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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 21

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-23

CRITICAL NOTES.—The reason for grouping these five laws, apparently so different from one another, as well as for attaching them to the previous regulations is 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.—(Keil).

Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Expiation of unknown murder. Lying, fallen, then lying (Judges 3:25). Deuteronomy 21:2. Elders. Representing citizens. Judges. Administrators of right. City. The nearest responsible for cleansing rites. The heifer, which had done no work, strong and of full growth, not ceremonially profaned by human use (cf. Exodus 20:25), had to die instead of the murderer who could not be found. Deuteronomy 21:4. Rough. A valley through which water constantly flowed, suitable for cleansing. Eared. Neither ploughed nor sown. Deuteronomy 21:5. Priest. Whom Jehovah had chosen to serve Him, was present, not to conduct the affair but to see that the rite was duly performed and accredit it when done so. Deuteronomy 21:6. Wash. A symbolic act declaring innocence and repudiating connection with the crime. Deuteronomy 21:7. Answer for all the people. Merciful. Be propitiated towards us; lit., cover this guilt (Leviticus 1:4). Blood., i.e., bloodshed; the murder forgiven.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14. A Captive Wife. Customary in ancient war for the victor to make a female captive a slave. Moses checks severities and shows superior treatment. Shave, pare, lit., prepare, by cutting her nails to proper size and form. (2 Samuel 19:25.) Both customary signs of purification (cutting the hair cf. Leviticus 14:8; Numbers 8:7). Symbols of passing out of the state of a slave into reception of fellowship with the covenant nation. This obvious by her laying aside prisoner’s clothes.—Keil. Bewail. This prescribed from motives of humanity that the woman might have time and leisure to detach her affections from their natural ties and prepare her mind for new ones.—Speak. Com. Merchandize, lit., treat her with constraint, or as a slave. Humbled in taking her captive and then refusing the place and honour of a wife.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17. The Right of the Firstborn. If a man had two wives, one beloved the other hated, loved less (cf. Leah and Rachel, wives of Jacob), the firstborn by the hated one must be treated as such. In the division of property he must have double (Deuteronomy 21:17), a portion equal to that of two; consequently the firstborn inherited twice as much as the other sons. Paternal authority could set aside these rights on just grounds (Genesis 27:33), but must not do so from mere partiality.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Punishment of a disobedient son. Rebellious whom milder measures failed to reclaim. Elders, as magistrates of a domestic kind, received the accusation of parents and upheld their authority; but prevented private acts of injustice. Gate. He was stoned by all the men of the town and treated as a blasphemer. Rebellion against parental authority struck at the social fabric and must be severely punished.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Burial of those hanged. Sin, lit., a right of death; i.e., capital offence. Hanged. a curse of God, inflicted by God. Remain, the preceding command “to put away evil,” must now be observed. Defiled by exposing the corpse, especially the body of one guilty of such a crime as to deserve this fate (cf. Galatians 3:13).

UNKNOWN CRIME.—Deuteronomy 21:1-9

Preceding laws indicate vigorous and effectual punishment of wilful murder. But if the murderer escaped they were not free, and the land was not unpolluted. A great ceremony was appointed to put away guilt and express detestation and innocence.

I. The criminal escaping. “Not known who hath slain him.” Crime may be committed in darkness and concealment. Men may evade laws most vigilant and severe, and think they can escape; but God’s providence brings dark deeds to light, and strange things have led to the detection of guilt. The earth may disclose her blood (Isaiah 26:21) in time; if not, the future will reveal the righteous judgment of God when that which is past will be required (Ecclesiastes 3:15).

II. The community responsible for his crime. Blame is attached to Israel in some form or other, and they had to cleanse themselves. Society is bound together for mutual help and good government. We are responsible not only for what we can do, but for what we can prevent. We must not only reform abuses and remove grievances, but prevent evils. Many among us are physically and morally dead. Have we done what we could to prevent death or restore to life? Is not our indifference a crime in the sight of God? “These ought ye to have done and not leave the other undone.”

