The Prohibition of Joining the Assembly of the Lord
Deuteronomy 23 contains a series of laws about people prevented from entering “the assembly of YHWH (קהל י־הוה).” What does that term mean?
The Nature of ‘קהל ה
The phrase “may not enter the assembly of the Lord (‘לא יבוא בקהל ה),” used several times in Deut 23:2-9, is unclear, but probably does not refer to intermarriage. Deuteronomy itself only explicitly outlaws marrying women of the seven Canaanite nations (Deut 7:1–3 20-23), but as reflected in the law of the captive woman in Deut 21:10–14, it does consider marrying foreign women legitimate.
More significantly, the phrase ‘קהל ה mentioned in our verses has precedents in the ancient world, from Sumer down to classical Greece, where it refers to the body of citizens that would have the right to participate in various matters related to the life of the community. This usage is found in the Bible as well:
- A gathering in Mitzpah to take the decision to go to war against the tribe of Benjamin for allowing the concubine atrocity to go unpunished is called קהל עם אלהים, (Judg 20:1–2).
- The prophet Micah warns that those leaders of his time who engaged in improper expropriation of others’ properties will themselves be uprooted and no longer be eligible to take part in the קהל ‘ה that deals with property allotments (Micah 2:1–5).
- The poet in the scroll of Lamentations laments that following the Temple’s destruction, even those nations whom God prohibited from entering the קהל wantonly violated the temple’s sanctity (Lam 1:10); this implies that in previous times, certain nations would not have been permitted to participate in the cultic life of the community.
Barred from Citizenship
The original intention of the laws in Deut 23:2–9 was to restrict the participation of certain people or nations’ participation in Israelite communal life within the framework of the national body that was involved in military, legal, and cultic affairs. With this in mind, I will now turn to the specific restriction of Deuteronomy 23.
Who is being Barred from Citizenship
The ‘קהל ה passage deals with three groups prohibited from citizenship.
פצוע דכא (Damaged Testicles)
דברים כג:ב לֹֽא יָבֹ֧א פְצֽוּעַ דַּכָּ֛א וּכְר֥וּת שָׁפְכָ֖ה בִּקְהַ֥ל יְ־הֹוָֽה:
Deut 23:2 No one whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH.
This person’s defect is physical, although the prohibition itself most likely derives from the legislator’s negative view of emasculation in the religious realm. Since this person is incapable of producing offspring in any event, the prohibition of entering the assembly applies to him alone.
דברים כג:ג לֹא יָבֹ֥א מַמְזֵ֖ר בִּקְהַ֣ל יְ־הֹוָ֑ה גַּ֚ם דּ֣וֹר עֲשִׂירִ֔י לֹא יָ֥בֹא ל֖וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל יְ־הֹוָֽה:
Deut 23:3 No one misbegotten shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH; none of his descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH.
The pedigree of the mamzer is compromised. The traditional Rabbinic explanation that this obscure term refers to the offspring of a forbidden sexual relationship ( i.e., incest and adultery, according to the cases listed in Leviticus 18) is certainly a reasonable, if not necessarily the only, way of understanding the plain meaning of the text.
The ethical underpinnings of the mamzer’s exclusion from the assembly are more pronounced than in the case of the eunuch. Even though the mamzer himself was not actively responsible for the unethical circumstances that led to his birth, he is still considered to have a defect, the ramifications of which are permanent. His descendants may not be admitted to the assembly even in the tenth generation, in other words, forever.
Ammonites and Moabites
דברים כג:ד לֹֽא־יָבֹ֧א עַמּוֹנִ֛י וּמוֹאָבִ֖י בִּקְהַ֣ל יְ־הֹוָ֑ה גַּ֚ם דּ֣וֹר עֲשִׂירִ֔י לֹא־יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֛ם בִּקְהַ֥ל יְ־הֹוָ֖ה עַד־עוֹלָֽם:
Deut 23:4 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH ever.
The third category of people excluded from the assembly are those who actively engaged in moral turpitude, i.e., the Ammonites and Moabites, who not only failed to provide for the Israelites leaving Egypt, but engaged Balaam for the purpose of cursing the Israelites. This moral stain is explicitly said to carry on beyond the tenth generation forever (עד עולם). Even though the practical ramifications are the same as for the descendants of the mamzer, the additional rhetorical flourish עד עולם puts a greater emphasis on the moral failings of the Ammonites and Moabites.
Increasing Levels of Disqualification
In sum, verses 2–7 list three groups in ascending order of severity, both in terms of the nature of the defect, as well as in terms of the extent of the penalty.
Ezra-Nehemiah: A Prohibition Against Marriage
The standard interpretation of the phrase ‘לא יבא בקהל ה in Jewish tradition is as a prohibition against marriage. This approach, which is taken for granted by the classical rabbis (see Mishnah Yevamot 8:3) has its roots in a phenomenon that has come to be known in modern scholarship as “inner-biblical exegesis,” where one biblical text interprets the meaning of an earlier biblical text.
