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In Deuteronomy 23:7 and 8, Moses turns his attention to Edomites and Egyptians and how an Israelite is to treat them.
7 You shall not detest [taav, “to abhor”] an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest [taav] an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land. 8 The sons of the third generation who are born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord.
This law does not address specific acts of discrimination against Edomites and Egyptians, but speaks of an Israelite’s attitude toward them. Hence, there is no specific penalty for violating this law, because earthly courts can only judge injustice that is perpetrated against another person. Only the divine court can judge matters of the heart, and this is one law by which God will judge the hearts of men.
In other words, the law says that it is a sin to abhor an Edomite or an Egyptian, but only the divine court has the ability to determine what sort of sentence ought to be imposed upon those guilty of such sin in order to restore the lawful order.
If an Edomite or Egyptian wants to enter the assembly of Israel by attaching himself to the covenant by faith in the God of Israel, the Israelites were not to refuse him on grounds of ethnicity. Yet his passage toward full citizenship took three generations to ensure that his foreign culture was fully abandoned. This ensured that foreign immigrants would not be able to overwhelm Israelite culture, religion, and laws. The idea was that if a foreigner wanted to become an Israelite citizen, he had to be the one to change his ways. He could not come in and change the Israelite culture.
Moses says that the reason Israelites were not to abhor Edomites was because “he is your brother.” Edom, of course, is the national name for Esau, who was Jacob’s brother. Genesis 36:1 says,
1 Now these are the records of the generations of Esau (that is, Edom).
This law seems to conflict with God’s statement in Malachi 1:3, where God says, “I have hated Esau.” How could God tell the Israelites not to abhor Edomites, while yet hating Esau Himself? How do we understand the mind of God in this matter?
The first thing to note is that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Further, “the one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now” (1 John 2:9). When God “hates,” it is not as man’s hatred. God knows how to “hate” without violating His character of Love. When God hates, it is constructive and is for the benefit of the object of hatred. We see this in the very purpose of the law itself, for its judgments manifest the hatred and wrath of God, while yet serving to correct the sinner by discipline so that he can be restored.
God’s hatred is legal only, for it does not come out of His personal character. The law deals with the act of correcting and restoring the lawful order. Most sinners who are judged by the law perceive hatred, because as sinners, they do not yet comprehend the character and motive of God. All they see is that God hates them because He dares to restrict their desire to sin. They do not understand that the judgments of God come from God’s heart of love, for He refuses to leave them in their state of sin and death—in spite of their carnal desires.
God’s judgments are therefore indefinite (olam) in length, but not everlasting, because the judgments of the law were designed to correct and restore sinners, not to leave them in a state of perpetual sin. Such is the love—and hatred—of God.
In the case of Esau, God’s so-called “hatred” was designed to protect Esau, not to destroy him. The law of the hated son, which I explained in my comments on Deuteronomy 21:15-17, was designed to protect the rights of a hated first-born son.
Esau was Jacob’s twin, but Esau was the first-born. It was prophesied while the two were yet in the womb that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). Even so, there was a lawful procedure that had to be followed in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled in the proper manner.
Paul’s comment in Romans 9:9-13 implies that God’s “hatred” started while the two sons were yet in the womb and not merely at a later point in history. God’s choice was His to make, and God chose Jacob over Esau to receive the birthright. However, the law also made it clear that a first-born son could not be disinherited at the whim of the father. The first-born son could be disinherited only after he had proven himself unworthy. Such was the case with Reuben, who lost the birthright a generation later (1 Chronicles 5:1).
Therefore, when God said that He hated Esau, He was actually providing Esau with legal protection. There was reason for this, because as the story goes, Jacob stealthily took the birthright away from Esau before Esau had been given time to prove fully his unworthiness. In order to give Esau due justice, Isaac prophesied in Genesis 27:40 that the birthright would have to be returned to Esau (i.e., his descendants) in order to give that nation time to prove that they were rebellious sons.
How this prophecy has been fulfilled is told fully in my book, The Struggle for the Birthright. The story is too long to repeat here. It is sufficient for now to point out that God’s hatred can never be greater than His love. His hatred is always subservient to His love, which means that in the end, love wins.
Moses also speaks of Israel’s attitude toward Egyptians, saying, “you shall not detest an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.” This may seem like a strange motive, because this was precisely why an Israelite might hate an Egyptian! After all, the Egyptians put the Israelites into bondage while they were aliens in Egypt. But carnal motives can be quite different from God’s motives. The Israelites needed to put on the mind of Christ so that they could view Egyptians as God viewed them.
