Deuteronomy 21 – Various Laws
A. The law of unsolved murders.
1. (1) The presence of an unsolved murder.
If anyone is found slain, lying in the field in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed him,
a. If anyone is found slain: Presumably, death from natural causes had been ruled out and it was evident that the deceased had been murdered; yet, it was not known who killed him.
b. It is not know who killed him: This was important based on a principle stated in Numbers 35:33-34. This passage shows that the blood of unsolved, unavenged murder defiles and pollutes the land. Therefore, if there is a murder unavenged, some kind of cleansing is necessary, so the land will not be defiled.
2. (2-6) The procedure for atoning for murder-polluted land.
Then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance from the slain man to the surrounding cities. And it shall be that the elders of the city nearest to the slain man will take a heifer which has not been worked and which has not pulled with a yoke. The elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with flowing water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and they shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to bless in the name of the LORD; by their word every controversy and every assault shall be settled. And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley.
a. The elders of the city nearest to the slain man: First, the matter of jurisdiction had to be settled. These elders were responsible to make the sacrifice to atone for and cleanse the murder-polluted land.
b. A heifer which has not been worked: Then, appropriate sacrifice had to be made. This heifer was sacrificed by the sons of Levi in the presence of the city elders, who washed their hands over the sacrificed animal.
i. This washing of the hands, done in the presence of the sons of Levi, who by their word every controversy and every assault shall be settled, was a powerful proclamation by the elders: “We have done all we could to settle this case, but cannot. We are clean from all guilt in the matter of this slain man.”
ii. Of course, this ceremony of washing the hands over the sacrificed animal meant nothing if the elders had in fact not done what they could to avenge the murder; apart from that, this washing of the hands was just as much an empty gesture as Pilate’s washing of his hands at the trial of Jesus (Matthew 27:24).
3. (7-9) The prayer said by the elders as they washed their hands.
Then they shall answer and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it. Provide atonement, O LORD, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.” And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood. So you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.
a. Provide atonement, O LORD: Again, Numbers 35:33-34 makes the principle clear, that unavenged murders defile and pollute the land and atonement must be made for the land itself.
b. So you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood: When Israel followed God’s instructions for atonement, He honored His word by taking away their guilt. But the removal of guilt was always based on blood sacrifice, on a substitutionary atonement – looking forward to the work of Jesus on the cross for the entire world.
B. Laws relevant to family and home situations.
1. (10-14) Laws regarding the taking of a wife from conquered peoples.
When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.
a. And you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her: In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for a man to take a wife from among the captives, especially if she was a beautiful woman. Yet obviously, this was open to great abuse, so God give specific guidelines to govern this practice in Israel.
b. Shave her head and trim her nails: First, the captive woman had to be purified and humbled. This denoted a complete break with her past, and the willingness to start anew, humbly as a child.
c. Put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house: Second, the captive woman had to show a change of allegiance. This showed that the captive woman no longer regarded her former nation and her former family; now she was a citizen of Israel.
d. Mourn her father and mother a full month: Third, the captive woman had to mourn her past associations. This would be time when she could resolve issues in her heart regarding her family, and when her husband-to-be could live with her a month without intimate relations – so he could see if he really wanted to take this woman as a wife, and to make sure he was not making a decision based only of physical appearance or attractiveness.
e. You certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally: After the month of mourning, the potential husband was free to marry the captive woman – yet, he did not have to. But if he decided not to, he had to set her free with dignity. This was a remarkable protection of the rights of a captive woman.
2. (15-17) The protection of inheritance rights.
If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the unloved, and if the firstborn son is of her who is unloved, then it shall be, on the day he bequeaths his possessions to his sons, that he must not bestow firstborn status on the son of the loved wife in preference to the son of the unloved, the true firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.
a. If a man has two wives: Obviously, there are going to be problems in a home like this, especially if there is one loved and the other unloved. Yet, God commanded that the inheritance rights of the firstborn son be respected, even if he were the son of the unloved wife.
b. A double portion of all that he has: This was the right of the firstborn in ancient Israel; the firstborn son was to receive twice as much inheritance as any other son. For example, if there were three sons, the inheritance would be divided into four parts, with the firstborn receiving two parts, and the other two sons each receiving one part.
3. (18-21) The penalty for a rebellious son.
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear.
a. A stubborn and rebellious son: This does not mean a small child, or even a young teen – but a son past the age of accountability, who sets himself in determined rebellion against his father and mother.
b. Who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them: The parents must have done a good job raising the son, calling him to obedience, and chastening him as appropriate before the LORD.
c. Bring him out to the elders of his city: Such a stubborn and rebellious son was to be put on trial before the elders of the city. If they determine him to be chronically rebellious, then the son was to be stoned to death.
i. It is important to note that the parents could not, by themselves, execute this penalty. They had to bring the son on trial before impartial judges. This is in contrast to ancient Greek and Roman law, which gave fathers the absolute right of life or death over their children. This was a control of parental authority more than it was an exercise of it.
ii. The parents had to take the boy to the elders of the community; not only because the decision of life or death should be taken out of their direct hands, but because the guilt of the stubborn and rebellious son was not only against his parents, but against the whole community. He sowed the seeds for cultural suicide in Israel.
d. And all Israel shall hear and fear: This law was clearly intended to protect the social order of ancient Israel. No society can endure when the young are allowed to make war against the old.
i. Perhaps just the presence of this law was deterrent enough; we never have a Scriptural example of a son being stoned to death because he was a stubborn and rebellious son.
ii. “Yet the Jews say this law was never put into practice, and therefore it might be made for terror and prevention, and to render the authority of parents more sacred and powerful.” (Poole)
iii. “Stoning was the punishment appointed for blasphemers and idolaters; which if it seem severe, it is to be considered that parents are in God’s stead, and entrusted in good measure with his authority over their children; and that families are the matter and foundation of the church and commonwealth, and they who are naughty members and rebellious children in them, do commonly prove the bane and plague of these, and therefore no wonder if they are nipped in the bud.” (Poole)
iv. “If such a law were in force now, and duly executed, how many deaths of disobedient and profligate children would there be in all corners of the land!” (Clarke)
4. (22-23) The curse upon one who hangs on a tree.
If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.
a. And you hang him on a tree: In the thinking of ancient Israel there was something worse than being put to death. Worse than that was to be put to death and to have your corpse left exposed to shame, humiliation, and scavenging animals and birds.
i. Hang him on a tree does not have the idea of being executed by strangulation; but of having the corpse mounted on a tree or other prominent place, to expose the executed one to disgrace and the elements.
b. His body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day: Therefore, if anyone was executed and deemed worthy of such disgrace (and you hang him on a tree), the humiliation to his memory and his family must not be excessive. This was a way of tempering even the most severe judgment with mercy.
i. “It is worthy of remark that in the infliction of punishment prescribed by the Mosaic law, we ever find that Mercy walks hand in hand with Judgment.” (Clarke)
c. For he who is hanged is accursed of God: The punishment of being hanged on a tree, and left to open exposure, was thought to be so severe, that it was reserved only for those for which is was to be declared: “this one is accursed of God.”
i. Paul expounds on Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13-14: Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Jesus not only died in our place; but He also took the place as the accursed of God, being hung on a “tree” in open shame and degradation. He received this curse, which we deserved, and He did not, so that we could receive the blessing of Abraham, which He deserved, and we did not.
ii. We are redeemed from the curse of the law by the work of Jesus on the cross for us. We no longer have to fear that God wants to curse us; He wants to bless us, not because of who we are, or what we have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission