In this chapter God calls on Israel to respect human life and to balance the rights of the individual with the ministry and life of God’s people. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 discusses the law that governed unsolved murders as a lesson on the sanctity of life.
Deuteronomy 21:1 God is zealous for the holiness of His land. Innocent blood pollutes His land. When a person is discovered in the Land who has apparently not died of natural causes and appears to have a fatal wound, an investigation is to be made. The situation is to be brought to the elders of the community nearest to the site of the body so that they can take appropriate action and discern the Lord’s counsel. Murder is a sin against the Lord as well as the victim and his family. Such a death was especially odious since blood was shed in the Lord’s Holy Land.
Deuteronomy 21:2-5 It is likely that the person responsible lived nearby and fled the scene. The closest city to the place where the body was found needed to be determined. It may have been accidental or not, but it needed to be reported to the leaders of that city. In a procedure overseen by the priests, “judges and officials” would be appointed to investigate. If a murderer could not be found, then the priests would direct a prescribed ceremony. The officials would select a heifer which had never been used in plowing and a field that had not been used for cultivation near running water. Then the neck of the heifer would be broken. The fact that the animal and field had never been used in plowing suggested a purity uncontaminated by man. One might wonder why this was done instead of offering the blood of the animal to atone for the sin. Most likely because this procedure was to be done near where the death occurred instead of in the Temple where blood offerings were to be offered. Blood offerings were only acceptable at the appointed place of sacrifice in the Tabernacle or later in the Temple.
Deuteronomy 21:6-9 The city officials would wash their hands over the animal. The elders represented the people and demonstrated the community’s innocence by washing their hands over the carcass of the heifer, then professing their innocence of the act and that they did not witness the presumed murder. Their prayer included a plea for the Lord to forgive the sin in their community and cleanse them from any blame for the death of the victim. After this ceremony the priests would pronounce that in faith their forgiveness and cleansing had been accomplished. Here we see the assurance of answered prayer in God’s forgiveness of the community and His people. God respects all human life and this was the only procedure that would be acceptable for the covering of innocent blood in God’s Holy Land. If the person who committed the crime was later discovered the procedure outlined in Deut 19:11-13 would be undertaken.
Deuteronomy 21:10-13 These are further instructions on how they were to treat the survivors of the cities taken in warfare. This law stressed marriage and sexual purity and respect for women. Women taken prisoner could be acquired as wives by Israelites. Assault, rape, and the mistreatment of women was forbidden. This law protected the rights of women, their dignity, and the importance of marriage among God’s people. The soldier was to bring the woman into his home but was not allowed to touch her for a month before he could marry her. And even then, he had to undergo a waiting period just to make sure that his attraction was genuine love and not infatuation. The woman was to shave her head, trim her nails, put on new clothes, and mourn for her parents. All this pictured the woman dying to her old life and beginning a new one with the Lord and His people. If for some reason the Israelite decided to divorce her, she had to be released to go wherever she wanted. She was to be treated as a member of the covenant community. She could not be sold as a slave or mistreated. She was to retain her honor and dignity as a free woman.
Deuteronomy 21:15-18 These are the laws regarding a woman who was added as a second wife. This is a clear lesson on justice and on showing partiality and favoritism. Note that polygamy is accepted and condoned in this passage. Why? Probably for three reasons:
- Probably for the same reason divorce was allowed, because of the hardness of their hearts (Mt. 19:8; Mk. 10:5).
- Perhaps because polygamy had been practiced from the very earliest of times (Ge. 4:19). It was apparently common practice in the ancient world.
- Perhaps because there was a shortage of men due to the savagery and loss of life during wars.
Whatever the reason, polygamy was condoned even among the Israelites. For this reason, the rights of the firstborn needed to be defined because of issues that arise in polygamy. Invariably a man would love and prefer one wife over the other with the result would favoring her over the second wife. The result would lead to jealousy, strife, partiality, favoritism. The law regarding inheritance taught that the father could not give the rights of the firstborn to a son of the loved wife unless he was the firstborn son. Consider the reason why: the firstborn son was the first picture of the father’s strength, to bring life into the world. It would be the role of the firstborn to stand in the place of the father at his death and serve as the patriarch of the family.
This law protected the rights of the firstborn son and assured that justice would be done. Partiality and favoritism were not allowed when dealing with the inheritance rights of the firstborn son. We can learn here that as parents we are not to show partiality or favoritism to our children. Isaac did this to his and Rebecca’s everlasting regret leading to terrible consequences in Israel.
The firstborn son was to be given a “double portion” of the inheritance. This was a provision to have the resources needed to assume his responsibility as a firstborn son. The same phrase is used in 2 Kings 2:9: “And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?’ Elisha said, ‘Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’” This request is often mistakenly interpreted to mean that Elisha desired twice as much of the spirit as Elijah possessed. Not so. He is asking Elijah to declare him his primary successor, his spiritual heir.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 “Stubbornness” is a companion word of “rebellious,” whose root in Hebrew is “bitterness” and focused against the authority of the parents. Such rebellion is seen toward parents but by extension is ultimately toward God. It is the Lord who calls us to submit to authority that is placed over us (Jer 5:23; Ps 78:8 examples of Israel’s stubbornness). If parents ever reached the point when they could not control their son where he was threatening the stability and security of the family, the parents were to take the son to the gate of the city where judgment was rendered. The judges were to question and examine the child to determine what was to be done. It is the parents who present the case against their son. Gluttony and drunkenness are generally associated with such stubbornness and rebellion in Scripture (Prov 23:20-21). When the elders determined that the child was guilty as charged, the men of the city would execute him by stoning. This was done to remove the evil from the midst of God’s people. Discipline by God’s people in the community is carried over in the New Covenant through ex-communication as in 1 Cor. 5 and his restoration in 2 Cor. 2:5-11. Sinful behavior is described as leaven which permeates the covenant community like leaven in bread. The stoning would cause other young people to see the consequences of rebellion and fear both the Lord and His judgment.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 After a person was executed by stoning, he could be placed on a tree as a visual testimony to the community on the consequences of such sin. Hanging in public was practiced widely by both the Israel and most nations (Josh 8:23, 29; Esth 2:23; 5:14; 7:10; 8:7) or as a public display after death (Gen 40:19, 22; Josh 10:26; 2 Sam 4:12; 21:12). The body could not be left after sunset. It was to be taken down and buried because the curse of the guilty would then come upon God’s people. One who is so hung was cursed and foreshadowed the death of Yeshua on the cross (tree; Gal 3:13). Of all men none were more cursed than Yeshua who became cursed for us by bearing in His body all the sin of mankind (2 Cor 5:21). Even those who suffered such judgment were to be buried. This served as a reminder that even the most sinful and hated men are created in the image of God and their bodies were be treated with dignity.