To be honest, I simply am not certain how to title this particular section of our continuing study of the book of Deuteronomy because the laws contained in chapter 21 are rather eclectic, and span several different categories.So let’s dig into the text.
Given that the sixth commandment is “Do not murder,” and that the prescribed punishment is “life for life”, the reality that there would be an unsolved murder, where the culprit would never be known was just as much a reality in the ancient world as it is in our day. We revel in the level of technology that we posses and how we can use even the most minute particles of evidence to at least give us some idea of who the culprit might be, the ancient world was simply at a loss. Accidental death had previously been addressed, but this was for acts of clear malevolence.
God’s demand among his people was for justice to be done and crime required atonement and resolution.(1) Going back to the Noetic covenant, the demand for justice was one of the first elements. Here, though, was a case where, apart from some clear evidence, justice could not be done, however, the spilling of innocent blood was a corruption upon the land that required rights of purification.
War is inherently ugly, and in the heat of war there is a tendency for sexual ethics to be thrown to the wind, especially towards the female element of the society of the enemy. It was, and still is, common practice for the spoils of war to go to the victor, and the ancient world was no different. In the preceding chapter, we saw that women and children were seen as spoils of war, part of the material matter over which Israel could exert authority and right over following a battle. The woman, as such in the ancient context, has no say over her situation, and as moderns, we find such a situation concerning and repulsive.(2) However, there is a primitive morality, an ethic and a principle nascent here that simply must be recognized.
While the forced servitude of a conquered people was a norm in the ancient world and was expected by those who survived such military actions, Israel’s laws, unlike the laws and practices of other nations, would have a certain recognition that, looking back, reflected a recognition of common humanity. A woman in such a position was not to be dishonored by humiliation. If a woman was seen as “beautiful (v11)”, she was to be brought into the home of the man who desired her. He was to see to her needs, giving her time to mourn. The vestments of her prior life were to be taken away, she was no longer to see herself as she once was. Importantly, as Rushdoony notes that the woman, “cannot be raped, nor can she be made a concubine, i.e., a wife without a dowry. She is deliberately called a wife and must be treated as such (emphasis original).”(3) The woman, therefore, received protection, provision, and respect, contrast this with other cultures who saw persons in similar conditions as “non-persons with no standing before the law.”(4)
This law deals with a situation that might arise from such a situation as described above. While plurality in wives was not expressly forbidden in ancient Israelite culture, except for those in authority, the inherent problems that arose from such a situation were highlighted in such a manner as to demonstrate that the difficulties should cause one to carefully consider his position before attempting to do so. In Exodus 21, a similar situation is eluded to, but the focus is on the wives themselves and not the offspring of those relationships.
Favoritism inspired injustice, and the law denounced such acts, whether between the poor and the rich, the slave and the free, and the native and the stranger, in acts of law. Here though, if a man had multiple wives, the temptation would be to give to the children of the favored wife the greater inheritance, especially since the firstborn received a double-portion of any inheritance. Here, the status of what constitutes the office of “firstborn” is established in law.
While I have a fuller treatise on this section, it should be said, in summary, that this passage doesn’t necessarily mean what it is often implied by critics to mean. “The statute affirms traditional [absolute] authority of parents over children in the interests of maintaining social order.”(5) The key to misunderstanding this particular passage is ignoring the ancient understanding that the family was the building block of society as well as the mediator and enforcer of societal norms. The state existed to deal with crime, social regulation was the responsibility of the family.
In honor cultures, such as those of ancient Israel, a son who disrupted a family’s ability to do business placed the survival of the family in jeopardy, and the family was duty bound to address this.(6) Vigilante action (honor killing) was expressly forbidden in Israelite society, such a person was to be submitted to proper authorities for justice.(7) (Also see here.)
A recent podcast dealing with concepts of honor and shame in the biblical context.
The ultimate penalty was to be delivered swiftly and definitely. However, even in death, a criminal’s body was not to be left to open shame and left to corrupt or, in a ceremonial sense, “defile” the land. Whether or not this is considered to be for the purposes of disease prevention or ceremonial uncleanness is somewhat ambiguous. Whatever the circumstance or understanding, the body was to receive a measure of respect and proper burial.(8)
- Rousas J. Rushdoony. Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy. Chalcedon Publishing. Valencia, CA. 2008. p. 303.
- Walter Brueggemann. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary Series: Deuteronomy. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. 2001. p. 217.
- Rushdoony. p. 307
- Ibid. p.308
- Brueggeman. p. 218
- Rushdoony. p. 318
- Brueggeman. p. 218
- Ibid. p.218-9