Ezra-Nehemiah Prohibits Marriage to Ammonites and Moabites
In our particular case, the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah references the text of Deut 23 as a legal basis for enacting a ban on marriage with foreign women of various origins, including Ammonites and Moabites – the very groups mentioned in Deut 23:4 as being prohibited from joining the assembly. Ezra 9:1–2 reads:
עזרא ט:א וּכְכַלּ֣וֹת אֵ֗לֶּה נִגְּשׁ֨וּ אֵלַ֤י הַשָּׂרִים֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹֽא נִבְדְּל֞וּ הָעָ֤ם יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְהַכֹּהֲנִ֣ים וְהַלְוִיִּ֔ם מֵעַמֵּ֖י הָאֲרָצ֑וֹת כְּ֠תוֹעֲבֹֽתֵיהֶם לַכְּנַעֲנִ֨י הַחִתִּ֜י הַפְּרִזִּ֣י הַיְבוּסִ֗י הָֽעַמֹּנִי֙ הַמֹּ֣אָבִ֔י הַמִּצְרִ֖י וְהָאֱמֹרִֽי:
Ezra 9:1 When this was over, the officers approached me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the land whose abhorrent practices are like those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.
ט:ב כִּֽי נָשְׂא֣וּ מִבְּנֹֽתֵיהֶ֗ם לָהֶם֙ וְלִבְנֵיהֶ֔ם וְהִתְעָֽרְבוּ֙ זֶ֣רַע הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ בְּעַמֵּ֖י הָאֲרָצ֑וֹת וְיַ֧ד הַשָּׂרִ֣ים וְהַסְּגָנִ֗ים הָ֥יְתָ֛ה בַּמַּ֥עַל הַזֶּ֖ה רִאשׁוֹנָֽה:
9:2 They have taken their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed has become intermingled with the peoples of the land; and it is the officers and prefects who have taken the lead in this trespass.”
Although these verses do not actually quote Deut 23, they clearly put the Ammonites and Moabites in the same category as the various Canaanite peoples who actually are mentioned explicitly elsewhere in Deuteronomy in the context of a marriage prohibition (Deut 7:1–3). This makes it clear that Ezra 9 interprets the prohibition of entering the assembly as referring to a marriage prohibition as well.
Indeed, the author of Ezra 9:1 goes beyond the strictures of Deut 23 as he would understand them by including the Egyptians in the list of prohibited nations, despite the fact that Deut 23:8 clearly permits Egyptians to join the assembly after a waiting period of three generations. In fact, Ezra’s extension of Deuteronomy’s original marriage ban on the seven Canaanite nations to include other nations as well probably took its lead from 1 Kings 11:1–2, 
מלכים א יא:א וְהַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֗ה אָהַ֞ב נָשִׁ֧ים נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת רַבּ֖וֹת וְאֶת־בַּת־פַּרְעֹ֑ה מוֹאֲבִיּ֤וֹת עַמֳּנִיּוֹת֙ אֲדֹ֣מִיֹּ֔ת צֵדְנִיֹּ֖ת חִתִּיֹּֽת: יא:ב מִן־הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר יְ־הֹוָה֩ אֶל־בְּנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל לֹֽא־תָבֹ֣אוּ בָהֶ֗ם וְהֵם֙ לֹא־יָבֹ֣אוּ בָכֶ֔ם אָכֵן֙ יַטּ֣וּ אֶת־ לְבַבְכֶ֔ם אַחֲרֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם בָּהֶ֛ם דָּבַ֥ק שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה לְאַהֲבָֽה:
1 Kgs 11:1:1 King Solomon loved many foreign women in addition to Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Phoenician, and Hittite women— 11:2 from the nations of which YHWH had said to the Israelites, “None of you shall join them and none of them shall join you, lest they turn your heart away to follow their gods.” Such Solomon clung to and loved.
The clearest indication that Deut 23 is being recruited in Ezra 9 as a source-text for banning foreign marriages emerges from Ezra 9:12a:
עזרא ט:יב וְ֠עַתָּה בְּֽנוֹתֵיכֶ֞ם אַל־תִּתְּנ֣וּ לִבְנֵיהֶ֗ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיהֶם֙ אַל־תִּשְׂא֣וּ לִבְנֵיכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־תִדְרְשׁ֧וּ שְׁלֹמָ֛ם וְטוֹבָתָ֖ם עַד־עוֹלָ֑ם...
Ezra 9:12 Now then, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or let their daughters marry your sons; do nothing for their well-being or advantage...
This is a quasi-quote of Deut 23:7 (לא תדרש שלמם וטבתם כל ימיך לעולם), but rather than serving as a prohibition against friendly relations with Ammonites and Moabites in particular, Deut 23:7 is now adapted to reinforce the ban on marriage with foreigners in general. This “mass divorce” from all foreign women is described in Neh 9:2, “Those of the stock of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners (וַיִּבָּֽדְלוּ֙ זֶ֣רַע יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מִכֹּ֖ל בְּנֵ֣י נֵכָ֑ר).”
