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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Deuteronomy 21

 

 

Introduction

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28).

III. REGULATIONS CONCERNING THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD (Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 21:9).

In this section the question of different ways of shedding blood is considered. Lying behind this section is the commandment, ‘you shall do no murder’. It should be noted that in some sense it continues the theme of the regulation of justice.

The shedding of the blood of men was always a prominent issue with God (compare Genesis 9:5-6). It is dealt with in a number of aspects.

a). In Deuteronomy 19 the question is raised as to how to deal with deliberate murder and accidental killing through cities of refuge. And this is linked with the removal of ancient landmarks which could cause, or be brought about by, violence and death, and was doing violence to the covenant of Yahweh. The mention of it here demonstrates the seriousness of this crime. It is also linked with the need to avoid false witness which could lead to an unjust death or could bring death on the false witness.

b). In Deuteronomy 20 the question of death in warfare is dealt with, both as something to be faced by the people themselves, and then with regard to how to deal with a captured enemy, differentiating between neighbouring lands and native Canaanites. But the trees are not to be killed.

c). In Deuteronomy 21:1-9 the question is dealt with as to what to do if a slain man is found and no one knows who did it.


Verses 1-9

The Undetected Murderer (Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a If one be found slain in the land which Yahweh your God gives you to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who has smitten him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure to the cities which are round about him who is slain (Deuteronomy 21:1-2).

b And it shall be, that the city which is nearest to the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked with, and which has not drawn in the yoke, and the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer to a valley with running water, which is neither ploughed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley (Deuteronomy 21:3-4).

c And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near; for them Yahweh your God has chosen to minister to him, and to bless in the name of Yahweh; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be (Deuteronomy 21:5).

c And all the elders of that city, who are nearest to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall answer and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it” (Deuteronomy 21:6-7).

b “Forgive (cover), O Yahweh, your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not permit innocent blood to remain in the midst of your people Israel.” And the blood shall be forgiven them (Deuteronomy 21:8).

a So shall you put away the innocent blood from the midst of you, when you shall do that what is right in the eyes of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 21:9).

Note that in ‘a’ someone has been slain, but it is not known who has smitten him, and in the parallel the innocent blood will be put away from them when they do what is right in the eyes of Yahweh. In ‘b’ they shed innocent blood non-sacrificially and in the parallel they ask that they may be ‘forgiven’ so that innocent blood might be put way from the midst of them. In ‘c’ the priest come near and their word is to be heard on the issue, and in the parallel the elders of the city respond with their word that their hands have not shed the blood and their eyes have seen nothing concerning it.

Deuteronomy 21:1-3 a

‘If one be found slain in the land which Yahweh your God gives you (thee) to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who has smitten him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure to the cities which are round about him who is slain,’

If a dead body of someone killed violently was found anywhere in Yahweh’s land, lying out in the open country, and enquiry did not reveal a culprit, the elders and judges of the surrounding towns must be called in, together with the priests (Deuteronomy 21:5) from the Central Sanctuary. This would be something that affected all Israel. No doubt they would first of all make enquiries. But then they had to assess which city or town was nearest to the spot. The probability must be that someone in that city and town was responsible. Furthermore it was a slight on that city or town that it had happened in their neighbourhood.

Deuteronomy 21:3-4

‘And it shall be, that the city which is nearest to the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked with, and which has not drawn in the yoke, and the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer to a valley with running water, which is neither ploughed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley.’

Once the particular city had been selected, the elders of that city were to take a heifer from the herd which had never toiled and which had never worn a yoke. Thus it was to be in pure form, and untainted by earthly activity. It was then to be taken down into a valley where there was running water, something not man made and a symbol of purity and life, and a valley which was not at the time either ploughed ready for sowing, or actually sowed, thus itself being ‘virgin land’. And there the heifer’s neck was to be broken.

We note first the continual emphasis on the fact that all connected with this was to be pure and untainted by the activity of man. What died was not to be connected with the activity of the city and its inhabitants, nor with the people of Israel. While of earth it was to be totally neutral. It was to represent the death of an ‘unknown’ which had no connection with the city. The running water probably indicated a valley that was being constantly renewed with purity and life by Yahweh. Nothing that was utilised was contaminated by the recent use of it by man.