III. The whole community should endeavour to prevent crime. A sense of responsibility should quicken its action. Immorality and outrages drive away capital, create discontent and insecurity. There must be no impunity of murder, no impunity of any public crime. All classes of the community are concerned. Elders, judges, and priests should be anxious for public purity. Society, with its governors and laws; governors commissioned from heaven, and laws rooted in the revealed will of God; not only claim, but enforce obedience. The land must be purged from blood by public confession, prayer, and righteous conduct. “So shalt thou purge away the guilt,” etc.


The sanctity of human life is still the leading thought, and when a corpse is found “lying in the field and it be not known who hath slain him,” the land is regarded as guilty before God (Deuteronomy 21:8) until a solemn rite of expiation be gone through. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 of this chapter prescribe the mode and form of this expiation, which, from the nature of the case, could take place only when the people were settled in Canaan, and so is prescribed first in Deuteronomy.—Speak Com.

I. The imputed guilt of murder. The law increased the horror of the crime. The administrators of law measured the distance from the slain man to the nearest city, and laid upon it the duty of expiation. A sense of guilt fills all classes of the community, and the people by their representatives cleanse themselves by appointed rites.

II. The solemn expiation of imputed guilt. When crime cannot be traced to it origin—when it is committed in open day and in defiance of law; it is most humiliating. All must purge themselves from suspicion and connivance. “Be not partakers of other men’s sins.”

1. By animal sacrifice. An heifer strong and vigorous, unaccustomed to the yoke and not profaned by labour had to be killed.

2. By public confession. The elders by a significant act repudiated the charge of bloodguiltiness and confessed their innocence.

3. By direct intercession. Mercy was implored for the cities and the nation. We have great need to cry to God for our land filled with iniquity and stained with guilt. “Be merciful O Lord to Thy people Israel” (Deuteronomy 5:8).

The important lessons of this expiation. The ceremony was public, impressive and admonitory.

1. The extreme guilt of murder. The people were to dread blood which defiled the hands which shed it. “Your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean” (Isaiah 1:15-16); and crime which polluted the land in which it was committed.

2. The necessity of atonement for guilt. The crime was not passed in silence. The people were not permitted to be unconcerned. Justice must be done and satisfaction given.

3. The provision made by God for the pardon of guilt. Many think this is a symbol of atonement in Christ, to whom our guilt was imputed and in whom we receive pardon and peace. “The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”


“This narrative,” says one, “sets forth the preciousness of human life in the sight of God.” Dr. Jamieson believes this singular statute concerning homicide is far superior to what is found in the criminal code of any other ancient nation, and is undoubtedly the origin or germ of the modern coroners’ inquests. (Cf. Com. in loco.)

I. Discovered in the loss of one man. Only one missing! But God counts men as well as stars, and “gathers one by one.” Ancient philosophy and modern socialism overlook personality, and legislate for men in a mass. The individual exists only for the race, has no rights, and becomes a tool or slave of society. Christianity does not belittle man, but recognises and renews individuals, exalts them to responsibility, and appeals to them for right. “Adam, where art thou?”

II. Discovered in the injury to one man. One man was missing, but he was murdered. His blood, like that of Abel, was crying for justice. God’s image was defaced in humanity. Society was wounded in one of its members. An enquiry was demanded, and the reproach must be wiped away.

III. Discovered in the interest which the community should take in one man. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Formerly heavy fines were inflicted on districts to prevent the murder of Danes and Normans by exasperated Englishmen. We are members one of another; related one to another, and none of us can turn away like Cain.

IV. Discovered in the provision made for every man’s salvation. Christ died for one and for all. He is not willing that any should perish. It is not the will of God “that one of these little ones should perish.” “If one sheep goes astray, the ninety and nine are left by the shepherd. He seeks the one that is lost, and its restoration brings greater joy than over all the remainder.” “Dost thou believe?”


