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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Deuteronomy 21

B. An exposition of selected covenant laws Chs. 12-25

Moses’ continuing homiletical exposition of the Law of Israel that follows explains reasons for the covenant laws that arose from the Ten Commandments. This address concludes with directions for celebrating and confirming the covenant (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The section contains a mixture of laws previously revealed to the Israelites and other laws not previously revealed in the code given at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:19). This is instruction preached rather than codified as comprehensive legislation.

"The specific laws in this section were given to help the people subordinate every area of their lives to the LORD, and to help them eradicate whatever might threaten that pure devotion." [Note: Deere, p. 283.]

"Placement of the instruction about worship at the sanctuary in first position indicates clearly its priority for Deuteronomy, which assumes that the starting point for the proper, full, and exclusive love of the Lord (the primary demand of the first and second commandments and the Shema) is found in the way Israel carries out the activities of worship." [Note: Miller, p. 129.]

There is an obvious general movement from laws dealing with Israel’s religious life (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) to those affecting her civil life (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 22:8) and finally to those touching personal life (Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 26:15).

Two insightful writers suggested the following outlines for these chapters. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 218-331; and Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARAV 1 (1978-79):105-58.]

CommandmentMerrillKaufmanDescription
1Deuteronomy 12:1-31ch. 12Fidelity
2Deuteronomy 12:32 to Deuteronomy 13:18ch. 12Worship
3Deuteronomy 14:1-21Deuteronomy 13:1 to Deuteronomy 14:27Name of God
4Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 16:17Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 16:17Sabbath
5Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Authority
6Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Murder
7Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:18Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:19Adultery
8Deuteronomy 23:19 to Deuteronomy 24:7Deuteronomy 23:20 to Deuteronomy 24:7Theft
9Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4False witness
10Deuteronomy 25:5-19Deuteronomy 25:5-16Coveting

". . . the entire second discourse of Moses (Deuteronomy 5-26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments . . . and commands of God." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 129.]

In contrast with the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), the Deuteronomic Code, as some scholars prefer to call this section (chs. 12-26), is a popular exposition rather than a formal legal code. Its purpose was to explain to the generation entering the land all the laws that needed clarification, emphasis, and application, in view of Israel’s imminent entrance into Canaan. These laws reflect a centralized, monarchical society.

The value of this section of Scripture to the Christian today lies primarily in its revelation of the heart, mind, and will of God. The modern student of these chapters should look for this kind of insight here. This is the revelatory value of the Law.

Verses 1-9

Unsolved murders 21:1-9

"The reason for grouping these five laws [in ch. 21], which are apparently so different from one another, as well as for attaching them to the previous regulations, is to be found in the desire to bring out distinctly the sacredness of life and of personal rights from every point of view, and impress it upon the covenant nation." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:404.]

Cities were responsible for murders committed within their jurisdictions. This indicates that there is such a thing as corporate guilt in God’s government. The ritual prescribed removed the pollution caused by bloodshed.

The heifer (young cow) represented the unknown murderer. It was his substitute. It was to be an animal that had not done hard labor; its vital force was undiminished (Deuteronomy 21:3). The leaders were to take this heifer into an unplowed field in a valley where there was running water and break its neck. The breaking of the neck symbolized the punishment due the murderer but executed on his substitute. The blood of the heifer would fall on unplowed ground that would absorb it. It would disappear rather than turning up at some future date because of plowing. The water cleansed the hands of the elders who had become ritually defiled by the shedding of the sacrifice’s blood. This ritual removed the impurity that would rest on the people of the city because someone they could not find had shed human blood near it. It atoned for this guilt in such a case. One writer explained that the practice of performing rituals to remove impurity from human habitations and human concerns not only occurs in other parts of the Bible, such as Leviticus 10, 14, 16 and 1 Samuel 5, but also in the literature of the Hittites and Mesopotamians. [Note: David P. Wright, "Deuteronomy 21:1-9 as a Rite of Elimination," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49:3 (July 1987):387-403.]

Verses 10-14

Limits on a husband’s authority 21:10-14

Israelite men could marry women from distant conquered cities taken as prisoners of war (provided they did not already have a wife). Such a woman had to shave her head and trim her nails. These were rituals of purification customary in the ancient Near East. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:406.] She received one month to mourn her parents (Deuteronomy 21:13). This may presuppose that they had died in the battle or, more likely, that she was to cut off all ties to her former life. [Note: Mayes, p. 303.]

"Such kindly consideration is in marked contrast with the cruel treatment meted out to women captured in war among the neighboring nations . . ." [Note: Thompson, p. 228.]

"This legislation could have two basic results: the men would be restrained from rape, and the women would have time to become adjusted to their new condition." [Note: Kalland, p. 132.]

The provision for divorce (Deuteronomy 21:14) receives further clarification later (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). We should not interpret the fact that God legislated the rights of sons born into polygamous families as tacit approval of that form of marriage. Monogamy was God’s will (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4-6). [Note: See Sailhamer, p. 460; and Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 292.] However, God also gave laws that regulated life when His people lived it in disobedience to His will. In other words, God did not approve of polygamy, but He tolerated it in Israel in the sense that He did not execute or punish polygamists through civil procedures. Similarly He did not approve of divorce, but He allowed it in this case (cf. Genesis 21:8-14; Ezra 9-10; Malachi 2:16). [Note: See Joe M. Sprinkle, "Old Testament Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:4 (December 1997):529-50.]

