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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Here again, we have evidence of the miscellaneous, “shotgun” lack of organization in this great address by Moses. The Great Lawgiver included many things in this remarkable presentation that were not very closely related to each other. As Cousins stated it, “It is hard to distinguish any pattern in this section, although some laws are grouped together.”(F1) For example, Deuteronomy 21:10-21 concerns family affairs, and Deuteronomy 23:1-18 deals with the purity of the community. Keil wrote that:

“The reason for grouping these five laws which are apparently so different from one another, as well as for attaching them to the previous regulations, is found in the desire to bring out distinctly the sacredness of life and of personal rights from every point of view, and impress it upon the covenant nation.(F2)

The “five laws” referred to by Keil in this chapter are as follows:

(1) expiation of a murder by an unknown person (Deuteronomy 21:1-9);

(2) rights of a wife who was taken from among prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14);

(3) the right of the first-born (Deuteronomy 21:15-17);

(4) punishment of a rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21); and

(5) the right of prompt burial for those executed (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

Kline pointed out that another classification of these laws may group several of them under the title of “Limiting the authority of the head of the household.”(F3) Thus, his authority is limited in regard to a captive made a wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-11), also in the matter of a preferred wife whose son was not allowed to preempt the rights of the first-born by the unloved wife (Deuteronomy 21:15-17), and in the prohibition against his putting a rebellious son to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

All of the speculations that one finds in commentaries regarding the “sources” of the material here may be safely rejected and ignored. Wright, for example, wrote that, “Most of these laws are quoted from older sources.”(F4) If this is true, why did he not name the sources? It is obvious that there are no older sources. Such sources of the alleged sources of the Pentateuch are merely the imaginations of men and have never had any actual existence in fact. If all of those “sources” had ever existed, why is it that not a single syllable from any one of them has ever been found upon any ancient monument, uncovered by the excavations of any ancient city, or referred to in any of the writings of all nations throughout all ages? It appears to us that any appeal to such non-existent “sources” is, whether intentional or not, an effort to deceive!

Verses 1-9


“If one be slain in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him; 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 nearest unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, and which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; and the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them Jehovah thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of Jehovah; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be. And all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; and they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Forgive, O Jehovah, thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of thy people Israel. And the blood shall be forgiven them. So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of Jehovah.”

The conception here is clearly one of corporate responsibility. Every community is responsible for crimes committed within its boundaries, and any unpunished crime must inevitably leave traces of contamination upon the whole body of the people. “When the evil has been dealt with, usually when the crime has been punished, the contamination is removed.”(F5) The situation here, however, is one in which it was impossible to mete out the proper punishment for the murderer, due to the fact that he was unknown.

Some have complained that, “To the Protestant Christian this act appears as verging on the realm of cultic magic.”(F6) However, the instructions in this passage lift the whole procedure far above any of the essential features of magic. Forgiveness is indeed sought, but of whom? Of the one true and Almighty God, and herein is an impassable gulf intervening between what God commanded here and all of the magic ever practiced on earth.

Cook was correct in the discernment here that, “This transaction was figurative, and was so ordered as to impress the lesson of Genesis 9:5 f.”(F7) Regarding no other responsibility has the human race been quite so rebelliously indifferent as they have been with regard to the Divine order to put ALL murderers to death.

The killing of the heifer here was in no sense a sacrifice, as indicated by the manner of killing it by breaking its neck. Sacrifices had to have their blood shed and sprinkled in a certain way upon the altar. There is no parallel whatever to this ceremony among any known ceremonies of the pagans, and many of the specifics here are not exactly clear as to why this or that was commanded. The entire ceremony was SYMBOLICAL, perhaps, of the punishment, that was due the unknown murderer.

