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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 20

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-20

The Sixth Command

Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 21:9

Deuteronomy 19:1-21

1When the Lord thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the Lord thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, [possessest them (their land)] and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses; 2Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it. 3Thou shalt prepare [restore, put in good condition] thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every 4slayer may flee thither. And this is the case [word] of the slayer [what avails for him] which shall flee thither, that he may live [and live, remain]: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;1 5As when a man [And (indeed) whoever] goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head [iron] slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon [striketh]2 his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of these cities, and live: 6Lest the avenger3 of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him;4 whereas he was not worthy [there is not to him judgment] of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past. 7Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt separate three cities for thee. 8And if the Lord thy God enlarge thy coast, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised 9[spake] to give unto thy fathers; If thou shalt keep all these commandments [this whole commandment] to do them [it] which I command thee this day, to love the Lord thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee, beside these three: 10That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee. 11But [And] if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally [to the life] that [and] he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: 12Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch [take] him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that [and] he may die. 13Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.5 14Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s land-mark, which they of old time [thy forefathers] have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee 15to possess it. One witness [only] shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter [word] be established. 16If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him, that which is wrong [a falling away, apostasy]; 17Then both the men between whom the controversy is shall stand before the Lord, before the priests 18and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; 19Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. 20And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil [word] among you. 21And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Deuteronomy 20:1 to Deuteronomy 20:1.When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the Lord thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 2And it shall be when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, 3And shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint [be weak, soft]6 fear not, and do not7 tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them; 4For the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you. 5And the officers [shoterim] shall speak unto the people, saying, What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go [he shall go] and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it. 6And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten8 of it [taken into use]? let him also go [he shall go] and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it. 7And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go [he shall go] and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her. 8And the officers [shoterim] shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say, What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go [he shall go] and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint [melt, flow down] as well as his heart. 9And it shall be, when the officers [shoterim] have made an end of speaking unto the people, that they shall make captains of the armies9 to lead the people. 10When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein, shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. 12And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war [battle] against thee, then thou shalt besiege it [close, enclose it]: 13And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof 14with the edge of the sword: But [only] the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take [spoil, plunder] unto thyself: and thou shalt eat [enjoy] the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. 15Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which 16are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. But [Only] of the cities of these people which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: 17But thou shalt utterly destroy them, namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: 18That they teach you not to do after all their abominations which they [do] have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the Lord your God. 19When thou shalt besiege a city a long time in making war against it to take it [conquer it] thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them: and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege [for O man, the tree of the field is there to go before thee (through thee) (in the) siege].10 20Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat [fruit trees] thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until [its fall] it be subdued.

Deuteronomy 21:1 to Deuteronomy 9:1. If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying [fallen] in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: 2Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: 3And 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 [yet] been wrought with, and which hath not [yet] drawn in the yoke; 4And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley [a perennial brook]11 which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off 5[break] the heifer’s neck there in the valley; 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 [mouth] shall every controversy and every stroke be tried; 6And all the elders of that city that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded [whose neck is broken] in the valley: 7And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not 8shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful [Forgive] O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge [into the midst of thy people Israel]. And the blood shall be forgiven them.12 9So 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.


