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In Deut. 23:7 and 8, Moses turns his attention to Edomites and Egyptians and how an Israelite is to treat them. This law helps us in the area of foreign relations with unbelieving nations.
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 acts of injustice perpetrated against other nations. 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 moral standards of the Kingdom.
Moses says that the reason Israelites were not to abhor Edomites is because “he is your brother.” Edom, of course, is the national name for Esau, who was Jacob’s brother. Esau was Jacob’s brother, so this law is based upon the biblical admonition to love your brother. This law is almost startling in view of the hatred and rivalry that existed between Israel and Edom for generations.
Esau was a carnal man, and his descendants were carnally minded as well. Hence, we would expect Esau to hate Jacob. However, Jacob was held to a higher standard and was forbidden to hate or despise Esau or his descendants.
This law seems to conflict with God’s statement in Mal. 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 discipline them or 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 Deut. 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 (Gen. 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 Rom. 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 Chron. 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 Gen. 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 claim the right to hate an Egyptian! After all, the Egyptians put the Israelites into bondage while they were aliens in Egypt. But one cannot hold individual Egyptians liable for the sins of their government, especially in the generations after Israel had come out of Egypt.
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.
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 not sufficient 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, because they were to honor their mother.
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 (Gen. 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 (Rom. 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.
We today can see Israel’s example of failure and can therefore make the necessary changes in our outlook on life. We also have the advantage of the New Covenant, by which the Spirit writes this law upon our hearts.