The uncultivated valley mentioned in Deuteronomy 21:4 is, according to Orlinsky, “a wady with a perennial stream,” and in Deuteronomy 21:5, he translated the comment about the Levites thus, “Every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling.(F8)

A very undiscerning remark by Watts is that, “The introduction of the Levitical priests, Deuteronomy 21:5, adds nothing to the description.”(F9) Alexander pointed out the true reason for the appearance of the Levites in this ceremony: “The presence of the priests was due to their position as servants of Jehovah, on whom it devolved to see that all was done in the manner God’s law prescribed.”(F10)

Kline read the comment in Deuteronomy 21:5 as, “A clear affirmation of the ultimate judicial authority vested in the priesthood, and their appearance here was purely judicial… it was a ceremonial execution of the heifer substituted for the unknown murderer.”(F11) Jamieson pointed out that in the actual practice of Israel, the Sanhedrin, in such cases, ordered the magistrates (elders) of the responsible city, “to provide the heifer at the civic expense and to go through with the appointed ceremonies.”(F12)

Craigie thought that the last clause in Deuteronomy 21:7 signified more than the mere fact of the city’s elders having not “witnessed” the crime. “It may indicate that they had not seen and did not know anything that might lead to the conviction of the guilty party.”(F13) “If the murderer was discovered afterward, of course, the punishment of death would still fall upon him.”(F14)

The prayer for forgiveness (Deuteronomy 21:8) was uttered by the priests, implying that the local citizens were guilty of the crime of “failure to make the roads safe for travelers.”(F15) “Corporate guilt is an alien concept in our modern world, but such passages as this challenge the reader to take it seriously.”(F16)

Verses 10-14


“When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and Jehovah thy God delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive, and seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and thou hast a desire unto her, and wouldest take her unto thee to wife; then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy 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. 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 deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.”

“The main principle here is that a man’s authority did not extend to the right of reducing his wife to a slave,”(F17) even though the wife might have been, at one time, a slave. The mention of divorce here is not given as a sanction for it but is mentioned incidentally. All polygamous marriages in the O.T. are presented in such a manner as to expose them as disharmonious and unsatisfactory.

Watts thought this paragraph should have been included in Deuteronomy 20 as part of the instructions on war;(F18) but Keil’s words on this in the chapter introduction are far preferable. Wright called the provisions here examples, “of thoughtful forbearance and consideration,”(F19) not often associated with thoughts of war. The superiority of the true religion as contrasted with the ordinary behavior of people shines in such a passage as this.

Regarding the foolishness of any man who would choose a companion for life on the mere OUTWARD appearance of a woman, we have this from Oberst:

“We would seriously question a man’s wisdom who would choose a life’s partner on such a superficial basis, with little or no chance to consider whether she was beautiful in character. Let one so tempted heed the warning of the Bible: “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids” (Proverbs 6:25). Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain. But a woman that feareth Jehovah, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:20).(F20)

In this same connection, a Jewish writer, seeking to explain WHY this marriage to a beautiful foreign captive should appear in the same chapter with the directions for putting to death a “refractory and rebellious son,” stated that, a man who would be so taken by a woman’s PHYSICAL BEAUTY that he would marry her in spite of her heathen origin is obviously one who attaches more importance to superficial glamour than to inner virtue, and that, “It is only natural that a man with such an attitude should beget a son who is “refractory and rebellious.”(F21)

Just here it is wise to remember that the prohibition against the Israelites intermarrying with the Canaanites did not extend to intermarriage with other foreign peoples; therefore, the case under discussion here related to a captive taken in “a distant city.” McGarvey supposed in this connection that David’s intermarriage with certain foreign women did not violate God’s law, but that Solomon’s did.(F22) But David’s also did in the case of Bathsheba.

Jamieson thought that a double purpose was served by the ban against marrying a captive woman until her month for mourning had been fulfilled. He noted that the shaving of the head was a sign of grief and mourning and that the putting away of the garments of her captivity had the utility of taking away any glamour the woman might have had due to her dress, and that in such a changed state the passions of her would-be-husband might be subdued. Part of this was based on the custom of women about to be captured. “They arrayed themselves in the most gorgeous garments they possessed in order to be more attractive to their captors.”(F23) Whatever the full purpose of this legislation, “The humanitarian tone of it is unique in the ancient world.”(F24)

Verses 15-17


“If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated: and if the first-born son be hers that was hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; then it shall be, in the day that he causeth his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born before the son of the hated who is the first-born: but he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the hated, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath; for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the first-born is his.”

