Book of Deuteronomy Chapter Twenty-One Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Laws For Israel
Verses 1-4: "If a slain person is found lying in the open country in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, and it is not known who has struck him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one. 3 It shall be that the city which is nearest to the slain man, that is, the elders of that city, shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked and which has not pulled in a yoke; 4 and the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley." These are Moses' words, and you can actually SEE his analytical mind, as he recalled forty years of judicial decisions the Lord gave through him. He had asked questions of those who found various dead bodies during those decades, such as: In what tribal area was the body found? You can sum up much of his counsel to Israel's judges and other leaders by the phrase: Follow the evidence! The killing of the heifer was not so much a sacrifice as it was a public display depicting the terrible nature of this crime: A human being had been murdered and the killer must be brought to justice. The guilty one was to pay for the blood that was shed.
Verses 5-8: "Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the Lord your God has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the name of the Lord; and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them. 6 All the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; 7 and they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it." For most people, the act of testifying under oath at a deposition hearing is unsettling; more so then than now because so many in Israel at that time really believed that Almighty God was listening, and so were the nearby priests. Then as now, God hears our words, sees our actions and knows our hearts. The elders would have trembled as they washed their hands over the broken animal and testified, "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it." They pledged, "I did not do it, and I didn't see it happen." I was a Superior Court Clerk for many years and swore in hundreds of witnesses. For the first few years, the concluding words of oaths before the Court always were, "So help me God," but as time went on, more-and-more substituted, "This I do under the pains and penalties of perjury." Society always seems, whenever possible, to move away from the Lord and toward secularism. "I want to do it my way" is dangerous for all individuals and every group.
Verses 8-9: "Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O Lord, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.’ And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them. 9 So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the Lord." We should be praying for our nations, churches, families—every group we participate in or are a part of. Pray for your leaders—whether they are good leaders or bad leaders isn't the point—they need prayer, the bad at least as much as the good. God views us corporately as well as individually, and when that citizen, police officer or whoever is ambushed in our land, we are corporately guilty before a holy God. We need forgiveness and we as people must "do what is right in the eyes of the Lord." Consistently doing right is difficult to impossible for humanity, and so we look to the Lord, who said, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me" (John 15:4). We need You, Lord. Forgive us, come into our hearts and heal our land.
Verses 10-13: "When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife." Unlike significant portions of today's world, women of that time had opportunities that may be described this way: Few to None! Historically, it has been upsettingly common for countries, cities and villages to be overrun by invading armies who took everything for themselves, including the women of those areas as spoil for their own pleasure. In Israel, her previous clothing was to be replaced by garments of mourning. She was given time to grieve her lost loved ones. With that in mind, it is significant that the women of these verses were to become wives with some control over their homes and husbands, instead of merely abject slaves who had no control over anything. A month is a very short time for the process of mourning such loss, but a long time compared to the lot of most women in the world of 3,500 years ago.
The comparative mercy of these verses is carried further by Verse 14: "It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her." She could have been sold, or beaten, or killed, as was common in the millennia we call the "history" of this world. Such was not to be, and she may well have felt hurt and angry, but also surprised by what she would have interpreted as comparatively lenient treatment. It might be that such a lady, now within the cultural setting of the ancient Israel of these verses, would have breathed "Thank You" to the Lord, finding personal faith within the context of tragedy.
Verses 15-17: "If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, 16 then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. 17 But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn." In 1 Samuel 1, we have a historical glimpse of how it felt to be a woman in a situation involving a man who had two wives—the one he loved less gave him children, and the one he loved, Hannah, was barren. The Lord intervened and Hannah bore a son who became great in Israel. In these verses in Deuteronomy, Moses made certain that the historical right of the firstborn to inherit a "double portion" would continue. And note that Jesus Christ "is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15). He, the Firstborn, was rejected and killed for our sins, but He is alive and He is ours—forever.
Verses 18-20: "If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. 20 They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’" In many places in the world, rebellious children control the home, get in trouble at school and make many a parent wish they chose celibacy instead of marriage and family. Things are not getting any better. Too many children use drugs, carry weapons in backpacks and threaten others. These verses directed parents of unruly children to take them to the leaders of their city and report the problem.
The culmination of all this is seen in Verse 21: "Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear." Capital punishment was the final solution for a wayward son. Whether or not you or I agree with such treatment, it was, at the time, intended as a deterrent, and there was actually something comparatively positive about it—in most cultures during that primitive time, fathers had the right of capital punishment within the family. He could kill a wayward son. Note here that such power was taken away from the family patriarch and given to city leaders in a judicial proceeding, in which the child could be taken away from a homicidal father and be given sanctuary. Here, the Holy Spirit through Moses, is providing law that would govern the nation for centuries, within a region that was otherwise tainted by bad laws emanating from harsh idolatry. And note the interesting comparison between these verses and Luke 15:11-32, the Lord's parable of the Prodigal Son, a son who was wayward indeed, but spared and loved. Our Lord is the Father of Mercy.
Verses 22-23: "If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance." These verses were later quoted by the very Jewish Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle, in Galatians 3:13—"Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')." The "tree" of these verses was a prophesy, looking ahead in time to the cross of Christ. Paul continues in Verse 14 of Galatians 3, "that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Because of our corporate sin, God cursed humanity, sentencing us to the death of our bodies, and eternal death—forever. Jesus Christ on the cross took the curse upon Himself, extending to all in every time and place, the blessing promised to Abraham, that we will "receive... the Spirit through faith." The Lord Himself gave us what religion and law cannot give—God's Holy Spirit and everlasting life through faith in the Lord.
We need You, Lord. We continue to pray: Forgive us, come into our hearts and heal our land. We have been that wayward child, and we now come home to the safety only found in You. Thank You. In Jesus Name. Amen.