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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Deuteronomy 21

Verses 1-9


Deuteronomy 21:1-9. UNDETECTED HOMICIDES.

(1) If one be found slain—It is remarkable that in our own time the most effectual remedy against outrages of which the perpetrators cannot be discovered is a fine upon the district in which they occur.

(2) Thy elders and thy judges shall come forth.—Rashi says these were to be special commissioners, members of the great Sanhedrin.

(3-4) An heifer, which hath not been wrought with . . . a rough valley which is neither eared nor sown.—Rashi’s note on this is curious: “The Holy One, blessed be He! said, ‘A yearling heifer which hath borne no fruit shall come and be beheaded in a place which yieldeth no fruit, to atone for the murder of the man whom they did not suffer to bear fruit.’ Some have thought that the valley was neither to be eared (ploughed) nor sown from that time forward.” The verbs are not past in the Hebrew, and the words may bear this meaning. If so, the district in which the murder occurred would be mulcted in that portion of land for ever.

(5) And the priests.—See on Deuteronomy 21:8.

(7) Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.—“Not that the chief magistrates of the city are supposed to have shed this blood; but that they have not contrived or procured the murder by any maintenance or partnership in the deed” (Rashi). We cannot but feel how impossible such solemn public declarations would be if the murderer had been harboured by the inhabitants of the place.

(8) Be merciful, O Lord.—In the sense of the publican’s prayer in St. Luke 18:0 “be propitiated,” literally, cover. The mercy seat is the “covering” of the Law, which protects Israel from it. The sacrifices are a “covering” for the sinner from a punishment of sin. According to Rashi, the prayer in the eighth verse is spoken by the priests; and it seems probable enough. No part in the transaction is assigned to them, unless it be this. And their presence was certainly necessary.

And the blood shall be forgiven them.—Literally, shall be covered for them. Not the same expression as Leviticus 4:20; Leviticus 4:26; Leviticus 4:31; Leviticus 4:35. But we can hardly follow the Jewish commentators into the question whether, if the perpetrator of the murder were afterwards discovered, the blood of the heifer which had been shed already could be allowed to atone for it, so that the murderer need not be punished.

Verses 10-14

Deuteronomy 21:10-14. MARRIAGE OF CAPTIVE WOMEN.

(10, 11) When thou . . . seest among the captives a beautiful woman.—This could not be among the seven nations, of whom it is said (Deuteronomy 20:1-6), “thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” But it may well apply to the recent case of the Midianitish maidens (Numbers 31:15-18), who had been taken captive in great numbers, and would naturally be reduced to slavery. It is clear from this passage that they could not be treated as concubines.

(12) Shall shave her head, and pare her nails.—Rashi’s view is that the object of this order is to spoil the beauty of the captive. The long hair is to be cut off, and the nails pared. On this last point the Targums differ; one taking the view that they are to be left to grow and the other the opposite interpretation. In 2 Samuel 19:24, there are two examples of the use of the word in the sense of attending to the person. The correct interpretation in this place depends upon the purpose for which the thing was to be done. If the intention was any kind of purification, and long or taper nails were considered an ornament (as by some Eastern nations), it is more probable that the nails were to be cut short.

(13) The raiment of her captivity.—Rashi takes this to mean the beautiful raiment put on for the purpose of attracting her captors. (Compare Jezebel’s attempt to captivate Jehu, 2 Kings 9:30.) Whatever may be the precise intent of these several instructions, it is clear that the law is intended to encourage lawful marriage, and no other form of union. In this view it throws an important light upon the treatment of the Midianitish captives in Numbers 31:0

(14) Thou shalt not make merchandise of her.—This shows that, in ordinary cases, these captives would be sold as slaves, without the restrictions imposed on Israelitish slavery. (See Leviticus 25:44-46.)

Verses 15-17

Deuteronomy 21:15-17. THE BIRTHRIGHT.

(15) One beloved, and another hated—i.e., one preferred above the other, according to the idiomatic use of this phrase in Hebrew.

(17) A double portion.—Literally, the mouth of two, i.e., two shares. Supposing there were four sons, the estate would be divided into five shares, and the firstborn would take two. So Jacob said to Joseph (Genesis 48:22): “I have given thee one portion above thy brethren.” The birthright of which Reuben was deprived for ill conduct, was given to Joseph’s sons (1 Chronicles 5:1). So Elisha said to Elijah before they were parted. “I pray thee let a double portion (the first-born’s share) of thy spirit be upon me (2 Kings 2:9).

Verses 18-21

Deuteronomy 21:18-21. THE INCORRIGIBLE SON.

(18) If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son.—Here we are again reminded that the Law of Jehovah was also the civil and criminal law of Israel. The systematic breach of the first commandment of the second table of the Law, no less than of the first commandment of the first table, entailed the penalty of death. Manifestly this enactment, if carried out, would be a great protection to the country against lawless and abandoned characters, and would rid it of one very large element in the dangerous classes.

(20) Stubborn and rebellious.—The Hebrew words became proverbial as the worst form of reproach, sôrêr û-môreh. This word môreh was the one employed by Moses, when, speaking “unadvisedly” (Numbers 20:10), he said to the people, “Hear now, ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock?” It appears in the Revised New Testament, in the margin of St. Matthew 5:22, for “thou fool.” But the Greek word there employed is true Greek, and has its own affinities in the New Testament. And the word môreh is true Hebrew. They may be idiomatically synonymous. They are not etymologically identical.

A glutton and a drunkard.—The same two words are found in Proverbs 23:20-22, “Be not among wine bibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags. Hearken unto thy father that begat thee; and despise not thy mother when she is old.” The context of this quotation seems to make it a distinct reference to the law in Deuteronomy 21:0

(21) Shall stone him with stones.—Rashi says that the Law cuts short the man’s career, anticipating what its close will be. When he has spent all his father’s money, he will take to the road, and become a public robber. It is better that he die innocent of such crimes than guilty. We can hardly adopt this view of the case; but it contains one feature that is terribly true.

Verses 22-23

Deuteronomy 21:22-23.—HANGING.

(22) And he be put to death.—Better, and he hath been put to death. Hanging followed death in Israel (Joshua 10:26-27).

(23) His body shall not remain all night.—Observed by Joshua, but broken by the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 22:9-10; 2 Samuel 22:14).

He that is hanged is accursed of God.—In the LXX., “Cursed of God is every one that hangeth upon a tree,” and cited in this form by St. Paul (Galatians 3:13). We cannot see why he should be pronounced cursed, except for the sake of that which was designed by “the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God,” that His Son Jesus Christ should bear our sins in His own body on the tree, and redeem us from the curse of the Law, by being “made a curse for us.”

Rashi’s note upon this shows how strangely the rays of truth are sometimes refracted in the Jewish mina: “‘He that is hanged is the curse of God’—that is, he is the King’s disgrace. For man was made in the likeness of His image. And Israel are his children. There were two twin brothers, who were much alike. One was made king, the other was taken up for highway robbery, and was hanged. Every one who saw him said, ‘There hangs the king!’” From this note it is clear that Rashi takes the words to mean, “He that is hanged is God’s disgrace,” because man is “made after the similitude of God.” There is no doubt as to the shame of the punishment which our Lord endured and despised.

Thou shalt in any wise bury him that day.—Another law, remarkably and providentially fulfilled in our Lord’s death. We do not read that the robbers who were crucified with Him were buried, though their bodies were removed from the cross. It is not improbable that this law was also intended to prevent the barbarous practice of leaving men impaled op sharp stakes or suspended upon crosses from day to day until they died of pain and thirst. It certainly is a disgrace to the Divine image to treat it thus.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.