The right of primogeniture existed long before the Law of Moses was given and was apparently recognized throughout the whole world of that period. The special legislation here seems that it might have been formulated with the life of Jacob and the Twelve Patriarchs in mind. There can be no doubt whatever that Jacob would have preferred to have Joseph as the first-born, for he was the son of the beloved Rachel. However, even when Jacob disinherited Reuben because of his adultery with one of Jacob’s wives, God still decreed that the Messianic line should descend through Judah, despite his being the son of the “hated” wife. Jacob honored God’s law in this, and when Leah was buried, she was laid to rest next to Jacob in the cave of Machpelah.

The big thing here is that the authority of the head of the household did NOT include the right of choosing WHICH son would be his first-born. That honor pertained inalienably to the son who ACTUALLY was the first-born. The Biblical use of the term “hated” in this passage should not be misunderstood as reflecting the current usage of the term today. It means “loved less” and not, in any sense, “hated.” The preferred wife versus the not-preferred wife is the conflict pictured here. It should be noted that polygamy is always presented in the Bible is such a manner as to expose the sinfulness of those who practiced it. “If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated” Was there ever a situation in which a man had two wives and this situation did not exist? Ridiculous! The bitterness and conflict were inherent in polygamy itself.

“Beloved” and “hated” are relative terms, meaning simply that one is preferred to the other.”(F25) “The wisdom of having two wives is not even discussed by Moses. As in so many other cases in Deuteronomy, the evil is anticipated and the problem faced `as is,’ not `as hoped.’“(F26) “In the O.T., polygamy is frequently described in a context of family disruption. There is no attempt to make polygamy appear as a good thing.”(F27)

Verses 18-21


“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and, though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; 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. And all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones: so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”

In this passage the right of parents to put a rebellious son to death was restricted, “but at the same time parental authority was upheld.”(F28) Christ himself approved of such basic parental authority in Mark 7:10. It must surely be evident to all people that humanity’s basic disrespect of parental authority has borne a bitter harvest and continues to do so. “It is significant here that in case of such an execution, the primary witnesses (the son’s parents) did not participate.”(F29) This of course was contrary to the usual custom in which the accusing witness was to cast the first stone. Here again, the deep concern for the nature of human feelings is evident.

Verses 22-23


“And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put do death, and thou hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thou defile not the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”

The link of connection is contained in this thought: “Along with the punishment of the wicked, the recollection of their crimes was also to be removed.”(F30) It appears that Christ himself understood and endorsed such a principle as follows: “Ye build the sepulchres of the prophets and garnish the tombs of the righteous” (Matthew 22:29 f). In that remarkable paragraph, our Lord placed the decorating of the tombs of the prophets on the same basis as their murder, such decorations being, in fact, memorials of the crimes that the Pharisees had committed.

It is important to observe here that, “The dead body was not accursed because it was hanging on a tree, but it was hanging on a tree because it was accursed.”(F31) Also, a number of scholars have pointed out that the reference here is not to crucifixion, a form of execution unknown at that time, but to the rather common practice of exhibiting the dead body of some notorious criminal as a warning to others. Farmers in West Texas still hang the bodies of trapped coyotes on fences as a deterrent to other coyotes.

Something of this same intention entered into the ancient custom of impaling dead bodies of the executed in public places. Here is found the basis of Paul’s wonderful words, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written: `Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’“ (Galatians 3:13). The epic failure of Israel appears in the truth that when the Redeemer himself came into the world, they caused him to be fastened to a tree in his death, supposing, of course, that they had fastened upon Jesus the curse of a passage like this, but in the case of the holy and righteous Christ, the curse fell not upon him but upon the once-chosen people. “Crucifixion was a terrible method of execution adopted later by Romans from the Orient, and used by them only upon slaves and the very vilest of criminals.”(F32) The same thing happened to crucifixion as a means of execution that also happened to the curse. Christ’s being crucified elevated the Cross to the most hallowed position of honor and symbolism ever known on earth. There is no holier symbol than that of the Cross of Christ! “The Jews of Paul’s day, as well as later ones, argued from the `offence of the cross’: Seeing that Jesus was hanged on a tree, he could not be the Son of God.”(F33) How profoundly wrong they were! The reproach of Christ is the salvation of the world. The battle cry of the Church in all ages has been, and continues to be:

“Let us go forth unto Him without (outside) the camp, bearing his reproach” (Hebrews 13:13).

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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