The use of Deut 23’s prohibition on Ammonites and Moabites joining the assembly as a source-text for a blanket ban on intermarriage reaches a climax in Neh 13:1–3.
נחמיה יג:א בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא נִקְרָ֛א בְּסֵ֥פֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וְנִמְצָא֙ כָּת֣וּב בּ֔וֹ אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹא־יָב֨וֹא עַמֹּנִ֧י וּמֹאָבִ֛י בִּקְהַ֥ל הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים עַד־עוֹלָֽם: יג:ב כִּ֣י לֹ֧א קִדְּמ֛וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בַּלֶּ֣חֶם וּבַמָּ֑יִם וַיִּשְׂכֹּ֨ר עָלָ֤יו אֶת־בִּלְעָם֙ לְקַֽלְל֔וֹ וַיַּהֲפֹ֧ךְ אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ הַקְּלָלָ֖ה לִבְרָכָֽה: יג:ג וַיְהִ֖י כְּשָׁמְעָ֣ם אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֑ה וַיַּבְדִּ֥ילוּ כָל־עֵ֖רֶב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Neh 13:1 At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, 13:2 since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing. 13:3 When they heard the Teaching, they separated all the alien admixture from Israel.
In this text, Deut 23:4–5 is quoted, albeit with stylistic adaptations, as providing the legal impetus for separating from all alien spouses (not just Ammonites and Moabites).
Did Ezra-Nehemiah Knowingly Change the Meaning of Deuteronomy 23?
Were the authors of 1 Kings 11:1-2 and of Ezra-Nehemiah aware of the original nature of the prohibition as referring to participation in the wider community? This is a difficult question to answer decisively. It is possible that these authors took their lead from Deuteronomy 23 itself, in which vv. 2-9 follow immediately on the heels of a verse relating explicitly to a forbidden marriage. However, it seems most likely to me that the editorial arrangement of Deut 23:1-9 merely reflects an associative progression, whereby the transgression mentioned in v. 1 could, in practice, produce a mamzer, who then appears as one of the types of people mentioned in the following laws related to participation in the assembly.
In other words, the original intention of the ‘קהל ה laws was to forbid the people and groups mentioned from participating in Israelite civic life, as argued above. Whether or not the authors of 1 Kgs 11:1-2 and Ezra-Nehemiah were aware of this explanation, it certainly suited their agendas to read into the ‘קהל ה laws a prohibition related exclusively related to marriage, and to extend the scope of those peoples who were subject to that prohibition.
Why Edomites and Egyptians Are Admitted into the Assembly of the Lord
Why are the Ammonites and Moabites judged more severely than the Edomites and Egyptians? Jacob Milgrom suggested that the harsh attitude toward the Ammonites and Moabites could reflect a northern-Israelite polemic against the house of David, inasmuch as David was descended from a Moabite woman (Ruth 4:13–22), his grandson, Rehoboam was the son of an Ammonite woman (1 Kgs 14:21), and both Moab and Ammon were mamzerim (Gen 19:30–38).
In my estimation, this suggestion overreaches the evidence, since the historical links between David and Moab are quite murky (cf. 1 Sam 22:3–4) and Milgrom’s position is based on the interpretation of ‘לבוא בקהל ה that we have seen as being secondary, i.e. marriage ties. At most, one can speculate that the epic tradition’s account of Moab and Ammon’s origins in mamzerut influenced Deuteronomy’s particularly negative stance toward those peoples, without it, though, being related to an anti-David polemic.
Other scholars seize upon the conciliatory attitude toward the Edomites (see below) as indicating that the law must have been formulated before the period of the First Temple’s destruction, when Edom’s cooperation with the Babylonians transformed her into Israel’s archenemy number one (see Ezekiel 25:12–14; Obadiah 1; Lamentations 4:21–22, Psalm 137:7).
While this latter position is reasonable, it still doesn’t help in determining a more specific background, neither for the harsh attitude displayed toward the Ammonites and Moabites nor for the softer approach taken toward the Edomites and the Egyptians:
דברים כג:ח לֹֽא תְתַעֵ֣ב אֲדֹמִ֔י כִּ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ ה֑וּא לֹא תְתַעֵ֣ב מִצְרִ֔י כִּי־גֵ֖ר הָיִ֥יתָ בְאַרְצֽוֹ: כג:ט בָּנִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר יִוָּלְד֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם דּ֣וֹר שְׁלִישִׁ֑י יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם בִּקְהַ֥ל יְ־הֹוָֽה:
Deut 23:8 You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. 23:9 Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of YHWH in the third generation.
Regarding the Egyptians, we can concur with Mordechai Cogan who writes:
“But though the historical circumstances that might have motivated the unique approach vis-à-vis Egypt expressed in Deut 23:8–9 seem irretrievable, its humanitarian perspective is manifest. And, in point of fact, the change of attitude expressed in the rationale ‘for you were a stranger in his land’ is in harmony with the overall moral and humanistic character of the Deuteronomic law code …”
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August 25, 2015
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Dr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Chronological Displacement in Biblical and Related Literatures.
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