Deuteronomy 23:1, more deeply examined
Note: I originally wrote this commentary back in 2008. I was motivated to re-post it after someone sent me an e-mail about it last week saying I was "twisting" the Bible.
One of my critics in local politics loves to mock my experience with testicular cancer by repeatedly bringing up Deuteronomy 23:1 to claim that I will not be in Heaven. The childishness of this claim aside, it does represent an opportunity to demonstrate that, while the text of Scripture as literally written is important, it is also important to understand the context of the text and what the words actually mean. First, let's start with the verse:
"He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD." - Deuteronomy 23:1
Commentary here by John Wesley:
He that is wounded — A phrase denoting an eunuch.
Shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord — Shall not be admitted to honours and offices either in the church or commonwealth of Israel; and so the congregation of the Lord doth not here signify, the body of the people, but the society of the elders or rulers of the people.
Add to this, that the Hebrew word, Kahal, generally signifies a congregation or company of men met together; and therefore this cannot so conveniently be meant of all the body of the people, which could never meet in one place, but of the chief rulers, which frequently did so. Nor is it strange that eunuchs are excluded from government, both because such persons are commonly observed to want that courage which is necessary for a governor, because as such persons ordinarily were despicable, so the authority in their hands was likely to be exposed to the same contempt.
Another commentary follows:
He that is wounded ., shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord-"To enter into the congregation of the Lord" means either admission to public honors and offices in the Church and State of Israel, or, in the case of foreigners, incorporation with that nation by marriage. The rule was that strangers and foreigners, for fear of friendship or marriage connections with them leading the people into idolatry, were not admissible till their conversion to the Jewish faith.
But this passage describes certain limitations of the general rule. The following parties were excluded from the full rights and privileges of citizenship:
(1) Eunuchs-It was a very ancient practice for parents in the East by various arts to mutilate their children, with a view to training them for service in the houses of the great.
(2) Bastards-Such an indelible stigma in both these instances was designed as a discouragement to practices that were disgraceful, but too common from intercourse with foreigners.
(3) Ammonites and Moabites-Without provocation they had combined to engage a soothsayer to curse the Israelites; and had further endeavored, by ensnaring them into the guilt and licentious abominations of idolatry, to seduce them from their allegiance to God.
There isn't much question about what "wounded in the stones" means. The question is what, in the context of the time, "the congregation of the Lord" means. As Wesley explains, this refers to holding an office, being a priest, etc. It could also mean not being allowed to enter the Temple. But what the text does not say is that intact genitalia is a requirement for salvation. In order to understand what the verse means, as literally written, you have to understand what the words themselves mean. As with any writing, if you do not know the definitions of the words used, you cannot understand what the text means.
So no, I'm not going to go to Hell because I lost a testicle to cancer. As with any question of Biblical doctrine, it is important to seek the truth by searching for context in other parts of Scripture. Two of those passages follow.
For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
Now, if one who has had "his privy member cut off" (which is what a eunuch is) cannot possibly be saved, then why would God give eunuchs who keep His Sabbath a place in His house? Is there any reason to believe that one who has been "wounded in the stones" by testicular cancer would be barred from salvation by Deuteronomy 23:1, considering that eunuchs are clearly not barred from salvation?
But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
Again, if someone could become a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake, then how could Deuteronomy 23:1 bar that person from salvation? For another reference, read Acts 8:27-40, where a eunuch accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior and is baptized into the faith. Clearly, one who has had "his privy member cut off" can be justified by grace through faith. And again, if Deuteronomy 23:1 does not bar such a person from salvation, it also does not bar anyone who has been "wounded in the stones", whether it be through an accident or through cancer.