Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 21:1-21

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Bible Commentary

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). 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). 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). The running stream may also symbolize the defilement of the land being carried away.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 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). 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 20:11-12; Ezekiel 37:1-14; “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.