Deuteronomy – Chapter 21

The Bible – Old Testament



Chapter 21


1 «If the corpse of a slain man is found lying in the open on the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who killed him,


your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances to the cities that are in the neighborhood of the corpse.


When it is established which city is nearest the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a heifer that has never been put to work as a draft animal under a yoke,


2 and bringing it down to a wadi with an everflowing stream at a place that has not been plowed or sown, they shall cut the heifer’s throat there in the wadi.


The priests, the descendants of Levi, shall also be present, for the LORD, your God, has chosen them to minister to him and to give blessings in his name, and every case of dispute or violence must be settled by their decision.


3 Then all the elders of that city nearest the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose throat was cut in the wadi,


4 and shall declare, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see the deed.


Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you have ransomed, and let not the guilt of shedding innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.’ Thus they shall be absolved from the guilt of bloodshed,


and you shall purge from your midst the guilt of innocent blood, that you may prosper for doing what is right in the sight of the LORD.


«When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives,


if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife,


5 you may take her home to your house. But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails


and lay aside her captive’s garb. After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife.


However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion.


«If a man with two wives loves one and dislikes the other; and if both bear him sons, but the first-born is of her whom he dislikes:


when he comes to bequeath his property to his sons he may not consider as his first-born the son of the wife he loves, in preference to his true first-born, the son of the wife whom he dislikes.


On the contrary, he shall recognize as his first-born the son of her whom he dislikes, giving him a double share of whatever he happens to own, since he is the first fruits of his manhood, and to him belong the rights of the first-born.


«If a man has a stubborn and unruly son who will not listen to his father or mother, and will not obey them even though they chastise him,


6 his father and mother shall have him apprehended and brought out to the elders at the gate of his home city,


where they shall say to those city elders, ‘This son of ours is a stubborn and unruly fellow who will not listen to us; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’


Then all his fellow citizens shall stone him to death. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel, on hearing of it, shall fear.


7 «If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his corpse hung on a tree,


8 it shall not remain on the tree overnight. You shall bury it the same day; otherwise, since God’s curse rests on him who hangs on a tree, you will defile the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you as an inheritance.

1 [1-9] This paragraph is best read immediately after ⇒ Deut 19:21. The slain man may not necessarily have been murdered; he may have been killed by a wild beast. But the blood of the slain cries out to God from the soil where it was shed; cf ⇒ Genesis 4:10. Therefore a religious ceremony of propitiation is here prescribed in order to avert God’s anger on the community.
2 [4] They shall cut the heifer’s throat there in the wadi: its blood is to be carried away by the stream, signifying thereby the removal of the human blood from the soil. This is not a sacrifice but a symbolic action; the priests are present merely as official witnesses.
3 [6] Wash their hands: a symbolic gesture in protestation of one’s own innocence when human blood is unjustly shed; cf ⇒ Matthew 27:24.

4 [7] This blood: the blood of the slain man as symbolized by the heifer’s blood.

5 [12-13] Shave her head . . . : these symbolic actions are meant to signify the purification of the woman from her pagan defilement or perhaps the end of her period of mourning for her previous husband.
6 [19] The gate: in the city walls. This open space served as the forum for the administration of justice. Cf ⇒ Deut 22:15; ⇒ 25:7; ⇒ Ruth 4:1, 2, ⇒ 11; ⇒ Isaiah 29:21; ⇒ Amos 5:10, ⇒ 12, ⇒ 15.
7 [22] Hung on a tree: some understand, «impaled on a stake.» In any case the hanging or impaling was not the means used to execute the criminal; he was first put to death by the ordinary means, stoning, and his corpse was then exposed on high as a salutary warning for others. Cf ⇒ Joshua 8:29; ⇒ 10:26; ⇒ 1 Sam 31:10; ⇒ 2 Sam 21:9.
8 [23] God’s curse rests on him who hangs on a tree: St. Paul quotes these words in ⇒ Gal 3:13, where he applies them to the crucified Savior, who «redeemed us from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for us.»