Deuteronomy 21:15-17

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 21:17 (CSB)

17 He must acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved wife, by giving him two shares of his estate, for he is the firstfruits of his virility; he has the rights of the firstborn.

Reflection/Application:

This is a short, but interesting passage. At first, we might be tempted to assume there is a tie in with the previous passage concerning the taking of wives from lands of conquest. But, there is nothing in the passage itself that mandates that interpretation, and is instead quite neutral to the topic.

Right off the bat we may be tempted to balk at the entire passage due to the start: bigamy. Again, we should not take Deut. 21:15 as an endorsement of God for having multiple wives. There is nothing here to suggest anything more than God’s regulation of man’s [sinful] custom.

The remainder of the passage focuses on the real issue here: following through and doing what is right, not what we might be tempted to do by following our desires. This is not an issue of divorce due to a husband not “loving” his wife anymore, which, by the way, is not grounds for divorce in God’s eyes. This is an issue of honoring the firstborn son, as created and designed by God, as expected. If the father were to dishonor that expectation due to his own emotional feelings towards his wives, then he has placed his emotions above God’s command here, an apparent held custom of the Israelites, and the symbolic significance of the firstborn.

We would do well to recognize this guidance in our culture today, where far too often our decisions are made on what makes us happy, who we like or dislike at the moment, or any number of fleeting, trivial, and petty factors, rather than on common sense, long held traditions, and God’s values.

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for never falling short in what you promise… even when we fail to follow through on our own promises and expectations. I am sorry for the many times I have made poor decisions, often based on my own emotional benefit rather than traditional values and your word. I pray for the guidance to follow you and basing my choices and actions on pleasing and following you. Amen.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 21:14 (CSB)

14 Then if you are not satisfied with her, you are to let her go where she wants, but you must not sell her or treat her as merchandise, because you have humiliated her.

Reflection/Application:

This passage, taken on its own, certainly presents a challenge for the Christian in light of modern “sensibilities”. But I think if we look at things with a whole Biblical view, we can reconcile things and remain true to the spirit of the text and God’s intentions.

  1. The passage is obviously referring to women who are prisoners of war from “distant” nations, not from Canaan, since the complete destruction of those peoples had been commanded. But it should be noted that right from the beginning God is commanding his people to treat these prisoners in a unique way than would be expected, especially considering the time period and the region. There is no condoning inhumane treatment, but just the opposite: the woman is to be taken as a wife, which from biblical standpoint is absolutely a sacred institution in the eyes of God, as well as brought into the soldier’s home.
  2. Next we see these rules about the woman having to abandon her old clothes, trim her nails, shave her head, and mourn for her parents for a time. Today we might have some pushback against such things, see it as some sort of cultural brainwashing, but in light of God’s agenda for his people, and their righteousness, this process is clearly intended to cleanse the woman and allow her to prepare to fully and wholly join God’s family and his people.
  3. Notice that Deut. 21:13 phrases the next phase as, “After that, you may have sexual relations with her and be her husband, and she will be your wife.” It would seem that there is some sort of expectation of the woman actually willingly completing the previous steps prior to the marriage proceeding. As one commentary observes, “one can hardly conceive of all this taking place coercively.” 1
  4. Finally, if the marriage is just untenable, God has provided for the woman to be allowed to go freely, unrestricted. She is not property, or a slave, or anything like that, she is free. In fact, the final part of Deut. 21:14 is very telling of God’s attitude in this scenario in that he sees the woman as being humiliated, without mention of any sort of detrimental impact on the man.
  5. And this is another scenario where we should be careful about building too much on this single passage. It would be easy to come away from this thinking that God is just fine with divorce if the husband is “unsatisfied” with his wife. But again, as mentioned initially, in the grand Biblical view, it is apparent this is not the case, and that the institution of marriage is very special and serious to God. This seems to be a case where God is providing guidance towards the ideal (i.e. no divorce), but allowing for a shortcoming of man.


1
Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 291.

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for providing us a big picture to temper individual passages against in order to better understand where you are leading us. I am sorry for the times when I have been short-sighted and selfish in my relationships. I pray that we can have your heart when entering relationships, all kinds, and always keep you in the middle. Amen.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 21:9 (CSB)

9 You must purge from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, for you will be doing what is right in the Lord’s sight.

Reflection/Application:

This passage is concerned not with the killing of a person that has a witness, but a killing that has no witness, or at least no witness that will testify. Previously we have seen passages concerned with crimes that have been observed, but now Moses addresses a capital crime where there is not any, and how the nation is to respond in order to be reconciled with God.

Apparently, since someone must take the lead in the prescribed ceremony, the rule is that the town closest to the victim is the one to do so. Deut. 21:1 specifically points out that the victim is found in the land God is giving to the Israelites, suggesting an additional gravity to the situation since this is not just a crime against man, but also against God.

A young cow that has not been broken, or used for work, is brought to unworked land, near flowing water, and its neck is broken as a sacrifice of sorts, but without the bloodshed. The unbroken cow suggests an “undefiled” sacrifice, as does the unworked land. Perhaps the moving water is symbolic of the carrying away of sin that the ceremony is for? And the lack of bloodshed highlights the difference between this sacrifice and a “typical” sacrifice that occurs at an altar.

