Bastardy In Old Testament Law And Some Modern Implications

I received a question recently about bastardy in the Old Testament, specifically about Deuteronomy 23:2. In this post I've briefly addressed the subject and carried it through to some of its modern implications.

The term "bastard" carries a different meaning in the context of Old Testament covenant law than it does in our culture. The Hebrew word is almost identical to the Aramaic term for incest, and primarily means a child born from an incestuous relationship. Prohibited incestuous relationships are listed in Leviticus 18:6-18.

The penalty for the participants of incest was to be "cut off" from the people, which is banishment. Leviticus 18:29 But there was nothing mentioned in chapter 18 about the standing of a child produced by incest, or the child's access to the "congregation". It seems Deuteronomy 23:2 closed this potential loophole by joining the descendants of an incestuous relationship to the banishment of the parents.

The law addressed, prohibited, and penalized all other relationships which could potentially lead to childbirth outside of marriage. Briefly:
  • Premarital intercourse where both persons are known. Penalty: marriage without the possibility of divorce. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
  • Premarital intercourse where the male participant is not revealed. Penalty: death for the female. Deuteronomy 22:20-21
  • Adultery. Penalty: death for both parties. Deuteronomy 22:22
  • Rape. Penalty: the female must declare immediately, or potentially face being executed later. Deuteronomy 22:20-22 If the woman was married at the time then the rapist must be executed. Deuteronomy 22:25-27 If the woman was unmarried the man must pay a fine to the girl's father, and then marry her without the possibility of divorce. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
Basically, under Old Testament law, there were to be no children born out of wedlock. If a girl was pregnant without a husband her only choices under law were: to reveal a non-incestuous father of her child and be forced to marry him, or reveal an incestuous father of her child and be banished with him, or be stoned to death.

There's no provision for adoption in Old Testament law. If a baby was born to an unmarried girl in Israel, and she refused to admit to authorities who the father was, then the child could be considered the product of incest by an unknown family member, and both mother and child would be banished. The child could also be considered the product of a premarital relationship which could result in the execution of mother and child.

I expect there were a lot of pregnant daughters quietly taken to neighboring countries by their fathers or mothers to be left there permanently. Once a girl lost the evidence of her virginity she risked being executed if she married a Jew, so girls risked death by execution if they returned. Deuteronomy 22:20-21
Joseph was going to quietly divorce Mary, the mother of Jesus, when he found out she was pregnant. She would have lived in banishment. But God intervened. Matthew 1:18-20 Joseph could have lawfully had her executed.

The rise of children born without declared fathers in a culture based on laws like these was evidence that obedience to the law was failing in every aspect. This is where the modern concept and laws of bastardy enter the picture. There was no legal provision for or acknowledgment of these children born in Old Testament based cultures. Adoption had no legal basis. Even orphans were not adoptable. They basically became wards of the nearest kin. In a failing Old Testament culture a destitute unwed mother's only choices were, generally, to starve to death with her child, let the child die, or find a home for the child.

This legal predicament in “Christian” nations who used this law as a model for their laws, led to children dying in the womb, outhouses, streets, and doorways of the rich while society willfully ignored the horror. Biographies on Thomas Coram and his efforts to rescue foundlings give a good background to these legal and cultural problems.
We Christians are historically well known for vocally opposing abortion and infanticide, but then we are also often notoriously known for doing nothing for the children and mothers who chose not to abort. I know... I know there are many of my colleagues in ministry who preach long and hard against abortion, but don't personally donate a dime to take care of un-aborted, needy children. And, sadly, many churches and God-fearing Christians don't regularly give to ministries that provide for these kids.

Sex outside of marriage is wrong, abortion is wrong, but Christians who oppose abortion without doing anything for un-aborted, at risk children are hypocritically negligent, and... oddly, they end up contributing to the cultural pressures on unwed mothers to abort by their failure to act on behalf of the un-aborted. Also, failure to oppose the prejudice against adoption, and the rising legal difficulty and costs of adoption, adds to the plight of unwed mothers, and further promotes abortion. Christians must... we must... change the way we think, and become proactive on multiple fronts for the sake of the children.

I'm glad, as a Christian, I am not under Old Testament covenant law, and I rejoice that there are men and women, like the Rivas family, who provide a home for children in need no matter what their situation. I rejoice that I am a member of a Grace based church. Grace... Mercy... these are the practical tenets of New Testament Christianity. Let's rescue the mothers and their children. John 8:3-11


  1. My Site (click to edit)May 21, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    Wow.  What a powerful message.  How easy it is to tout the law -- but grace, where would we be without grace?  It should our defining mark given the grace we are all recipients of.  May God bless the Rivas family and raise many more with the same heart.  

  2. Very good explanation to children out of wedlock with reference to old testament.

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