Chapter 21


Cleansing for Unsolved Murder

        • When you are living in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, if you find the body of someone who has been murdered lying in a field, but you don’t know who murdered him, your elders and judges are to come out and measure the distance from the victim to the nearby cities. The elders of the city determined to be nearest to the victim must bring a cow that has never been yoked or used for work to a continually flowing stream located in an area of land that isn’t tilled or planted. They must break the cow’s neck beside this stream. Then, the Levitical priests must come forward (because the Lord your God has chosen them to serve Him and pronounce blessings in His name and hand down rulings in cases of dispute and assault). The elders of the city must wash their hands over the cow whose neck has been broken and declare, “This person’s blood was not shed by our hands, nor did we see it happen. Lord, forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, and don’t hold this shedding of innocent blood against them.” Then, they will not be held accountable for the murder of this innocent person. By doing this, you will have atoned for the murder and will have purged your community from the guilt of murder.

        • Guzik writes, “This was important based on a principle stated in Numbers 35:33-34. This passage shows that the blood of unsolved, unavenged murder defiles and pollutes the land. Therefore, if there is a murder unavenged, some kind of cleansing is necessary, so the land will not be defiled.”

        • HCSB notes, “This means of addressing the crime of homicide operates on the basis of circumstantial evidence. When a perpetrator is not known, the assumption is that he is from the town nearest to the scene of the crime…”

        • Guzik continues, “These elders were responsible to make the sacrifice to atone for and cleanse the murder-polluted land. Then, appropriate sacrifice had to be made. This heifer was sacrificed by the sons of Levi in the presence of the city elders, who washed their hands over the sacrificed animal. This washing of the hands, done in the presence of the sons of Levi, who by their word every controversy and every assault shall be settled, was a powerful proclamation by the elders: ‘We have done all we could to settle this case, but cannot. We are clean from all guilt in the matter of this slain man.’”

          • Guzik further emphasizes, “Of course, this ceremony of washing the hands over the sacrificed animal meant nothing if the elders had in fact not done what they could to avenge the murder; apart from that, this washing of the hands was just as much an empty gesture as Pilate’s washing of his hands at the trial of Jesus (Matthew 27:24).”

        • Guzik makes this important conclusion, “When Israel followed God’s instructions for atonement, He honored His word by taking away their guilt. But the removal of guilt was always based on blood sacrifice, on a substitutionary atonement – looking forward to the work of Jesus on the cross for the entire world.”

Fair Treatment of Captured Women

        • When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord makes you victorious over them, and among the prisoners taken you see a beautiful woman that you would like to marry, you must adhere to the following: bring her into your home, shave her head, trim her nails, and change the clothes that she was wearing when she was taken captive. She is to live in your home and be allowed to mourn for her parents for a full month. After that, you may marry her and engage in sexual relations with her. But, after you are married, if you are not satisfied with her, you must let her go free. You may not sell her or treat her as a slave because you have humiliated her.

        • Guzik writes, “In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for a man to take a wife from among the captives, especially if she was a beautiful woman. Yet obviously, this was open to great abuse, so God give specific guidelines to govern this practice in Israel.”

        • Regarding the shaving of her head and trimming of her nails, the changing of her clothes, and her allowance of a full month of mourning Guzik notes respectively, “First, the captive woman had to be purified and humbled. This denoted a complete break with her past, and the willingness to start anew, humbly as a child. Second, the captive woman had to show a change of allegiance. This showed that the captive woman no longer regarded her former nation and her former family; now she was a citizen of Israel. Third, the captive woman had to mourn her past associations. This would be time when she could resolve issues in her heart regarding her family, and when her husband-to-be could live with her a month without intimate relations – so he could see if he really wanted to take this woman as a wife, and to make sure he was not making a decision based only of physical appearance or attractiveness.”

        • Regarding the woman’s humiliation if the Israelite man decided not to remain married to her the NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “By first taking her prisoner and then divorcing her, a captive woman’s husband devalued her. To protect her from further disgrace, the law prohibited him from selling her as a slave or using her as one. Instead, she must be allowed to go free.”

