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Moses said in Deuteronomy 23:2,
2 No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord. 3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.
In order to understand this prohibition, we must understand how the nations of Ammon and Moab got their start. In Genesis 19, when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, he saved Lot and his family. As the family fled to the mountains, Lot’s wife looked back and “became a pillar of salt” (Gen. 19:26). Lot and his daughters found refuge in a cave, but the disastrous scene was so overwhelming that they thought the whole world was being destroyed, and that they were the only survivors.
Lot’s daughters thought their father was the last man on earth, and so they devised a plan to repopulate the earth through their father (Gen. 19:32). They got him drunk, each in their turn on successive nights, and thereby became pregnant by incest. The oldest daughter named her son Moab (“from father”), and the younger’s son was called Ben-ammi (“son of my father”). Ben-ammi became the father of the Ammonites.
This form of incest was banned in Lev. 18:7
7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness.
If Lot himself had been responsible for violating his daughters, he would have violated the law in Lev. 18:17.
God took the sin of incest very seriously, not only in the case of the Moabites and Ammonites, but also in regard to the Canaanites. God said in Lev. 18: 24, 25,
24 Do not defile yourselves by any of these things [i.e., these forms of incest]; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.
God said He was casting the Canaanites out of the land of Canaan on account of such incestuous practices. Further, God said that any Israelite or “alien who sojourns among you” (vs. 26) who did such things was to “be cut off from among their people” (vs. 29). If, then, the judgment of God for incest was so severe when an Israelite violated the law, we should expect no less upon alien nations who did the same. The law was applied equally to all men.
Some have interpreted this law racially, as if Moab and Ammon were banned on account of their racial heritage. However, Moab and Ammon were not racially distinct from Israel. They were descended from Lot, who was Abraham’s nephew. The only problem with their genealogy was spiritual, for incest had brought about a generational curse that would be passed down continually until it was removed from each individual by prayer.
If the law had banned Moab and Ammon on account of their race, then Ruth the Moabitess could never have joined the tribe of Judah without changing her race or altering her genetic makeup. But yet we find Ruth not only joining the tribe of Judah, but also becoming an ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:22) and ultimately of Jesus Christ.
The biblical reason for the legal ban upon Moabites, given in Deut. 23:4, is not based upon their genealogy as such, but on the fact that they refused to be hospitable to Israel when they were on their way to the Promised Land. God actually showed respect for the Moabites, on account of their descent from Lot, for we read God’s instructions concerning Moab in Deut. 2:9,
9 Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass Moab, nor provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot as a possession.”
God showed the same respect toward Ammon (Deut. 2:19), not allowing the Israelites to displace them from their land inheritance.
When Israel approached the territory of Moab on their way to the land of Canaan, the Moabites did not trust the Israelites and were in great fear of them as they drew near (Num. 22:3). Rather than make war with Israel, however, they sent for Balaam, son of Beor of Pethor to come and curse Israel.
The Lord told him not to curse Israel (Num. 22:12), and so he gave the Moabites an alternate plan. The plan was to entice the Israelites with beautiful Moabite women, so that their hormones would overcome their desire to obey God’s law. Num. 25:1-3 says,
1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry with Israel.
Moab and Midian conspired together against Israel, but it appears that the judgment of God fell primarily upon the Midianites. Israel made war with Midian shortly afterward, at which time Balaam was killed for his role in trying to corrupt Israel (Num. 31:8).
It should also be noted that in this war, Israel took 32,000 Midianite virgins captive (Num. 31:35). These were purified by ceremony for seven days (Num. 31:19) to remove any generational curses, and so they were able to marry within the community of Israel without passing on generational curses from their idolatrous past.
If the Midianites were treated more harshly than the Moabites, and the Midianite virgins could qualify as wives for Israelites, why would Moabites and Ammonites be disqualified on account of genealogy? What if a Moabite woman wanted to become an Israelite? Would her genealogy disqualify her? Would she not qualify by undergoing the same purification ceremony as the Midianite women in Num. 31:19?