Secondly we note that the slaughter of the heifer had no direct connection with where the body had been found. It was the whole land that was being cleansed, not that particular spot.

Deuteronomy 21:5

And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near; for them Yahweh your God has chosen to minister to him, and to bless in the name of Yahweh; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be.’

All this was to be overseen by the levitical priests. This is the first time they have been called ‘the sons of Levi’ (compare Deuteronomy 31:9) but it is very little different in significance to ‘the priests, the levites’ (Deuteronomy 17:9; Deuteronomy 17:18; Deuteronomy 18:1; Deuteronomy 24:8; Deuteronomy 27:9), except that it lays stress on their source and explains the phrase ‘the priests the levites’ as simply meaning the same. For also stressed is that they were chosen by Yahweh to minister to Him, and to bless ‘in the name of Yahweh’, a right restricted to the levitical priests (Numbers 6:23-27). These men must oversee every discussion, every decision, and every action with regard to the matter. In the end it will be they who declare the land to be again ‘blessed’. It is clear therefore that some actual ritual would be performed. But consonant with Moses’ approach in Deuteronomy he only expands on the part that the people have to play.

Deuteronomy 21:6-7

And all the elders of that city, who are nearest to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall answer and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it.” ’

The elders of the city were then to wash their hands over the heifer whose neck had been broken. The breaking of the neck specifically revealed that it was not a sacrifice, compare Exodus 13:13. This washing of hands declared them to be innocent of any connection with the death of the slain man (see Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13, and compare Matthew 27:24). Thus they were then to answer and say, ‘our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it’. By this they meant ‘we as a city’ for they were speaking on behalf of the whole city before Yahweh. ‘Nor have our eyes seen it’ signified that they were swearing before Yahweh that they had not seen the actual shedding of the blood. None of the city (as far as they were aware) had been present at the scene when the murder was committed. One purpose in this was to put the elders to the test before Yahweh as to whether they really were innocent. They would be aware that to do this before Yahweh, if in fact they knew who the murderer was, would be blasphemy.

“Answer and say” may indicate giving Yahweh an answer to His unspoken question about their ‘guilt’, but more probably it indicates that it was a response to a charge from the priests, following a ritual pattern.

Deuteronomy 21:8

Forgive (cover), O Yahweh, your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not permit innocent blood to remain in the midst of your people Israel.” And the blood shall be forgiven them.’

They were then to seek Yahweh’s forgiveness that it had happened in the territory for which they had oversight. The word signifies ‘to cover’ and is elsewhere connected with atonement. But here a different kind of covering was sought, a covering that would hide what had been done in the eyes of Yahweh. No one was actually taking the blame. But note that the ‘covering’ was for the whole of Israel who needed to have the stain removed from them. All were involved in a violent death that had taken place in Yahweh’s land, and would not remain satisfied until the murderer was caught and executed. For in the last analysis they were responsible for what happened in the land. But meanwhile they would be forgiven for the blood that had been shed. It would not be counted against them.

Note also the emphasis on the fact that they were the redeemed people of Yahweh. He had redeemed them in the past, He would surely therefore now redeem them from and help them in this situation.

Deuteronomy 21:9

So shall you put away the innocent blood from the midst of you, when you shall do that what is right in the eyes of Yahweh.’

By acting in this way and doing what was right in Yahweh’s eyes (executing the guilty person by proxy in a neutral environment) they put away ‘the innocent blood’, that is the shed blood concerning which they were innocent, from the midst of them (compare Deuteronomy 19:13). One importance of this would be that no avenger of blood could now blame the city. Another, of course, was that neither would Yahweh.

It is of interest that both the law code of Hammurabi and the law codes of the Hittites allowed for compensation in such cases from the nearest city to the family of the slain. In the case of the Hittites the city was only responsible if within a certain range. But no ceremony like this is known. In the Ugaritic Aqhat legend Danel located the place where his son was slain and cursed both the murderer and the cities which were nearby.