1.Deuteronomy 19:1-13. With chap. 19 the discourse passes unquestionably to the sixth commandment. Other commands are alluded to only as they may be connected with this. Deuteronomy 19:1. Comp. Deuteronomy 12:29; Deuteronomy 17:14.Deuteronomy 19:2; Deuteronomy 19:2 refers undoubtedly to Canaan. Comp. upon Deuteronomy 4:41 sq. [The three East Jordan cities had been already named. Moses now gives direction for the three West of Jordan.—A. G.]. Deuteronomy 19:3 directs that the way to the cities of refuge (collectively) should be put into a proper condition, and kept in it, so that there should be no hindrance in this respect. “According to tradition, the way must be level, thirty-two cubits broad, and marked by fingerposts, bearing the words Refuge, Refuge” Herxheimer. [The same tradition tells us that the magistrates were to send out surveyors and repair these ways annually on the 15th of the month Adar; that every obstacle must be removed, and no stream left unbridged.—A. G.]. The direction, Numbers 35:14, was carried out, through the threefold division of Canaan, with reference to the point in view. The there prescribed three refuge cities in Canaan are placed now one each, in the smaller parts, equally near to all sides, and thus the way first becomes practical. Thee, as Deuteronomy 19:2, brings out the personal use and obligation in regard to the designed preservation of life, and prevention of bloodshed in Israel. Comp. further upon Deuteronomy 1:38; (Deuteronomy 3:28; Deuteronomy 12:10) Deuteronomy 4:42.Deuteronomy 19:4, as Deuteronomy 15:3. Comp. upon Deuteronomy 4:42.Deuteronomy 19:5; Deuteronomy 19:5 illustrates by example the more general statement in Deuteronomy 19:4. Compare Numbers 35:22 sq. עֵצִים wood for burning or building, נָשַׁל7:1, casts out, here used intransitively, falls off. Others (transitively) and the iron is drawn from the wood—a piece which hits. At its close Deuteronomy 19:6 discloses the object of the arrangement. גֹאֵל is the redeemer who both on account of some possession belonging to the family is a member interested, and in a special sense, on account of blood kindred, has to save, redeem, avenge the bloodshed of the family according to the divine, as according to the human and natural right of retaliation. This private justice, as is very natural, must be somewhat restrained both on account of the personal feelings of the subject, and from the first heat of grief and anger. The refuge offers its convenient situation to the pursued generally, but especially to those overtaken, (Deuteronomy 14:24). נפשׁ, the prominence of life, for whose sacredness it is here provided, and to which the succeeding words whereas he was not worthy of death, Schroeder, literally, and there is not to him the right of death, correspond, i.e., death does not belong to him as a right, as a legal right, or the judgment of death, death penalty, or the case is no legal case of life and death, no breach worthy of death. Deuteronomy 19:7. The more emphatic statement with regard to the three cities in Canaan, while the three East of Jordan, as set apart, and arranged by Moses, are not again alluded to. Deuteronomy 19:8 connects itself with Deuteronomy 19:7, but passes on to that which is still wider, and in a way to recall Deuteronomy 11:24; Deuteronomy 1:7. Comp. Deuteronomy 12:20 (Genesis 15:18). The method of the discourse, Deuteronomy 19:9 (Deuteronomy 4:6; Deuteronomy 5:1; Deuteronomy 6:5; Deuteronomy 8:6; Deuteronomy 11:22.) also forbids us to hold with Hengstenberg that the three cities more are the three cities in Canaan, mentioned, Deuteronomy 19:2, beside these three described, Deuteronomy 4:41 sq. Neither is it true that the three new cities (Knobel) are those West of the Jordan, and the three East of the Jordan those spoken of in Deuteronomy 19:2. The three cities here are rather in the prospect of the promised future, which prospect was obscured by the failure to fulfil the conditions with which it was connected. (If thou shalt keep, sq.). There remain thus only six (instead of the nine, to which the prospect here enlarges) of which the discourse treats. Schultz rightly emphasizes the wider horizon of Deuteronomy in this regard as Mosaic. [“It is obvious that such a passage as this could not have been penned in the times to which rationalist critics assign Deut. No one living in those times would think of treating as a future contingency (“If the Lord thy God enlarge, sq.) an extension of territory which at the date in question had in fact taken place long ago, and been subsequently forfeited.” Bib. Com.—A. G.], Deuteronomy 19:10 resumes now the thread broken off at Deuteronomy 19:7; Deuteronomy 19:8-9, being regarded as a parenthesis. Innocent blood was that of the slayer, upon whom death is visited, not with judgment or right, (Deuteronomy 19:6). Comp. Deuteronomy 19:3. In such cases, if there were no refuge, blood, i.e., the guilt of blood would be upon Israel. Deuteronomy 19:11-13. Insert the contrast. Comp. Genesis 4:8; Exodus 21:14; Numbers 35:16 sq. Private justice must follow upon, be connected with, and subordinated to public justice. The elders form the fitting mediation for this purpose, partly as they are the (more revered) fathers, corresponding to the domestic element in the blood-revenger, partly as the city magistrates who represent in general the executive power of the State, and from whom also, as from the priests and Levites the judges were to be chosen (Deuteronomy 16:18). Thus the still ruling custom among the Arabians, of blood-revenge, was legally bounded and civilized, just as out of the predominant family life by and by the orderly state springs. Deuteronomy 19:13, as Deuteronomy 7:16; Deuteronomy 13:9; Deuteronomy 13:6; Deuteronomy 5:30 (Deuteronomy 15:16). Comp. Numbers 35:31 sq.

2.Deuteronomy 19:14. It is characteristic for the Mosaic view of the wife as a possession, that the discourse passes over the seventh command, and in Deuteronomy 19:14 comes on the contrary to speak of the eighth command, from the point of view of the sixth command, i.e., of the earthly life. Thus light is thrown upon the eighth command from the application of the sixth; significant both for Deut. and for the total view of the law.—Each district, as it comes into your inheritance, with thy neighbors as with thine own, is thus connected with the family life, and comprises its livelihood; the lessening or disturbance of these limits is simply a question of existence therefore. The possession, particularly the landed, is the ground which yields to man its produce for his support. Thus it shares in the sacredness of life, which is preserved by it; entirely like Deuteronomy 20:19-20. The penalty of the offence is hinted, Deuteronomy 27:17. They of old. Schroder, predecessors. Either in time, and thus also in succession, or in honor, the leaders. What the first possessors, the fathers, Joshua and the renowned elders, determined, should be observed down to the most distant future. Comp. still upon Deuteronomy 19:3 and Intro., § 4, I. 17. [They of old time, is an unfortunate rendering, as it seems to imply a long residence in Canaan, when this direction was given. The original contains no such intimation. It is the heads, chiefs. Vulg., priores. The immediately following clauses make it clear that the direction was given while the land was not yet in possession.—A. G.].

