Deuteronomy 21 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Deuteronomy 21
Pulpit Commentary
If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:
Verses 1-9. - If a body was found lying dead from a wound, and it was not known by whom the wound had been inflicted, the whole land would be involved in the guilt of the murder, unless it was duly expiated as here directed. First, the elders and judges (presumably of the neighboring towns; of Josephus, 'Antiq.' 4:8, 16) were to meet, the former as magistrates representing the communities, the latter as administrators of the law, and were to measure the distance from the body of the slain man to each of the surrounding towns, in order to ascertain which was the nearest. This ascertained, upon that town was to be laid the duty of expiating the crime.
Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:
And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;
Verse 3. - An heifer, which hath not boon wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; a young cow which had not been rendered unfit for consecration, nor had its vital force impaired, by being subjected to forced labor (cf. Numbers 19:2).
And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley:
Verse 4. - A rough valley; literally, a stream of perpetuity, a perennial stream (cf. Psalm 74:15, Authorized Version, "mighty rivers;" Amos 5:24); but here rather the valley or wady through which a stream flowed, as is evident from its being described as neither eared - that is, ploughed (literally, wrought, tilled) - nor sown; a place which had not been profaned by the hand of man, but was in a state of nature. "This regulation as to the locality in which the act of expiation was to be performed was probably founded on the idea that the water of the brook-valley would suck in the blood and clean it away, and that the blood sucked in by the earth would not be brought to light again by the ploughing and working of the soil" (Keil). Strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley; rather, break the heifer's neck. As this was not an act of sacrifice, for which the shedding of blood would have been required, but simply a symbolical representation of the infliction of death on the undiscovered murderer, the animal was to be killed by breaking its neck (cf. Exodus 13:13).
And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried:
Verse 5. - And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near. The presence of the priests at this ceremony was due to their position as the servants of Jehovah the King of Israel, on whom it devolved to see that all was done in any matter as his Law prescribed. The priests present were probably those from the nearest Levitical town. And by their word shall every controversy and every stroke he tried; literally, And upon their mouth shall be every strife and every stroke, i.e. by their judgment the character of the act shall be determined, and as they decide so shall the matter stand (cf. Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 17:8). In the present case the presence of the priests at the transaction gave it sanction as valid.
And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley:
Verse 6. - The elders of that city. The elders, by the significant act of washing their hands, indicated that they threw off from them, utterly repudiated, the charge of blood-guiltiness on the part of the town which they represented (cf. Psalm 26:6; Psalm 73:13; Matthew 27:24).
And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.
Verses 7, 8. - This act they were to accompany with a solemn declaration of their innocence of this crime, and of their entire ignorance of the perpetrator of it; and with an earnest cry to God that the sin which had been done might be forgiven. Be merciful... unto; be propitiated towards (literally, cover, כַּפֵּר לְעַמְך; for the phrase, כַּפֵר לְ, see Leviticus 1:4). And lay not innocent blood; the blood of the innocent man who has been slain.
Be merciful, O LORD, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.
So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the LORD.
Verse 9. - In this way they were to deliver themselves as a nation from blood-guiltiness. "Expiation was made by the killing of the transgressor when he could be found (Deuteronomy 19:13; Numbers 35:33); when he was not known, by the process here described. Of course, if afterwards he were apprehended, he would suffer the penalty he had incurred" (Knobel); so also Keil, Herxheimer, etc., after the Talmud ('Sota,' 9:7).
When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,
Verses 10-14. - If an Israelite saw among captives taken in war a woman, fair of aspect, and loved her, and took her to be his wife, he was to allow her a full month to mourn her lost kindred, and become accustomed to her new condition, before he consummated his union with her. This refers to captives from other nations than those of Canaan, with whom the Israelites were to form no alliance, and whom they were not to take captive, but either wholly destroy or render tributary (cf. Deuteronomy 7:3; Numbers 21:1, etc.; Joshua 11:19).
And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;
Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
Verse 12. - She shall shave her head, and pare her nails. The shaving of the head and the paring of the nails, as well as the putting off of the garments worn when taken captive, were signs of purification, of separation from former heathenism, preparatory to reception among the covenant people of Jehovah (cf. Leviticus 14:8; Numbers 8:7). Pare her nails; literally, make or prepare her nails, i.e. by cutting them down to a proper size and form (cf. 2 Samuel 19:25, where the same word is used of dressing the feet and trimming the beard). The Targum of Onkelos takes this in quite an opposite sense, rendering, as in the margin of the Authorized Version, "suffer to grow," and the rabbins who adopt this meaning suppose that the design of the prescription was that the woman, being rendered unlovely, the man might be deterred from taking her to be his wife. But this is altogether alien from the spirit and scope of the passage.