What exactly was purified in that ceremony? Was it not the generational curses that people had inherited from past generations? In my view, those ceremonies were rites of passage to citizenship, and they correspond to baptism today. In other words, it was not about genealogy, but about spiritual uncleanness passed down through the generations. When this was cleansed, it removed the impediment to Kingdom citizenship.
The real issue with the Moabites was that they tried to unite with the Israelites in an unlawful manner—that is, by fornication. They followed “the counsel of Balaam to trespass against the Lord” (Num. 31:16). The union itself was only a problem because it required Israelites to make covenant with idolaters. Race or genealogy was not the issue. A similar problem was later found in the New Testament church of Pergamos in Rev. 2:14,
14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.
Pergamum is the Latin form of the Greek name, Pergamos, “married to power.” The word gamos means “marriage.”
The church of Pergamos corresponds to the condition of the church from 313-529 A.D., as I explained in my book, The Seven Churches. It was a time when the church became married to power, and some of the church leaders were following the teaching (or counsel) of Balaam by marrying paganism to Christianity in the interest of unification.
The only lawful way for pagans to join the church is to repent and renounce their old ways and to show their faith in Christ by taking on the Kingdom way of life. Let those who have faith in Christ be baptized, so that they may become lawful citizens of the Kingdom. But the church ran into the same problems that plagued “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38) in the days of Moses. Since the problems were the same, we can see from the New Testament how to interpret the Moabite ban in the Old Testament.
It was not an outright ban, for there was indeed a lawful way for a Moabite to join with Israel. There was proper “marriage,” so to speak. The ban was against fornication, or unlawful ways of being united with Israel. That is why Ruth receives no condemnation in Scripture, though she is everywhere called a Moabitess.
Deut. 23:2 says that this ban on Ammonites and Moabites was to be in force “even to the tenth generation.” What does this mean? Commentaries tell us that it refers to “an indefinite number.” The Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Jamieson, Faucet, and Brown, says of this verse,
“…even to the tenth generation shall they not enter—Many eminent writers think that this law of exclusion was applicable only to males; at all events that a definition is used for an indefinite number (Nehemiah 13:1; Ruth 4:10; 2 Kings 10:2).”
This is confirmed by The Wycliff Bible Commentary, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer, who writes,
“—even to his tenth generation, i.e., indefinitely.”
How do the commentators interpret ten generations to be an indefinite period of time? The key is found in Neh. 13:1-3, where the Scripture itself defines the term in its own paraphrase of the law:
1 On the day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever [olam] enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 So it came about, that when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.
Hence, Nehemiah paraphrased “ten generations” as olam, an indefinite period of time. The Hebrew word olam is from the root word alam, which means “hidden, concealed, indefinite.”
So the ten generations in question do not give us an exact number of years, because each generation itself is an indefinite period of time. It is clear, however, that Moses’ ten generation period was the equivalent of Nehemiah’s olam—that is, an age or an indefinite period of time. Certainly, it was not an unending period of time. For this reason, we may view the ten generations somewhat literally, for this is certainly a limited period of time, even if we do not know precisely how many years it is.
The commentators knew this, and so they attributed the prohibition to an “indefinite” period of time. Perhaps they hope that the average reader will not understand the implications of this admission, seeing that the entire belief regarding “everlasting” punishment hinges on a word that is only indefinite, not infinite. And so, in spite of their knowing that olam was indefinite, not infinite, most of them continue to translate the word “everlasting” or “forever.”
Some translators, however, were more honest. Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible renders the phrase in Neh. 13:1, “an Ammonite and Moabite doth not come into the assembly of God—unto the age.” Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible translates it, “the Ammonite and the Moabite should not enter into the convocation of God unto times age-abiding.”
At any rate, we are given a biblical example of this in the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law, but Judah bore twins through her—Pharez and Zerah. The twins were born from an illegitimate union that is biblically defined as incest (Lev. 18:15). Hence, they fell under the ban in Deut. 23:2, for they were of illegitimate birth.
For this reason, it took a full ten generations for the prophecy of Judah to be fulfilled, wherein he had inherited the scepter and was called to bring forth the kings of Israel (1 Chron. 5:2). David was the tenth generation from Pharez. This explains the long length of time that it took for God to give Israel a king from the tribe of Judah. It also explains why, when the people demanded a king in the ninth generation, God gave them Saul, who was of the tribe of Benjamin. No Judahite was yet qualified because of the law of Deut. 23:2.
This also gives us another example showing us how the law is prophetic and not merely a moral standard. It gives us the rules and parameters of prophetic history, because it sets forth the mind of God in the divine plan for the nations, and for His Kingdom in particular.
In speaking about the Ammonites and Moabites, Moses concludes in Deut. 23:6 (NASB),
6 You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.
This must be taken in the context of what Moses has already said in verse 2, that they could not “enter the assembly of the Lord… to the tenth generation.” This is not an infinite period of time, but rather an indefinite period of time.
This leaves the door open for God to accept them after an indefinite duration of time (“the age”) has passed. Moses was speaking of those people as nations, rather than as individuals. If any such individual had determined to leave his nation and his people, and join himself to the covenant with Israel, he would have been accepted by God. By leaving one’s nation, and by undergoing the purification ceremonies practiced at the time, and especially by expressing faith in the God of Israel, such a man would no longer be an Ammonite or a Moabite, nor would they any longer carry the national curse brought upon them by Lot’s incest with his daughters.
In the same manner, we too are able to transfer our citizenship from our own earthly nations to the Kingdom of Christ. Paul thus says in Col. 1:13 and 14,
13 For He has delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred [methistemi] us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
The Greek term methistemi means “to transpose, transfer, remove from one place to another.” Paul says again in Philippians 3:20,
20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul, though born of the tribe of Benjamin, was a citizen of “heaven.” That is, he considered himself to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. In his earlier life, his ethnicity had made him a citizen of Judea, as long as he followed their laws and was not expelled from the nation (as the law allowed). But Judea was not the Kingdom, nor did their ethnicity give them any exclusive right to be citizens of that heavenly Kingdom. They merely had an advantage, in that they were in possession of the Scriptures which could teach them the will of God and how to become a citizen of Heaven.
Any foreigner had the right to renounce his citizenship and transfer his citizenship to the nation of Israel. It was a matter of legal citizenship, not race. This transfer of citizenship did not change anyone’s ethnicity, but it did give them full legal equality with ethnic Israelites. All who had genuine faith in the God of Israel were more than the sum of their ethnicity, for they were equal citizens of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is a type of nationality that stands above the Kingdom of Israel.
Israel itself was called to be the Kingdom of God, and the presumption was that all Israelites would form the first ethnic group to enjoy legal citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Of course, history shows that only a few Israelites actually were citizens of the Kingdom, for most of them followed after other gods and had no faith in the God who had redeemed them from the house of bondage. Their ethnic connection to Abraham and to the nation of Israel did not automatically make them citizens of the Kingdom of God.
And so Israel was cast out of the land and divorced by God (Jer. 3:8). Why? Israel had proven itself to be something less than the Kingdom of God. Further, if there were true believers among those Israelites who were taken captive to Assyria, these never lost their citizenship in the Kingdom of heaven. They simply ceased to be citizens of Israel, for there was no longer a nation of Israel, nor was the nation married to God any more.
Over the years, however, some of those ethnic ex-Israelites may have found faith in the true God, in which case they regained citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. In time it became clear that God was regathering His people under the New Covenant. With them were gathered many other people from different ethnicities, as Isaiah prophesied in 56:8,
8 Yet the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”
This, says the prophet, is how God makes His house “a house of prayer for all the peoples.” This was a prophecy based on Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of his temple, wherein he asked that the prayers of foreigners, as well as Israelites, would be acceptable to God (1 Kings 8:41-43). Isaiah thus links the temple to foreigners who wished to join themselves to the covenant of Israel (Isaiah 56:3-8).