As far as we are concerned the lesson for us is that God does look on us as partly responsible for what happens in our own environment. If we do not do all that we can to maintain the purity from sin of our own towns and cities and countryside we must share the blame. It is not sufficient to say, ‘we did not know’, if God can reply, ‘you should have known’.


Verses 10-14

IV. FURTHER REGULATIONS CENTRAL TO THE MAINTENANCE OF SOCIETY AND THE MAINTENANCE OF FAMILY UNITY (Deuteronomy 21:10-23).

The remainder of Deuteronomy 21 deals with what is to happen in certain cases concerning close relatives. Its stress is on the maintenance of family life in harmony, and on the honour to be shown to different members of the family.

The contents of Deuteronomy 21 also connects with Deuteronomy 20:14 in that it deals in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 with how to deal with women captives who are taken in marriage by Israelites, something which would be commonly happening.

The protection of family honour and harmony covers the following aspects:

1). Treatment of women captives who are viewed as desirable (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

2). The attitude towards the wife in verses 10-14 then leads on into another case of an unloved wife, which deals with the rights of inheritance of the firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

3). This then leads on to establishing the principle of the authority of father and mother, and the treatment of a violently rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

All these three regulations seek to deal with the disruption of family life, the first dealing with fairness towards captives who are brought into the family, the latter two dealing with matters at the very heart of society’s welfare, inheritance rights and the maintenance of authority.

The chapter closes with a brief reference to dealing with those who behave in such a way as to deserve sentence of death (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). This harks back to the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), and to what should happen to the murderer in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 if he was ever found.

Treatment Of Women Captives Brought Into The Family (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

This follows on from Deuteronomy 20:14 and gives instructions with regard to particular women captives who have been brought back to Israel. Similar situations would probably already have been met up with after earlier conflicts. Where one of these women captives was desired by an Israelite as a wife (her husband would be dead, having been slain after the siege, or in battle) he must not just callously take her and marry her. Certain consideration must first be given to the woman.

Analysis using the words of Moses.

a When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and Yahweh your God delivers them into your hands, and you carry them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have a desire for her, and would take her to you for wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-11).

b Then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails, and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her (Deuteronomy 21:12-13 a).

b And she shall remain in your house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month, and after that you shall go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife (Deuteronomy 21:13 b).

a And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her at all for money, you shall not deal with her as a slave, because you have humbled her (Deuteronomy 21:14).

Note that in ‘a’ the man has a desire for the woman and takes steps to take her for his wife, then in the parallel if he then have no delight in her he must let her go free. In ‘b’ he brings her home to his house, and she shaves her head, and pares her nails, and puts the raiment of her captivity from off her, and in the parallel she remains in his house, and bewails her father and her mother a full month, and after that he can go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be his wife (Deuteronomy 21:13 b)

Deuteronomy 21:10-13

When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and Yahweh your God delivers them into your hands, and you carry them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have a desire for her, and would take her to you for wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails, and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in your house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month, and after that you shall go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.’

This might of course apply to any battle, not just a siege, and it is clear that it does not refer to Canaanites. In the constant conflicts this could often happen in those days. Especially with a wandering people like the Israelites such battles and such captives would have been fairly common, partly as a result of skirmishes with desert tribes. It would equally happen in the future because of warfare with belligerent neighbours. But the stress here is on the treatment of a woman captive whom an Israelite desires for himself. She must be brought to the family residence of the man who wished to marry her, then she must shave her head and pare her nails, and get rid of the clothes in which she came. After which she was to be given a month for mourning her family. (They may not have been dead, just lost for ever). Once that was over the marriage could then take place.

The shaving of her head and the paring of her nails possibly refers to the removal from her extremities (head and hand and foot) of all connections with the old life (compare Leviticus 14:14). The hair and the nails were also the parts of a woman that could grow long and enhance her beauty. Thus the cutting may have symbolised the end of her old pagan beauty and the growth of a new beauty now that she was an Israelite. Or the purpose may have been to make her ritually clean (compare Leviticus 14:8; Leviticus 14:14; Numbers 8:7). She would now be expected to become a member of the covenant. The changing of her clothes implied something similar. She was now an Israelite and to be brought within the covenant. She must put off the clothes which distinguished her background and dress like an Israelite woman from now on. The mourning period, which was a standard period of mourning in Israel (see Deuteronomy 34:8; Numbers 20:29), was out of consideration for her feelings. She would have had little chance to mourn while captive, but once the month was over she would be expected to forget her old life. On marriage she would now be a free Israelite woman.

