The last few chapters of Deuteronomy we have studied appear to be comprised of small laws from God when compared to the grandness of the Ten Commandments. Last week Moses taught them what God commanded them to do when fighting Canaanite and non-Canaanite nations – what to do with captives, when to offer peace, and which trees to cut down. This week as we read Deuteronomy 21 we read primarily of laws about family, but it includes what do to with dead bodies, too. The opening and closing statutes about what to do with bodies highlights and sandwiches the theme of the whole chapter – how to be right and by that, pure before God.
The writing structure of this chapter is semi-chiastic; the beginning and end of the chapter are similar and sandwich the middle topics. In this chapter, the beginning and end statutes relate how to be pure before God and not accursed by Him. The middle three sections of the chapter give statutes on how the purity is lived out daily regarding family situations. With this brief introduction, let us now jump into our study.
Doing Right in the Eyes of the LORD
Moses used a common Deuteronomic technique when writing this chapter. He used if…then statements. This method is effective when dealing with matters of law and judgment. Upon first reading of the first nine verses of the chapter, the first reaction is why is a teaching about a slain person put into this chapter dealing with family issues. Upon reading the whole chapter, we realize the theme of the chapter is within the first section of the chapter, verses one to nine. Verse 9 says, “So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst when you do what is right in the eyes of the LORD.” Doing what is right in God’s eyes is what makes a person or nation righteous and pure. This denotes a person or nation as obedient children of God. As we read the other four sections of this chapter, we must keep this theme in mind. God was teaching the Israelites through Moses by saying that keeping His laws and statutes would keep them pure. By this, they would be His children.
Verses 1-9 teach about how to respond to finding a slain person in the open country. Verses 1-2 say,
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 struck him, then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one.
This passage states the murderer is unknown. It seems the slain person may be unknown, too, since they are not going to the slain person’s town/city. What is second most important in this passage is that God’s statute about this concerns social and religious areas of life. The judges would want to determine who killed the person so they could give judgment. God’s main concern is keeping the land/nation pure. For this reason, God wants to determine which town/city is closest to the slain person so they can re-establish the purity and innocence of the land/nation.
To understand why finding a dead person in the nation is significant to God, we must realize that killing a person, shedding blood, makes a person and, by association, the nation guilty of murder. God holds life sacred. He created humankind and said it was good. He chooses to have relationship with people because He loves them. God provided a way for people to return to a relationship with Him – in the Old Testament through religious laws and in the New Testament through Jesus Christ. In the Ten Commandments, He said, “You shall not kill.” These show God holds human life sacred. With this consideration, killing a person is rebellion against God. Hence, when a slain body is found, blood guilt attaches to the person who committed it and the nation in which the guilty person lives. So a right relationship with God must be restored for the people/nation.
God taught in this chapter the way the people of Israel were to cleanse themselves from bloodguiltiness and become right and pure in God’s eyes. Moses recorded it in Numbers 35:33-34 when he taught,
You shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel. [NASB]
Because God was the God and ruler of Israel (remember, Israel was a theocracy) and lived among them, the land/nation must not be polluted with blood, the sin and guilt of murder, for God to continue to live amidst them. For God to live among the people again, cleansing to remove their sin and guilt must occur.
The elders of the nearest town/city to the slain person must take an “unworked heifer” to an “unworked field” that has running water and break its neck there (vs. 3-4). They offered an unblemished cow as a substitute for their sin (by association) penalty. Notice God’s command told the elders to break the cow’s neck, not cut the it’s throat. Blood of the slain person spilled on the ground now a pure life must be offered without blood to atone for and cleanse the land/nation.
One of things to notice is that the water to which Moses commanded them to take the cow had to be running water. In Hebrew this running water is a perpetual, ever-flowing stream. The Bible writers and people since that time often compared God’s love and mercy to a cleansing flood or tide. Floods and tides are ever-flowing. They wipe away what was there before like the blood of sacrifices – animals in the Old Testament and Jesus’ in the New Testament – wash away the sins of people.
