Deuteronomy 21: 1-9: Dealing with an Unsolvable Death
1 If, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, 2 then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3 The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4 the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the LORD, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6 All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8 Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the LORD.
The author of Deuteronomy is concerned that the people’s life in the land is not contaminated by bloodguilt and that they have a means for dealing with an unsolvable death in their land. Even though the death may not be solvable there still needs to be action on behalf of the community to atone for the wrong that has been done and to make things right. This issue also comes up in Deuteronomy 19: 1-13 when discussing the cities of refuge to ensure innocent blood is not spilled for an accidental killing. In Deuteronomy’s perspective there is a need to atone for the death that occurs and only blood can do that. The ritual involves the elders of the community and the Levites who come together to absolve the community of guilt.
The ritual itself involves assigning the responsibility to the nearest town, the giving up of something of high value to the community, declaration of innocence of the community, blessing and finally a ritual of surrendering responsibility. The role of the Levites in the judicial process laid out in Deuteronomy 17: 8-13 is now expanded here to involve any case of dispute and assault, but they also oversee the actions of the community to make things right with God. Once the responsibility is assigned to the elders of the town they bring a heifer, a cow that has not been used for agricultural purposes and has not born a calf, and identify a wadi, a ravine which must have running water, that is also not being used in agricultural purposes to conduct the ritual. Breaking the heifer’s neck kills the animal in a non-sacrificial way and unlike the sacrifices (talked about earlier in Deuteronomy 12, in relation to the festivals in Deuteronomy 16, and in relation to the priests in Deuteronomy 18) there is no mention of participating in eating the heifer that has been killed. This animal is lost to the community in the action of absolution. The washing of hands to absolve responsibility is a common practice, but here the elders of the community act on behalf of the community: declaring innocence both in action and in not covering up the crime and attempt to make things right between the community and God.
Deuteronomy is an ancient book and it is sometimes difficult to approach in our world, and one of the reasons I spend the time working through this publicly is there is not much that is available online that is not either using Deuteronomy as a classic case of how irrelevant the Bible and religion is or on the other side lifts up Deuteronomy (often individual verses or sections) as a methodology that we should embrace without reflection in all its harshness. Most Christian pastors, especially in the more liturgical traditions, spend very little time in Deuteronomy other than perhaps chapters 4-6. Yet, as I have moved through these sections of Deuteronomy that deal with interpreting the law for the people of Israel it has become for me a dialogue within and between scripture. Wanting to honor and find what wisdom Deuteronomy has and how its perspective on God’s relationship to God’s people might help our communal life as Christians even when we can’t always agree with either the rules or the perspectives contained within Deuteronomy.
Some passages, including some coming immediately after this one, we would not want to integrate into our life in our society, but in our litigious society there is no way to deal with an unsolved case. It simply remains unsolved unless, somewhere down the road, a new revelation makes the case solvable. In events where a public wrong has been done, like an unsolved murder, perhaps there would be wisdom in finding a way for community leaders and religious leaders to come together, to denounce the wrong that has been done, to ensure that they do not bear responsibility for the actions and to atone on behalf of the community. Perhaps these actions might begin the process of the community’s healing and bring together the community to protect and watch over the fellow members of the community so that this type of action does not occur in the future.
Deuteronomy 21: 10-14 The Female Captive
10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11 suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12 and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13 discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
War in any time is hellish both for the soldiers involved in it but perhaps even more so for those who are the victims of the conflict. Women and children rarely had any choices when their cities or lands were captured. From a modern standard the idea of forcing a captive woman to marry a warrior of the army that has conquered their land seems abhorrent. Deanna Thompson argues that this passage is a “glimpse of restraint in the midst of the brutal realities of war.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 159) It does set limits on the injustices that (in theory) be committed on a captive of war by the warriors of Israel.
The author of Deuteronomy would not understand the questions that people from a postmodern secular word (or even earlier worldviews) would have with passages like this, it was simply the world they lived in. Even though there are parts of the bible that can be read as sympathetic with a feminist or egalitarian view of sexuality there are large portions, like this one, which simply come from a world that would be alien to us. In the world that Deuteronomy speaks to: polygamy is an accepted and encouraged practice (to quickly grow the nation of Israel), being a brought into the chosen people of God (through conquest) is a privilege that the vanquished should be thankful for (many Christians shared a similar perspective in the conquest of the Americas), and ultimately in a male centered society the feeling of the women doesn’t carry very much weight. In the United States we can joke that, “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” but assuming that type of worldview on the world of Deuteronomy is simply not true.
One of the gifts and challenges of wrestling through Deuteronomy is that it requires us to wonder how do utilize the wisdom and sometimes the wrongness (from a current perspective) of ancient scripture in our time. There isn’t a major calling for a wholesale adoption of the Deuteronomic and Levitical practices as a guide for life in our time, but I think the pieces of Deuteronomy that make me uncomfortable force me to think about questions like, “how then should women be protected in situations involving combat?” “How do we honor the scriptures and those who wrote them even when we disagree?” “Is there wisdom to be learned even in our disagreements?” “Are there places where the ancient scriptures challenged the world of their day?”
In the world of Deuteronomy, where women are looked upon as spoils that were treated however the captors chose: used while desired and then perhaps sold when no longer desired, Deuteronomy does place a restraint upon the power of the male head of the household. While the woman who is captured has no choice, once she is taken up into the household she does have some, albeit small protection. She is given a time to mourn, she is to lose hair and nails and fancy clothes that may have contributed to her being an object of attraction. She is given protection from being sold into slavery, even though being released does subject her to a significant economic challenge without a means of support. The reality is that she may be forced into begging or prostitution by the release but at least the releaser does not become the one to profit financially by this. Ultimately this is probably told in the hope that the one who releases would provide for the captive woman initially like the people of Israel receiving material wealth from the Egyptians prior to their leaving in the Exodus narrative. In its own harsh way I believe that Deuteronomy is trying to communicate a level of personhood and protection for the captured women. This provides a limit to the power over the booty outlined in Deuteronomy 20, not a sufficient limit for our time, but a limit nonetheless.
