The Congregation of the Lord

Which takes precedence: God’s law, or man’s law? If you ask a conservative Christian that question, most will answer that God’s law takes precedence over any civil law. But what does that mean? The Bible contains a large number of rules, laws, and commandments. In this blog post, I look at a couple of laws laid down in the book of Deuteronomy, which have relevance to the field of genealogy.

The first is Deuteronomy 23:2: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” (KJV)

A rather strict rule, that, applying even to the descendants of the illegitimate child. Even if your parents were legitimately married when you were born, you would not be allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord if any of your ancestors going back ten generations was born out of wedlock.

As an amateur genealogist, I can attest that it would be quite the challenge to prove that all of your ancestors going back that far were born legitimately.

In my own data, there are roughly three generations per century. Ten generations brings you back to the late 1700’s. On the Dutch side of my pedigree, I know the names of all of my 4th great grandparents, as well as all but two of my 5th great grandparents. To complete my pedigree going back ten generations, I would need to get information on everyone back to my 8th great grandparents. That can be as many as 2046 ancestors!

Clearly, few people can accurately provide proof that they are allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord based on Deuteronomy 23:2. If you believe in an omnipresent supreme being, then that being would know for certain, but you can never be sure.

You could take the approach that one is innocent before proven guilty. In that case if you can identify one bastard ancestor, the rule would apply to you and you would not be allowed to enter the congregation of the Lord. Since I do have a couple of illegitimate ancestors, the rule applies to me, as well as seven generations of my descendants.

In my case, the illegitimate ancestors are on the German side of my pedigree. Since it was not always easy for a couple to get permission to marry in the Grand-duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, even up to the end of the 19th Century, it was not uncommon for a couple to have a child (or two) before getting married. On the other hand, since the Netherlands was generally more affluent, illegitimate births were much less common there. So as far as I can tell, of my Dutch ancestors I know about, all were born after their parents were married.

But now let’s take a look at another rule, one chapter earlier, Deuteronomy 22:20-21: “But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: …

In a nutshell, according to Deuteronomy 22, for a marriage to be considered valid, the bride must be a virgin on her wedding night. And if a marriage is not valid, all children from the marriage must be considered bastard children. And then Deuteronomy 23:2 applies.

This means that for someone to be allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord, one must not only prove that all ancestors going back roughly three centuries were born legitimately, but that as many as 1023 female ancestors were virgins when they married. Based on surviving records, of course this would be an impossible challenge. But as before, all it takes is one case to prove that one is not allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord.

On the Dutch side of my pedigree, you don’t have to go very far. It’s not a secret in my family that my Dutch grandparents had to get married. Their first child was born in 1927 about four months after their marriage. Unless some sort of miracle occurred, my Dutch grandmother was obviously not a virgin when she married. (Coincidentally, that’s also true for my German grandparents, in 1926.) And as a consequence, all of my aunts and uncles, all 28 of my first cousins, and all of their many descendants are not allowed to enter into the congregation of the Lord.

If you believe that God’s law takes precedence over any civil law, then you have a problem. Specifically, I know of two ministers of one particular conservative Christian denomination who are technically not allowed to enter the into congregation of the Lord by these particular rules.

One might argue that one cannot be punished because of the sins of their ancestors. But then you would put into doubt one of the most fundamental principles of conservative Christianity, the doctrine of original sin.

I don’t envy the conservatives. Almost certainly they can find a way interpret the Biblical laws in their own favor. But it would take some interesting theological gymnastics. One would have to argue that these verses do not really mean what they say. Or perhaps they can find some other verses that contradict these particular verses, in which case they would have to admit that the Bible is flawed and subject to interpretation.

You really have to wonder, by these rules laid down in the Holy Bible, is there anyone who is able to enter into the congregation of the Lord?

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