3.Deuteronomy 19:15-21. A similar illumination of the ninth command from the sixth. In the first place, the importance of the witnesses before the court, in regard to the life of a neighbor, is established by this, that the testimony of one was not sufficient for condemnation. Numbers 35:30. Deuteronomy 19:15. עָוֹן perverseness, wrong, guilt; as sin is a deviation from the right, from the law. לְ denotes the reference generally. בְ the concrete case. Comp. Deuteronomy 17:6. In the second place, in the special case of “false witness,” Moses places life for life, in any case the like punishment. Deuteronomy 19:16. Treats a peculiar case; a witness of violence, who will do violence to his neighbor by his testimony, עָנָה designates both the beginning and the reply in conversation, hence; to answer before the court in regard to any falling away (comp. Deuteronomy 13:6; Deuteronomy 17:7) from God, or the law. The suspicion against the witness has been proven in the lower court, as the Talmud understands סָרָה of a case which was far off from the witness, strange to him, since he cannot prove his presence at it. Deuteronomy 19:17. Comp. Deuteronomy 17:8 sq., an example of the causes which were difficult or hard. [Both the men, the parties to the original suit. Before Jehovah cannot be, as Knobel, the lower court. The false witness was borne in the court below, and now comes before the supreme court at the sanctuary.—A. G.]. Deuteronomy 19:18 as Deuteronomy 13:15.Deuteronomy 19:20. Comp. upon Deuteronomy 13:12 (Deuteronomy 17:13). It is not the punishment as such, which is the means of alarm, but that before Jehovah the purpose, is as the deed (Deuteronomy 19:19) and generally the decided earnestness of the lextalionis, as it is solemnly and impressively announced in Deuteronomy 19:21. (Exodus 21:23 sq.; Leviticus 24:19 sq.). The rest as in Deuteronomy 19:13.