Rights of the Firstborn

        • If a man has two wives, and he loves one but does not love the other, and both wives bear him sons, he must recognize the rights of his firstborn son regardless of which wife is his mother. Specifically, if the man’s firstborn is by the wife that he doesn’t love, he may not choose to show favoritism to his younger son by the wife that he loves by giving him the larger inheritance due to the firstborn. Instead, the man must recognize the rights of his firstborn by giving him his rightful double portion. The rights of the firstborn, the firstfruits of the man’s virility, belong to the firstborn son despite his being born of the wife the man did not love.

        • On the “double portion” Guzik writes, “This was the right of the firstborn in ancient Israel; the firstborn son was to receive twice as much inheritance as any other son. For example, if there were three sons, the inheritance would be divided into four parts, with the firstborn receiving two parts, and the other three sons each receiving one part.”

        • HCSB provides the following clarifications:

          • Polygamy, while tolerated by the Law, was certainly never prescribed nor sanctioned. Monogamy is the standard to which God’s people were to conform. This is clear in both the OT (Genesis 2:24) and NT (Matthew 19:4-6). As is often the case, the instruction was designed not to prescribe a cultural norm but to regulate existing practice in a more humane way.”

          • The wife who is ‘hated’ (Hebrew text) is not the object of her husband’s loathing or disdain. The verb expresses the idea of being secondary in his affections. Jacob’s preference for Rachel over Leah (Genesis 29:18, 30) and Elkanah’s favor toward Hannah rather than Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:5) are examples.”

Dealing with a Rebellious Son

        • If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who doesn’t obey his parents or listen to them despite being disciplined, he must be brought to the elders at the city gates. The parents must tell the elders, “Our son is stubborn, rebellious, and won’t obey us. He’s a glutton and a drunkard.” Then, the men of the city will stone him to death. In this way, the evil will be purged from you and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid.

        • This is a very difficult passage and a favorite cited by anyone wishing to portray the Bible in a backwards moral light. However, the following points made by various sources should not be overlooked:

          • In a discussion of this topic, one author notes:

            • …we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The ‘son’ in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase…This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a ‘drunkard’ and a ‘glutton.’…More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.”

          • What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart.”

          • Considering the prevalent contextual theme of purging evil from the community and collective community guilt in the verses and chapters preceding, the following observation is particularly apt, “ So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.”

          • Guzik notes, “Such a stubborn and rebellious son was to be put on trial before the elders of the city. If they determine him to be chronically rebellious, then the son was to be stoned to death. It is important to note that the parents could not, by themselves, execute this penalty. They had to bring the son on trial before impartial judges. This is in contrast to ancient Greek and Roman law, which gave fathers the absolute right of life or death over their children. This was a control of parental authority more than it was an exercise of it.”

          • I would add that it seems appropriate to note that this law does not seem to be a mandatory punishment required by Law, but rather a punishment that could be applied in worst case scenarios. This conclusion is drawn on the basis of the following:

            • the observation of multiple commentators that there is no record of this punishment actually ever having been administered;

            • Jesus’ relating of the treatment of the rich man’s delinquent son in His parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32);

            • and, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees calling for the adulterous woman to be stoned in accordance with the Law as recorded in John 8:1-11.

Display of Executed People

        • If anyone has been found guilty of an offense punishable by death, executed, then hung on a tree, their corpse must not be left on the tree overnight. The body must be buried that same day because anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. In this way, you will prevent the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance from becoming defiled.

        • HCSB notes, “The hanging on a tree here was not crucifixion, nor was it even the cause of death (v. 22). Its purpose was to put to shame a person who had committed a capital offense, both because of the heinousness of his crime and to serve as a deterrent to others…”

        • Guzik writes, “The punishment of being hanged on a tree, and left to open exposure, was thought to be so severe, that it was reserved only for those for which is was to be declared: ‘this one is accursed of God.’ Paul expounds on Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13-14: 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’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Jesus not only died in our place; but He also took the place as the accursed of God, being hung on a ‘tree’ in open shame and degradation. He received this curse, which we deserved, and He did not, so that we could receive the blessing of Abraham, which He deserved, and we did not.”