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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 21

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Deuteronomy 21:0


The Law concerning Unsolved MurderMiscellaneous Laws (Deuteronomy 21:1-14)Concerning Unsolved MurderThe Unidentified Murderer
Deuteronomy 21:1-9Deuteronomy 21:1-9Deuteronomy 21:1-9Deuteronomy 21:1-9
Female War Prisoners Concerning Women Prisoners of WarWomen Taken in War
Deuteronomy 21:10-14Deuteronomy 21:10-14Deuteronomy 21:10-14Deuteronomy 21:10-14
Firstborn Inheritance Rights Concerning the First Son's InheritanceBirthright
Deuteronomy 21:15-17Deuteronomy 21:15-17Deuteronomy 21:15-17Deuteronomy 21:15-17
The Rebellious Son Concerning a Disobedient SonThe Rebellious Son
Deuteronomy 21:18-21Deuteronomy 21:18-21Deuteronomy 21:18-21Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Miscellaneous Laws (Deuteronomy 21:22-12) Various Laws (Deuteronomy 21:22-12)Various Rulings (Deuteronomy 21:22-12)
Deuteronomy 21:22-23Deuteronomy 21:22-23Deuteronomy 21:22-3Deuteronomy 21:22-2

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the four modern translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. Notice the recurrent pattern of “if. . .then.” This is one type of ancient Near Eastern law (i.e., case law or casuistic law), which is distinct from apodictic law (e.g., the Ten Words/Ten Commandments).

B. Deuteronomy's law code has several unique features:

1. recurrent emphases on covenant love

a. YHWH to Israel

b. Israelite to Israelite

c. Israelite to foreigner

d. Israelite to animals

2. special care for the poor, disenfranchised, and powerless

C. YHWH instructs His people in clear ways (paths). He wants them to understand and act appropriately. Their actions are to reflect His character as a means of reaching those who do not yet know Him (personal and national faith relationship). The Law is God's gift to fallen humanity, not a capricious exercise of control! They show in many practical and specific ways how an “unholy people” can stay in fellowship with holy God!

Verses 1-9

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 21:1-9 1If a slain person is found lying in the open country in the land which the LORD your God gives you to possess, and it is not known who has struck him, 2then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one. 3It shall be that the city which is nearest to the slain man, that is, the elders of that city, shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked and which has not pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley. 5Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the LORD your God has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the name of the LORD; and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them. 6All the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; 7and they shall answer and say, 'Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. 8Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O LORD, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.' And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them. 9So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the LORD.”

Deuteronomy 21:1-9 This is a context about how to cleanse the land when a murdered person is found in an open field, away from any city. Murder pollutes YHWH's land (e.g., Deuteronomy 7:13; Deuteronomy 11:9, Deuteronomy 11:21; Deuteronomy 28:11; Deuteronomy 30:20) and must be dealt with in an appropriate manner (i.e., sacrifice).

Deuteronomy 21:2 “elders and judges” There are local appointed leaders who sat in the gates of the city and tried the cases of the community. Only if they had a problem did they take the cases to a higher authority (i.e., Levitical priests, cf. Deuteronomy 21:5). They measured the distance from the found body to the cities around. The nearest town had to perform certain rituals (cf. Deuteronomy 21:3-8). This demonstrates their sense of guilt by proximity. The closest city was responsible for the blood-guiltiness, which could affect YHWH's blessings on the whole region (cf. Deuteronomy 19:13).

Deuteronomy 21:3 “heifer. . .which has not been worked and which has not pulled in a yoke” This means a heifer which has not been used for agricultural work.

Deuteronomy 21:4 “a valley with running water which has not been plowed or sown” The valley, too, had to be unpolluted by human activity or in a natural state. The water symbolized carrying the guilt away (similar to the goat of Leviticus 16:0).

“shall break the heifer's neck” Later rabbis said “chopped head off with an ax” because breaking the neck was a difficult task (cf. Exodus 13:13; Exodus 34:20). However, blood does not seem to be involved in the ritual, but the concept of substitution. The innocent heifer ceremonially takes the place of the unknown murderer. The purpose was to rid the land of innocent bloodguiltiness (cf. Numbers 35:33-34).

