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Saturday, July 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 21

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - UnabridgedCommentary Critical Unabridged

Verse 1

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:

If one be found slain ... lying in the field. The ceremonies here ordained to be observed on the discovery of a slaughtered corpse show the ideas of sanctity which the Mosaic law sought to associate with human blood, the horror which murder inspired, as well as the fears that were felt lest God should avenge it on the country at large, and the pollution which the land was supposed to contract from the effusion of innocent, unexpiated blood.

According to Jewish writers, the sanhedrim, taking charge of such a case, sent a deputation to examine the neighbourhood, and, they having reported which was the nearest town to the spot where the body was found, an order was issued by their supreme authority to the elders or magistrates of that town to provide the heifer at the civic expense, and go through the appointed ceremonial. The engagement of the public authorities in the work of expiation-the purchase of the victim heifer-the conducting it to a "rough valley," which might be at a considerable distance, and which, as the original - [ nachal (H5158) 'eeytaan (H386): cf. Amos 5:24. Septuagint, eis faranga tracheian, a "rough," rugged valley] - implies, was a wady, a perennial stream, in the waters of which the polluting blood would be wiped away from the land, and a desert, withal, incapable of cultivation-the striking off of the heifer's head, contrary to the usual mode of slaughtering (see Wilkinson, 'Ancient Egyptians,' 2:, p. 375) - the presence of the Levites, the ministers of religion, the washing of the magistrates' hands, which was an ancient act symbolical of innocence (see the note at Matthew 27:24), followed by a solemn denial of the imputation of the crime of blood guiltiness, for themselves as well as for the community in which they lived-the whole of the ceremonial was calculated to make a deep impression on the Jewish, as well as on the Oriental mind generally, to stimulate the activity of the magistrates in the discharge of their official duties, to lead to the discovery of the criminal, and the repression of crime.

This singular statute concerning homicide by some person or persona unknown is unquestionably far superior to what is to be found in the criminal code of any other ancient nation. Plato ('De Leg.,' lib. 9:, which is commonly appended to as a model of legislative wisdom) merely provided, that on the discovery of a murdered corpse, and the assassin could not be got, proclamation should be made prohibiting his entrance into a temple; because, if he were detected, he should be immediately put to death, and denied the rites of burial. But the enactment of Moses, which was accompanied by an expressive solemnity of observances, was better calculated to serve the purposes of a penal statute; and it was undoubtedly the origin or germ of the modern coroners inquests.

Verses 2-9

Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verses 10-14

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,

When thou goest forth to war ... and seest among the captives a beautiful woman (cf. Numbers 31:18). According to the war customs of all ancient nations, a female captive became the slave of the victor, who had the sole and unchallengeable control of right to her person. Moses improved this existing usage by special regulations on the subject. He enacted that, in the event of her master being captivated by her beauty and contemplating a marriage with her, a month should be allowed to elapse, during which her perturbed feelings might be calmed, her mind reconciled to her altered condition, and she might bewail the loss of her parents, now to her the same as dead. A month was the usual period of mourning with the Jews; and the circumstances mentioned here were the signs of grief-the shaving of the head, the (not paring, but literally, doing, i:e.,) allowing the nails to grow uncut, the putting off her gorgeous dress, in which ladies on the eve of being captured arrayed themselves, to be the more attractive to their captors (Ovid, 'Remed. Amor.,'p. 343).

One design of these regulations is thought to have been to prove whether, in the altered appearance of her person, by the emblems or affliction, his attachment would continue undiminished; and they are minutely specified, because, a pagan war-captive, she might, had the matter been left to herself, have followed the mourning rites of her own idolatrous country.

Others view these details as totally unconnected here with a state of mourning, and bearing a different significance. 'The shaving of the head' is reckoned a manifestation of her embracing the Jewish religion, according to a custom prevalent in the East for a Christian to have his head shaved on becoming a proselyte to Mahommedanism. The doing or 'making the nails' is an expression that evidently puzzled our translators: for they have rendered it in two opposite ways - "pare her nails," in the text; 'suffer them to grow,' in the margin (cf. 2 Samuel 19:24). It may probably mean neither, but the tinging them of a red, or, according to some, of a saffron colour, with alkenna, a powder or paste from the pulverized leaves of an odoriferous plant, which, being put on the nails all night, dyes them a bright hue, which lasts for about four weeks, when it is renewed (Hasselquist, 'Travels').

