Tough Passages #4: Illegitimate Children? (Deuteronomy 23:2)

In “Tough Passages,” we’re looking at the difficult verses in the Bible that are often brought up by secular people as reasons the Bible doesn’t make sense, and discovering how they actually reveal the character, love, and glory of God in a beautiful way.  Last month, we looked at Matthew 5’s convicting commands concerning lust; but for April, we’re going back to the Old Testament and saying some bad words.

The Verse

A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

Deuteronomy 23:2, KJV

The Secular Response

Being born out of wedlock makes you filthy, apparently […] but what if your dad abandoned you and your mom after she had given birth to you… that means you’re going to be held responsible and deprived of God’s love… which…

Wow, this means that Christian orphanages are hypocritical institutions if they’re taking these kids to church. Brutal.

Ivana Wynn,

Our Reply

You can always count on the KJV to use language that makes you a little uncomfortable.

On the face of it, this verse seems pretty self-explanatory: if your parents weren’t married, you can’t be in the congregation. Which means you can’t be saved. Right?

Let me make it worse before I make it better: in ancient Israel, the word “bastard” referred not only to the child of unmarried parents, but also to a child with one Israelite parent and one non-Israelite parent. So this verse also refers to biracial children.

But what’s really going to cook your noodle is this: there was a particularly famous man in the Bible who was considered a ‘bastard,’ by this definition: Jesus of Nazareth. His mother, Mary, wasn’t married until after Jesus was born, and the popular interpretation was that (at best) Jesus was Joseph’s son, conceived before marriage, or that (at worst) Mary had cheated on Joseph and Jesus was a product of that sin. Of course, He was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit, buts other way, his parents weren’t married.

So if you misinterpret this (as is done above), you run into a thorny problem: that the son of God isn’t qualified to be a part of the Church that He came to redeem. Oops.

If you misinterpret this, you run into a thorny problem: the son of God isn’t qualified to be a part of the Church that He came to redeem. Oops.

Now, this fact does underscore a particularly glorious thing about God’s plan to save the world: not only did He send Jesus to Earth in squalor instead of glory, not only did He give Jesus a carpenter’s hut instead of a royal palace—He also sent Jesus into the world as someone that the religious elite would look down on.

And, in fact, they did; in John 8:41, after Jesus has rebuked some religious Jews for not loving God, they respond to this rebuke with thinly-veiled derision for His parentage: “‘You are doing the works your father did.’ They said to him, ‘We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.'” (John 8:41, ESV)

This is beautiful because it’s another example of how God didn’t sent the promised Messiah the way He was expected. He didn’t come with a crown on His head or an army at His right hand; rather, He washed feet and walked among us. He performed miracles for the weak and poor, and welcomed the children to come and hang out with him. Next time, He comes in glory with cavalry and infantry and tattoos on his leg; but this time, He was born into a manger to an unmarried mom.

[God] uses instruments you’d never expect to accomplish His plans.  To bring about His glory, He can use anyone—and He will use everyone.

All of this reveals God’s glory by showing just how unlikely Jesus’ power and ministry were; no human would have tried to pass off a poor, illegitimate child as the King of the Universe. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. He uses instruments you’d never expect to accomplish His plans. To bring about His glory, He can use anyone—and He will use everyone.

But where does that leave us with Deuteronomy? Well, if you remember last month’s appendix about the different laws in the Bible, you’ll remember that some laws God passed down in the Bible are for Israel as a nation, not Israel as a church.  What God banned illegitimate offspring from wasn’t the church, it was public office.  So a ‘bastard’ was welcome into the nation of Israel, and welcome into the Church; he could hold a job, be well-respected in the community, even become a Jew if he wanted.  He just couldn’t hold public office.

And this is important because of Israel’s neighbors; nations on all sides were eager to invade and take over, and if an Ammonite or Moabite could marry in, convince their children to take public office, and hand over the nation to her enemies, it would be all the easier.  The Israelites could even be led to worship a false god.  But God loves His people, and His covenant was to protect them.

But now, God’s people are no longer a political group, they’re a spiritual one.  This law was for a time, not for all time; He calls us to be discerning in choosing our leaders even today, but this law has been gloriously fulfilled.

How has it been fulfilled?  Well, since Jesus isn’t qualified for office, that means that humans can’t choose Him to rule. We don’t have any responsibility for His rule because He can’t be appointed to rule the universe by your will. Nothing we can do can change that.  Only God’s power can, and when Jesus rose from the dead, it did; in that moment, God fulfilled the law by placing His true son—considered an illegitimate son, a poor carpenter, and a friend of sinners—upon the throne of the universe.

• • •

Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture!  Next month in Tough Passages, we’re going to back up by one verse and look at someone else who was banned from holding a public office in Deuteronomy 23:1.  In the meantime, there will be lots of great content coming out every week!

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4 thoughts on “Tough Passages #4: Illegitimate Children? (Deuteronomy 23:2)

  1. While I do like this explanation. I’d also like to read in the Bible how to come to the conclusions in the article. What Verses, examples help to prove the case that an illegitimate child can be part of the nation, church, but not hold office. The case has been made well but scriptural references are necessary.

  2. Jonathan I’d recommend reading Isaiah 56:1-8. It doesn’t directly mention illegitimate children but it does mention Eunuchs and foreigners (which were also mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:1-8).

    Isaiah 56:1-8 (ESV)
    Salvation of Foreigners
    Thus says the LORD: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.

    Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

    Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

    For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

    “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

    The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”

  3. The mental backflips you Christians go through to defend the indefensible is stunning. Read the verse for what it is and nothing else. God is not the author of confusion.

    • I’m sorry you see this as “mental backflips,” but I assure you it’s nothing of the sort. Poor translation and interpretation is to blame, along with simply not reading the entirety of the text. Verses are not intended to be read in a vacuum.

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