God did not feel compelled to comment in Scripture whenever people disobeyed him. That is, He did not always lead the writers of Scripture to identify every sinful practice as such whenever it occurs in the text. This was especially true when the people’s sins produced relatively limited consequences. He did comment more on the Israelites’ sins that directly involved their relationship to Himself and their sins that affected many other people. This fact reflects God’s gracious character (cf. Luke 15:12).

Verses 10-21

Wives and children 21:10-21

Everything in this section has some connection with the sixth commandment remote though it may be in some cases.

Verses 15-17

Limits on a father’s authority 21:15-17

The first-born son was to receive the traditional double portion of his father’s inheritance. This was to be Israel’s practice even though the first-born may have been the son of the wife her husband loved less than another wife he had (cf. Genesis 25:5-6). [Note: For refutation of the view of Gunkel and Noth that the Hebrew word translated "double" in Deuteronomy 21:17 should be rendered "two-thirds," see Eryl Davies, "The Meaning of Pi Senayim in Deuteronomy XXI 17," Vetus Testamentum 36:3 (July 1986):341-47. See also Barry J. Beitzel, "The Right of the Firstborn (Pi Senayim) in the Old Testament," in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, pp. 179-90.] The father’s authority, therefore, was not absolute in the Israelite home. Ancient Near Easterners regarded the first-born son as the beginning of the father’s strength (cf. Genesis 49:3). Just as men were to treat their wives with consideration (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), so too were fathers to treat their children with consideration (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

Verses 18-21

The punishment of an incorrigible child 21:18-21

The previous ordinance guarded a son from a capricious father. This one maintained the rights of parents whose son (or daughter, presumably) was incorrigible. While the problem in view was one of lack of respect for parents (the fifth commandment), the offense could result in the death of the child (the sixth commandment).

This case presupposes a long history of rebelliousness. The son had become a glutton and a drunkard (Deuteronomy 21:20). That is, he had developed a lifestyle of deviant behavior. Before loving parents would take the step available to them in this law they would doubtless try every other measure to secure their son’s correction. This was the last resort for the parents. This law withheld the right of parents to slay their children for rebelliousness while at the same time preserving parental authority fully.

Commenting on the terms "stubborn" and "rebellious," David Marcus wrote the following.

"Both terms form a hendiadys to indicate a juvenile delinquent. Now when one examines how these terms are used in the Hebrew Bible one sees that they belong to the didactic vocabulary of biblical literature. [Note: Weinfeld, p. 303.] They generally connote disobedience, in particular in Israel’s relationship to God. (The pertinent references may be found in Bellefontaine’s article [see below] from which the present author has greatly profited.) For example, in Psalms 78:8 the generation of the desert is termed sorer umoreh [stubborn rebellious]. Isaiah castigates the people for being sorer and following its own way (Isaiah 65:2). Jeremiah proclaims that Israel has a heart which is sorer umoreh (Jeremiah 5:23). Israel is portrayed as rebellious and disloyal, and in so doing repudiating its God and its relationship with him. [Note: Elizabeth Bellefontaine, "Deuteronomy 21:18-21: Reviewing the Case of the Rebellious Son," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 13 (July 1979):18.] In like manner, the son, by being rebellious and disloyal, has repudiated his parents and his relationship with them. The authority of the parents has been rejected by the son since he has refused to obey them. The son, in renouncing his relationship with his parents, has effectively declared, if not by his words, then certainly by his deeds, what the adopted son in the Mesopotamian adoption contracts says when he abrogates his contract, ’I am not your son; you are not my parents’ (Ibid., 17)." [Note: David Marcus, "Juvenile Delinquency in the Bible and the Ancient Near East," Journal of the Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 13 (1981):47.]

It may appear at first that God was commanding the Israelites to exercise less grace with their own children than He showed the whole nation. However, God had previously promised never to cut off His people (Genesis 12:1-3). The Israelites were to be God’s instruments of judgment in many specific situations, as we have already seen in Deuteronomy. The punishment of sinners, be they Canaanites or Israelites, for specific types of sin, was imperative for Israel to fulfill God’s purpose for her in the world (Exodus 19:5-6).

This legislation teaches us that parents should put their love for God above their love for their children.

Respect for life 21:22-22:8

This section opens and closes with references to death (Deuteronomy 21:22; Deuteronomy 22:8) placing it within the legislation dealing with the sixth commandment. [Note: See Kaufman, pp. 134-37.]

Verses 22-23

The burial of a hanged person 21:22-23

"The preceding law had proceeded from parental to official judicial authority and had prescribed the death penalty. The present case takes the judicial process a step beyond the execution, to the exposure of the corpse as a monitory, public proclamation of the satisfaction of justice." [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 185.]

The method of public execution prescribed in Israel was normally stoning. After criminals had died, sometimes their executioners hung their bodies up for all to see as a deterrent to similar crimes (cf. 1 Samuel 31:9-13). [Note: Thompson, p. 232.] This law required that in such cases those responsible had to bury the body the same day as the execution to avoid defiling the land further because of death (cf. Numbers 35:33-34; Leviticus 18:24-27). Hanging the body up was the result of God’s curse, not its cause.

The fact that Jesus Christ’s enemies crucified Him on a tree for all to see demonstrated that God had cursed Him because He bore our sins as our substitute. His hanging on a tree did not result in God cursing Him (John 19:31; Galatians 3:13).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-21.html. 2012.