Deuteronomy 21:14

And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall let her go where she will; but you shall not sell her at all for money, you shall not deal with her as a slave, because you have humbled her.’

The question here is as to what is intended. On the face of it, it is the alternative to marriage. He has had a month to think it over and he is now not convinced that he wants to go ahead with marriage. His attachment has worn off and he no longer has any delight in her, which may also be explained by her reaction to the situation which has made him recognise that it bodes ill for the future. But all have been living in expectation of the marriage. She is being shamed. By sending her away he is humbling her. Thus as compensation he must not sell her, or deal with her as a slave. She must be sent away as a free woman, the position she would have held if he had married her.

Others, however, see the situation as signifying a marriage, made in haste, which has turned out to be a disaster. He had discovered that a beautiful woman did not necessarily make a good wife, especially if she had foreign tastes, and foreign habits. Furthermore she had been given little choice in the matter, and might well have been feeling angry and bitter, or have been traumatised. She might well have been behaving like a shrew. The man might have discovered that he found little delight in his marriage. This may even signify that she had refused him his conjugal rights.

It is clear that both wished the arrangement to end and in these circumstances he could ‘let her go’ presumably by divorcing her (see Deuteronomy 24:1). She must then be allowed to go where she wished for the marriage had made her a free woman, which might well be back to her own country (compare for all this Exodus 21:8-11). He must not try to sell her as a slave, or treat her as such, because he had ‘humbled her’. This may simply refer to having put her in her difficult position, or of having ‘forced’ her to marry him, or because he has had intercourse with her on equal terms, or to the fact that divorce was necessarily usually looked on as a humbling experience for the woman. Whichever way it was he must not try to take any further advantage of her.

Just as he had been freed from slavery by the deliverance from Egypt, so he had to set her free from slavery. Having given her hope for the future it would not be just to restore her to her former condition when she was a captive. She now shared in the deliverance from Egypt.

But this latter case is only a possibility if divorce was so easily obtained. If Deuteronomy 24:1 actually indicates that divorce was only available for serious misdemeanours it could not apply in all cases of women captors who proved a disappointment. And there is actually no mention here of a divorce or a bill of divorcement.

One lesson for us from this example is the importance of giving people who have been good to us their due. The woman had done right by him. He must do right by her.

Excursus: Should Israel Have Had Any Part In Such Slavery?

We must keep in mind that a part purpose of the Law was to control life as it was already lived, to control what already actually took place, so as to ensure fair treatment for the weaker party. The receiving of slaves and treating them as slave wives was universal practise. Conditions of the day rendered it inevitable. Both war and extreme poverty resulted in there being a certain quantity of people for whom there was little practical alternative. The only alternative was their being killed off or left to die. No nation could offer open house for all. They would never have survived. And we must not think in terms of modern slavery. Slavery was then an economic means by which the helpless and dispossessed could obtain food and shelter in return for service.

We know from the time of Abraham that Hagar was an Egyptian, and that his steward was possibly a Damascene. In Israel the permanent slave was required to enter into the covenant. They had no right to retain their own religion. They had to became an integral part of the covenant community. Thus there was little danger of their leading their masters and husbands astray. It is a fact of life that had such marriages not been allowed then particularly desirable women would simply have been ravaged. It was in order to protect against this that this law was introduced. We could say 'for the hardness off your heart Moses gave you this law' as Jesus said about the law relating to divorce.

Divorce was allowed in Israel, in so far as it was allowed, simply because, had it not been, worse things would have occurred. It was not God's will. As Jesus said it was His concession to man's weakness and the need to protect the weaker party. Without divorce a woman may have been cast off with no hope of any future marriage. If the case we have been looking at was a case of divorce, without the provision made here a slave wife might simply have been got rid of in one way or another. By having regulation it ensured right treatment. God had to take into account man's tendencies for these laws were intended to be practically applied and He knew that the people were not perfect. Impractical laws would simply have led to infamous behaviour and the suffering and death of the weak.