The elders would then recite a statement, declaring their innocence in the crime, and the fact that the perpetrator is unbeknownst to them. This appears to be critical, this vocal confession and request for mercy from God, since it is after the quote of the statement that Moses declares they will be cleansed of responsibility for the bloodshed.

In the end though, we see the common theme of these commands: purging guilt and evil from God’s people so that they will be right with God.

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for your mercy! We are not always the ones guilty of specific sins and crimes, yet we may be held accountable due to our proximity to one who does sin, either physically or relationally. And when we are in the blast zone of sin, I pray that rather than feed it, or ignore it, that we take steps to make things right, and most importantly, that we seek you. Amen.

Deuteronomy 20:1-20

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 20:1 (CSB)

1 “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an army larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, is with you.

Reflection/Application:

This passage comprises a number of rules concerning war. It is apparent that the Israelites will not be immune from the pains of war, as the tone of the entire passage is of coming war, and not just for the pending seizing of Canaan. Yet despite this fact, the overarching theme here is that the Israelites should continue to trust in God, and he is with them throughout.

The passage starts off with a command to not fear enemy armies, despite their larger numbers. The priest is even to speak to the army, encouraging bravery, and reminding them that it is God himself who goes into battle with the Israelites, and gives them victory.

Next we see a list provisions for exemption from service. The first three exemptions appear to be related to establishing a family and provision for it: a home, produce, or income, and marriage. It would seem these would all allow for the continuation of God’s people through the establishment of the family units and what they would need to continue on. Note that the threat of death is absolutely real, as all these exemptions mention the possibility of it! We should not be deceived into thinking that since God is with the Israelites, none of them will die. The truth is that death does still strike, even while we are walking with God, but our eternity is secured if we are his child. The final exemption is due to cowardice and fear. The point here is that this attitude is unhealthy for a fighting unit, and rather than have it spread to others, lowering the moral and effectiveness of the force, that individual should stay home. Additionally, since it was established at first that God enters battle with his people, fear and cowardice are not just a reflection of fear of war, but, it could be argued, a lack of faith in God.

The remaining part of the passage describes a high level look of what battle should look like. Some interesting points are as follows:

  • Peace is preferable to war. God, it would seem, is not a blood-lusting fiend, but prefers peace over war. It is not the same as harmony, or some sort of blending of the two people groups, as the surrendered enemies become laborers, but we should not expect the pollution of God’s people, even when peace is the course of action.
  • When war does come, all male enemies are to die. Presumably this was to thwart any future uprising, as well as “make examples” of these enemies for others, possibly to avoid future conflict.
  • The exception to allowing women and children to survive comes with the nations currently populating Canaan. The nature of the land, it being an “inheritance” for Israel, required the complete extermination of the peoples, the enemies, remaining in Canaan. God continues on to outline exactly why it was so crucial in Deut. 20:18: “so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable acts they do for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God.”
  • There is a seemingly weird provision to not harm certain trees, those that provide food. This does not suggest some sort of radical environmentalist God (God is most certainly an environmentalist, but his agenda here is not environmental protection), but instead it seems clear that this provision is to guarantee a fruitful and usable land that can be used to sustain the Israelites following war and conquest.

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for reassuring us that, even in hard, scary, and risky, times and situations, you are with us. War is not something we should relish in, but we should relish in your provision, and more importantly, your proximity to us. I ask for forgiveness for my lack of, and pray for, bravery and confidence, not in ourselves, but in you, when in the face of adversity. Amen.

Deuteronomy 19:15-21

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 19:15 (CSB)

15 “One witness cannot establish any iniquity or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Reflection/Application:

In a sort of closing passage to the previous two, Moses here outlines the rules concerning witnesses. Yet again we see how God has provided both a protection for the innocent, and a method in which to deal with those who might deceive and maliciously attempt to perverse justice for their own gain.

The opening line establishes the notion that a “fact” is established by the testimony of two or more witnesses. Obviously this is designed to protect the innocent against a false witness, to avoid false persecution. Further, the severity of the crime is not taken into account, this principle applies for all charges, “whatever that person has done.”

If there are not two or more witnesses, it would seem that a single witness could still accuse and testify against the one accused of committing a crime. The situation then becomes an investigation “in the presence of the Lord,” which appears to mean before the appointed judges and/or priests. The wrinkle here is that if the accused is found to be innocent, and the charge the accuser brought is false, then the same penalty sought by the accuser is applied to him. How different would our judicial system look if this was in place now? The phrase “frivolous lawsuit” would likely disappear from use! But this seems an appropriate punishment, since any charge is not just about a crime against men, but sin against God. Not only that, but we should be cognizant that the priests and judges were either appointed by God, or by his appointees, so there was a close tie to God. It was very dissimilar to our judicial system today, where the only involvement of God in a case is the symbolic swearing to tell the truth, never mind the notion that a judge would be operating in a capacity totally dedicated to honoring and following God.