When the elders broke the neck of the heifer, the priests (kohen – priest and chief ruler), whom God chose to serve Him and bless the people in His name, came to settle the judicial matter of the murder (vs. 5). They administered God’s applicable law and His justice for the people involved and the nation. Each party was absolved of their sin and resultant bloodguiltiness. After God’s law, God purified them once again. As the spokesmen of God, what they said was law and when done, provided God’s blessing on the people. God’s law told the elders of the nearest city to “wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley” (vs. 6). While doing this, the elders proclaimed their innocence, asked for forgiveness of the people by the LORD, and asked God to remove the blood guilt from them (vs. 7-8). This enacted the washing of the blood of the slain from their hands and the guilt from their hearts and minds. It signified God’s washing of the bloodguilt and sin from them. This gave them God’s blessing and God would live among them again.
As stated earlier, the most important part of the whole chapter is the thematic sentence in verse nine. It says when you do what is right in the eyes of the LORD you will remove your guilt of innocent blood, bloodguiltiness, from yourself and your midst (land/nation). Deuteronomy 19:10-13 speaks of blood guilt of the innocent when it says, “You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.” God wants His people and land to be innocent from crimes such as murder. He told the Israelites in chapter nineteen to remove the bloodguilt from them by putting to death the premeditated murderer. In this chapter, when the murderer is unknown, God provided a way to remove bloodguilt through substitute sacrifice. This became a prelude to the substitute sacrifice of Jesus, God’s Son, on the cross for the sins of humankind.
God required His people, the Israelites, to be pure and righteous. They did this by obeying His laws, statutes, and judgments as Moses taught them. As the leader and God of Israel, He lived among them. For God to stay in their presence, the Israelites had to be pure/sinless. The next three lessons in this chapter deal with following God’s laws in family matters. They use the Deuteronomic writing style of “if…then” for teaching the Israelites.
Verses 10-14 address the desire of a soldier to marry a captive woman. It teaches how he was to treat her after her first month’s stay in her room at his home should he or she not wants to marry. Remember, God allowed the Israelite soldiers to take captive from battle just women and children who were not Canaanites, not men. He told the Israelites to destroy every Canaanite as His judgment against them.
When an Israelite soldier captured a beautiful, non-Canaanite woman and desired her, he could make her his wife. This is not as crude as people in the past portrayed it. The English word “desire” used in verse eleven is the Hebrew word chashaq. It means to love, be attached to, or long for. After battles, soldiers of many centuries took the spoils of war and often that meant taking the virginity of women. Moses told them if the man truly loved the woman he desired, he would be honorable and generous toward her and not treat her as a prostitute. God provided a way for the soldier to stay pure physically (no rape) and spiritually (marrying a woman of the same faith) with this law.
Requirements Before Marriage.
Verses 12-13 tell us what the soldier and captive woman must do. The soldier was to take her to his home. After that, she must shave her head, trim her nails, remove her clothes of captivity, stay in his home, and mourn her father and mother a full month. After this month God allowed the soldier to marry the woman.
When an Israelite man prepared to marry an Israelite woman, the father of the man would meet with the father of the woman and make a marriage match. Gifts would be exchanged from the father of the bride to the father of the groom, from the groom to the bride, and from the father of the bride to his daughter. For the next year, the bride-to-be would spend time preparing herself for her wedding. These preparations included pampering her skin with special baths, oils, scents, and body art including on her fingers and hands. It included, too, the mental preparation of leaving her birth home to become part of another family, which could include mourning. After the groom prepared a marriage room for he and her to live in for the first week of their marriage, he would steal away one night to the bride’s home and the wedding would begin.