But if this was so, and people could so be integrated into society, why was this option not given to Canaanite women?

There was a twofold difference between Canaanite women and other women. Firstly was the fact that the Canaanites were especially corrupt with their particular debased religion. They were like a cancer which had to be totally eradicated. They had sinned so greatly that God had determined final judgment on them. They had to be 'devoted' to God (compare Joshua 7). They were under The Ban. Like all the goods in Jericho they were Yahweh’s. There were to be no exceptions. This principle was fixed in the Israelite mind without exception, without compromise. God had determined final judgment on all Canaanites. It was to be Israel's privilege to act as the judgment of God on them. If we question God’s right to so judge it may be that it is we who do not really understand either God or the final demands of righteousness.

As we know, in the event they did not follow God's command which was a large part of the reason for their continued failure before God. The cancer of the Canaanites actually destroyed the nation of Israel. When man thinks that he knows better than God it usually ends in disaster.

Secondly there is a great deal of difference between someone who has been uprooted from their environment, with the result that, finding themselves in a totally new land with nothing to remind them of the past and with no chance of returning to the old land, they can be exorcised from their old religion, as compared with someone who was constantly surrounded by their old environment, to whom every high hill, every high place, every green tree constantly kept alive in their hearts the old ideas and became a means by which they could tempt men into misbehaviour and idolatry. That scourge had to be fully eradicated. God knew the hearts of men.

Furthermore every Canaanitish woman absorbed into Israel would have been a magnet to neighbouring Canaanites inciting them to smite the Israelites so as to free their own. They would have caused constant conflict. And even worse the old behaviour had probably introduced into, and multiplied in the Canaanites, certain sexual diseases that could easily be passed on. God wanted to keep His people as free from these diseases as possible. We can compare how in our modern society free sex has resulted in a multiplicity of sexually transmitted diseases in many countries. But in those days there were no cures for such things. These are just a few reasons why Canaanite women alone were to be treated as untouchables.

(End of Excursus.)


Verses 15-17

Treatment of An Unloved Wife and The Right Of The Firstborn (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

The faltering love of a man for a beautiful captive leads on to the case where a man’s love for a wife has waned. The stress is on fair treatment and harmony in the family.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a If a man has two wives, the one beloved, and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the unloved

b And if the first-born son be hers that was unloved,

b Then it shall be, in the day that he causes his sons to inherit what he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved the firstborn before the son of the unloved who is the firstborn

a But 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, the right of the firstborn is his.

Note in ‘a’ that a man has two wives, one beloved and the other not beloved and both bear him children, in the parallel he must acknowledge the true firstborn even if he is borne by the unloved wife. In ‘b’ we are told that the firstborn is the son of the unloved wife, and in the parallel we are told that he must not ‘unmake’ that situation by favouring the other son as though he were the firstborn.

Deuteronomy 21:15-16

If a man has two wives, the one beloved, and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the unloved, and if the first-born son be hers that was unloved, then it shall be, in the day that he causes his sons to inherit what he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved the firstborn before the son of the unloved who is the firstborn.’

The thought of the wife unloved by her husband in verses 10-14 leads on this next regulation. This too applies where a wife is unloved by her husband. In this case the man is a polygamist. Similarly to Jacob he loved one wife, and the other was unloved, even possibly hated. But if they had borne him children, and the unloved one was the mother of his firstborn, he must not disinherit the firstborn for the sake of the second wife’s child. He cannot declare that the second wife’s son is ‘the firstborn’ with all the firstborn’s privileges.

Such special rights for the firstborn, and the double portion for the firstborn, are both witnessed to elsewhere in the Ancient Near East.

Deuteronomy 21:17

But 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, the right of the firstborn is his.’

He must rather acknowledge the firstborn and give him the double portion (literally ‘a mouth or two of all that he has’ in contrast with one mouthful) which was the firstborn’s due. This is because as the firstborn he was the foundation of the man’s family, the beginning of what has become his strength. Or alternately ‘strength’ may indicate procreative power, thus we may have here the first exercise of his procreative power.

