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Deuteronomy - Do Not Add to the Word

I have often heard people protest when an explanation is given of a Biblical passage that involves adding words of clarification. People will object "you can't add to the word" as though any additional words are a violation of that prohibition whether they clarify the meaning or not. Perhaps we need to understand what is meant by "not adding to the word."

Where did God command not to add or take away from His words? Here is one such verse:

"Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you." (Deut 4:2)

This whole question needs to be more carefully considered. What does it mean by "do not add to the word"? First of all, who said the words of Deuteronomy 4:2? It was Moses, not God. Secondly, what word(s) is Moses referring to? It would seem to be the Ten Commandments previously given in Exodus chapter 20 and the associated statutes and judgments which were given to guard the Ten Commandments - guard in the sense of making it more clear what to do and not do in order to keep the Ten Commandments.

A few verses after saying "ye shall not add" Moses said:

"Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it." (Deut 4:5)

What Was Moses Referring To?
He was referring to the statutes and judgments given along with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and the following chapters.

The message of Deuteronomy was given shortly before Israel crossed the Jordan River to begin occupying the Promised Land (see Deuteronomy chapter 1) and most of 40 years after the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. The first four chapters are a kind of historical review given by Moses of events in the preceding 40 years. Starting in chapter 5, Moses gave another speech in which he reviewed the law. Deuteronomy means "second law." Think of the French word for two: "deux" and the original Greek word for law: "nomos." In chapter 5, Moses gave the Ten Commandments again, but here something interesting happens. Compare the Sabbath commandment as given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it." (Exo 20:8-11)
"Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day." (Deut 5:12-15)

In both cases, Moses related the Ten Commandments. Yet in the second version he totally changed the reason given for keeping the Sabbath. This was no minor wording change that could result simply from translation; it was an entirely different reason. And Moses even said in reference to the initial giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai:

"The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire, ... saying, ... (Deut 5:4-5)

Moses recorded that God said these words "in the mount" yet he recorded quite different words than those in Exodus 20. One would have to conclude that Moses himself was guilty of "diminishing ought from" the words of God - indeed from something as important as the Ten Commandments.

He took away: "For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day." He also added: "And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm."

Later in Deuteronomy, the prohibition against changes to the word was repeated:

"What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it." (Deut 12:32)

What To Do With Moses?
So should we discount Moses as a spokesperson for God? This passage would seem to indicate that Moses was a liar:

"Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar." (Pro 30:5-6)

So should we then throw out the whole Torah which was written by Moses? Is it the exact words that cannot be taken away or added to? If so, we had better throw out every version of scripture except the original Hebrew because translation involves substituting words in our language for words in the original language so that we can even begin to understand it.

God's Intent
Or is there another way to understand this? Could it be that it is the intent of the words - the meaning of the message itself - that is important? In that case, the translation process (removing Hebrew words and adding English words) is, for us, a tremendous aid in understanding. And if another translator with better knowledge or insight knows of a more appropriate English word that better conveys the original meaning and uses that better word in a new English translation, while it could be seen as a change to the Word, it is actually beneficial.

We misunderstand God if we think He is acting as an autocrat making laws just because He can. No, He is a loving Father who wants a close relationship with us; Who wants us to understand His ways and Who uses whatever means (including stating things in different ways or later adding more detail) to meet us in our changing circumstances so that we can understand.

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, He expanded on the law, adding more detail to it. In verses such as:

"But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." (Matt 5:28)

He magnified the law by taking it from an outward action to the thoughts and intents of the heart. And He did all of this speaking on behalf of this Father:

"Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things." (John 8:28)

So what Jesus gave was not negating what was previously given, it was amplifying the meaning. This is not adding to the word in a negative sense. It is helping us to understand.

God's Laws are Adaptable
God's laws in the Torah as given to the children of Israel were totally for their benefit. There was a good reason they were called "children." Having just come out of slavery they were very immature in their understanding of God. He gave them laws as He saw they needed them for their circumstances. We do the same for our children and modify our requirements as they mature. We might occasionally change our household rules not because we change but because our children change. We (hopefully) do not change in the sense that we always act from the principle of other-centered love as does the God Who changes not. God, out of love, changes His approach and the wording He uses according to our needs.

Beware of thinking we can just disregard an explanation of scripture because additional words are used to do that. Get away from shallow thinking and understand God's ways which are higher than man's.

"Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD ..." (Isa 1:18)

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