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Deuteronomy 23:10-13 | The Old Testamentary Latrine | Commentary
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Deuteronomy 23:10-13

— The Old Testamentary Latrine —

How to Build a Latrine

Smack in the middle of a chapter pertaining to the glorious sanctification of the Assembly of God we find tips on how to build an outdoor latrine.

When we take a closer look these 'tips' appear to be highly similar to a passage in Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he sums up no less than the mystery of the death and resurrection of people in Christ.

Let's have a look:

Deuteronomy 23:12-13 NAS

You shall also have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be that when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement.

NIV

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.

King James

Thou shalt have a place also outside the camp whither thou shalt go forth abroad. 13 And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.

Green

Also you shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out there. And you shall have an instrument on your staff. And it shall be, as you sit outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back, and shall cover that which comes from you.

Young

And a station thou hast at the outside of the camp, and thou hast gone out thither without, and a nail thou hast on thy staff, and it hath been, in thy sitting without, that thou hast digged with it, and turned back, and covered thy filth;

Context

The Book of Deuteronomy deals with the formal and ceremonial qualities of the covenant of the Creator and His creation. According to the many contemporary and subsequent prophesies this covenant must in due time result in the fullness of man; a completely stable economy and utter freedom of the individual in social, economical and intellectual sense. This unified human mentality, though founded on individual freedom, will be governed by an elite group of just rulers, or rather an assembly of servants.

Our target verses are situated in a legal discourse stretching from chapter 4 to chapter 27, covering the Ten Commandments, ceremonial law, civil law and social law.

Deuteronomy 23 is part of excursions in social law, covering anonymous murder, family law (marriage, rebellious children, property, separation), acceptance into the above-mentioned assembly, laws for harmony in the nation, and tax law. Deuteronomy 23 is a chapter that deals with preparation for an elite administration of just rulers. Jesus Christ is considered the first actual one and arch-father of that administration and, by His incarnation into His people, also the factual unity of its members. He made it clear that these future rulers are to 'die to themselves'; to lay down their personal life for the service of the collective, as utter servants.

Deuteronomy 23:10-13 is part of a loop that runs from verse 9 to verse 14:

(9) When you go forth as a camp against your enemies then [you do this and that]; (14) Because YHWH Elohim progresses in the middle of your camp to deliver you.

The verb 'to deliver' covers a motion from a temporal and unstable state to an eternal and stable state. God's promise to deliver His people is a promise to inveterate them. And that is done by making them perfect (if we define 'sin' as the deviation from perfection and freedom, so that sin = bondage & incompleteness) and entering into a specific relationship with them. The essence of this imminent Divine relationship is already present in life, in the form of a pre-percussion, a foreshadow. The human marriage is a small-scale self-similarity of the future perfected relation between Creator and creation (Creator & creation is self similar to husband & wife).

Mankind as a completely united population is the feminine Bride or House, while the Creator is the singular Husband, or Father. The Hebrew marital tradition is uxorilocal, hence the man will leave his home and cling to his wife (Genesis 2:24), and the King Creator will leave whatever realm He presently domesticates, and join the Bride and usher in a grand New Time. When Jesus localizes the coming Kingdom His words clearly resonate with our Deuteronomy verses, "The Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21).

We may wonder why a chapter pertaining to the glorious sanctification of God's most pleasing future ministers has been adorned with a rural rule of latrine hygiene. The most obvious answer is that any kind of sophistication begins with the inauguration and protection of some basic values. But secondary, a close look at our target verses reveals a consignation indeed pertaining to the unified mind of man, much more even than to his individual digestive system.

Most dominant principles

One of the Torah's most fundamental themes is the insistence to learn; to observe, to conclude and to adjust. Abraham is the arch-father of both Arabs (- Moslems) and Jews (- Christians), and his journey began when he left his comfortable family home in Ur of the Chaldeans (=Babylon; Isaiah 13:19) and later Haran, to go 'to where the Lord would lead him'. Before Abraham knew what was right he knew what was wrong, and before he was able to designate a goal he departed from what he was familiar with. This brave deed seems to be the key to all learning. The celebrated thinker Socrates would be forever famous for exactly the same general virtue: to depart from what is certainly not correct, despite the cognitive vacuum this might produce.

The Hebrew word for 'camp' as used in Deuteronomy 23:12 describes an always temporal and protected enclosure for a tribe or an army. Any battle or other progression would per definition happen outside the camp. Camp was for resting and for staying the same; the 'comfort zone' of the nation. Outside the camp was danger and thus growth and learning. When God makes the promise to Abraham from which the entire western civilization would flow He typically takes Abraham outside and shows him the stars (Genesis 15:5-6). Then Abraham becomes the first 'believer' in God and the arch-father of anybody else who in greater or lesser degree has sense of and love for the cosmic justice of God's Law (Romans 4:11).