The month’s delay of marrying a captive woman included these preparations, but it also included her decision about following Yahweh or not. Each of the actions God required her to do had a three-fold purpose – to mourn her loss, to decide if she would renounce idolatry and follow Yahweh, and to make herself less appealing to the soldier. The latter would help him determine if he really loved and wanted to marry her. When she shaved her head, she did it in mourning for her loss - of her home, family, and country. The cleansing ritual is found in Leviticus 14:8-9 and Numbers 6:9, too. If she was to follow Yahweh, she must cleanse herself from following false gods and idols. The word “trim” in verse twelve comes from the Hebrew word ‘asah and means to deal with. She was to ignore her nails during the month of waiting, not cut, color, or beautify them in any way. When Moses said she was to remove her clothes of captivity, that meant she was not to wear the clothes in which the soldier found her beautiful, but to put them off and wear something less appealing to the eye. Each of these things are what people did in mourning. She did them, too, to recant following her gods and idols and to humble and purify herself before Yahweh. Added to this, wearing ugly clothes, shaving her head, and not beautifying her nails could make her unattractive to the soldier. If after a month the captive woman still attracted the heart of the soldier and she followed Yahweh God, then the soldier could go into her room and marry her (“go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife” vs. 13d).
Rights of the Captive.
We must remember God gave laws regarding taking care of aliens/foreigners, orphans, widows, and the poor in Deuteronomy 14:22-15:22. His law about aliens in Israel did not change when someone was an unwilling captive foreigner in Israel. Verse 14 explains God’s care for each person and tells the rights the captive woman had if the soldier did not marry her.
Verse 14 says, “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.” If after the month the man no longer desired and loved her, God said he must free her. He could not keep or sell her as a slave. God told the soldiers they must not mistreat their captive women. The word “mistreat” comes from the Hebrew word ‘amar and means to treat tyrannically or treat as a slave.
People try to understand why God gave the laws and statutes He did. Sometimes they are ration-able/reason-able and sometimes not. God gave this law because He cared about the women and how the Israelites would treat them if they chose not to marry them. The soldiers humbled the captive women by defeating their country and taking them captive. By intending to marry her, the woman would have lost status with the people of her country. Added to this, her reputation would be lost because the people who knew of her captivity with the soldier may have thought she already slept with him. Finally, her prospects for the future dimmed when she did not marry the soldier. Her life would be very hard if she was someone’s slave. God cares about each person. Paul reiterated God’s perception of everyone as equal in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither slave nor free, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
Notice this section of the chapter uses the “if…then” Deuteronomic style as the first two did. In this section, God dealt with the right of inheritance. God gave no law about inheritance before this statute. Issues of inheritance arose before this such as in the life of Jacob and Esau. The secondary point of this section is the rights of children of an unloved wife. Overall, God gave this law to provide social order. If a father did not follow it, his disobedience to the law affected his spiritual life, as well as that of his family, and, in the end, Israel.
The law, in verses fifteen through seventeen, said the firstborn son of a father, whether of a loved or unloved wife, must receive a double portion of everything the father has. The right of the firstborn son to receive this was due to this son being the beginning of the man’s family, his strength. Because of this, the firstborn son must receive the father’s authority to lead the family when the father is no longer able.
The issue of multiple wives is not as complex as it would appear. God did not give the Israelites permission to have more than one wife. Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 recalls the Genesis creation account (Gen. 1:27 and 2:24) saying the two shall become one flesh, not more than two. Further, the tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” (Exodus 20:12) presupposing one wife. Paul forbade church elders to be the husband of more than one wife. Remember, in the Bible, polygamy started with Cain, the murderer, not Seth the one from whose line Noah, Moses, David, and Jesus (Genesis 5) descended. Added to this, God forbade the kings of Israel to be polygamous (Deuteronomy 17:17). Hence God did not approve of it, but tolerated it. Under Mosaic law in Exodus 21:10, the LORD said, “If he takes another wife for himself…” God did not encourage polygamy. Knowing the hearts of men, though, He felt it necessary to guard the birthright of the firstborn son even if the mother of this son was unloved. God instituted this law for the firstborn son to protect children, just as He instituted the law for the captive woman in the earlier section to protect captives. Both groups of people had low status during this time.