Deuteronomy 21:4. The place where the remembrance of blood is, is not suited for cultivation and joy, but for sorrow and awe, and penitential desolation; it is an Aceldama!—Wordsworth. The spot of ground on which the sacrifice was made must be uncultivated, because it was to be a sacrifice to make atonement for the murder, and consequently would pollute the land. This regulation was calculated

(1) to keep murder in abhorrence,
(2) to make the magistrates alert in their office, that delinquents might be discovered and punished, and that public expense saved.—A. Clarke.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Expiating unknown murder. We shall endeavour—I. To explain the ordinance. In doing this we must notice—

1. Its general design. God intended by this law
(1) to prevent the commission of murder;
(2) to provide means for removing guilt from His land.
2. Its particular provisions: the victim, the death, the place; the protestations and petitions of the elders. II. To point out some lessons which may be learned from it.
1. The importance of preventing or punishing sin.
2. The comfort of a good conscience.
3. The efficacy of united faith and prayer.—C. Simeon.

THE CAPTIVE WOMAN.—Deuteronomy 21:10-14

When a female was taken from surrounding nations and not of the Canaanites and the victor, captivated by her beauty, contemplated marriage, a month was allowed to elapse, that she might bewail the loss of parents and become reconciled to her altered condition. Learn from this—

I. The Divine protection of woman. She was allowed to mourn, not to be abused, and might be set at liberty or become the wife of a Jew. The oppression of woman has been a crying evil in all countries. In the Old Testament we have hints concerning her equality, dignity and influence. But Christianity has exalted her to her lawful position as “the help meet” of man.

II. The mitigating power of love. Even in war woman may captivate by beauty and relieve by compassion. Man must control unlawful passion and defend the helpless. “Love rules the court and the camp,” removes mighty evils and wins great victories.

“What love can do, that dares love attempt.”—Shakespeare.

II. The consummation of honourable marriage. “She shall be thy wife,” not through lust but real love. “Marriage has always been the conclusion of love,” said Napoleon. Men should not be drifted into marriage, nor enter it with sordid motives. Mutual society, help and comfort, both in prosperity and adversity, is the chief end of marriage. “Marriage is honourable,” etc.


The captured slave had prospects of conjugal union. But time was to intervene, natural feeling respected, and the contemplated elevation gained by lawful steps.

I. Prospective elevation. A higher life and real dignity were before her. From a slave, mere property, she could become a Jewish mistress, invested with inalienated rights and shielded by sacred law. God’s providence opens wonderful prospects to meanest subjects and elevates them to rank and dignity. Woman’s creation indicates the benevolent purpose of God. She is not given for grovelling and selfish ends, which many philosophers and some professed Christians declare to be the chief design of her existence. Christianity elevates her to equal spiritual dignity, to be the mental and moral companion with man. She has yet to bless our homes, enrich our literature and rule our empires.

II. Needful discipline and delay. Delay often required, for haste in this matter is risky. Early marriage a curse. “Married in haste repent at leisure.”

1. In kindness to the woman. She was to receive considerate treatment. Incidents of war no excuse for undue licence. Kindness must be shown to all placed at our mercy. “Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence.”

2. As a test to the man. Love cools and men become indifferent. This measure calculated to test the feeling. “If no delight in her, let her go whither she will.”


Moses did not originate these rights, but recognised them, since he found them pre-existing in the general social system of the East. Paternal authority could set aside these rights on just grounds (Genesis 27:33), but is forbidden here to do so from mere partiality.—Sp. Com.

I. The rights of primogeniture defined. “A double portion of all that he hath.” As head of the family, the eldest son would be put into power and privilege, be heir of his father’s rank and wealth. He was not to be limited in his allowance, nor deposed from his authority. The Divine Ruler entrusts him with possessions and entails them by his will.

II. The rights of primogeniture upheld. Individual preferences and partialities are not to set aside the rights of the firstborn.

1. Rights upheld through successive marriage. When an Israelite had two wives together or in succession, one might be loved and the other hated (Deuteronomy 21:15). God might tolerate polygamy, but right must be upheld.

