s food. The point, as it illustrates Deuteronomy 23, is that those who follow God’s Law even in the most minor details distinguish themselves from the world in practical ways.
The reverse is also true, and history and current events bear witness to this. The reason the Black Death spread to quickly and so destructively, history shows us, is because the hygiene and sanitation of European cities and towns was so awful that families were often sleeping next to piles of their own waste. And it is no coincidence that conccurently to the Black Death gripping the physical health of the continent, the false religion of the Roman Catholic papacy gripped the spiritual health of the nation. All these things go together, hand in hand. When societies and organization and institutions turn their backs on God’s Word in one way, they tend to turn their backs on God’s Word in all ways. A denial of sound doctrine will lead to a denial of sound practice. When you ignore God on the majors, you will certainly ignore him on the minors as well. That’s the historical perspective. But how about the current events perspective? The problem of human waste on the streets of San Francisco is so bad, it is literally laughable. You can get online and find an interactive map that shows the concentration of human feces on the streets of San Francisco. Why is this? Why is San Francisco so, frankly, disgusting? Look no further than a study completed by the Public Religion Research Institute, which discovered that 48 percent of all people in the greater San Francisco identify as non-religious. Of those who are religious, only 20% identity themselves as Protestant, and as we know, just because you claim to be Protestant does not mean that you truly have a Biblical worldview. So I think it is safe to say, from our passage tonight, that there is a cause and effect relationship between the Godlessness of San Francisco and the filth of San Francisco.
The short version is this: even down to the most basic needs for hygiene and cleanliness, the people of God are set apart, and when you turn your back on God, you will soon turn your back on cleanliness, on hygiene, on sanitation, and when you turn your back on your physical purity and your physical cleanliness, you will certainly turn your back on your spiritual purity and your spiritual cleanliness.
I want to point out a number of ways in which Christ fulfills this passage in Deuteronomy.
Christ is truly clean and truly pure. We mentioned Psalm 24 a moment ago. I want to return there and point out to you that the only person who was able to ascend the hill of the Lord, to stand in his holy place, who had clean hands, a pure heart, a soul not lifted to falsehood, who never swore deceitfully, the only one to truly receive blessing and righteousness from the Lord, because of His own works, was Christ.
Christ took our filthiness and impurity outside the camp. Notice the command for those who are unclean. You are to go outside the camp and make purification, bathe yourself, bury your business with a spade. You ever wonder why Christ was crucified outside the city? Gologotha was a hill about a half mile beyond the city walls of Jerusalem. That wasn’t convenience for the Romans. That wasn’t publicity for the Jews. Sure, in the moment it seemd that way, but from the perspective of redemptive history, Christ had to be crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem so that He could fulfill this passage. On a spiritual level we are incapable of taking our filth and impurities outside the camp. So Christ did it for us.
Christ makes us pure and clean. The promise of Ezekiel 36:25 is that one day God will make His people clean in a way they never could - fully and finally clean, in their body and in their soul. ““Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” Christ is the one who accomplishes this. Look at John 15:3 ““You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” Through the cleansing, purifying word of Christ, we have been made clean.
We must call upon Christ to make us pure and clean. We must fall to our knees like David in Psalm 51:7 “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” and Psalm 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” We must know and understand, like the leper in Matthew 8:2 “And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”” and bow before Christ and ask him to make us clean. The promise of God in Christ is that we will be made clean. Do we believe tonight that he will do this?
God is pure, God is clean, God is holy. He calls us to be the same. By the work of Christ, applied to us by the Holy Spirit, we too can walk in purity, cleanliness, and holiness.
And then the final outcome, the final hope, is that because our cleanliness and purity have been accomplished, God will deliver us and defeat our enemies before us. We look forward to that day, when our full and final deliverance will be accomplished, and Satan, sin, and self will be defeated forever, and Christ will reign supreme over all creation, with His bride, the church, at his side. What a glorious hope and reminder from verse 14.