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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

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Commentary on Deuteronomy

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21.1–9 : Atonement for an unsolved murder.

Since a murder victim's blood tainted the land (Gen 4.10; Num 35.33–34 ), it was imperative to “purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” ( 19.13 ). This law, which has gone through several stages of reworking, addresses how to do so when the perpetrator cannot be identified. There are similar ancient Near Eastern laws for corpses discovered outside cities; these emphasize financial liability rather than atoning for the spilled blood (Laws of Hammurabi § § 23–24; Hittite Laws § 6). The original significance of the law's rituals is difficult to recover.

1 :

Open country, beyond the legal jurisdiction of any particular town (see 22.23 ,25), and where witnesses are unlikely.

2 :

Elders … judges, see 16.18n. Measure the distances to establish legal jurisdiction, as in the similar Hittite Laws § 6.

3 :

Never been worked … not pulled in the yoke, symbolizing the human victim's innocence (similarly, Num 19.2 ).

4 :

Wadi with running water (Am 5.24 ), lit. “with reliable water,” in contrast to unreliable seasonal streams (Jer 15.18 ). Break the heifer's neck, nonsacrificial killing; sacrifice requires slitting the throat (see Ex 13.13; 34.20 ).

5 :

Priests, not mentioned in v. 2 , and likely a later addition. All cases contrasts with 17.9 , where the Levitical priests at the central sanctuary adjudicated only cases that could not be resolved locally.

6 :

Wash their hands over the heifer, with no laying on of hands, and thus without symbolic transfer of culpability to the animal (contrast Lev 16.21–22 ).

7 :

Our hands & wit‐nesses, stronger in Heb: “As for our hands, they did not shed this blood nor did our eyes see,” covering both direct action and failure to avert or report a crime (cf. Lev 5.1 ).

8 :

Absolve, O Lord, the ritual of vv. 3–6 has no intrinsic efficacy; prayer is the means of absolution. They will be absolved, better, “that they may be absolved,” since absolution ultimately depends upon divine action, not human ritual.

21.10–25.19 : Miscellaneous civil and family laws.

The following laws are concerned with family, civil, and ethical issues. Laws to extend legal protection to women when they would otherwise be disenfranchised concern female captives ( 21.10–14 ), property rights of the less‐favored wife ( 21.15–17 ), and false charges of infidelity ( 22.13–19 ).

21.10–14 : Legal obligations toward female captives.

This procedure most likely originally applied to the Canaanite population ( 20.15–18n. ). Female war captives routinely became concubines. This law accords such women dignity and protection against enslavement.

12–13 :

The rituals provide both captive and captor means to effect a transition from one status to another.

13 :

Full month, full period of mourning, as for Aaron and Moses (Num 20.29; Deut 34.8 ). Mourning, it is unclear whether the parents actually died in the war or are lost to her because of her captivity. The time to grieve implies legal respect for the female captive as a person. Go in to her, approach her sexually; consummation provides the legal means to become husband and … wife.

14 :

Cf. Ex 21.7–8 . Dishonored, “violated” sexually ( 22.24,29; Gen 34.2; Judg 19.24; 2 Sam 13.12 ).

21.15–17 : Legal protection of the less‐favored wife.

The law uses the norm of primogeniture (Gen 25.29–34 ; Laws of Hammurabi § § 165–70) to protect the son of the less‐favored wife from disinheritance.

17 :

Double portion, as text note a indicates, two‐thirds (see Zech 13.8 ), leaving one‐third for the other son. Right of the firstborn, ironically, the foundation narratives concerning Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph subvert the legal norm here affirmed (Gen 17.15–22; 21.8–14; 27.1–40; 48.8–22 ).

21.18–21 : The rebellious son.

The Decalogue requirement to honor the parents ( 5.16; Ex 20.12 ) carries no explicit sanction; here flagrant and sustained disobedience is a capital offense.

19 :

Elders were judges of family law and held court at the city gate, a public forum ( 22.15; 25.7; Job 29.7; Ruth 4.1–2,11; Lam 5.14 ). The professionalized judiciary established at the same site ( 16.18 ) may have had jurisdiction specifically over religious and criminal law ( 17.2–7 ).

21 :

Here, mere parental testimony suffices (contrast 13.14; 17.4 ). Stone him, see 13.10n.

21.22–23 : Treatment of the executed.

Public exposure of the corpse of an executed criminal, which was not the norm, was a form of reproach directed against enemies of the state (Josh 8.29; 10.26; 1 Sam 31.10; Esth 9.6–14 ). Out of respect for the body, to prevent it from serving as carrion (2 Sam 21.10 ), this law sets stringent limits to that procedure.

22 :

Hang … on a tree, the Heb word for “tree” is broader; the law could also refer to suspension from “gallows” (Esth 9.13 ) or a “pole” (Gen 40.19 ), or possibly, based upon Neo‐Assyrian precedent, impalement upon a stake.

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