2. Rights upheld against human partiality. The influence of the second wife was later and more permanent. Justice must not bend to personal like or dislike. Amid divided affections and divided authority, God and not caprice must rule.

3. Rights upheld by Divine injunction. Man is changeable; entails discord, feud and litigation in his family; but God is just and impartial. He will protect our rights and vindicate our character. “He shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the first-born” (Deuteronomy 21:17).


Deuteronomy 21:10-14. These regulations given

1. as a protest against common crimes in war.
2. As a check to unbridled passion.
3. As a protection to the defenceless. “Compare the Mosaic regulations concerning female slaves with the universal and abominable licentiousness of every heathen nation in their intercourse with slaves. Do not such regulations, at that early period, in an Asiatic nation, bespeak a wisdom and benevolence far superior to a mere human legislator?”—Graves.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17. Mischief of home partiality.

1. In the family itself—jealousy, strife and confusion.
2. In the distribution of property. Interest of some consulted to the detriment of others. Bitterness created and parental honour despised. “The right of the first-born. I. Consider the circumstances implied here. The first wife dead; her children living. She is forgotten in a new love. Her children slighted. The second wife living and loved. Her children take the chief place in the father’s love. II. Consider the Divine rule. The first-born not to lose their place through their mother’s fault, or their father’s new affection. Learn—Justice to rule over fatherly caprice. This old law needs often to be remembered.”—Biblical Museum.

THE REBELLIOUS SON.—Deuteronomy 21:18-21

In former verses parents were urged to be careful of the rights of children; now very suitably children must not forget their duty and withhold their respect from parents. But here is a common case, a sad picture of a rebellious son.

I. Parental authority defied. Young persons become wayward and self-willed. Domestic life loses its attraction, home is a prison, and unlawful demands are urged. “Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” Then follow disobedience, rebellion and exile.

II. Parental authority failing in its purpose. Parental government is a creation of God and should be upheld with prudence, affection and firmness. Parents err in capricious and tyrannical government. Hence sometimes reaction—the father a fanatic, the son an nfidel; the father too severe, the son immoral and profligate. Children may be spoiled, disheartened and provoked. “My father treats me like a brute,” was the saying of a poor bright boy. But children fail in obedience and filial duty, bring dishonour and disgrace to parents. Wild sons become a father’s burden and a mother’s grief (Proverbs 10:1). Home government restrains not, parental discipline fails. Fathers like Howard in the lazaretto at Venice, and David in the palace, exclaims, “Oh, my son, my son!”

III. Parental authority upheld by the nation. A wicked son is a peril to society. Rebellion is considered a public crime, not a private wrong. Roman laws were severe against rebellious children; Athenians pronounced worthy of death those who beat their parents or suffered them to want in old age, and in China incorrigible children are delivered up to the magistrates. The law must be honoured and upheld. The State cannot sacrifice its authority and interests to drunkards and criminals.

ACCURSED OF GOD.—Deuteronomy 21:22-23

When a criminal was put to death and hanged on a tree, his body was not to remain exposed all night, but buried the same day. He died under the curse of God, and the land was not to be defiled by his exposure.

I. Hanging a disgraceful punishment. The body was exposed to insult and assault. Shameful deeds were kept in public memory, and the dead was a spectacle to the world. It was only inflicted on most infamous offenders. Cicero calls it a nameless wickedness. Its pain and disgrace were extreme.

II. Hanging a defilement of the land. “That thy land be not defiled.” The vices of the living and the bodies of the dead defiled the land (Numbers 35:34).

1. Physically it would be defiled. In the hot climate its decomposition would injure the health and peril the life of others.

2. Morally, as the land of Jehovah, it would be polluted. Remembrance of crime would harden the heart and breed familiarity. Hence—

III. Hanging a warning to others. The punishment was designed to deter others. They saw the terrible consequences of guilt. Alas! “hanging is no warning,” and men leave the very gibbet or the gallows to commit their crimes.