Finally, there is an almost harsh sounding ending to the pericope. The notion of “an eye for an eye” is one that is pointed to as being a sign of a harsh and vengeful God. Although it is not stated here, there are other places that suggest certain punishments (i.e. non-capital) can be satisfied through fines. But, even if we take this literally, and the punishment is to be lex talionis, we must account for the context as well. The purpose of the “harsh” punishment is to dissuade those who might be tempted to falsely accuse another from doing so, and thus further bringing sin upon the Israelites. This is a law to keep the Israelites righteous, close to God, and free from sin. So when one corrupt accuser is exacted the just penalty for his sin (and it is just, for his sin is against God), it serves to protect the rest of the nation since “everyone else will hear and be afraid, and they will never again do anything evil like this.”

One final thought I had on this passage: anytime I see the number 3 mentioned, my mind immediately goes to the trinity: the three-in-one Godhead. Now I am not saying this is a meaning of the text, but taking the second half of Deut. 19:15 by itself, “A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses,” it’s a neat though to think about that all fact is rooted solely in God, who all by himself has two built-in witnesses since he is three-in-one. Just an interesting thought about where we ground what we “know”.

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for protecting us! Man is sinful and, all too often, eager to falsely accuse each other for our own gain. But in your mercy you continually provide ways to try and help us not only temper the effects of sin, but escape them. I pray for a resurgence of seeking you, and I pray it starts with me. Amen.

Deuteronomy 19:14

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 19:14 (CSB)

14 “Do not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, established at the start in the inheritance you will receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

Reflection/Application:

This single line pericope seems to be a bit disjointed wedged in between the sanctuary cities and the witness rules to come next. But maybe it is just right, exactly where it is… wouldn’t that be like God to put a verse exactly where it is supposed to be?!?

The topic here is not really the moving of a boundary marker… I mean it is… but it’s not. It’s about taking another’s land. And that is such a big deal because the land in question (it seems apparent that this is concerning land between Israelites) will have been originally given by God, hence the reference to “the inheritance”. So by moving a boundary marker, and thus essentially trying to take a neighbor’s land, one has actually trumped God’s decision and his gift, no, assignment to another. It’s a crime against man, but also a crime against God.

Land was money during this time period, as it continues to be to a great extent even today. But during this time period everything was tied to land: an agricultural society, livestock, even water via wells. Land was wealth and survival. Having such great importance, perhaps that is why this verse is placed between such a grave topic as sanctuary cities for those that are killed accidentally vs with malice, and the rules for witnesses. Is it that far of a stretch to think that dealings with such a valuable commodity could bleed over into either of these bookend subjects?

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for your provision. Thank you for the blessings and gifts you give us. I pray that our hearts would not be greedy, and rather than try to take what you have provided for others, we would rejoice in your blessings on them. Amen.

Deuteronomy 19:1-13

Key Verse(s):

Deuteronomy 19:3 (CSB)

3 You are to determine the distances and divide the land the Lord your God is granting you as an inheritance into three regions, so that anyone who commits manslaughter can flee to these cities.

Reflection/Application:

This passage establishes the idea of “cities of refuge” in the promised land. It is interesting how God foresees the need for these “sanctuary cities” in the land he is giving to the Israelites, and there is plenty to note about this:

  1. Just because we are where God leads us, it doesn’t mean everything will be roses. People are going to die. We are cognizant of sin, and that one effect of sin is that people kill other people. But what we don’t always think about is that the effects of sin have leaked over into non-intended consequences. Just look at the hypothetical scenario Moses outlines in Deut. 19:5: this is not a premeditated (“previously hating”) thing, it is an accident. But even when the Israelites are in Canaan, following God’s commands, bad things are going to happen.
  2. God has a plan! Even though sin has crept into every nook and cranny, God has a plan to deal with it. Note that it is not prevention of every bad thing! That day will come, but it is not now. But God is all about protecting the innocent, and designed a system to do just that.
  3. Everything is not black and white. The hypothetical that Moses gives is pretty clear, but this command does not apply only to the situation of an ax head flying off a handle mid-chop. Obviously it establishes a principle, which is then to be applied to other circumstances. Just like the rest of God’s law, it is all about intent. And, thankfully, God provides guidance even for that through his Spirit!
  4. It’s about retribution, not revenge. Notice two things: 1) God creates a situation where the avenger will not be able to overtake the killer (Deut. 19:6-7), 2) The “elders of his city” are the ones to call for the return of a murderer (Deut. 19:12). Revenge, for this purpose, can be thought of as a personal vengeance, getting someone back for an act, while retribution is a legal punishment for an act. Revenge is an act of anger, retribution is an act of justice. God, being just, devised a system that facilitated justice, and protected us from taking sinful revenge.

Prayer:

Lord, thank you for your foresight and justice. We should not be fooled into thinking that being your child means nothing bad or terrible will ever happen to us, but it does mean we should trust in your ways and plans to handle those scenarios, as difficult as it might be. I am sorry for the times when my anger takes over, and seek only revenge. I pray for grace and mercy, a just heart, and sensitivity to your leading. Amen.