4.Deuteronomy 20:1-9. Out of the sacredness which attaches to human life, light is thrown upon the warfare (chap. 20) which Israel even in the occupation of Canaan (Intro., 4, I. 17) could not avoid. Israel should rejoice especially in the protection of God, to whom the life of man among his people is of such value. [Bib. Com.: “Reverence for human life was to show itself with respect to the Israelites levied for war, Deuteronomy 20:1-9; to the enemy (10–15) the Canaanites excepted, (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) and in respect to the property of the vanquished, 19, 20.—A. G.]. Deuteronomy 20:1. Horses and chariots. These forces are those which would strike the eye of Israel, not equipped in a like way (Deuteronomy 17:16), and make the impression of superior power on the part of the enemy, (Deuteronomy 7:17); at the same time are characteristic of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines (Joshua 17:16; Judges 4:3; 1 Samuel 13:5) and Syrians (2 Samuel 8:4). With thee was illustrated and proved historically. Deuteronomy 20:2. As they are now, having departed from their homes, drawn up in order, to advance to the battle. The priest is the one commissioned for the purpose, according to the Talmud one anointed for the war, as Phinehas, Numbers 31:6; the field preacher, not the high-priest. (Numbers 10:8-9). The Lord’s servants, give to His people a more definite, solemn, and formal expression of the duty of fearlessness out of regard to Him (Deuteronomy 20:1). Deuteronomy 20:3, (Deuteronomy 1:21; Deuteronomy 1:29; Deuteronomy 7:21). Israel its name of honor, Isaiah 41:8; Isaiah 41:14 (Genesis 32:28). Deuteronomy 20:4, (Deuteronomy 3:21) comp. Deuteronomy 1:30. Represented by the taking of the ark of the covenant, 1 Samuel 4:3. Save, to rescue you, and generally to insure the victory. Schultz lays undue force upon the expression. Religious encouragement follows the worldly conduct, as it appears in the actual relations (Deuteronomy 20:5-7), and in the personal deportment in the case (Deuteronomy 20:8). Officers, Shoterim: Comp. upon Deuteronomy 1:15. These officers might have the genealogies and tribal rolls. (Comp. Hengstenberg: The Books of Moses, p. 90.) How truly the idea of the sixth command is the animating idea here, appears in the statement of the independent human life in the three beginnings: house building as the first foundation; the planting of the vineyard as the first enlargement of the relations of life; the betrothal as the first completion of the independent position in life. מִי־ may also signify whoever the man is, who, sq., thus: whoever, any one. He shall (not barely may) go. Every one in Israel—there were no involuntary levies here—if he had made efforts for life, should first rejoice in the result of his efforts. It was as humane as prudent. Such a depletion of the host not merely prevented the disheartening of the others through a homesick soldier, but testified on the part of God in this actual way, His high estimate of the value of life, so that it might inspire confidence in the timid, and increase the courage of the brave. חָנַךְ to fit, thus to arrange, to occupy, Keil and Schultz, remind us of a consecration, and by a transfer from the temple, (1 Kings 8:63) of a solemnity, at least a feast, for which there is no occasion other than the fancies of the Rabbins. The three times repeated lest he die brings out clearly the purpose in view. Deuteronomy 20:6. כֶרֶם is any field of noble plants; an olive, or fruit garden. חִלֵּל according to Gesen. refers to common use in the fifth year, since in the fourth year it was sanctified to the Lord (Leviticus 19:23 sq.). According to others, with the same reference, it is to release. Knobel: To open, to enter upon. (Perhaps also to cut, to take the clusters). Deuteronomy 20:7 completes Deuteronomy 24:5. For the whole, comp. Deuteronomy 28:30, and perhaps also Luke 14:18 sq. Deuteronomy 20:8 introduces the other class, who in like manner are to be dismissed with this distinction, that here the reference to the other soldiers comes into view, and indeed as the object, (lest his brethren, sq.). The faintness of heart may be explained as fearfulness, as natural weakness, and not so much moral cowardice, or as Deuteronomy 1:28. Deuteronomy 20:9. פָקַד to inquire, inspect, to muster, and so it may be rendered: and thus the captains of the host shall hold a muster. The distinction between שָׂרֵי־ and the Shoterim (officers) which indeed is obvious, may somewhat account for the absence of the article which Keil so misses. But the Shoterim