Jesus called Himself the Bread of Life, and offered Himself to be consumed. He also called Himself the Word, and the Fulfillment of the Law. The Hebrew word for studying the Law and sharpening the mind by doing so, is derived from the same root as the word for tooth. Before the Law is fully understood its student has to 'chew' it; go through its pages and subject herself to exercise upon exercise in order to shape herself according to the contours of the Law that liberates. And like food is eaten and its nutrients absorbed by the body, so should the Law be absorbed by the mind. And when the Spirit of the Law is fully absorbed by the collective mind of the people, its publicly scrutinized corpus ought to be laid to rest.

When we buy a book at the store, we carry home with us a mere few ounces of paper and ink. But when we read it the contents will transliterate into the vocabulary of our consciousness, and help form our minds wholly, and down to the deepest levels. After this we may discard of the book without being rightly accused of disrespect towards it. Because the once paper-and-ink book has now become flesh and blood, and the mind that lives in it. And the physical book has become a gratefully surpassed cocoon. Likewise the Law does not die but is raised to continue to guide the people, not anymore as a bouquet of compulsatory demands but as a living understanding belonging to mature contentation.

A book we read is like food we eat; we take it in completely, it is mauled to pieces, sorted out for elements suitable to aid our specific constitution and elements that are not, and while the nutrients are absorbed to build either body or mind the residue is expelled and buried. The scapegoat is refuse; the other one is pure nutrition.

If Jerusalem is the camp, then Golgotha is the latrine where we lay the excrement of our learning. And here is the nucleus of our issue: we can not help having to use the bathroom every now and then. We eat, therefore we excrete; we are learning therefore we are fools and we daily surpass yesterdays knowledge. It is the total gathering of human mentality throughout all the ages with stumbles out of camp and on to Golgotha.

Walking towards Golgotha in incompleteness, man is per human definition isolated from all others. Walking onward from Golgotha man is complete and united with all others by the Spirit of God, which comes through the resurrection of Christ.

In this same messianic context the matter of the compulsory bath (verse 11) makes us think of the principle of baptism. Derived from the washing of the body, the mind may be 'washed' by Living Water provided initially by Jesus, and, after His incarnation in His people, by His people (according to John 7:38 and Matthew 28:19).

In John 7:38 Jesus says that he who believes in Him, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Usually water that flows from the belly is urine, and urine has the lofty function of clearing the body of wastes and contamination. What Jesus seems to insinuate is that those who believe in Him will serve the larger body of humanity as those organs that purify humanity from poisonous superstitions and faulty beliefs. The water that we drink is like the water that falls on us when we bathe; the water we expel when we urinate is the water plus dirt that falls off of us when we bathe. It is the same idea.

An additional observation is that the Hebrews did not see sleep as a period of mere rest, but as a period of cleansing. Indeed studies have revealed that during sleep the mind does not simply switch off, but is organized, refined and purified. Hence the Hebrew word for urinate (שׁין) is closely kindred to the word for sleep (ישׁן); as are both to the word שׁן meaning tooth, derived from the verb שׁנן meaning to sharpen. Things become even more profound when we remember that death is very often called sleep, and the Deuteronomy latrine text seems concerned with an unfortunate happenstance during the night, presumably while sleeping.

Word study

יד

The word translated with 'place' in verse 12 is yod, a word never meaning place, but always meaning hand or power or powerful something. In some rare occasions this word may mean monument, and the crucifixion definitely has that connotation. The Hebrew latrine was therefore not simply some anonymous hole in the ground, but a designated place for a great thing: the excrement of discarded material from an organic body, in order to keep it healthy and ready for service. (The contemporary collective abhorrence of feces and its signature smell comes most likely from the post plague period when an association was conditioned between excrement and danger. Before that period, though considered unclean, human and animal excrement was not considered particularly vile).

ויתד תהיה לך על־אזנו

The Text reads, "and yatad shall be to you over azen. The word yatad does not ever mean spade or shovel. In stead it means peg, stake, pin, and some even translate yatad with nail. The word yatad appears always in conjunction with something hanging from it, or kept together by it: the Tabernacle (Exodus 27:19), the remnant (Ezra 9:8), Zion (Isaiah 33:20). It does not take much fantasy to see the similarity (perhaps self-similarity) between the corona of pegs around the Tabernacle and the crown of thorns on the head of Christ Crucified.

The word azen comes from the root azan, meaning to hear. The difference in the root and the derivative is a miniscule difference in the Masoretic vowel notations, which were added to the original Text of the Torah at least 2,000 years after the Torah was written. In addition to this we note that the dubious derivation azen is used only once, and that in our Deuteronomy text. The reason why the Masoretic scholars have decided to translate this particular occurrence of the root with tools instead of ears probably lies in their denial or misunderstanding of the crucifixion, and subsequently in the assumed context of answering the call of nature, and hence needing tools instead of ears.