This principle of the special rights of the firstborn is known in other law codes. Esau lost it because he sold it. Reuben lost it because he sinned grievously by taking his father’s slave wife (Genesis 49:3-4). But it could only be lost by such illegalities. Kings like David often saw themselves as above this law, but what they were passing on was not a double portion but a throne, and the result was often civil war.

In the case of Abraham Sarah was his first wife. Ishmael was merely the son of a slave wife and thus was not the firstborn.

One lesson for us in this regulation is the need to deal fairly with people and not to indulge in favouritism. It is so easy to favour ‘nice’ people, and to disregard those whom we find not so nice. Here God is warning us against such behaviour. We must deal fairly and rightly with all, and not rob people of their genuine rights.

It may be asked, why should the firstborn be given a double portion? Why should everything not be equally divided among members of the family? The reason was a very good and wise one. It was to preserve his status and ensure the continuation of the family. When Israel reached the land, every Israelite family head was to receive a portion of land for the family, and we must remember that family ties were powerful in those days and that families stayed and worked together. So the family head not only had responsibility for his own immediate family but his wider family. There had necessarily to be a family head, and he was usually the firstborn. The firstborn would be the oldest and the most experienced and his being naturally appointed hopefully prevented any falling out about such a position. His authority was automatically recognised.

He would have the responsibility of looking after his mother, any unmarried daughters, and other family adherents and also the family servants. He carried on the family name and had to hold together the wider family. Thus he needed the larger portion. Then if he died without an heir his brother was to raise up a son through the firstborn's wife so that he could inherit the double portion and take over headship of the family. (Whether ‘double’ literally meant twice as much or whether it meant such a large portion as was necessary to maintain family unity is open to question). But even though the remainder of the land was passed on to other brothers it was still a part of the family land. If someone sold some of it off it could be redeemed by a kinsman, and whatever happened it returned to the family on the year of Yubile. Had the land simply been divided up on death between all members of the family, soon there would have been lots of tiny pieces of land and total disunity, until some outsider took the opportunity and bought out the lot, and no one would have had responsibility to maintain the family unity. By keeping a large part of the family land together it guaranteed the future of the whole family. If all the males in the family died daughters could inherit but if there were none then the land would pass to near relatives. But it would stay in 'the family'. Family responsibility in those days was taken seriously, was fully binding and along with a sense of tribal responsibility ensured a grouping for self-defence, was for the general benefit and provided a reasonably satisfactory judicial system. The law of primogeniture was therefore of benefit to all for the purpose of maintaining a strong family head. It was only when families ceased to work together that it became a problem, but God was talking to those who recognised the basis of it.


Verses 18-21

Rebellion Against Parental Authority (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Parental concern for the son as revealed in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 now leads on to the case where a son is a rebellious troublemaker. Again the desire is to maintain the harmony of the family. In Deuteronomy 21:15-17 the father was seen as behaving badly towards his son, and was forbidden by law to do so. Here the son was seen as behaving badly towards his father and mother to such an extent that they could no longer guarantee to control him.

In a patriarchal society like Israel this was tantamount to anarchy. Control in such a society was maintained by the father of the family, the father of the wider family, the father of the clan and finally the father of the tribe. Thus if the fatherhood could not control someone there was nowhere else to go.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and, though they chasten him, will not take any notice of them,

b Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place,

b And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.”

a And all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones. So shall you put away the evil from the midst of you, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

Note that in ‘a’ the son is rebellious and will not respond to discipline, and in the parallel he is toned to death for his rebelliousness. In ‘b’ he is brought to the elders of the city and in the parallel the tell the elders of his crimes.

Deuteronomy 21:18-20

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and, though they chasten him, will not take any notice of them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place, and they shall say to the elders of his city, “This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.” ’

This does not refer to the normal rows that can occur in the best of families. If necessary that could have been dealt with by a severe beating. There was no limit to a father’s right to have his son beaten as long as he did not die. This refers to a son who had broken all the rules of society laid down by his parents, who was destroying the family name, and making constant problems for them in their relationships with the tribe. He had become wild and indisciplined, and broken the covenant constantly, becoming a menace to society and uncontrollable. Though they had chastened him, and such chastening could be pretty severe (Proverbs 23:13-14 suggests such a severity of beating that the parents backed away from it; compare Proverbs 13:24; Proverbs 19:18), it had not worked. All efforts to control him had proved useless. He had stubbornly gone on in his rebellious way causing trouble and concern not only for his parents but for the society in which he lived. He was a menace to all.