have scarcely finished speaking, the doing may still follow, and according to Numbers 3:10 (although the אֶת there is wanting here) and Deuteronomy 4:27, the meaning is, to take order for a still closer inspection. The mustering also actually occurs after the dismissal of those previously mentioned. Schultz: “The captains of the host should lead, carry out the command,” which is not demonstrable, rather: should have the oversight. The captains of the host are the chiefs of particular bands, which the Shoterim are not named, so much as they are simply appointed under charge of the Supreme Head (Joshua 1:10 sq.; Deuteronomy 3:2 sq.), so that upon them rests the obligation to secure the preparedness for war.

5.Deuteronomy 20:10-20. The required dismissal of the two classes in Israel, Deuteronomy 20:5 sq., applies, the importance of human life in relation to God, as it was shown in war, to the advantage of his neighbor, namely, in Israel itself. Deuteronomy 20:10 sq. now makes this reference availing over against the enemy, first with regard to his person, then as to his property. They are summoned by heralds to the walls, in order to bring about a peaceful surrender and subjection. The first case is that of a corresponding answer and conduct. Deuteronomy 20:11. מָסַם מַם tax, tribute, thus an obligatory tribute, and that indeed of personal service. Thus a sparing of life. In the second case, ver 12 may be viewed altogether as the antecedent: And thou shalt besiege it, and the Lord thy God hath delivered, sq.—the destruction, Deuteronomy 20:13, is simply of the males (Deuteronomy 13:16) who would otherwise threaten Israel with death; on the other hand the others might contribute to his enjoyment of life, and were therefore to be spared. Deuteronomy 20:14. The following limitation shows that the previous two cases could only occur with enemies, not Canaanites. Deuteronomy 20:15. For the third case: Canaan Deuteronomy 20:16, the curse rules. Deuteronomy 20:17 : Comp. Deuteronomy 7:1 sq. כּל־נשׁמה all living, i.e., all men (Joshua 10:40; Joshua 11:11; Joshua 11:14). Deuteronomy 20:18. Comp. still Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 18:9. Eternal life is of more value than the temporal. Matthew 16:26.—Nevertheless (comp. Deuteronomy 14:21) the fruit trees are to be spared because, and so far as, they are useful to life. Deuteronomy 20:19 presupposes the more comprehensive directions for the siege, and hence the temptation to use even the fruit trees for the purpose (Schultz). Comp. Deuteronomy 19:5. Since עֵצָהּ denotes the fruit trees in the gardens and orchards of the cities, it is clear that עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה is used with reference to the wild trees in the region around, the field in the wider sense, which is made more definite in Deuteronomy 20:20. Other renderings: “for (the life) of man is the tree of the field” (synonymous with עֵצָהּ) thou mayest eat thereof, for the life of man is preserved through the tree, thou mayest not cut it down. Schultz: “For man is connected with (depends upon) the tree of the field,” Deuteronomy 24:6. Knobel and Keil: “For is the tree of the field a man, to come before thee in the siege?” using the הֶ interrogative. Thus: thou mayest besiege men, but trees are not thy enemies; thou mayest rather eat of them, they are useful in thy purpose with the city in the work of the siege and destruction. Others still render it in the vocative: for O man the tree of the field cannot offer resistance, sq., or: it is there for this purpose, namely, your support, that it (the city) may be besieged by you. Some regard כי האדם עץ השדה as a parenthesis and connect לבא־ with ואתו לא הכרת: thou shalt not cut down the tree that it may serve in the works of the siege. The last clause is also explained: that the tree of the field go from thy face (be destroyed) in the siege; or: must go from before thee (be saved) in the fortifications. Deuteronomy 20:20. עַד רִדְתָּהּ until it be overthrown, cast down, Deuteronomy 28:52. Others: Until thou hast subdued it. [While there is this variety in the renderings, in order to meet the necessities of the text, the sense is clear and substantially the same whichever construction may be adopted. The contrast between Deuteronomy 20:19-20, as to the trees alluded to, makes it clear that the trees in Deuteronomy 20:19 are fruit trees, and that they were to be spared in the siege. The rendering in our version accords well with the original text, and brings the sense out clearly, and is therefore to be preferred. See further Bib. Com.—A. G.].

