Deuteronomy 21

The Word Made Fresh

1“If someone is found dead in the land the LORD your God is giving you and the cause of death is not known, 2your elders and judges must determine how far the dead body is from nearby towns. 3The elders of the nearest town must bring a heifer that has never been yoked or put to work 4and bring it to a wadi that has water. They must break the heifer’s neck in the water. 5Then you must summon the priests descended from Levi who have been chosen to serve the LORD and make rulings in disputes and murders. 6They must watch as the elders of the nearest town wash their hands over the heifer 7and declare that they had nothing to do with the death of the person. 8The priests must say, ‘Free your people, O LORD, of all guilt from the blood that has been shed.’ Then they will be free from blame. 9This is how you will wipe away any guilt when blood has been spilled innocently.

10“When you go to war with your enemies and the LORD your God gives you the victory, you may take captives. 11If you should see a beautiful woman among them and are drawn to her you are permitted to claim her as your wife. 12Bring her to your house and have her shave her head and trim her nails, 13and discard her clothing. Let her remain for a whole month in your house to grieve for her parents and after that you may approach her, and you will become husband and wife. 14If she doesn’t please you she must be allowed to go wherever she wishes as a free woman. You may not sell her to another like a slave, because you have dishonored her.

15“If a man has two wives and loves one but not the other but has children by both of them and the firstborn is the child of the one he doesn’t love, 16then when he makes his will, he must honor the firstborn son regardless of which wife is the mother. 17The firstborn will inherit a double portion of his possessions.

18“If a couple have a rebellious son who stubbornly disobeys his parents and punishment has not changed his ways, 19then his parents must drag him before the elders at the town gate 20and say to them, ‘This is our son, but he is headstrong and rebellious and won’t obey us. He eats us out of house and home and stays drunk half the time.’ 21Then all the townsmen must stone him to death. You must get rid of such evil among you. If you do, all Israel will hear about it and take heed.

22“Whenever someone is found guilty of a crime and is sentenced to death by hanging, 23do not leave his dead body hanging there all night. Bury him the day he is hanged. Whoever is hung on a tree is cursed by God, and you must not allow the curse to hang over the land the Lord your God is giving you.”


1-9: A strange ritual is described here, but remember that God’s blessing of the land is marred by the spilling of innocent blood — a point of view going all the way back to the time of Cain and Abel.

10-14: Back to rules of war for a moment. What happens if you capture a city and take as captive a beautiful woman to whom you are attracted? Well, you may marry her, but then what if she doesn’t ‘please’ you? You have to let her go free. On the surface this sounds fair, but where will she go since you’ve conquered her people? Her only hope at that point is to be taken in by someone else among your people.

15-17: Another abrupt change of subject: this one clarifies the first-born’s right of inheritance. The firstborn son (or daughter if there are no sons — remember the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-8 and again in Numbers  36) was to receive a double share of the estate. If a man had sons by more than one wife, he was not allowed to play favorites in the dispensation of his property after his death.

18-21: A horrible fate awaits the son who dishonors his parents. We have noted before that honoring one’s parents is among the three most important of the 10 commandments, along with not worshiping other gods and keeping the Sabbath. But regardless of the son’s behavior I cannot imagine his parents actually wanting to have him stoned to death.

22-23: “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Stoning was the preferred method of execution. I am at a loss to explain why it was more noble to bash someone to death with rocks than to hang them from a tree, but one of the points made in the New Testament is that Jesus’ crucifixion was a particularly demeaning form of execution.


It is hard to find a blessing in this chapter. My hope (and God’s too, I think) is that these rulings themselves served to prevent the commission of the crimes described. I think what we are seeing here is God shaping the community of Israel to be the recipient of a special birth many centuries removed from this period of Israel’s history, and God’s primary interest in these chapters is to insure Israel’s long-term survival in hostile territory.