This kind of personal adornment, which is greatly admired in the East, is very ancient, having been seen on the hands and feet of some very old mummies; and if it was commonly practiced in Egypt before the exodus, the Israelites may have borrowed it from that country. The delay was full of humanity and kindness to the female slave, as well as a prudential measure to try the strength of her master's affections. If his love should cool afterward, and he becomes indifferent to her person, he was not to lord it over her, neither to sell her in the slave-market, nor retain her in a subordinate condition in his house, but she was to be free to go where her inclinations led her.

Verses 15-17

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: If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated. In the original, and in all translations but ours, the words are rendered 'have had,' referring to events that have already taken place. [Septuagint, Ean de genoontai anthroopoo duo gunaikes kai tekoosin-If there have been to a man two wives, and they have born him sons. Vulgate, 'Si habuerit homo uxores duas et pepererint ei filios,' etc.] That the 'had' has, by some mistake, been omitted in our version, seems highly probable, from other verbs being in the past tense - "hers that was hated," not 'hers that is hated,' evidently intimating that she (the first wife) was dead at the time referred to.

Moses, therefore, does not here legislate upon the case of a man who has two wives at the same time, but on that of a man who has married twice in succession, the second wife after the decease of the first; and there was an obvious necessity for legislation in these circumstances; for the first wife, who was hated, was dead, and the second wife, the favourite, was alive: and with the feelings of a stepmother, she would urge her husband to make her own son the heir. This case has no bearing upon polygamy, which there is no evidence that the Mosaic code legalized (see Dwight's 'Hebrew Wife,' pp. 17, 18).

Verse 17. A double portion, [ piy (H6310) shªnayim (H8147)] - a 'mouth (or, mouthful) or two;' a phrase founded on the ancient custom of a double or larger mess before a guest whom a host wishes to honour (Genesis 43:34; Luke 15:12: cf. 2 Kings 2:9; Zechariah 13:8).

That there was a necessity for such a legislative provision in the circumstances which this passage describes appears from the conduct of Abraham, who in his lifetime gave limited allowances to his other sons, while the bulk of his property was bequeathed to Isaac (see Rosenmuller, 'Alte und Neue Morgenland,' vol. 5:, p.


Verses 18-21

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:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son. A severe law was enacted in this case. Hebrew parents were not, as among the Greeks and Romans, invested with the power of life and death of their children; but still they had, in addition to their natural, a legal authority over them. In case of "a stubborn and rebellious son" -

i.e., one whose insubordination and dangerous violence was the result of reckless and confirmed profligacy-the law provided a remedy. But in the first place they must have exhausted every means of remonstrance and expostulation. They were themselves to become the prosecutors, and the consent of both parents was required as a prevention of any abuse of it; for it was reasonable to suppose that they would not both agree to a criminal information against their son, except from absolute necessity, arising from his inveterate and hopeless wickedness; and in that view the law was wise and salutary, as such a person would be a pest and nuisance to society. The punishment was that to which blasphemers were doomed; for parents are considered God's representatives, and invested with a portion of His authority over their children.

Not a single instance of this law, having been put in execution, occurs in the whole history of Israel; and the warranted inference is, that the legislator evinced his wisdom by the establishment of a statute which exercised an indirect but powerful influence in remedying the evil, by either leading parents to take particular care in the upbringing of their children, or else in prompting natural affection to carry longsuffering to the utmost extreme, ere a public tribunal was appealed to. (See an instance of Herod the Great taking advantage of this law against two of his sons before the judges at Berytus, Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 16:, ch. 11:, sec. 2.)

Verse 22

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:

If a man have committed a sin ... and thou hang him on a tree. Hanging was not a Hebrew form of execution-gibbeting is meant; but the body was not to be left to rot, or be a prey to ravenous birds; it was to be buried "that day," either because the stench of a hot climate would corrupt the air, or the spectacle of an exposed corpse bring ceremonial defilement on the land.

Verse 23

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.

(For he that is hanged is accursed of God), [ taaluwy (H8518)] - suspended; the suspension refers to the carcass. A dead body being deemed an unclean thing which defiled the person who came into contact with it, it follows that the corpse of a criminal who has suffered an ignominious death by execution was, in Jewish phraseology, an abomination and a curse; and accordingly this term is actually applied to all violators of the divine law (Deuteronomy 27:15 to the end). [The Septuagint has: pas kekramenos epi xulou-everyone who hangeth on a tree (cf. Galatians 3:13).]

Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/deuteronomy-21.html. 1871-8.
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