Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 21:1-21

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Deuteronomy 21:1-21

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Family and Societal Laws 

In cases where a murder was committed that could not be solved, it was first necessary to determine which town’s jurisdiction the crime fell in—as it would be that town’s responsibility to do all it could to investigate the matter. Yet upon finding no answer, there still had to be some type of atonement to avoid defilement of the land (compare Numbers 35:33 Numbers 35:33So you shall not pollute the land wherein you are: for blood it defiles the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
American King James Version×
). Thus, in lieu of executing the perpetrator, the elders of the closest city had to take a heifer that had not yet been used for work down to a running stream and break its neck—though a few translations say it was beheaded. The elders then had to wash their hands over the heifer’s neck, thereby indicating their innocence and obtaining atonement (verses 1-9). Another specific type of heifer, i.e., a red heifer, was also used for certain purifications (compare Numbers 19:2 Numbers 19:2This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and on which never came yoke:
American King James Version×
). And demonstrating how pervasive in the ancient world was the public washing of one’s hands to indicate innocence, Pontius Pilate would later wash his hands to declare himself innocent of the murder of Jesus (Matthew 27:24 Matthew 27:24When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it.
American King James Version×
). The running stream may also symbolize the defilement of the land being carried away.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 Deuteronomy 21:10-14 [10] When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God has delivered them into your hands, and you have taken them captive, [11] And see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire to her, that you would have her to your wife; [12] Then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; [13] And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in your house, and mourn 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. [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 make merchandise of her, because you have humbled her.
American King James Version×
allows for an Israelite to marry a foreign woman among the war prisoners. Note the requirement that she “shave her head and trim her nails.” According to The Nelson Study Bible: ”this ritual was intended to give the woman time to adjust to the new culture and to mourn over the forceful separation from her family. It was also a symbol of cleansing. She was preparing to become part of a new community” (note on 21:12). Inasmuch as God clearly prohibited an Israelite from marrying pagans who engaged in idol worship, this woman had to have accepted the true God of Israel (as verses 12-13 somewhat imply, showing that the woman had come under the authority of the husband).

Verses 15-18 discuss the undesired situation in which a husband had two wives, the one loved more than the other, and the consequences for the firstborn son of the unloved wife. God still required that the firstborn son was to receive the double portion of his father’s inheritance allotted to him. People have wondered why men were permitted to marry more than one wife in ancient times. The answer is that this was not God’s original intent. Jesus said that in the beginning, when He created Adam and Eve, “the two” were to become “one flesh,” and “the two” were not to be divorced. Because of the hardness of man’s heart, God allowed men to have more than one wife, as He also allowed men to divorce their wives (compare Matthew 19:1-9 Matthew 19:1-9 [1] And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan; [2] And great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there. [3] The Pharisees also came to him, tempting him, and saying to him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? [4] And he answered and said to them, Have you not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, [5] And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall join to his wife: and they two shall be one flesh? [6] Why they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. [7] They say to him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorce, and to put her away? [8] He said to them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. [9] And I say to you, Whoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery: and whoever marries her which is put away does commit adultery.
American King James Version×
). The biblical record shows, however, that having more than one wife brought about many problems for the family. The difficulties, in this respect, of Abraham, Jacob and Solomon are telling examples.

Verses 18-21 dealt with a rebellious son given over to drunkenness and gluttony, who stubbornly refused to obey his parents—obviously referring to an older adolescent son and not a young child. Yet this was not just “typical” adolescent rebelliousness. Rather, it denoted one who had established a reputation as a “good for nothing” over a lengthy period. To prevent others from emulating the son’s abominable lifestyle—and to prevent the son’s flagrant disregard of parental authority from growing into disregard for all authority, including God’s, to the point of him eventually posing a danger to society—his parents had to report him to the elders, and he had to be executed.

Such a punishment may sound harsh to our ears today. But keep in mind that God’s laws were designed to create a peaceful, productive, safe society for all people. This particular punishment, though severe, was designed to safeguard others. Knowing human nature, God realized that when a young man showed a rebellious, stubborn attitude over an extended period of time, if he dishonored and rejected the authority of his parents and others, if he showed little or no self-control or willingness to take responsibility for his actions, it would be only a matter of time before his defiant attitude would lead him to injure or even kill someone else. So if over time he showed no inclination to change, the problem was taken care of before he had the opportunity to hurt or kill others. This punishment would “put away the evil from among” Israel and cause others to “hear and fear” (verse 21).

How different would our societies be today if young men knew they were subject to such a penalty at a relatively early age if they chose to reject all authority and decent standards of behavior? Many problems that plague our societies, such as career criminals, gangs and teenage mass murderers, would be snuffed out before they had a chance to get started. All of society would be much safer and better off, and innocent people would not have to live in fear of criminal thugs. Keep in mind, too, that this wasn’t the absolute end for such people. God knew that he would ultimately resurrect them in a future world in which they will be able to better understand the consequences of their behavior and repent (see Revelation 20:5 Revelation 20:5But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
American King James Version×
, Revelation 20:11-12 Revelation 20:11-12 [11] And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. [12] And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
American King James Version×
; Ezekiel 37:1-14 Ezekiel 37:1-14 [1] The hand of the LORD was on me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the middle of the valley which was full of bones, [2] And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, see, they were very dry. [3] And he said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, you know. [4] Again he said to me, Prophesy on these bones, and say to them, O you dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. [5] Thus said the Lord GOD to these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live: [6] And I will lay sinews on you, and will bring up flesh on you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD. [7] So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. [8] And when I beheld, see, the sinews and the flesh came up on them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. [9] Then said he to me, Prophesy to the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus said the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live. [10] So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceeding great army. [11] Then he said to me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. [12] Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus said the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. [13] And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, [14] And shall put my spirit in you, and you shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall you know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, said the LORD.
American King James Version×
; “The Eighth Day: Eternal Life Offered to All,” God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind, 1999, pp. 46-51). God truly is a god of justice, mercy and loving concern for the well-being of all.

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