Studying Deuteronomy 24 10-21

One element of Biblical justice is compassion for the poor and vulnerable, and we will be focusing on that element as we study Deuteronomy 24:10-21, our text for Sunday, January 30. [Some questions on this text are here.] Here are a few notes on that text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our third text from Deuteronomy in this quarter’s set of lessons that focus on the demands of justice. As we know, Deuteronomy is the final book of the Torah, the five books of Moses, or what we might have learned in Sunday school memory work as “the books of the law.” And while Deuteronomy contains more than legal material – it also contains story, and sermonizing by Moses, and liturgy – the middle third of the book IS a sizeable body of legal material. Our text for Sunday comes near the end of that “law book” section of Deuteronomy, in a chapter to which Bible editors are likely to give the heading “miscellaneous laws.”

Our verses concern various provisions that are designed, as far we can tell, to safeguard the well-being of poor and vulnerable members of the patriarchal society of ancient Israel. They specifically concern taking items as “pledge” – that is, as collateral for a loan; prompt payment of wages; individual responsibility for criminal punishments; and the obligation to leave some of the produce of ones fields, olive trees, and vineyards for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow to scavenge.

According to Robert Alter, the provisions in verses 10-13 concern taking something that had been pledged, because the holder has defaulted on the loan. That would make the instruction about not going into the house more like an instruction to the repo man.

I have always been puzzled about why anyone would ever take a garment like a cloak as a pledge, that is, as collateral for a loan. How much would anyone lend you for a piece of cloth? They don’t seem like the same kind of [valuable] collateral as, say, a house or a car. But Bernard M. Levinson, in his notes to Deuteronomy in the Jewish Study Bible, solves the mystery this way: “they lack significant intrinsic value but are essential to survival; thus, only as incentive for repayment would they be taken in pawn” or held as pledges. That is, there’s an element of extortion involved in the very idea of accepting a garment as a pledge. And in effect, these provisions imply that actually following through on the extortionate element is not permitted; getting your money back isn’t to be more important than the well-being of your debtor.

Sometimes we have personal history with our texts, that affects the way we read them; I have personal history with this one. This text was one of the texts we were assigned to translate for Hebrew Exegesis my first semester in seminary. I had never read it before. I had never heard it read in church. I had never heard it mentioned, nor anything like it. And as I translated these verses, I thought about all the memory work I had done at the church I grew up in, years of it, volumes of it, ribbons full of stickers of it, Scofield Reference Bible with my name on the leather-look cover in gold letters of it, and thinking “In all that memory work, we didn’t have one single verse like this? They didn’t think we needed to know any of this? They didn’t think we needed to read any of this?”

So I can date almost to the minute when it dawned on me that the church of my childhood took The Whole Bible a whole a lot less seriously than they’d always told me they did.

On the other hand, Deuteronomy 24 doesn’t appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, either. So it’s another one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Even if you go to one of those justice churches. So Bible Content Examinees be warned.

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CLOSER READING: In v10, the word translated “neighbor” is the same neighbor you are not supposed to bear false witness against in Exodus 20:16; it has the connotation of someone belonging to your group. That might imply that if you made a loan to an outsider you might be able to go into their house and get their collateral … but that might be splitting hairs.

Verse 13 reads, literally, that you shall “return, yes, return” that pledge (garment) before sundown. It is a really emphatic construction; this commandment is to do, yes, to do.

Verse 14, according to Rashi, is in here to make sure that you are breaking two commands, not just one, if you hold back wages. (The other one is in Leviticus 19:13.) And to make sure that you understand that the ger, the stranger or sojourner, is included in this commandment.

The word translated “livelihood” in v15 (NRSV) is literally “soul” or “life,” nefesh. In other words, “their life depends on it.” And if you don’t refresh that seat of life promptly, by paying wages right away when they’re due, these poor and needy wage-earners might use their throats (another translation of nefesh) to cry out against you. That would serve you right, too, because you’d be like Pharaoh and the slave-drivers in Egypt – something v18 makes explicit. You should know better than that.

The word translated orphan throughout these verses is literally “fatherless.” The “fatherless” do not have a patriarch to protect and provide for them; in the society of ancient Israel, that would make them particularly marginal and vulnerable.

In v16, according to Levinson, the law “restricting punishment to the responsible individual, applies specifically to civil and criminal law,” while “collective responsibility for wrongdoing operates in the realm of offenses against God.” Over time, and in light of the experience of the exile, that collective responsibility also came to be individualized. (See Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18.)

Verse 18, which is largely repeated in v22, reminds the Israelites of the experience of slavery in Egypt, and the redemptive character of God. By implication, that redemption was not for the purpose of turning around and oppressing others in turn. A people that aims to walk in the way of this redemptive God will live redemptively. They will act so as to move the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow not to cry out against them, but to bless them. Because they will be a blessing to those people, not a pressing burden.

It’s in The Bible.

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Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible. Volume I: The Five Books of Moses. A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Levinson, Bernard M. “Introduction and Notes – Deuteronomy.” The Jewish Study Bible. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler editors. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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Torah scroll
Torah scroll

Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Jerusalem Western Wall” (detail) by Berthold Werner [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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