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Deuteronomy Chapter Twenty-one                           


Deuteronomy 21

Chapter Contents

The expiation of uncertain murder. (1-9) Respecting a captive taken to wife. (10-14) The first-born not to be disinherited for private affection. (15-17) A stubborn son to be stoned. (18-21) Malefactors not to be left hanging all night. (22,23)

Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:1-9

(Read Deuteronomy 21:1-9)

If a murderer could not be found out, great solemnity is provided for putting away the guilt from the land, as an expression of dread and detesting of that sin. The providence of God has often wonderfully brought to light these hidden works of darkness, and the sin of the guilty has often strangely found them out. The dread of murder should be deeply impressed upon every heart, and all should join in detecting and punishing those who are guilty. The elders were to profess that they had not been any way aiding or abetting the sin. The priests were to pray to God for the country and nation, that God would be merciful. We must empty that measure by our prayers, which others are filling by their sins. All would be taught by this solemnity, to use the utmost care and diligence to prevent, discover, and punish murder. We may all learn from hence to take heed of partaking in other men's sins. And we have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, if we do not reprove them.

Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10-14

(Read Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

By this law a soldier was allowed to marry his captive, if he pleased. This might take place upon some occasions; but the law does not show any approval of it. It also intimates how binding the laws of justice and honour are in marriage; which is a sacred engagement.

Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:15-17

(Read Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

This law restrains men from disinheriting their eldest sons without just cause. The principle in this case as to children, is still binding to parents; they must give children their right without partiality.

Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:18-21

(Read Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Observe how the criminal is here described. He is a stubborn and rebellious son. No child was to fare the worse for weakness of capacity, slowness, or dulness, but for wilfulness and obstinacy. Nothing draws men into all manner of wickedness, and hardens them in it more certainly and fatally, than drunkenness. When men take to drinking, they forget the law of honouring parents. His own father and mother must complain of him to the elders of the city. Children who forget their duty, must thank themselves, and not blame their parents, if they are regarded with less and less affection. He must be publicly stoned to death by the men of his city. Disobedience to a parent's authority must be very evil, when such a punishment was ordered; nor is it less provoking to God now, though it escapes punishment in this world. But when young people early become slaves to sensual appetites, the heart soon grows hard, and the conscience callous; and we can expect nothing but rebellion and destruction.

Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:22,23

(Read Deuteronomy 21:22,23)

By the law of Moses, the touch of a dead body was defiling, therefore dead bodies must not be left hanging, as that would defile the land. There is one reason here which has reference to Christ; "He that is hanged is accursed of God;" that is, it is the highest degree of disgrace and reproach. Those who see a man thus hanging between heaven and earth, will conclude him abandoned of both, and unworthy of either. Moses, by the Spirit, uses this phrase of being accursed of God, when he means no more than being treated most disgracefully, that it might afterward be applied to the death of Christ, and might show that in it he underwent the curse of the law for us; which proves his love, and encourages to faith in him.

── Matthew HenryConcise Commentary on Deuteronomy


Deuteronomy 21

Verse 1

[1] If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:

The field — Or, in the city, or any place: only the field is named, as the place where such murders are most commonly committed.

Verse 2

[2] Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:

Thy elders and judges — Those of thy elders who are judges: the judges or rulers of all the neighbouring cities.

Measure — Unless it be evident which city is nearest; for then measuring was superfluous.

Verse 3

[3] And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;

Which hath not drawn in the yoke — A fit representative of the murderer, in whose stead it was killed, who would not bear the yoke of God's laws. A type also of Christ, who was under the yoke, but what he had voluntarily taken upon himself.

Verse 4

[4] And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley:

A rough valley — That such a desert and horrid place might beget an horror of murder and of the murderer.

Strike off the neck — To shew what they would and should have done to the murderer if they had found him.

Verse 5

[5] And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried:

Every controversy — Of this kind: every controversy which shall rise about any stroke, whether such a mortal stroke as is here spoken of, or any other stroke or wound given by one man to another.