Deuteronomy 21:5 “the priests” They may refer later to local Levites.

“to bless in the name of the LORD” Blessing was one of the functions of priests/Levites (cf. Deuteronomy 10:8; 1 Chronicles 23:13). One example of a priestly blessing is recorded in Numbers 6:22-26. This blessing is related to Israel's covenant keeping (cf. Numbers 6:27; Deuteronomy 28:3-6). YHWH's personal presence (i.e., name) was honored or rejected by each Israelite's obedience or willful disobedience to YHWH's revelation (i.e., covenant). Israel's blessing, both individual (cf. Exodus 19:5-6) and corporate, was determined not by arbitrary or capricious choice, but by personal faith in YHWH, demonstrated by covenant obedience (lifestyle). YHWH wanted to bless (cf. Exodus 20:24; 2 Chronicles 30:27).

“every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them” The VERB is the common one, “to be” (BDB 224, KB 243, Qal IMPERFECT). The translation “be settled” comes from the previous NOUN phrase, “by their word” (BDB 804).

There are two types of legal problems mentioned:

1. “dispute” (i.e., lawsuit) - BDB 936, cf. Deuteronomy 1:12; Deuteronomy 19:17; Deuteronomy 21:5; Deuteronomy 25:1; Exodus 23:2, Exodus 23:3, Exodus 23:6

2. “assault” - BDB 619, cf. Deuteronomy 17:8. Here it refers to physical attack, but the term can mean disease, cf. Deuteronomy 24:8 (many times in Leviticus).

Deuteronomy 21:6 “wash their hands over the heifer” This symbolizes cleansing (cf. Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13) from guilt by the proximity of the dead body. The elders represent the whole community as they corporately wash the guilt away from the village and area.

Deuteronomy 21:7 “Our hands did not shed this blood nor did our eyes see it The rabbis relate this to help for the stranger, poor, orphan, or widow. Since the villagers did not see the stranger's need for help they were absolved from meeting that need. This may have been a way to stop the victim's family (i.e., blood avenger) from killing an innocent member of the nearest village in retaliation.

Deuteronomy 21:8

NASB, TEV, NJB“Forgive” NKJV“Provide atonement” NRSV“Absolve” REB“accept expiation”

This is the Hebrew VERB “cover” ( BDB 497, KB 493, Piel IMPERATIVE). It is used twice in this verse (the second use is a Nithpael PERFECT). This term, so common in Leviticus and Numbers, is used only three times: Deuteronomy 21:8[twice] and Deuteronomy 32:43). Its basic meaning is “to ritually cover by means of a sacrifice.”

“redeemed” This VERB (BDB 804, KB 911, Qal IMPERFECT, but JUSSIVE in meaning) is parallel to “forgive” (i.e., cover). See Special Topic: Ransom/Redeem.

NASB“do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people” NKJV“do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people” NRSV“do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people” TEV“do not hold us responsible for the murder of an innocent person” NJB“let no innocent blood be shed among your people”

The VERB (BDB 678, KB 733, Qal IMPERFECT, but in a JUSSIVE sense) is a prayer for ritual absolution from the consequences of an unsolved murder. Notice how NJB translates the phrase as a JUSSIVE.

Deuteronomy 21:9 The ritual (cf. Deuteronomy 21:1-8) was seen as “purging” (BDB 128, KB 145, Piel IMPERFECT) the effects of corporate sin (i.e., unsolved murders) from the whole community (similar to the rituals of “the Day of Atonement” in Leviticus 16:0). Sin, even unintentional corporate sin, affects the blessing of YHWH and even brings collective wrath (i.e., curses, cf. Deuteronomy 27-29).

Verses 10-14

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 21:10-14 10”When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her.”

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 These verses address how to appropriately deal with women (i.e., not Canaanites, but others, cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-15) captured in war, even they had rights in YHWH's land. This care for the poor and powerless is unique in the ancient world's law codes.

Deuteronomy 21:11 “woman” This was not a Canaanite woman, a foreigner, perhaps, but not Canaanite.