For a father and mother to agree together to hand their son over to the authorities in those days (note that the witness of both was required) was the sign of how bad things were. They themselves would be publicly admitting their inability to control their own son. They would do it in this case for the sake of society. He could no longer be allowed to wreak havoc on everyone, and they could no longer act as his guarantee. They were left without any options.

They took him by force and brought him to the gate of the city where the judges and elders met, testifying to his behaviour before them. ‘Glutton’ and ‘drunkard’ were two abusive terms which together signified his total depravity. His greed expressed by his crimes and his totally disorderly behaviour putting everyone at risk could only be described in this way. The facts, if not already widely known, would be sought before sentence was passed. Few elders and judges would have wanted to act in such a case without good reason. Without good reason every father among them would have drawn back from it.

Deuteronomy 21:21

And all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones. So shall you put away the evil from the midst of you, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.’

To rebel in this way against parents was to rebel against God. It was to be out of control in society. (All means had been tried to persuade him to be otherwise). The punishment was therefore stoning, possibly because as the equivalent of a blasphemer the son was seen as ‘unclean’ and none would want to touch him. Compare here Exodus 21:15; Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9. It was also a method of execution in which all could partake and thus share out among them any feelings of guilt that might arise. The whole city was called on to perform the execution (had they been in any doubt they would simply have refused). It is possible that the father and mother were not obliged to take part. It put the onus on all. It had now passed out of their hands. This serves to demonstrate that all would be aware of the justice of the sentence.

There is in fact no known case where this actually took place, which means hopefully that it was a warning that was mainly heeded. We must always remember that in the end severe sentences were at least partly intended to prevent crimes from happening. But human nature is such that it must have happened at some time.


Verse 22-23

Disposal Of Bodies Which Are Accursed (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

The thought of the stoning of a son who was worthy of death leads on to the question of what was done with the body of such a person.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22).

b His body shall not remain all night on the tree (Deuteronomy 21:23 a).

b But you shall surely bury him the same day (Deuteronomy 21:23 b).

a For he who is hanged is accursed of God, that you defile not your land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:23 c).

Note that in ‘a’ the man is executed and hung and in the parallel he is accursed of God because he has been executed and hung which is why he must not be allowed to remain there overnight. In ‘b’ his body must not remain on the tree all night, but in the parallel must be moved the same day.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23

And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day, for he who is hanged is accursed of God, that you defile not your land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance.’

It is clear from this that the practise with executed criminals was to display the body on a tree. By this it would be made apparent to the whole society that this man had been tried, sentenced, and executed. Such a man was necessarily under a curse (compare Deuteronomy 27:15-26). It brought shame on him and his family.

But his body must not remain on the tree all night. He must be buried the same day because he was under God’s curse and to leave a cursed body there through the night would be to defile the land. It would be to extend into the next day the necessary execution of the criminal which should all be finished with on the day of execution. The execution had as it were cancelled out the criminal behaviour. The two went together, excusing and explaining the death of the criminal so that it did not defile the land.

But to leave the body hanging exposed on the tree would be to leave it with nothing to set against it on the morrow, the death thus defiling the land (compare Numbers 35:33). And to defile the land which Yahweh had given them as an inheritance was unthinkable. There was in this an element of mercy. Sufficient unto a day is the evil thereof.

It need hardly be said that in a hot country the corpse would rapidly putrefy. This too might have been seen as part of the defilement. The hanging of criminals to public exposure was a common practise. (Compare Genesis 40:19; Numbers 25:4; Joshua 8:29; Joshua 10:26-27; 1 Samuel 31:10; 2 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 21:8-9; Esther 2:23). It is also mentioned in the Law Code of Hammurabi.

Paul took this fact and applied it to the death of Jesus on our behalf. By hanging on a tree He willingly became a curse for us thus bearing for us the curse of sin (Galatians 3:10-13).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-21.html. 2013.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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