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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Deuteronomy 21



Concerning the expiation of an uncertain murder: marriages with captives: the rights of the first-born: the punishment of those who rebel against their parents; and the burial of criminals.

Before Christ 1451.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Thy elders and thy judges i.e. Of the neighbouring cities. See Numbers 11:16.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. Shall take an heifer If two cities happened to be equidistant from the dead body, then they joined together to provide this heifer, which might be of three years old.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. Unto a rough valley, &c.— Unto a watered valley. Schult, p. 248. The heifer was to be brought into an uncultivated ground, (probably with a brook running through it, as the elders are required to wash their hands over the heifer, ver. 6.) as some say, to represent the horridness of the murder. We are told, that the place might never be plowed or sown thereafter; which made the owners of the ground employ their utmost diligence to find out the murderer, that their land might not lie waste for ever. But a more just explication is, that some desolate piece of ground was to be chosen, because the blood of the victim would have polluted cultivated ground: for this was a kind of expiatory sacrifice, whereby the land was cleansed from the legal pollution of murder; and such sacrifices rendered every person or thing unclean which touched them. See Leviticus 16:26-27. In this valley they were to strike off the neck of the heifer, as an emblem of the punishment which the assassin deserved, and as a representation of his crime.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. Shall wash their hands In testimony of their innocence. See the following verses, Psa 26:6 and Matthew 27:24. It is supposed by many, that the words in the next verses are spoken by the priests: there seems as much reason to believe that they were spoken by the elders. A learned Jewish writer, Chazkuni, says, that they who washed their hands used these words: "As our hands are now clean, so are we innocent of the blood which has been shed." Wagenseil is of opinion, that Pilate alluded to this ceremony when he washed his hands, and declared himself innocent of the blood of Jesus. It is, however, more probable, that Pilate used this as a general and well-known ceremony, expressive of innocence: nevertheless, he grossly abused it; since nothing could authorise or exculpate him from the guilt of condemning an innocent person.

Verse 9

Ver. 9. So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood Till this was done, the guilt was to be looked upon as national; but upon this solemn performance the government was deemed to have discharged its duty, and the nation was cleared of all guilt in the matter. This law, we see, made provision to purify a neighbouring city, and in a solemn manner by their magistrates, from any knowledge of a murder in which they had no hand, and to which they were no way privy; to keep up an abhorrence of the crime, and a care to prevent or detest it: in which particular it is remarkable that no ancient lawgiver has been more exact than Moses. The Greeks had some good rules respecting this matter; and Plato, in particular, ordered, that, "upon the finding a murdered body, public declaration should be made, that the murderer (if he could not be discovered) should banish himself immediately from his country." De Leg. vol. 2: lib. 2.

Verse 11

Ver. 11. And seest among the captives a beautiful woman The Jewish rabbis have many of them supposed, licentiously enough, that criminal familiarities were first allowed with these women. But Schickard and Grotius have, with great learning, endeavoured, to disprove this opinion; the latter of whom cites these words of Rabbi Bechai: "God would have the camp of the Israelites holy; and not suffer fornication, or other abominations, to be committed in it, as in the camp of the Gentiles." And at the same time Grotius observes, that the customs of all civilized nations have ever paid a particular respect to the modesty of captive women. Alexander the Great, in the tent of Darius, is a striking example: so that we cannot here understand the indulgence of Moses to extend further, than a simple permission to marry a captive woman, if willing to change her religion; and, indeed, the next verses plainly prove, that a decent time was to be previously allowed her to lament the loss of her country and friends, and prepare for a new connection.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. She shall shave her head, and pare her nails Shaving the head was one of the external signs of mourning. See Leviticus 19:27; Leviticus 21:15. St. Jerome, and others, however, understand this shaving as a species of purification, and an abjuration of paganism. Paring the nails seems to have been also done in mourning. In the original it is, shall make her nails, which some understand of letting them grow; and this seems to us more suitable to a state of mourning; but the fashion of countries, as Calmet has well observed, must entirely determine; for we are told, that in some parts of America the women esteem it a beauty to have long nails; so that among them to pare the nails would be a sign of mourning; and this too is the case among the Chinese. Indeed, the custom of having long nails was common in Europe not above two ages ago.

Verse 13

Ver. 13. And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her The French renders this more clearly: and she shall put off the raiment which she wore when she was taken captive; evidently to put on more vile apparel, and such as was better suited to the state and habit of mourning. In this dress she was to bewail her father and mother, either as slain in the war, or as likely to be seen no more by her; and this mourning was to continue a full month, the time usually allowed the Jews to bewail their deceased relations. The Talmudists add, that during this time she was to be instructed in the Jewish religion; for no indications of idolatry were to be tolerated among the Hebrews. Philo has justly observed, that the wisdom and humanity of Moses are very remarkable in this law; whereby the soldiers are forbidden to indulge a hasty and brutal passion, are kept a whole month in abstinence, and thereby have an opportunity given them of knowing the temper and disposition of the woman; for whose misfortune in captivity a compassionate provision is made, by allowing her so long a time of separation and mourning.