IV. Hanging, a type of the death of Christ. The apostle distinctly refers to this in illustration of the shame and curse of the crucifixion. We were guilty and deserved death. Christ was put to “an open shame,” slain, and “hanged on a tree” (Acts 5:35). “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made (having become) a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

1. He became our substitute.

2. He was buried in the evening (John 19:31).

3. As the land was cleansed by removal of curse, so the conscience and the Church purified by Christ.


I. A shameful death awaits abominable crime. “Worthy of death” lit., if there be on a man a right of death, “he was hanged upon a tree.”

II. Public ignominy expressed in this shameful death. Penalty for crime, detestation of the perpetrator and the curse of God.

III. The desirability of taking away the memory of this shame. “He shall not remain all night,” take him down from the tree and bury him; blot out his name and remove the curse.

IV. Christ alone removes the curse. The best of men treated as one of the vilest, died the just for the unjust, “who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree.”


Deuteronomy 21:20-21. The connection of gluttony and drunkenness. Both enslave the body, degrade the soul and abuse the gifts of God. “Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty.” (Proverbs 23:20-21). Matthew Henry’s note is suggestive “He (impious son) is particularly supposed to be a drunkard or a glutton. This intimates either

1. that his parents did in a particular manner warn him against these sins, and therefore in these instances there was plain evidence he did not obey their voice. Lemuel had this charge from his mother (Proverbs 31:4). Note in the education of children, great care should be taken to suppress all inclinations to drunkenness, and to keep them out of the way of temptations to them; in order hereunto they should be possessed betimes with a dread and detestation of these beastly sins, and taught betimes to deny themselves. Or

2.—That being a glutton and a drunkard was the cause of his insolence and obstinacy to his parents. Note—Nothing draws men into all kind of wickedness and hardens them to it, more certainly and fatally than drunkenness does. When men take to drink they forget the law (Proverbs 31:5), even that fundamental law of honouring parents.”

Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Hangeth.

1. The world’s judgment.
2. The law’s penalty.
3. Christ’s treatment. “The law which required this answered all the ends of public justice, exposed the shame and infamy of the conduct, but did not put to torture the feelings of humanity by requiring a perpetual exhibition of a human being, a slow prey to the most loathsome process of putrefaction. How excellent are all these laws! How wonderously well calculated to repress crimes by shewing the enormity of sin! It is worthy of remark, that in the infliction of punishment, prescribed by the Mosaic law, we ever find that Mercy walks hand in hand with Judgment.—A. Clarke.


Deuteronomy 21:1-7. One slain.

“Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out:
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood mounts upward.”—J. Webster.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14. Beautiful woman. In great crises it is woman’s special lot to soften our misfortunes.—Napoleon I.

“The artillery of her eye.”—A. Cowley.

Deuteronomy 21:12. Head. The hair is one of the finest ornaments women have. Of old, virgins used to wear it loose, except when they were in mourning.—Luther.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17. Inherit. Education is of infinitely more importance to a son than the patrimony of his ancestors, or thousands of gold and silver. The latter is enjoyed in time only; the former goes with him into eternity.—Dr. Davies.

Deuteronomy 21:18. Son.

“Unhappy is the son

Who to his parents pays no ministry.” Euripides.

Stubborn. I never saw so much essence of devil put into so small a vessel.—Foster.

Deuteronomy 21:20. Glutton. A glutton will defend his food like a hero.—Napoleon I. Drunkard. All the crimes on earth do not destroy so many of the human race, nor alienate so much property, as drunkenness.—Bacon.

Deuteronomy 21:21. Stone him. The curse pronounced on Mount Ebal against him that setteth light by his father or his mother, still hovers around the rebellious child on his pathway through life, and the character developed by disobedience at home provokes in the world outside assault and revenge, quarrels and death.—Fred. Perry.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Death. Justice proportions the smart to the fault; so that we may behold the greatness of the offence in the fitness of the punishment.—W. Secker.

“Murder may pass unpunished for a time,
But tardy justice will o’ertake the crime.”


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/deuteronomy-21.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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