Contemporary scholars have the root azan breach into two distinct meanings:

(1) To listen, hear, namely when the root produces the word ozen which always means 'ear' except for that one special occasion when the Masoretes turn it into azen because of which it all of a sudden means 'tools.'

(2) To weight, test, prove, namely when the root produces the word m'zen so that it means 'balances, scales'.

The relation between the two meanings is immediately obvious. In the Hebrew tradition economical wealth and intellectual wealth were so closely related that the two kinds of wealth were often described and pondered in similar vocabularies. Additionally, the stories of people like Abraham and Solomon indicate that economical wealth is often founded on a sound understanding of the universal Law of God. Like a merchant who weighs goods, so a wise man weighs the words he hears. Though many call, the wise man will home in only on the voice of Truth. He will turn his head to the sound, looking for that direction in which both ears hear equal measures; a balance. The head of a man is a balance; his ears the scales.

The Deuteronomy verses display an odd combination of words: a peg and ears and a bronze-age lavatory, and the question rises why the Israelites should keep a peg upon their ears-of-direction, in relation to their daily sanitary stop? The answer comes partly in Deuteronomy 15:17 where it reads that a voluntary, contractual slave who has served his time may choose to stay and to bind himself to his master for life. The master would then pierce the ear of this man or woman against the door-post of his house.

That relates the peg to the ear: voluntary slavery, or a lifetime bonding.

בשׁבתך

The verb yasab here translated with 'sit' does not at all seem to cover crouching down in order to do one's business. Instead it deals with the seating of powers like judges or kings. In the rare occasions that the root is used for actual sitting, it has an almost ostentatious deliberateness concerning this act: a King on his throne, God on the praises of Israel, Judges upon their seat. Usually the verb and its derivations mean dwelling or dwelling place: a general location of economical activity, or the inhabiting of a city or region. Mentally this verb marks a position in psychological development; the degree of maturity of one's thinking and derived actions. The compound בשׁבתך means 'in your position'. The whole sentence becomes: And it shall be in your dwelling outside [of your comfort zone] that you will...:

וחפרתה

The root hapar diverges into two distinct branches in the English language:

  • Dig, search for. Digging for whatever reason, whether to search or to hide or even to dig for a well.
  • Be ashamed.

The common ground of the two meanings is plain since people tend to bury the things they are ashamed of. The verb is also used to catch the response of seers who have been saying things that are proven wrong: cover up their mouths in shame.

Many of the Old Testament's messianic texts devote a line or two to the taking away of reproach and shame by perfecting the people and not remembering the previous faults. The famous doxology of Jude even speaks of standing in the presence of God's glory blameless and with great joy (Jude 1:24-25).

ושׁבת

The verb shub translated with 'turn' is rarely if ever used in the sense of a bodily turn around a vertical axis. If it concerns a bodily action it denotes a turn of course rather than turning around in a stationary position. Most often however this verb concerns a mental turn. This is the verb that translates with 'convert,' which comes from the idea of turning from sin. It holds the meaning of return from exile and restoration into a healthy and stable state.

וכסית

The verb kasa usually means 'cover up' in the regular sense of the word. But it certainly finds applications in the sense of forgiveness or atonement, such as in Psalm 32:1, "How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!" The difference with כפר (kippur; cover, ransom, atone) is that כסה seems to merely take away from view, while כפר aims to blot out and annul.

Brown, Driver & Briggs lists as additional meaning of כפר to dig, with derivation cave or sepulcher.

צאתך

Finally, the word se'a implies human or animal excrement, vomit, filthy clothes, and even menstruation blood as metaphor of the iniquitous actions of the Israelites (Isaiah 4:4).

Conclusion

What at first glance appears to be facile domestic regulation, unfolds after due scrutiny as a pivotal principle in the ongoing sequence of Salvation; a house rule indeed, pertaining to the House of God!

Deuteronomy 23:10-13 is not a mere housekeeping issue, but a profoundly spiritual Truth, pertaining to God's deepest desire and man's ultimate destiny.

The conclusion of these things is summed up by Paul in his letter to the Romans. The quote below is almost an exact replica of the Deuteronomy verses we have studied above; the symmetry is clear, beautiful and powerful:

"Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we might also walk in newness of life. For we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin." (Romans 6:4-7).

Abarim Publications translation of Deuteronomy 23:10-13:

"You shall also acknowledge power outside of yourselves and go out to it. And you shall have a peg on your ear; so that in your dwelling outside, you will bury and turn away from and cover up your impurities."

Alternatively:

"You shall also acknowledge power outside of yourselves and go out to it. And you shall pledge your eternal fidelity; so that in your dwelling outside, you will bury and turn away from and cover up your impurities."

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