And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
Verse 13. - The raiment of her captivity; i.e. the raiment she had on whoa taken captive; this she was to lay aside, that she might put on garments of mourning. A full month; literally, a month of days; the period of mourning was forty days (cf. Genesis 50:3).
And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.
Verse 14. - Should the man afterwards come no longer to have pleasure in her, he was to let her go whither she would, but he was not to sell her for money or use any violence to her. Thou shalt not make merchandise of her. The verb in the form here used occurs only here and in Deuteronomy 24:7; derived from a root which signifies to gather or press, it properly means to press for one's self, to lay hands on one, to use violence to one.
If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:
Verses 15-17. - If a man have two wives, one of whom is a favorite and the other disliked, and if his firstborn son be the child of the latter, he is not to allow his love for the other to prejudice the right of the son, but must allow him, both in his own lifetime and in the disposition of his property after death, the full privilege and right of a firstborn son.
Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn:
Verse 16. - He may not make; literally, is not able to make; i.e. is legally incapable of making.
But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.
Verse 17. - A double portion; literally, a mouth of two; i.e. a portion (so "mouth" is used in 2 Kings 2:9; Zechariah 13:8) equal to that of two; consequently, the firstborn inherited twice as much as any of the other sons. Amongst all nations and from the earliest times, the right of the eldest son to pre-eminence among his brethren has been recognized; and in legislating for Israel, Moses so far simply sanctioned a usage he found already existing; the assignment, however, of a double share in the inheritance to the eldest son is a new and special provision, mentioned only here. Beginning of his strength (cf. Genesis 49:3).
If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
Verses 18-21. - If a son was refractory and unmanageable by his parents, if, given to sensual indulgence, he would yield neither to reproof nor to chastisement, - the parents were to lay hold on him, and lead him to the elders of the town, sitting as magistrates at its gates, and there accuse him of his evil ways and rebelliousness. The testimony of the parents was apparently held sufficient to substantiate the charge, and this being received by the elders, the culprit was to be put to death by stoning.
Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
Verse 20. - He will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. Gluttony and drunkenness were regarded by the Hebrews as highly criminal. The word rendered by "glutton," however (זולַל, from זָלַל, to shake, to shake out, to squander), includes other kinds of excess besides eating. It designates one who is prodigal, who wastes his means or wastes his person by indulgence. In Proverbs 23:30, the whole phrase (זולְלֵי בָּשָׂר) is given - squanderers of flesh, i.e. wasters of their own body, debauchees. In Proverbs 28:7, the word is translated "riotous men" in the Authorized Version. Disobedience to parents was deemed an offense, which struck at the roots of the whole social institute.
And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
Verse 21. - The penalty of such crimes was death; but the power of inflicting this was not among the Hebrews - as among some other ancient peoples, the Greeks and Romans, for instance - left with the father; the punishment could be inflicted only by the community, with the sanction of the magistrate. A Hebrew parent might chastise his child with severity, but not so as to affect his life (Proverbs 19:18, "Chasten thy son while there is hope, but raise not thy soul [let not thy passion rise so high as] to slay him"). While parental authority was sacredly preserved, a check was by the Law imposed on hasty passion.
And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:
Verses 22, 23. - When a criminal was put to death and was hanged upon a tree, his body was not to remain there over-night, but was to be buried the same day on which he was executed. Verse 22. - If a man have committed a sin worthy of death; literally, If there be on a man a judgment of death; if he lie under sentence of death. Hang him on a tree. This refers not to putting to death by strangling, but to the impaling of the body after death (cf. C. B. Michaelis, 'De Judiciis Poenisque Capitalibus in Sac. Script. Commemoratis,' in 'Sylloge Commentt. Theolog.,' edita a D. J. Pott, vol. 4. p. 209). This was an aggravation of the punishment, as the body so impaled was exposed to insult and assault (cf. Numbers 25:4; Genesis 40:19).
His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
Verse 23. - He that is hanged is accursed of God; literally, a curse of God. Some take this as meaning an insult to God, a contemning of him, "since man his image is thus given up to scorn and insult" (Rashi). But the more probable meaning is "a curse inflicted by God," which the transgressor is made to endure (cf. Galatians 3:13). That thy land be not defiled. The land was defiled, not only by sins committed by its inhabitants, but also by the public exposure of criminals who had been put to death for their sins (cf. Leviticus 18:24, 25; Numbers 35:33, 34). On this law Joshua acted (cf. Joshua 8:29; Joshua 10:26, 27).

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