Stubborn and Rebellious Son.
This law is one of the hard sayings of God. Once again, the issue was being right in the eyes of God, as stated in verse nine. By being right with God - following/obeying God - the people were pure and God could live among them. In this section about domestic relations, a very difficult situation arises, a stubborn and rebellious child. I am sure parents of every generation either heard about or had this type of child.
Moses taught the Israelites to teach their children Yahweh’s laws when they rise up, lay down, go out, and come in (Deuteronomy 6:7 and 11:19). He taught with the fifth commandment that children were to obey their parents. This is the first commandment that carried a promise with it – to have a prolonged life. With a promise, a curse is implied, the same curse the Israelites received from God if they did not keep (shamar – hear, listen, and obey) His laws. Moses taught, too, what to do about a person who goes astray from God’s laws and statutes – the local Levites or the priests would offer judgment on the situation. God intended His laws to apply to people of every age in Israel, even children.
When the teaching and the discipline of the parents was inadequate to keep a child from being disobedient so he or she became stubborn and rebellious, God provided the statute to deal with this recalcitrant child. Moses used an “if…then” statement again to show this was a law and a person always had two choices – obey or disobey – with two resultant outcomes – promise or curse. In verses 18-19, Moses said,
If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. [NASB]
First off, the word “stubborn” is the Hebrew word carar and means to rebel or have a dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or mind about something even if a good reason is given to do so. The stubborn child spoken of in this passage dug his feet in the ground and became immovable by force or reason. The word “rebellious” in the Hebrew is marah and means contentious and resisting authority or control. This child is one who will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it without considering the consequences to himself or other people.
The parents of this child, according to verse eighteen, disciplined and chastised him, but the child chose to disobey. The parents were the source of first training and disciplining. God gave the parents the charge to raise children in the knowledge of Him and His laws. Yet, as in society like adults choose to disobey God, children choose to disobey their parents without shame and repeatedly in the face of chastisement and discipline. Just as the elders and Levites of a town/city and the priests of the temple heard crimes and administered justice to adults based on the laws of God, sometimes these same leaders had to administer justice to recalcitrant children. A deep-seated rebellion existed in this child, one of continuing hatred. God commanded the elders handle this rebellion and hatred. He required the elders judge this stubborn and rebellious child, but not as the parents dealt with the minor infractions of defiance. By being so rebellious, the child broke the fifth commandment. Disobedience to parents is disobedience to God. When a child was this disobedient and rebellious, the parents needed a higher level of authority to help their rebellious and stubborn child. God provided that higher level of authority, wisdom, and judgment. God intended His laws to provide a peaceful society along with righteousness and purity for the people.
Verse 20 tells of the recourse the parents had for such a child. Together, mother and father could bring the child before the elders of the town/city. Notice the unity of the parents. If just one parent brought the child, the elders could have seen it as a spat or difference of opinion between the child and parent. When two parents brought the child in a united effort before the elders, the wise elders saw a definite recalcitrant child stood before them. This corresponds to earlier chapters (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15) where more than one witness was necessary to bring a person before the judges and priests. The witnesses (parents) must tell the elders why they brought their son to them – stubbornness, rebelliousness, disobedience, gluttony, and drunkenness. These things would tear a family and nation apart. Remember, the fifth commandment came with a promise and curse. The elders, since they lived in the same town as the child and parents, saw for themselves the difficulty these parents had in raising their child. As God’s appointed leaders, they must determine the situation with the child to determine God’s requirement for the child - to either discipline and bring the child back into obedience or administer the curse due disobedience - death. Because the sin was continuous and deep-seated and might cause harm to the family or others in the community, God provided punishment be delivered. God designed the punishment to protect the family, society, and nation by purging evil. The punishment provided a deterrent to future rebellion, too.
