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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 21

Verses 1-19

Miscellaneous Civil and Domestic Laws (21:1-25:19)

It is not necessary to comment on all of the laws in this miscellaneous collection. They cover a wide range of relationships and offer us a glimpse into many fascinating and strange dimensions of ancient Hebrew life and thought. A few of them are grouped here for discussion.

The Community’s Relation to God. The view throughout is that Israel is a holy community, dwelling in a holy land. God has set apart both people and land from all that is evil and imperfect.

Evil is looked upon as something which defiles or contaminates the land and the community (21:9, 21; 22:21, 22, 24; 24:4, 7). All sin and guilt must be removed by some recognized means of expiation. When the evil has been dealt with—usually when the sinner has been punished—the stain is removed. But when the offender is unknown—as when a human corpse is found in open country—the offense still must not be overlooked. The guilt is to be transferred from the unknown offender to a heifer by the elders of the nearest town. The heifer then bears the punishment in the breaking of its neck, and a prayer for forgiveness of "thy people Israel" is to be offered (21:1-9).

It is suggested, furthermore, that the land is not only the dwelling place of a holy people but is also the place of God’s visitation. In an army camp, pollution from human sources must be guarded against: "Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp . . . therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you" (23:14).

Eunuchs are to be excluded from the community (23:1). In surrounding countries this form of bodily mutilation in the service of a deity or a king was common. The Hebrews, as the sons of the Lord, are not to cut themselves (14:1), that is, to alter in any way the body given them by God. In Leviticus 21:16-23 it is stated that men with physical imperfections cannot serve as priests before God.

Bastards (23:2, probably meaning those born of any kind of illegal sexual relationship) and Ammonites and Moabites (23:3) are prohibited from membership in the community, the former apparently because the stain of their birth clings to them and their descendants, and the latter because of hostility expressed toward Israel at the time of the wandering in the wilderness.

The ideal underlying all the laws is that of a perfect community, with the members living in obedience to all of God’s laws and no sin or imperfection tolerated.

Sex Relations. Adultery is forbidden in the Ten Commandments (5:18), as well as here (22:22). By adultery was meant any voluntary intercourse of a married (or betrothed) woman and a man other than her husband (or intended husband). In Hebrew custom, betrothal was tantamount to marriage. The bride price had been paid and the woman now belonged to her intended husband. The punishment for adultery was the death of both parties by stoning (apparently on the analogy of 22:24). In nations around Israel, adultery was also forbidden and severely punished.

In cases of rape, where a betrothed (or married) woman is involuntarily involved, only the man is held responsible and is punished by death (22:25-27). In seduction or rape of an unbetrothed virgin, the man is to pay the father of the woman the bride price (22:28-29). He is obliged to take her as his wife, and the possibility of divorce is denied him.

Relations with a stepmother are prohibited (22:30). In Leviticus 18:8-18; Leviticus 20:11-21 the prohibition is extended to a wide range of female relatives. Why only the stepmother relationship is mentioned here is not known. It may have been thought representative of the whole group of forbidden relationships, or it may have been a particularly frequent problem in a polygamous society in which wives were passed along with the rest of the property of an inheritance.

In 24:1-4 there appears a law against the remarriage of a divorced woman to her first husband after she has entered into a second marriage. The right of divorce by a husband is not provided for here or anywhere in the Old Testament. This right had been recognized so long in the ancient Near East that it was simply assumed everywhere. The ground of the husband’s action is said to be "some indecency" (in Hebrew literally, "the nakedness of a thing"—apparently immodest or indecent behavior short of adultery, or the death penalty would be specified). The bill of divorce (a properly executed legal document, which probably required an appearance before a public official and called for formal delivery into the wife’s hands) was meant to protect the wife from hasty and ill-considered expulsion. It is to be noted that no provision is made in the Old Testament for a wife’s divorcing her husband.

While divorce of a wife was easy in Old Testament times, some Hebrew spirits were repelled by it. In Genesis 1-2 monogamous marriage is looked upon as God’s will, and in Malachi 2:16 divorce is said to be hated by God. Jesus held that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but that God’s intention at the Creation was permanent and indissoluble marriage (Mark 10:4-9).

The prohibition of a return of a twice-married woman to her first husband rests on the judgment that she is "defiled." In other words, she is an adulteress from the point of view of her first husband. This attitude provides the background for the statement in Matthew 5:32.