Verse 14

Ver. 14. Thou shalt let her go—because thou hast humbled her These things were permitted to the Jews for the hardness of their hearts, and the violence of their passions: but the Gospel of Jesus Christ allows no such indulgences: it commands the conquest and abolition of all such unworthy passions. See Matthew 19:8.

REFLECTIONS.—The granting of the liberty above mentioned, seems rather a permission, because of the hardness of their hearts, than a command. They are absolutely forbidden all connection with the Canaanites; but in their other wars, if a man took a captive, and was pleased with her beauty, he must not gratify his lawless lust, but might make her his lawful wife; yet not till after some time, when his thoughts might be more recollected, and the woman had, during a month, gone through the process here enjoined. Note; (1.) Sudden passions must be restrained, till grace is given for reflection. (2.) What we love inordinately, we should seek to wean our affections from. (3.) Before we take a partner for life, it is of infinite moment that we agree in religion. (4.) We are bound to shew indulgence to the sorrows which flow from natural affection.

Verse 15

Ver. 15. If a man have two wives Moses here enacts, that where any Israelite had two wives, (for polygamy, contrary to the original institution of marriage, was suffered, but never enjoined) and when the man was partial in his affections towards them; such partiality should not hinder the right of eldership and inheritance in any of the children. If the son of the wife whom he least loved were his first, her male heir should inherit as his eldest son, according to ancient custom in that case. Genesis 25:31. Grotius has remarked, that this law is extremely wise, to prevent any intrigues from the ascendancy of the second and favourite wife for the advantage of her children. A similar law existed among the Lombards; but it is to be observed, that the more necessary this law was, the more palpably does it demonstrate the inconveniencies of polygamy.

Hated Slighted. Vorst. Phil. pars 1: p. 127 and so ver. 16 and 17.

Verse 18

Ver. 18, &c. If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son Ample provision having been made for the security of private rights between neighbour and neighbour, Moses made another law for the regulation of families, by giving to parents a well-tempered power over incorrigible children: which was not to put the lives of their children absolutely into their hands, as the laws of some other countries did; but to direct them,—when all means of admonition and correction were lost upon a son, and when they saw nothing but ruin to the estate and family likely to result from his lewdness and debauchery,—to bring him out unto the gate of his place; i.e. to make complaint to the magistracy in court; joint complaint, ver. 20 both father and mother uniting in the accusation, which could hardly happen but in the case of the most deplorable disobedience; and which union in accusation entirely prevented all passion and prejudice. Upon this accusation of the parents, the magistrates were to condemn him to death, as a terrible example of disobedience to the laws of God and man. The Roman laws gave to parents an exorbitant authority over their children: so did the Persians and the Gauls. But with the Romans, a father could not exercise this right which the laws gave him over a disobedient child, without assembling his relations and friends, and taking their advice. See Puffendorff's Law of Nature and Nations, b. vi. c. ii. sect. 11 with Barbeyrac's note upon the place.

Verse 20

Ver. 20. He is a glutton and a drunkard Under these words are comprehended all other riotous courses. He was not to suffer for these vices only, but for stubbornly persisting in them, in spite of the repeated admonition and reproof of his parents, as appears from the 18th verse. Gluttony and drunkenness lead insensibly from crime to crime, even to the last excess. Proverbs 28:7. Miserable are the parents who do not repress, with the greater attention, the first inclinations in their children to these unworthy passions! To what miseries do they not expose themselves by their criminal indulgence! See Saurin's Sermons, tom. 12: Sermon 1.

Verses 22-23

Ver. 22, 23. He be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree Or, He be put to death, &c. Calmet and Waterland. Hence it appears, that this punishment was not the same with the Roman crucifixion; for they hanged men alive upon the gibbet, and there let them expire; but this was only hanging up their dead bodies, (see 2 Samuel 4:12.) and exposing them to shame for a time; a day at the longest; for they were to be buried at night: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree. See Joshua 8:29; Joshua 10:26-27. He was to be buried, that the land might not be defiled; i.e. not by a natural, but a legal pollution, under which the whole country lay, as long as the body of a condemned malefactor hung exposed on the tree. For he that is hanged, is accursed of God, says the sacred writer; i.e. a dead body hanging upon a cross or tree, is a most impure thing, legally most abominable and execrable before God; and still more so, as this hanging up of the body was generally a token that the person had committed some horrid crime, whereby he had incurred the high displeasure of Almighty God. In this view of things, how unfathomably deep was the humiliation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ! of whom the great apostle writes, that he hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. What service or adoration can ever be sufficient for us to testify our gratitude and love for so stupendous an act of humiliation! But we shall say more, when we come to Galatians 3:13.

He that is hanged is accursed of God The celebrated Mr. de Beausobre, in his Crit. Hist. of Manich. tom. 1: p. 279, observes, that the sense of this passage is, that God hates wickedness, and that the body of a criminal, though dead, ought to be removed from his sight, as an object of horror. This is figurative. Men, when they detest any thing, order it to be removed from their sight. Moses never thought that a holy and innocent person, voluntarily sacrificing himself for the glory of God, could be an object of divine malediction, because he was hanged upon a tree.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.