6. Chap. 21.Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Closes the treatment of the sixth command, with a ceremony impressively symbolizing the sacred worth of human life. Deuteronomy 21:1. אדמה comp. upon Deuteronomy 5:16. The case is that of unknown murder. Hence Deuteronomy 21:2, beside the elders of Israel (19, 12) i.e. those supposed especially to have knowledge in the case, judges also come into view, both probably from the neighboring cities. The elders of the city, ascertained by these as nearest to the dead, are laid under obligation and indeed as its civil representatives. Not that the murderer was probably from that city (Knobel), nor because it has maintained so poor a police (Schultz), but because blood-guiltiness was upon Israel generally (Deuteronomy 19:10), so especially upon the places in the neighborhood of the murder. Hence the transaction with the young heifer, like the institution of the cities of refuge, is to be viewed as a solemnity expressing the abhorrence in Israel, at the shedding of innocent blood. Deuteronomy 21:8-9 show that in the nature of the heifer, the sacrificial qualities are near at hand. Comp. upon Deuteronomy 15:19, and Numbers 19:2. The reference of the requisites in Deuteronomy 21:3 to the not enfeebling of the vital force by toil (Keil), is too remote, in any case the necessary thought of a peculiar sanctification for the end in view lies nearer, since the thought of life is symbolized, both in the age, and in the female (life-bearing) sex. To this sanctity of the victim corresponds the locality to which it is to be led, Deuteronomy 21:4, the common (Deuteronomy 5:13 sq.) toil of men (as Deuteronomy 21:3) can neither plough nor sow there; generally a waste valley where nothing fruitful is done, where there was no arable ground for seed; it can at the same time represent the absence of any human participation and knowledge in the murder (Deuteronomy 21:7) and give a vivid representation of the shedding of the blood of the fallen unknown man. For that there, in the bottom of that valley, untouched by men, the heifer’s neck was to be broken, plainly states the assassin-like manner in which the one found fallen back wards was killed. The elders by their acts, partly express for their city, that as it lies nearest it comes into account with respect to the murdered one, partly announce their abhorrence as to what has occurred (Exodus 13:13; Isaiah 66:3); not so much that they may symbolically execute the punishment due to the murderer, (Keil), nor even testify in act as much as in them lies, that they are pure from any participation in the guilt, as they have devoted to death something of their own, from which they have not enjoyed any gain, all its profit being still in anticipation (Schultz). The latter ideas scarcely entered into the truly profoundly thoughtful, and yet simple rite. The abhorrence of the murder, as it is directly announced in the mode of the victim’s death, has clearly the object, on the part of the city, represented by its elders, of removing in the most formal and solemn manner the guilt of blood. According to the form the valley must be נחל איתן, i.e. a brook-valley (wady) which has everflowing (from יָתַן firm, strong, enduring) water (Psalms 74:15; Exodus 14:27) which may take away for ever the shed blood of the heifer, in resemblance of the murder, (comp. Deuteronomy 21:6). [There is no incongruity between the rendering rough valley and perennial stream, since the narrowest gorge would be skirted by some barren, rocky strips which could not be ploughed or sown.—A. G.]. We may either render with Johlson: hard, rocky ground, which is the positive side, of which the following expressions are the negative, or with Herxheimer: the firm ground, which designates very little “the firm administration of justice by the judge,” which does not come into view here, but rather the firmness of the elders in their abhorrence of the deed. The idea of life in the warding off of death, the thought of the living water (Knobel) indeed upon the “lasting verdure” (Schultz), must have been derived from Numbers 19:17; Leviticus 14:5. The presence of the priests, who could be brought from the nearest Levitical cities, (comp. Intro.§ 4, I. 22, and upon Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 18:5; Deuteronomy 17:8-12) is in entire accordance with the ceremony. They appear with respect to the transaction itself, its religious and symbolical character, as well as with respect to the ethical and legal case to which the transaction refers. As to the first, it is apparent from the close approach to a sacrificial act; they represent in some sense the sanctuary. Comp. Numbers 19:3-4. The further ceremony, the washing of the hand with water from the brook in the valley, a symbolical declaration of innocence (Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13; Matthew 27:24), is performed, by the elders of the nearest city, with reference to its participation in the guilt, over the heifer, which had been treated like the murdered man, and with direct reference to him. But the solemnity of the whole ceremony culminates in the prayer which follows, and in which the explanation of the washing of the hands appears. Deuteronomy 21:7. Answer (Deuteronomy 19:16) to the question to them contained in the murder, i.e., the accusation, or, they mutually speak, the elders, Deuteronomy 21:7, and the priests, Deuteronomy 21:8 (Deuteronomy 27:14). They neither did the crime, nor knew of it. This blood, as it was represented in that of the heifer, which would otherwise be laid upon them as a capital crime, as if they would say, we know not the murderer, so that we can meet his guilt with a corresponding punishment, Deuteronomy 21:8.כפד, to cover, conceal, here; the blood, the guilt of it, i.e., to forgive. The essential significance of the ceremony is thus apparent. It represents on one hand what was done by the murderer to the murdered, and on the other hand expresses in the most solemn form the abhorrence of the crime, and the innocence of the city called to account for it. The nature of the act was expiatory, not because the heifer was the substitute of the murderer, but because the city most concerned substituted it for the share of the guilt cleaving to it. Hence the prayer, out of the very nature of the transaction, grounds itself in the redemption from Egypt, whose import with regard to expiation in Israel, for the whole sacrificial service down to its fulfillment in Christ, is thus made apparent. (Comp.Deuteronomy 15:15) וְאַל־תִּתֵּן either with most, lay not the guilt and punishment of innocent blood upon Israel, or, literally, let not such blood appear further in Israel. The result is the actual expiation in every case of the specified crime. The granting of the request cannot be assured. There will ever be innocent blood in its midst, but Deuteronomy 21:0:9ואתה, Israel as far as possible should put it away (Deuteronomy 19:13) if not through an expiation upon the murderer, still through the prescribed expiatory act, either, because it should do right, sq. or: when it will do right, sq. (Deuteronomy 12:25-28). The latter interpretation opens, at the same time, a view as to all the consequences.


