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Deuteronomy: Chapter 21

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1If, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, 2then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the wadi. 5Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

10When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13discard her captive's garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

15If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, 16then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. 17He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion a Heb uncovering his father's skirt of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

18If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

22When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.


b Heb uncovering his father's skirt

Text Commentary view alone

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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