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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 21

 

 

Verses 1-23


Expiation of Undetected Homicide. Marriage of Captive Women. Punishment of a Rebellious Son

The last sub-section of the Second Discourse begins here, containing a variety of social and domestic regulations.

1-9. The Expiation of Undetected Homicide. The cases of accidental and open, wilful murder have been already provided for in Deuteronomy 19. This passage treats the case of undetected homicide. Murder pollutes the land and must be expiated. When the murderer cannot be discovered the responsibility of making atonement rests with the city nearest to the scene of the crime. For the ancient Babylonian practice in such circumstances see art. 'Laws of Hammurabi.'

4. For rough valley read 'valley with running water,' and for strike off the heifer's neck read 'break the heifer's neck.' Eared means 'ploughed' as in Exodus 34:21. The proper satisfaction for the crime of murder would be the death of the murderer: see Deuteronomy 19:13 but as he cannot be discovered, the heifer takes his place. The unworked heifer and the untilled land probably suggested complete severance from human life, and symbolised the unnaturalness of the crime of murder.

6. The washing of the hands is a protestation of innocence. Cp. the action of Pilate in Matthew 27:24.

7. The elders, in the name of all the citizens, take an oath of purgation. The publicity and solemnity of the ceremony must have had a powerful effect upon the public conscience, and in some cases no doubt assisted in the discovery of the murderer.

10-14. On the Marriage of Captive Women. This rule does not apply to Canaanitish women, whom the Israelites were forbidden in any circumstances to marry: see Deuteronomy 7:3; Deuteronomy 19:16-18.

12. These are rites indicative of purification: see Leviticus 14:8; Numbers 6:9. The captive comes from a heathen people, and this ceremony symbolises the renouncing of her former life and her adoption into Israel.

13. The woman is to be honourably treated. Even if divorced she must not be sold as a slave but allowed to go back to her people.

15. Succession to hereditary property is a fruitful cause of discord in a family, as is also the favouritism of parents: cp. the case of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 25:28). A polygamous society is specially liable to disturbance from these causes. Beloved and hated are relative terms, meaning simply that one is preferred to the other. For a similar use of the terms see Malachi 1:2, Malachi 1:3.

17. A double portion] The usual right of the firstborn. An estate was divided into a number of parts exceeding the number of children by one, and the extra share fell to the firstborn.

18. Children have rights, as the last passage shows, but they have also duties. The punishment of an incorrigible son is very severe. The State is regarded as having an interest in the proper upbringing of children and as exercising its authority when that of the parents is powerless: see on Exodus 20:12; Exodus 21:15, Exodus 21:17.

22, 23. And thou hang him] The hanging followed the execution. See on Numbers 25:4 and cp. Joshua 10:26; 2 Samuel 4:12. The tree was a stake on which the dead body of the criminal was impaled, in token of infamy. The dead body must be taken down before nightfall because it is 'the curse of God.' The words rendered, he that is hanged is accursed of God, are somewhat ambiguous. They mean either he 'is accursed in the sight of God, i.e. cursed by God,' or 'is an insult or reproach to God.' Jewish commentators take them in the latter sense. The dead body pollutes the land and is an insult to God: it must therefore be taken down. St. Paul quotes the words in Galatians 3:13 in the former sense, viz. that the fact of hanging is an evidence of the divine curse resting upon the person. The Jews of the apostle's time, like those of later times, argued from the 'offence of the cross.' Seeing that Jesus was hanged on a tree, He could not be the Son of God: He was manifestly the object of divine displeasure. St. Paul boldly admitted the fact, but reasoned differently from it. The curse, he said, was vicarious. Christ 'was made a curse for us,' thereby redeeming us from the curse of the Law.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/deuteronomy-21.html. 1909.

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