1. Since the refuge cities are expressly cities of the Levites (Numbers 35:6) they share in the significance of the dispersion of the Levites among Israel; “that they may be a great but divided place of testimony:” (Bahr II. 51) i.e. they may afford in particular places what the dwelling of Jehovah, the altar, affords generally. (1 Kings 1:50 sq.; Deuteronomy 2:28 sq.; Exodus 21:14). As knowing the law, and truly as judges, the priests and Levites are brought into view; they knew whether it was murder or a mere casual killing. “The separation of these cities of refuge 1) reminds us of the distinction between wilful and unintentional sins, and also of a distinction as to the punishment of sins.” Piscator. The O. T. city of refuge is no asylum for the murderer, still less for the insolvent debtor, or the fugitive slave as among the Greeks and Romans; neither was it merely to secure the manslayer from the avenger of blood, for if he left the city before the high-priest’s death (Numbers 35:26 sq.) he was exposed to the avenger, but held over him an exile, which was merely an expiation of his deed. (“The separation of the cities 2) is a type of our wretched condition, and of our redemption through Christ our High-Priest.” Piscator.

2. Since the discourse takes this occasion to treat of war, under the sixth command, the objections against war drawn from this command are without force. The word of God takes the world, as it lies in wickedness, and so regards war as a necessary evil for the present. It speaks to the individual and aids him to peace, it holds out firmly the final prospect of peace generally, only however through crises and wars, which cannot endure. What is possible and what ought to be are different things, Romans 12:18. There are unrighteous wars, which grow out of hatred, selfishness, lust of power, etc. But wars of conquest may also be carried on in the service of a great idea, and rightly become destructive. The war against Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:16 sq.) was a sacred war. Comp. Doct. and Eth. upon Deuteronomy 1:6; Deuteronomy 4:40; par. 9, and upon chap. 7. par. 2. Was it a war expressly commanded by God, Exodus 17:14 sq.; Numbers 24:20; Numbers 31:2 sq.; Deuteronomy 25:17, then it is not merely permitted as the Rabbins distinguish, to make war. It is a duty to make war if there is no possible deliverance otherwise. Defensive wars are necessary. Offensive wars may become obligatory. The so-called “blood-letting” carried on under the plea of political advantage, the most demoralizing civil wars, should be prevented, but viewed in their higher relations, they have their missionary character, even civilization and Christianity follow them. “What does not Christendom, as to its spread in the world, owe to those dialectical popular movements, which are wars, leaving out of view even the fact that war has its destination, to reveal the finite nature of all things, to raise the world to greater piety, and to help it to the knowledge of the one thing needful.” (Marheineke theol. moral, p. 329). [The wars of Israel generally though not always were wars of the Lord. Their enemies were His since they were His people. But the war with the Canaanites was peculiarly a war of the Lord. These nations had filled up the measure of their iniquities. The time of judgment had come, and Israel was called to execute that judgment. The command to kill everything that breathed was a judicial sentence. There is nothing in such a command more difficult to explain than in any of the judicial providences of God. And this character of the war must be borne in mind when we are considering the unwonted severity which marked it.—A. G.].

3. “Moses insists as little as any other writer upon ordinary courage. The O. T. indeed has not cultivated that idea. It puts confidence in God generally in its room; and in the room of warlike courage more definitely confidence in God, who regards human life as sacred and valuable, and therefore preserves it. It corresponds alone also with its religious peculiarity, by virtue of which it was not fitted to cultivate the usual warlike virtues as such, but truly the other less conspicuous but doubtless higher virtues. The rules of war which chap. 20 contains, bear a decided religious stamp upon the ground of the sacredness of life, do not spring from the lower sources of prudence, but from the high, sacred fountain in God.”—Schultz.

4. “The following commands spring especially from two fundamental thoughts 1) Israel is the people of God, and carries on war therefore only in His name; therefore it should not trust to an arm of flesh, but release from duty in war, every one who either had formed a new relation, or even only whose faint-heartedness had taken away that courage of faith which is the strength of the hosts of the Lord. 2). Peace should be dearer to the people of God than war. It never needed to yield to the lust of conquest, and with the exception therefore of the righteous punishments, which as a trust of the Lord it must execute, it must offer peace constantly, and even spare the fruit trees in the fortification and siege.”—V. Gerlach.

5. Since all expiation in Israel is connected with a sacrifice (Leviticus 17:11), the expiatory rite, chap. 21 must have a sacrificial character. But as Baumgarten remarks it cannot possibly be literally a propitiatory sacrifice “since then it might easily mislead to the idea that a murder could be expiated by a sacrifice.” The guilt also is only indirect and relative. It is therefore on the other hand correct to regard the ceremony (Deuteronomy 21:5) as belonging to the sphere of law and justice into which the murderer has fallen.


1. Chap. 19 Deuteronomy 19:3. Starke: “Thus God prepares the way by His word and Spirit, and by His servants, to His refuge, His Saviour, that nothing may prove a hindrance in the way; as he did through John the Baptist, Matthew 3:3. But Christ is equally near all His servants, Matthew 11:28; John 6:37. Berl. Bib: “How excellent is the refuge which tempted and troubled sinners have in Him, in whom is the whole fulness of the Godhead; so that no sin, no law, curse, nor Satan, death or hell, can reach them ! The finger posts point to Him. John 1:29. But whoever will have safety in Him must forsake father, mother and all. Psalms 45:10; Luke 14:26.” Wurth. Bib., Deuteronomy 19:10 : “Magistrates ought not only to punish the guilty, but protect and save the innocent,” Deuteronomy 19:1-13. The place of refuge in Israel a security, but no protection for sin.” Deuteronomy 19:14. Piscator: “God cares not only for the body and life of our neighbor, but for all that is necessary for his abode, and purposes that no one shall injure another in this respect.” Baumgarten: “With these directions the prohibition as to the landmark is so far connected, as it also has its deepest ground in the character of the land as the possession of Jehovah. Hence Moses returns immediately to the judicial investigation of the murder.” Berl. Bib.: “In Deuteronomy 19:14 to prevent civil wars among His people, God forbids any alteration of the limits, once fixed by lot in the division of the land. Each family and tribe should keep within its inheritance.” Osiander, Deuteronomy 19:20. If the magistrates cannot see the heart, they may prevent the crime from becoming common.