Notice the verbal progression:

1. “see” - BDB 906, KB 1157, Qal PERFECT

2. “love” - BDB 365 I, KB 362, Qal PERFECT, used of YHWH's love for Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7; Deuteronomy 10:15

3. “take” - BDB 542, KB 534, Qal PERFECT. Here it does not imply a sexual union, but a taking into one's house (cf. Deuteronomy 21:12).

This same sequence is found in Genesis 3:6!

Deuteronomy 21:12 “she shall shave her head and trim her nails” This was a (1) concluding (cf. Numbers 6:9, Numbers 6:18-19); (2) cleansing (cf. Leviticus 13:33; Leviticus 14:8-9); or (3) mourning (cf. Deuteronomy 14:1; Leviticus 21:5; Jeremiah 41:5; Ezekiel 44:20) ritual. Here it symbolized a new day, a new life, a new family. It is interesting that her conversion to YHWH is assumed, but not stated. The husband's faith was the family's faith!

Deuteronomy 21:13 “and mourn her father and mother” Although the text does not specifically state that this woman must be unmarried, it is implied. There is no mention of mourning over the loss of a husband nor the mention of children.

“after that you may go in to her” This is a Hebrew idiom for sexual intercourse (i.e., which consummated the marriage). Notice that a desire for sexual relations, even with a non-Israelite, is not condemned, but there is an appropriate time. This month of mourning gives the Hebrew man time to get to know his potential wife. If things do not go well, there is a way out without divorce.

Also note the apparent absence of an actual marriage ceremony (cf. Genesis 24:67).

Deuteronomy 21:14 “let her go” This is the technical word for divorce (BDB 1018, KB 1511, Piel PERFECT). She could not be sold (Qal INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and Qal IMPERFECT of BDB 569, KB 5181, which was a grammatical way to express emphasis) like a slave, but she could be divorced. See note at Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

NASB “you shall not mistreat her” NKJV “you shall not treat her brutally” NRSV, TEV “you must not treat her as a slave” NJB----------

The VERB (BDB 771 II, KB 849, Hithpael IMPERFECT) means “deal tyrannically with” or “forced to submit to the will of a more powerful person” (cf. Deuteronomy 24:7). YHWH cares for the fair treatment of even captured women!

NASB, NKJV“because you have humbled her” NRSV“since you have dishonored her” TEV“since you forced her to have intercourse with you” NJB“since you have exploited her” REB“since you have had your will with her”

This VERB (BDB 776, KB 853, Piel PERFECT), in this context, is best translated as the TEV (e.g., Genesis 34:2; Deuteronomy 22:24, Deuteronomy 22:29; Judges 19:24; Judges 20:5; 2 Samuel 13:12, 2 Samuel 13:14, 2 Samuel 13:22, 2 Samuel 13:32). These women would have suffered:

1. capture in war

2. loss of family

3. forced integration into marriage, which also assumes a religious conversion

4. now forced removal from the home (with implied sin, cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4) with no place to go

Notice that this paragraph, and the next also, limits the cultural power of male Israelites!

Verses 15-17

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 21:15-17 15”If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, 16then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. 17But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.”

Deuteronomy 21:15 This paragraph recognizes the cultural practice of polygamy. The first example in the OT is Lamech (Genesis 4:23). The most famous early polygamist was Jacob in Genesis 29:0. Polygamy was practiced among wealthy or powerful people, not usually the common people (although Deuteronomy 21:10-14 could refer to bigamy).

The exact motive for the practice is uncertain:

1. sexual

2. reproductive (an heir)

3. economic

a. help poor family

b. a way to gain wealth and influence

c. a way to handle the spoils of war

4. political unions to help neighboring nations maintain peace (i.e., David, Solomon)

“unloved” This is literally “hated” (BDB 971, cf. Deuteronomy 21:15[twice],16,17). But it is functioning here as a Hebrew idiom of comparison-loved versus unloved (cf. Genesis 29:30-31; Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:13 [quotes Malachi 1:2-3]; Luke 14:26).

“firstborn son” The firstborn's rights were established even if he were the son of the unloved (cf. Deuteronomy 21:17; Exodus 13:14-15; Leviticus 3:12-13).