The punishment, as declared by God for such an evil person, was death by stoning (vs. 21). The leaders of Israel issued a judgment of stoning for people who followed other gods (Leviticus 20:2; Deuteronomy 13:11), followed a medium or spiritist (Leviticus 20:27), purposely killed another person (Leviticus 17:17-23), or who cursed and blasphemed God (Leviticus 24:14-16). In stoning such a person, Moses told them they removed the evil (ra’ – bad, malignant, vicious) from among them. Stoning the evil person supported the authority of God, the elders of Israel, and the parents. God showed strict punishment when he allowed the northern and southern kingdoms to be conquered because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. This punishment for the stubborn and rebellious child was for the same type of thing – to remove evil before it harms other people or becomes a cancer that spreads in the nation. The other part of this statute commanded the elders enforce this judgment and begin the stoning. Added to this, God commanded they send a notice throughout the nation explaining what occurred and the judgment declared to frighten others from being disobedient to their parents, leaders, and God.
Death: The Curse and Purity
Just as God commanded the stoning of a person to remove evil and restore purity, He sought to keep or re-establish Israel’s purity when a person died (vs. 1-9) or they received death and hanging as a judgment (vs. 22-23). The last two verses of this chapter deal with death once again, but with a small difference and a new teaching.
The Curse of Hanging on a Tree.
God commanded Moses to teach the Israelites about a criminal hanged to death for his or her crimes. He said in 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, 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. [NASB]
In these two verses, God established the basis for the curse of the cross. People over the years have tried to understand why God would curse death by hanging on wood, timber, or a tree. The most popular position considers both the first sin and Christ’s death. In the first sin, Adam and Eve ate from the tree of good and evil. God judged them. He declared they were no longer free from death, but would suffer from that curse. From this, people have reckoned trees are cursed by God, too. In addition, they reason that since Christ died on a cross made of wood, God once again cursed trees. These explanations are reasonable. The greatest reason, though, that God cursed hanging on a tree is that God said so.
What does a tree being cursed by God have to do with removing a corpse before sunset? Why does God tell the Israelites to remove the corpse from the tree on the day they hanged the person? He said it was so the land would not be defiled. To understand this, we must go back to the cleanliness laws of the Old Testament. If a person touched or was near a dead person, that person was ritually unclean until they performed purification rites over a seven day period (Numbers 19:11-14). If a person did not purify him or herself before entering God’s presence in the tabernacle or temple, the tabernacle/temple became defiled, God could not be among them, and that person was cut off from Israel. The corpse was unclean and God cursed the tree, but why was it important to remove the body from the tree before the day ended?
Curse on the Nation.
The priests’ administered God’s judgment on the people for their disobedience. When the judgment was death, people around the dead body became defiled. The tree with a body hanging on it was accursed by God. By leaving the dead body hanging on the tree overnight, an abuse of the body occurred. Judgment was fully meted out when they person suffered and died. No further justice could be administered since the person was dead. With the body continuing to hang on the tree, judgment continued, which was unnecessary, and it cursed the land in which the tree stood. So removing the body began the cleansing process and removed the curse from the land/nation. Remember from the first section of this chapter, killing a person carried with it bloodguiltiness even if mandated by God’s command and justice. The Israelites would want to remove the blood guilt from themselves and their nation sooner rather than later. God wanted them not to defile the land He gave them (vs. 23d).
Through these five sections of chapter twenty one we read of God’s laws and His concern for the purity of Israel. He wanted to ensure the purity of His people so He could be amidst them. God is pure and cannot be in the presence of sin. To provide social and moral standards, God gave His commands, laws, and statutes to the Israelites to obey. These same commands, laws, and statutes He intended to keep the people right - sinless and pure. For the parts of life that people thought were small, God showed He cared. He gave statutes for the people to follow in every part of life to help weed out evil from the people, such as the law about the rebellious son. He provided the laws about captive women and the rights of the firstborn’s inheritance to keep one’s affections from leading them into trouble. Overall, God’s commands are to keep people pure so they could stay in a relationship with Him.