Verse 7

[7] And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.

They shall answer — To the priests who shall examine them.

This blood — This about which the present enquiry is made: or this which is here present: for it is thought the corps of the slain man was brought into the same place where the heifer was slain. Nor have we seen or understood how or by whom this was done.

Verse 8

[8] Be merciful, O LORD, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.

Forgiven — Though there was no mortal guilt in this people, yet there was a ceremonial uncleanness in the land, which was to be expiated and forgiven.

Verse 10

[10] When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,

Enemies — Of other nations, but not of the Canaanites.

Verse 11

[11] And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;

Hast a desire unto her — Or, hast taken delight in her: which may be a modest expression for lying with her, and seems probable, because it is said, Deuteronomy 21:14, that he had humbled her. And here seem to be two cases supposed, and direction given what to do in both of them, 1. that he did desire to marry her, of which he speaks, Deuteronomy 21:11-13. 2. that he did not desire this, of which he speaks, Deuteronomy 21:14.

Verse 12

[12] Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;

She shall shave her head — In token of her renouncing her heathenish idolatry and superstition, and of her becoming a new woman, and embracing the true religion.

Verse 13

[13] And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.

Raiment of captivity — Those sordid raiments which were put upon her when she was taken captive.

Bewail her father and mother — Either their death, or which was in effect the same, her final separation from them.

Verse 14

[14] And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.

If thou have no delight in her — If thou dost not chuse to marry her.

Thou shalt not make merchandise of her — Make gain of her, either by using her to thy own servile works, or by prostituting her to the lusts or to the service of others.

Verse 15

[15] If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:

Two wives — This practice, though tolerated, is not hereby made lawful; but only provision is made for the children in this case.

Hated — Comparatively, that is, less loved.

Verse 19

[19] Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

His father and mother — The consent of both is required to prevent the abuse of this law to cruelty. And it cannot reasonably be supposed that both would agree without the son's abominable and incorrigible wickedness, in which case it seems a righteous law, because the crime of rebellion against his own parents did so fully signify what a pernicious member he would be in the commonwealth of Israel, who had dissolved all his natural obligations.

Unto the elders — Which was a sufficient caution to preserve children from the malice of any hard-hearted parents, because these elders were first to examine the cause with all exactness, and then to pronounce the sentence.

Verse 20

[20] And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

A glutton and a drunkard — Under which two offences others of a like or worse nature are comprehended.

Verse 22

[22] And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:

On a tree — Which was done after the malefactor was put to death some other way, this publick shame being added to his former punishment.

Verse 23

[23] His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

He is accursed of God — He is in a singular manner cursed and punished by God's appointment with a most shameful kind of punishment, as this was held among the Jews and all nations; and therefore this punishment may suffice for him, and there shall not be added to it that of lying unburied. And this curse is here appropriated to those that are hanged, to so signify that Christ should undergo this execrable punishment, and be made a curse for us, Galatians 3:13, which though it was to come in respect to men, yet was present unto God.

Defiled — Either by inhumanity towards the dead: or by suffering the monument of the man's wickedness, and of God's curse, to remain publick a longer time than God would have it, whereas it should he put out of sight, and buried in oblivion.

── John WesleyExplanatory Notes on Deuteronomy


21 Chapter 21


Verses 1-9

Deuteronomy 21:1-9

If one be found slain.

God’s value of individual life

“This narrative,” says one, “sets forth the preciousness of human life in the sight of God.” Dr. Jamieson believes this singular statute concerning homicide is far superior to what is found in the criminal code of any other ancient nation, and is undoubtedly the origin or germ of the modern coroners’ inquests.

I. Discovered in the loss of one man. Only one missing! But God counts men as well as stars, and “gathers one by one.” Ancient philosophy and modern socialism overlook personality, and legislate for men in a mass. The individual exists only for the race, has no rights, and becomes a tool or slave of society. Christianity does not belittle man, but recognises and renews individuals, exalts them to responsibility, and appeals to them for right. “Adam, where art thou?”