The sex laws here set forth reflect clearly the status of women as the property first of the father (22:29) and then of the husband or intended husband. But a woman is property of peculiar sanctity: she has rights as a person. If her husband unjustifiably slurs her moral reputation (22:13-21), or if she was seduced by him before betrothal and marriage (22:28-29), she is entitled to special protection: the husband loses the right to divorce her. Furthermore, the formalities involved in the preparation and delivery of the bill of divorce were meant to safeguard her position. The ideal for marriage here is considerably below Christian conceptions, but it probably was immeasurably above that of surrounding peoples at the time of the writing of Deuteronomy.

Family Relations. Closely related to the subject of sex relations is the matter of family relations. In one case here the two subjects overlap: in the law of levirate (from a Latin word meaning "husband’s brother") marriage (25:5-10).

If a married man dies without a son, his brother, if living together with him on the same family estate, is to take the widow as his wife and beget a son for his brother. This son will bear the name and inherit the estate of the dead brother. If the surviving brother declines to do this, he must endure publicly a distasteful ceremony and bear, together with any children subsequently born, a disgraceful family name. This custom was designed to prevent the extinction of a family and to keep property from passing into the hands of a stranger who might marry the widow.

This law reveals some important things about ancient Hebrew belief: the strong sense of family solidarity, of brotherly responsibility; the importance of family survival; the subordination of the romantic and emotional aspects of love and marriage to the purpose of reproduction and the creation of new family units. It is to be remembered that the early Hebrews had no hope of a blessed immortality after death. They expected to live on in the life of their offspring, and they expected their children to perpetuate and give honor to the family name. Family pride was a strongly motivating factor in Hebrew life.

The rights and responsibilities of children in a household are spelled out here. In the matter of inheritance, justice must not be subverted by favoritism. The first-born son’s right to a double portion of his father’s goods is inviolable, even though his mother may not be the favorite wife and mother in a plural marriage (21:15-17). The most notable instance of violation of inheritance rights through the influence of a favorite wife was David’s elevation of Solomon to the throne instead of Adonijah (1 Kings 1-2).

But if children have rights, they have also responsibilities. First among these is to honor and obey their parents (21:18-21; see also the fifth commandment in 5:16). An oft-reproved but incorrigible son is to be turned over to the elders of the city for execution. The Hebrews insisted on stable family life as a prime factor in the stability of the community. Obedience to constituted authority, both divine and human, was a firm emphasis of Hebrew life.

Neighbor Relations. One of the most attractive features of the Book of Deuteronomy is the loving, faithful, and helpful spirit it fosters in neighbor relations. Members of the community stand in a Covenant relation with both God and men. God’s love for Israel led to the inauguration of the Covenant relationship. Israel is to love God in return, to be loyal to him, and to show brotherly love and fidelity to fellow Israelites. Although the statement "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" is to be found only in Leviticus (19:18), the spirit of these words permeates the Book of Deuteronomy.

Lost property of known and unknown members of the community is to be restored as speedily as possible (22:1-4). No interest is to be charged on loans of money or goods to one’s brother in the community (23:19-20); helpfulness, not the desire for profit, should characterize brotherly relationships. When security is to be given to assure repayment of a loan, the creditor may not seize what he wishes from the house of the borrower; he is to accept what the borrower brings out to him (24:10-11). If the cloak of a poor man is offered as security, it must be returned at sundown so that he may not suffer from the cold of the night (24:12-13). A widow’s garment is not to be taken as security (24:17). Generosity toward the poor (the sojourner, the fatherless, the widow) will dictate leaving some of the harvest for gathering by them (24:19-21). Balustrades are to be erected on roofs for the protection of visiting neighbors (22:8). Fellow Israelites are not to be forced into slavery or sold (24:7). Oppression of hired servants (Israelite or foreign-born) and the withholding of wages from them are strictly forbidden (24:1415). Refugee foreign slaves (who apparently have fled on account of ill treatment) are to be received considerately and not to be returned to their oppressive owners (23:15-16). Honest weights and measures must be used in all commercial transactions (25:13-15). Hunger may be satisfied from a neighbor’s vineyard and field, but the privilege must not be abused by carting away the neighbor’s produce (23:24-25).

We may pause to inquire briefly concerning the reasons offered for kindly, generous, brotherly attitudes. Again and again it is suggested in Deuteronomy that the motive for such attitudes and acts is the attitude and deeds of God. God loved and showed mercy on a weak, afflicted people: "You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this" (24:17-22). The people are to treat the sojourner and the fatherless justly, to show especial consideration for the widow, and to provide generously for them all. In short, those who have been mercifully treated should show mercy in similar circumstances. Egyptians are not to be abhorred because (to a degree, at least) they showed hospitality to the needy Israelites (23:7-8), but the unmerciful, inhospitable Moabites and Ammonites stand condemned and excluded forever (23:3-4). The God of love and mercy requires love and mercy of those who live in fellowship with him.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-21.html.