What does this mean for us now? Primarily, we need to realize the great necessity of being in a relationship with God. God created humankind to be in a love relationship with Him. In Ephesians 1:4, Paul said, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” Besides this, John said in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Relationship with God is very important to God and should be important to each of us. Not only does it give unending love, but peace, joy, and hope. This is why the purity of people is so important to God.
If the whole chapter deals with being right in God’s eyes and being pure so we can be in His presence, what do the middle three sections have to do with this? First, God gave the commands and when you obey them, you are right in His eyes. That means you are pure and can be in His presence. Remember God cannot be in the presence of sin, so doing what is right in God’s eyes made the Israelites pure and able to be with God. As to each section, God cares for each person even if he or she is a captive, foreigner, a child, an unloved spouse, or a disobedient child. He used these people as instances of the people most overlooked in society. Since God cared enough to make a statute about and for them, He cares enough to love everyone. He tried to ingrain this in the Israelites’ minds.
They, like many of us today, look down on people still. We read in the Bible many times where people did not take care of the captives, foreigners, children, unloved ones, and the impure. When Jesus lived on earth, many people looked at Him and treated Him badly. They made Him a captive. People treated Him as a disobedient and unloved person. Jesus did things they disagreed with and said were unlawful. These people made Him a captive and mistreated Him.
Jesus knew how it felt to be treated as the lowest in the world. He came into the world to reconcile everyone to God. The Israelites did not keep God’s laws and continually rebelled against Him. He knew they would sin, just as Adam and Eve did. Sin is now a part of human nature because of Adam and Eve’s sin. God never intended His laws to save the Israelites from their sins. He gave His laws to lead them to Him. God’s plan always was to bring eternal reconciliation to Him through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “He did not come into the world abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” (Matthew 5:17). This means He came to make it complete and perfect so that there is a new and better way to be reconciled with God.
Jesus’ forgiveness and redemption is not just for Jews. Paul to the Ephesians and later readers about God’s love. In Ephesians 1:5, he said, “He [God] predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.” God loves each of us. He loved us before He formed us. His love brought us adoption into His family through His Son, Jesus Christ. The writer of Romans said in verse 16-17, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” Paul reiterated what Old Testament writers wrote and told the Israelites (2 Samuel 7:14, 1 Chronicles 17:13, Isaiah 43:6) so that each believer in Jesus Christ would hear and know for themselves they are children of God. He said in 2 Corinthians 6:18, “And I will be a father to you and you shall be sons and daughters to Me, says the Lord Almighty.”
We must each decide for ourselves today who God is for us. We must decide who Jesus is for us. Have we chosen to exercise our free-will and disobey God - be rebellious, and stubborn? Or have we chosen to accept the love God wants to give us? A theocracy no longer exists. Each person must decide for him or herself who or what will be god for them. God chose us from before He formed us in our mother’s womb to be loved by Him. He made a way for each person to return to Him through the mercy He gave when His Son, Jesus Christ, hanged and died on the wooden cross. By this cursed method of death and with Jesus’ sinless life, God offered the perfect sacrifice to pay the penalty for each of our sins. People of the first century mistreated Jesus, and hated and beat Him. When He did nothing to deserve the curse of death, the sin penalty of death, people killed Him. Jesus chose to die so you and I would not have to die the penalty for our sins. To receive this great love and be reconciled with God, our Creator and Father, confess your sins/wrongdoings to Him and profess Jesus is the Son of God and Lord/Master of your life. God will forgive you for each of your past and future sins. You can live with Him forever – on earth and in heaven.
Each person must make this decision for him or herself.
What will you decide?