First of all, God chose Egypt to be the mother of His first-born son, Israel. God told Moses to leave the land of Midian and go to Egypt to confront Pharaoh. Exodus 4:22,
22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My first-born’.”
God thus declared Himself to be the Father of Israel. But every child has two parents. Israel’s mother was Egypt, and for this reason, when they were brought to birth out of Egypt, they came out as spiritual Ishmaelites. (Recall that Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, the Egyptian, though he had Abram as his father.) Ishmael was a “wild ass man” (Genesis 16:12), and according to the law, an ass had to be redeemed by a lamb (Exodus 13:13).
The fact that Israel had to be redeemed by the Passover lamb shows that the nation was a spiritual Ishmaelite, a wild ass man, when Egypt brought forth Israel as a nation. In fact, Exodus 13:13 states this plainly,
13 But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem.
All Israelite sons had to be redeemed, because they were spiritual Ishmaelites, or “donkeys.” If they had truly been the sheep of His pasture, they would not have been in need of redemption. They might then have left Egypt without waiting for Passover.
The point is that ethnic Israelites are not necessarily the sheep of God’s pasture. They are only donkeys, no different from Ishmaelites, in their ethnic, carnal state. As Ishmaelites, they are offspring of Hagar, not of Sarah, and therefore not inheritors of the Kingdom. It requires a lamb to redeem them, a spiritual process by which they may become the sons of God in the sense that Isaac was a son. Ethnicity alone does not make anyone a “sheep.”
We should note further that Israel was God’s “first-born” son (Exodus 4:22). Does that not imply that God has other sons? Some say that only ethnic Israelites are sons of God, but God has many sons. The first-born son is only the first, as the term clearly says. And even then, it is insufficient to be an ethnic Israelite, if one wants to be part of the first-born son company that inherits the Kingdom with Christ. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that it is faith, not ethnicity, that allows one to inherit the Kingdom.
And so when Moses admonishes Israel not to abhor an Egyptian, it is partly based upon the fact that Egypt was their mother. The Fourth Commandment tells us to honor both our father and our mother. In applying this commandment on an earthly level, Israel was not to abhor Egyptians. On a spiritual level, wherein we have been redeemed by the Lamb of God, we have changed mothers, for Sarah is now our mother. Thus we honor Sarah, the New Jerusalem, above Hagar, the earthly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:25, 26).
The stated reason for not abhorring Egyptians is that Israel was an alien in their land. An alien is a sojourner, one who lives there but who does not enjoy citizenship rights of land ownership. Thus, Abraham sojourned in Canaan, not having the right to own land, other than a burial plot, which he bought for an exorbitant price (Genesis 23:16). When the sons of Israel moved to Egypt, they were sojourners there as well, living on Egyptian land—in this case, the land of Goshen.
After Joseph died, Pharaoh mistreated the Israelites, because he was fearful of them (Exodus 1:9-12). Fear is characteristic of the flesh, even as faith is characteristic of the spiritual man. Therefore, Paul says the children of the flesh are not inheritors of the promises of God (Romans 9:8). But the Israelites should have understood by personal experience what it meant to be oppressed as sojourners in a foreign land. Their experience was meant to teach them how NOT to treat aliens.
In fact, if those people had been spiritual, having truly been redeemed by the Lamb of God, they would have operated in faith, rather than in fear. If their hearts had been right with God, they would have seen their oppression in Egypt as a lesson from God about how to love your neighbor as yourself. But instead, being fleshly, they had a tendency to want to mistreat Egyptians in return, and for this reason Moses found it necessary to set forth this particular law.
God had given Egypt three generations of time in which to come to know the God of Israel. Joseph was their primary example. No doubt the Pharaoh during Joseph’s time was a true believer, for he had no fear of Joseph or Israel. In fact, the entire land of Egypt had opportunity to follow the God of Israel. But this did not happen. Instead, they reverted to carnal fear and put Israel into bondage.
The lesson that the Israelites should have learned was to treat all aliens in a neighborly manner. After three generations living under the law of love, the aliens would see the effects of just laws applied by spiritual men by the mind of Christ. They would come to know God as well as any Israelite.
Unfortunately, the Israelites themselves were still carnal, and their tendency to worship false gods lay just under the surface. Moses fought with them constantly, as they complained through every adversity in the wilderness. Their lack of faith meant that the law of God had to be imposed upon them against the will of their flesh. But that also ensured failure in the end, for their lawlessness eventually prevailed and brought about their captivity and expulsion from the Promised Land.