In other words, ethnicity is an earthly phenomenon, but God’s intent is to bring all men into the Kingdom of God. The ethnic children of Abraham and Israel were the first major group to be offered citizenship in this Kingdom, after being delivered from Egypt. But they were to be a light and an example to the other nations, showing them the path toward citizenship in the same Kingdom.
Israel failed in this regard, for as it turned out, the other nations showed Israel the path toward citizenship in the kingdoms of Baal and Molech. It was a reverse evangelization, which God judged. In time, Jesus came to show the way again. Like Israel, the church too was supposed to be the Kingdom of God. Those who followed the King (Jesus) were granted citizenship, regardless of ethnicity. Though it enjoyed greater success than Israel in previous generations, it too became corrupted. Hence, not everyone who has the Christian label is actually a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Church denominations have often expelled genuine citizens of the Kingdom from their midst or have persecuted them for various reasons, but only God can revoke one’s citizenship from the Heavenly Kingdom.
When we step back and look at the larger picture, we see how the law of Moses strictly excluded Ammonites and Moabites indefinitely. Deut. 23:6 instructs further that the Israelites were not to seek their peace or prosperity indefinitely. In other words, as long as they remained Ammonites and Moabites, having no desire to join themselves to the covenant of God, and having no faith in the God of Israel, they were to maintain the clear separation.
Why? Was it because of their ethnicity? Not at all, other than the fact that their ethnicity carried the spiritual curse since their incestuous beginning. The separation was due to their worship of false gods, for if they had worshiped the true God, they would never have been separated by law from Israel.
History tells us that the Israelites did indeed begin to worship the gods of Ammon and Moab. We read in 1 Kings 11:33,
33 because they have forsaken Me, and have worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the sons of Ammon…
Israel was forbidden to seek their peace—that is, to make peace treaties with them—or to seek their prosperity—help them financially—as long as they worshiped false gods. But this did not mean that the Israelites were to refrain from showing kindness or compassion toward them. In fact, Israel was supposed to be a light to all nations that worshiped false gods. The overriding purpose of God in all things has been to restore all mankind to Himself. The divine plan has been to put all things under the feet of Christ (1 Cor. 15:27).
Therefore, when Ruth the Moabitess desired to join herself to the covenant with Israel, through the influence and example of her mother-in-law, Naomi, there was no hint in Scripture that she ought to be excluded and sent home. By joining herself to the covenant with Israel, she no doubt submitted to the purification rites that were designed to cleanse her from the national curse that had passed down to her ethnicity from Lot’s daughters.
This is, in fact, the legal basis of Christian evangelism today. When we study the law regarding Moab and Ammon, we must look at it with New Covenant eyes and apply it by the mind of Christ. He is, after all, the Author of the divine law. The problem is that men in His day misunderstood the law, making it exclusive to Israelites, and having no compassion for those of other ethnicities.
This was even a hindrance to apostolic evangelism, until God revealed to them that they needed to change their views. By this time, they were no longer concerned with Moabites and Ammonites, but they were applying these laws to the Samaritans, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans according to their understanding. Philip went to Samaria, and the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15). Peter went to a Roman garrison in Caesarea and was surprised when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 10:45). Paul later went to the Greeks with the same results.
Even so, many among the Judean Christians continued to insist that other ethnicities be circumcised, essentially commanding them to become Jews. They did not understand that the Kingdom of God was above ethnicity or national citizenship, for it was based on faith in Jesus Christ—not faith in Jerusalem, its temple, and its priestly system of sacrifice. Neither did they understand that the Kingdom of God did not consist of two classes of people based upon ethnicity.
The Apostle Paul believed in equal citizenship in Christ, arguing that there was just “one new man” in Christ (Eph. 2:15), and this caused some tension and conflict between him and Jewish Christians. The non-Christian Jews even hated him for upsetting their established order that kept proselytes as second-class citizens.
This is why it is important to understand Deuteronomy 23 with the mind of Christ, rather than interpreting the law in traditional Jewish ways.