The reality of the plight of captive women in the ancient world, even within Deuteronomy’s system, forces them into marriages where they have no voice in the matter. The reality that in this world the woman has no choice over how her body is to be used may not be as far away as we would like to admit. Many women, and some men, in relationships may not feel freedom in how their body is used. Throughout history rape has been used as a part of the conquest of an area. Even today in combat zones throughout the world women’s bodies are not safe. As people of faith we need to be willing to answer the difficult questions of how we honor women and men and their bodies in relationship, in society and even in conflict.
Deuteronomy 21: 15-17 The Rights of the Firstborn
15 If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, 16 then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. 17 He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.
This is one of those interesting passages where the Biblical narrative, particularly as it relates to God’s freedom, comes into conflict with the ordered worldview of Deuteronomy. This passage places a limit on the freedom of the male head of household with respect to passing on the inheritance. A husband is not allowed to pick a younger son from a (currently) favored wife to inherit in preference to the eldest son. Matters of inheritance were serious business in the ancient world as possessions and land passed from one generation of men to the next. Yet, it is interesting the way that the narrative of the people of Israel comes into conflict with this fairly simple and common understanding of inheritance.
Throughout the book of Genesis there are stories of later sons inheriting the first born portion. Beginning with the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, the first born son, Ishmael, is set aside for the child of promise, Isaac. In this story the argument could be made that Hagar was never the wife of Abraham so the promise wouldn’t flow to Ishmael but to Isaac. Yet in the very next generation there is the stories of Jacob and Esau where Jacob, by trickery, gets both the inheritance and the blessing. Joseph is favored by his father over his brothers because he is the first child of Rachel, the favored wife, and later Reuben, the firstborn, is passed over for Judah because of sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilhah. David is chosen by God to be king even though he is the youngest brother and in the political intrigue surrounding David’s impending death he appoints Solomon to reign instead of older brothers. There are many other examples that could be lifted up, but things are rarely as neat and orderly as Deuteronomy may want them to be.
Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 The Rebellious Son and the Community
18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.
This portion of Deuteronomy links back to the commandment:
Honor your father and mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 5: 16
And attempts to legislate how families are to deal with children, particularly male children, who bring dishonor upon the household. Deuteronomy has a harsh view of justice and of honor and being a dishonor to one’s parents is lifted up as a capital offence. However, when you read closely to this passage there is a significant limit placed upon the familial authority. Families are not allowed to take matters into their own hands. The family is expected to be firm in their disciplining of their child but the threat, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it!” was not to be left to the discretion of the parents. The disciplining of the stubborn and rebellious son is left to the community, but must be initiated by the parents. Again the elders are expected to take upon themselves the role of judging for their community.
We wouldn’t sanction execution of children, even adult children, in our society for being stubborn and rebellious, being a glutton or a drunkard or refusing to obey parents. We as a society do set limits on what is acceptable for parents with respect to disciplining. Navigating the boundaries between discipline and abuse can be tricky at times but that is one of the decisions we make as a society for the protection of children. How we care for our elderly also is a part of this discussion as we create rules for a society and how their children are allowed to treat them, since the commandment on honoring parents probably primarily refers to how adult children care for their elderly parent as I discuss when talking about Deuteronomy 5. We may not always agree with Deuteronomy’s harsh stance on justice, and working through this part of the book can seem very legalistic, but the author of Deuteronomy is trying to construct a society that is living out of God’s covenant. In our society we also have to figure out how to advocate for rules that protect children and families, providing limits and unfortunately penalties for people who do not live in accordance with those laws.
Deuteronomy 21: 22-23 A Limit on Execution for the Sake of the Land
22 When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.
For Christians this is one of those rare portions of Deuteronomy that is well known because of its echo by Paul in his letter to the Galatians:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Galatians 3: 13-14
As Paul wrestles with the scandal of the cross among both Jewish and Greek audiences he alludes back to this piece of Deuteronomy and recasts it as a part of the language to explain the death of Christ. The passage does not have a problem with the execution, even hanging or crucifixion, but it does place a limit upon the way that body can be used.
In the ancient world executions had both a physical and a psychological dimension. Physically it killed the person who was executed but it also worked psychologically by making the person a public display of the cost of disobedience. Victims of crucifixion in many cultures were left out to both rot and be dismembered by animals as the executor destroyed not only the person but their honor. In cultures ruled by fear the executed one became a grotesque billboard proclaiming what happened to those who challenged the regimes in power. For the Hebrew people they were to treat the dead differently. As mentioned above in verses 1-9, and in Deuteronomy 19 there is the concept of blood guilt but here it is expanded to a curse upon the land for leaving a cursed person out in the elements. In the world of Deuteronomy the land and people are defiled by failing to deal properly with the dead.
This passage also may help shed some light on the crucifixion narrative in the synoptic gospels where Joseph of Arimathea requests the body of Jesus and buries it on the night of the crucifixion as well as John’s narrative in John 19: 31-37 where the Jewish leaders don’t want the bodies left on the cross. But for the Jewish people they were not to be a culture who relished in death, they were not to display dead bodies or skulls so that others would fear them: instead this would be a source of defilement for them. The prophet Ezekiel can lift up in the vision of the destruction of the armies of Gog, how the burial of the bodies of the vanquished horde will be a part of the cleansing of the land (Ezekiel 39: 11-20)