Deuteronomy 21:17 “double portion” The Hebrew idiom (BDB 804, “mouth” and BDB 1040, “double”) is also used of Elisha's desire related to Elijah in 2 Kings 2:9. This is the only place in the OT that this double portion is specifically mentioned. If there were two sons, the older would receive two-thirds and the younger one-third; if three sons, then 50%, 25%, 25%, etc. The oldest son was to care for the aged parents.

It is interesting that the historicity of these laws is demonstrated by the archaeological finds of other ancient law codes:

1. Jacob in Genesis 49:0 gives all his twelve sons equal inheritance. This is reflected in the Code of Hammurabi

2. Here the mention of a double share for the firstborn is paralleled in the Nuzi and Mari tablets.

3. The differences recorded in Scripture reflect the differences in their contemporary culture (see The Old Testament Documents by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., p. 86).

Verses 18-21

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 21:18-21 18”If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. 20They shall say to the elders of his city, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.' 21Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.”

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 This section deals with rebellious sons and how parents were to treat them (cf. Exodus 21:15, Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9). Parents did not have the right of life or death over a child, but the courts did. This concerned (1) the violation of Deuteronomy 5:16; (2) the inheritance within a family; and (3) community solidarity.

Deuteronomy 21:18 This type of antisocial youth was characterized as:

1. “stubborn” - BDB 710, KB 770, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE

2. “rebellious” - BDB 598, KB 632, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE

3. both of these things are used together in Psalms 78:8 and Jeremiah 5:23

The five PARTICIPLES in this verse show continuous action. The rest of the verse describes their actions:

1. who will not obey parents, Deuteronomy 21:18, Deuteronomy 21:20

2. he will not even listen to them, Deuteronomy 21:18

3. glutton, Deuteronomy 21:20 - BDB 272 II

4. drunkard, Deuteronomy 21:20; Deuteronomy 21:20 - BDB 684

See Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp.174-175.

Deuteronomy 21:19 “father and mother shall seize him” This means either (1) both mutually restrain (BDB 1074, KB 1779, Qal PREFECT) or (2) the need for two witnesses (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15; Numbers 35:10).

“at the gateway” The local place of justice was the city gate, where the elders sat (e.g., Deuteronomy 19:12; Deuteronomy 22:15; Deuteronomy 25:7).

Deuteronomy 21:21 “all the men of his city shall stone him to death” Notice the humanitarian aspect that the parents did not have to stone their own son. The community (cf. Leviticus 20:2, Leviticus 20:27; Leviticus 24:14-23; Numbers 15:35) acted to rid itself of evil, willfully recalcitrant members.


NASB“you shall remove” NKJV“you shall put away” NRSV“you shall purge” TEV“you will get rid of” NJB“you must banish”

The Hebrew VERB (BDB 128, KB 145, Piel PERFECT) means to burn in the sense of utterly remove (cf. Deuteronomy 13:5; Deuteronomy 17:7, Deuteronomy 17:12; Deuteronomy 19:13, Deuteronomy 19:19; Deuteronomy 21:9, Deuteronomy 21:21; Deuteronomy 22:21, Deuteronomy 22:22, Deuteronomy 22:24; Deuteronomy 24:7).

“and all Israel will hear of it and fear” Societal punishment functions as a deterrent. See note at Deuteronomy 13:11.

Verses 22-23

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Deuteronomy 21:22-23 22”If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”

Deuteronomy 21:22 “you hang him on a tree” See Special Topic following.


Deuteronomy 21:23 “you shall surely bury” This intensified construction combines the INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and Qal IMPERFECT of “bury” (BDB 868, KB 1064). YHWH's wrath demanded the offender's death as the penalty for his stubborn rebellion. However, YHWH's displeasure would transfer to the community if the body of the executed covenant violator was not dealt with properly and in a timely fashion.

“(for he who is hanged is accursed of God)” See Galatians 3:13 for Paul's use of this phrase. Paul saw the substitutionary death of Jesus as taking on Himself the curse of the Mosaic law. Originally this curse was related to proper burial procedures in the holy land.



This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why were innocent town's people guilty for unknown murder?

2. What is unusual about the heifer and its death?

3. Why did the captured women shave their heads?

4. List the privilege of the first-born.





5. How does Deuteronomy 21:23 differ from Jesus' death? How are they related?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/deuteronomy-21.html. 2021.
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