II. Discovered in the injury to one man. One man was missing, but he was murdered. His blood, like that of Abel, Was crying for justice. Society was wounded in one of its members. An inquiry was demanded, and the reproach must be wiped away.

III. Discovered in the interest which the community should take in one man. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Formerly heavy fines were inflicted on districts to prevent the murder of Danes and Normans by exasperated Englishmen. We are members one of another; related one to another, and none of us can turn away like Cain.

IV. Discovered in the provision made for every man’s salvation. Christ died for one and for all. It is not the will of God “that one of these little ones should perish.” If one sheep goes astray, the ninety and nine are left by the shepherd. He seeks the one that is lost, and its restoration brings greater joy than over all the remainder. “Dost thou believe?” (J. Wolfendale.)

Expiating unknown murder

We shall endeavour--

I. To explain the ordinance. In doing this we must notice--

1. Its general design. God intended by this law--

2. Its particular provisions: the victim, the death, the place; the protestations and petitions of the elders.

II. To point out some lessons which may be learned from it.

1. The importance of preventing or punishing sin.

2. The comfort of a good conscience.

3. The efficacy of united faith and prayer. (C. Simeon, M. A.)

Verses 15-17

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

The right of the firstborn.

I. The rights of primogeniture defined. “A double portion of all that he hath.” As head of the family, the eldest son would be put into power and privilege, be heir of his father’s rank and wealth. He was not to be limited in his allowance, nor deposed from his authority. The Divine Ruler entrusts him with possessions and entails them by His will.

II. The rights of primogeniture upheld. Individual preferences and partialities are not to set aside the rights of the firstborn.

1. Rights upheld through successive marriage. When an Israelite had two wives together or in succession, one might be loved and the other hated (Deuteronomy 21:15). God might tolerate polygamy, but right must be upheld.

2. Rights upheld against human partiality. The influence of the second wife was later and more permanent. Justice must not bend to personal like or dislike. Amid divided affections and divided authority, God and not caprice must rule.

3. Rights upheld by Divine injunction. Man is changeable; entails discord, feud, and litigation in his family; but God is just and impartial. He will protect our rights and vindicate our character. (J. Wolfendale.)

Verse 22-23

Deuteronomy 21:22-23

He that is hanged is accursed of God.


I. Hanging a disgraceful punishment. The body was exposed to insult and assault. Shameful deeds were kept in public memory, and the dead was a spectacle to the world. It was only inflicted on most infamous offenders. Cicero calls it a nameless wickedness. Its pain and disgrace were extreme.

II. Hanging a defilement of the land That thy land be not defiled. The vices of the living and the bodies of the dead defiled the land (Numbers 35:34).

1. Physically it would be defiled. In the hot climate its decomposition would injure the health and peril the life of others.

2. Morally, as the land of Jehovah, it would be polluted. Remembrance of crime would harden the heart and breed familiarity.

III. Hanging a warning to others. The punishment was designed to deter others. They saw the terrible consequences of guilt. Alas! “hanging is no warning,” and men leave the very gibbet or the gallows to commit their crimes.

IV. Hanging a type of the death of Christ (Acts 5:35; Galatians 3:13).

1. He became our substitute.

2. He was buried in the evening (John 19:31).

3. As the land was cleansed by removal of curse, so the conscience and the Church purified by Christ. (J. Wolfendale.)

The accursed tree

I. A shameful death awaits abominable crime. “Worthy, of death,” lit., if there be on a man a right of death, “he was hanged upon a tree.”

II. Public ignominy expressed in this shameful death. Penalty for crime, detestation of the perpetrator, and the curse of God.

III. The desirability of taking away the memory of this shame. “He shall not remain all night,” take him down from the tree and bury him; blot out his name and remove the curse.

IV. Christ alone removes the curse. The best of men treated as one of the vilest, died the just for the unjust, “who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree.” (J. Wolfendale.)

──The Biblical Illustrator