Deuteronomy 20:1. Richter. “This is not the mere natural encouragement of the war songs.” Baumgarten: “As the heathen occupy all the land, Israel must enter through contest; but its peaceful and happy life, in its most sensitive points, is not disturbed by war.” Deuteronomy 20:2-3. Piscator. Example and form of a live field preacher and sermon; is the cause good, are they contending for the word of God and the fatherland, God is present with them and assures the victory.” [So especially with Christ’s soldiers, and in His cause.—A. G.]. Starke: “Although God’s hand is in wars displeasing to Him, still He is only to be looked for in His gracious presence, in righteous wars.” Osiander: “If it is not every man’s duty to accustom himself to wars, it is every Christian’s duty to carry on continual warfare with the devil, etc. These rules for natural wars are also for the spiritual; they are in force in the wars of the Lord and will be practically shown in the believer. Deuteronomy 20:4. Schultz: “The Lord will do the work, His people reap the fruits.” How are wars victorious: when in the soldiers there is no other fear than the fear of God, when there is no other trust in weapons than trust in God; when above all the Lord is the captain of the host. Deuteronomy 20:5 sq., Richter: “God chooses and will have no constrained soldier, Psalms 110:3. There is in Deuteronomy 20:5-7 at the same time a full estimate of earthly joys which charm the heart only at the beginning, but whose vanity is soon recognized. Deuteronomy 20:8, comp. Revelation 21:8 and also Judges 7:3 sq. Deuteronomy 20:10. Schultz: Israel, although conquering and transforming the world (Deuteronomy 2:25) is a peaceful people. Its final destination, great end, not destruction, but from the beginning the mediator of blessings. Genesis 12:3, (Isaiah 45:14; Isaiah 49:23)” Matthew 10:12-13.Deuteronomy 20:11-12. Berl. Bib.: “Has the Lord for so long a time in his patience invited us to peace! But we choose peace in the flesh. He offers that only through righteousness. Isaiah 32:17. Let us receive it while there is time. For the Jews who reject Him there remains nothing but the sword,” Deuteronomy 20:18. Here only tolerance is injurious and blameworthy. Deuteronomy 20:19. “May be spiritually explained that we should not contend against those who are for us and not against us.” Baumgarten: “The primitive destination of the fruit tree. Genesis 1:29; Genesis 2:9; Genesis 2:16 sq.; Deuteronomy 3:2; Deuteronomy 3:22. Israel a tree, Exodus 15:17. Humanity even to its extremest limits a charge for Israel. The kingdom of the world is later presented as animal, the kingdom of Israel as a kingdom of men.”

Deuteronomy 21:2. Piscator. “The public highways should be safe.” The organic connection in Israel must appear prominently, precisely when a member has been broken off. God lays the duty upon men, does not refer to the lot, to discover the murderer; he should let himself be recognized, or make himself known, to which the ceremony in its publicity and solemnity might contribute. God is the God of order. The extraordinary interventions of God are kept back, behind the order of salvation for the individual and the world, at the same time behind the order of the magistrates for all. Deuteronomy 21:3 sq. Lange: “For the rest we learn here how we may deal with the sins of others, but should not be partakers in them.” Rom 1:32; 2 John 1:11.Deuteronomy 21:6. Calvin: “As if they placed the corpse of the dead before God.” Deuteronomy 21:9. Berl. Bib.: “We learn among other things that we should from the heart ask God to pardon our unknown sins of spiritual murder against our neighbor, 1 John 3:15, and even against ourselves, Ephesians 4:17-19 (Psalms 90:8), for the sake of the blood of Christ, which was poured out in the deep valley of humiliation and in the great thirst of the forsaking of His heart; that God would not impute to us our blood-guiltiness, but be gracious to us for the sake of His dear Son, and forgive our sin.”


Deuteronomy 19:4; Deuteronomy 19:4. Margin literally; from yesterday, the third day, or the day before yesterday.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 19:5; Deuteronomy 19:5. Literally: findeth.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 19:6; Deuteronomy 19:6. Heb. goel.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 19:6; Deuteronomy 19:6. Smite him, in life, as the margin, or: to the life, mortally.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 19:13; Deuteronomy 19:13. Literally: and good to thee.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 20:3; Deuteronomy 20:3. Margin: be tender.]

Deuteronomy 20:3; Deuteronomy 20:3. Heb.: make haste.]

Deuteronomy 20:6; Deuteronomy 20:6. Make common from laying it open for common use, which was not allowed for the first three years.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 20:9; Deuteronomy 20:9. Literally: In the head of the people.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 20:19; Deuteronomy 20:19. Literally: for man the tree of the field to come from thy fare in the siege. For the variety of renderings and the plausibility of each, see the Exegesis. Perhaps that chosen by our translation—using the parenthesis—will commend itself as the best.—A. G.].

Deuteronomy 21:4; Deuteronomy 21:4. The literal rendering is that of Schröder, but the other part of the verse seems to require that of our version, and the Hebrew admits of it.—A. G.].

[12][Deuteronomy 21:8. Shall be covered to them, atoned for, in this way.—A. G.].

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/deuteronomy-20.html. 1857-84.
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