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Daniel Block: Deuteronomy 21 consists of five short pieces: verses 1–9, 10–14, 15–17, 18–21, and 22–23. These sections are held together by variations of the land grant formula that frame the chapter (vv. 1, 23); each one opens with a conditional clause (“If, when”), followed by a prescribed response; there is a common concern to separate life and death; and there is an overall chiastic arrangement, with instructions on the rights of the firstborn (vv. 15–17) being the center of gravity. . .

The rest of chapter 21 consists of four fragments devoted to the maintenance of righteousness in marriage and family relationships:

(1) the righteous treatment of war brides (vv. 10–14);

(2) the righteous treatment of a second-rank wife and her son (vv. 15–17);

(3) the righteous treatment of a rebellious son (vv. 18–21);

(4) the righteous treatment of a criminal’s remains (vv. 22–23).


A. (:10-11) The Situation Involving the Desire to Marry a War Captive

1. (:10) The Victory in Battle Resulting in Captives

“When you go out to battle against your enemies,

and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands,

and you take them away captive,”

2. (:11) The Vision of a Potential Beautiful Bride

“and see among the captives a beautiful woman,

and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself,”

Daniel Block: The primary case calls for charitable treatment of foreign brides when they are first taken; the secondary case, for their charitable treatment in divorce. The principal thrust of the passage is reflected in the concluding motive clause: “since you have dishonored her.”

Duane Christensen: The law here concerns the matter of a captive female from a distant city, according to the rule in 20:10–15, not to marriage with a Canaanite woman, which is forbidden.

B. (:12-13) The Sympathetic Transition from Foreign Captive to Fully Integrated Bride

1. (:12-13a) Period of Cultural Adjustment

“then you shall bring her home to your house,

and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.

13 “She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity

and shall remain in your house,

and mourn her father and mother a full month;”

Duane Christensen: The woman is to be taken into the man’s house for a “trial” month, during which time her physical beauty is minimalized by shaving her head, cutting her nails short, and having her “mourn her father and mother a full month” (vv 12–13a). If the man can live with a wailing and relatively unattractive woman for a month and still want her as his wife, perhaps the marriage will last.

Peter Pett: The shaving of her head and the paring of her nails possibly refers to the removal from her extremities (head and hand and foot) of all connections with the old life (compare Leviticus 14:14). The hair and the nails were also the parts of a woman that could grow long and enhance her beauty. Thus the cutting may have symbolised the end of her old pagan beauty and the growth of a new beauty now that she was an Israelite. Or the purpose may have been to make her ritually clean (compare Leviticus 14:8; Leviticus 14:14; Numbers 8:7). She would now be expected to become a member of the covenant. The changing of her clothes implied something similar. She was now an Israelite and to be brought within the covenant. She must put off the clothes which distinguished her background and dress like an Israelite woman from now on. The mourning period, which was a standard period of mourning in Israel (see Deuteronomy 34:8; Numbers 20:29), was out of consideration for her feelings. She would have had little chance to mourn while captive, but once the month was over she would be expected to forget her old life. On marriage she would now be a free Israelite woman.

Daniel Block: Moses realistically recognizes that the system is subject to abuse, as triumphant males exploit and take advantage of female captives. Having none of this, Moses instructs the Israelites how to respect the rights and dignity of wives whom they have captured.

(1) The captive bride must be allowed to express her pain at being torn from her people and forced to join an alien community. While having her shave her hair, trim her nails, and remove her native clothing appear to be insulting demands, these actions symbolize her change of status. When her hair and nails grow and she puts on new clothes, she emerges as a new person, with a new identity and new status; she hereby declares nonverbally what Ruth declared verbally to Naomi (Ruth 1:16). The actions also remind her new husband that he is not to treat her as an alien or a slave.

(2) The woman must be permitted to mourn for her father and mother for a month. Whether or not her parents died in the conquest of the town, for this woman they have in effect died, for she has no hope of seeing them again. Moses hereby calls on Israelites to allow others the opportunity to show the same respect for their parents as they are commanded to do (5:16). He also links the consummation of the marriage to the end of the period of mourning; only after she has completed her month of mourning may he have sexual intercourse with her, marry her, and have her formally recognized as his wife. This month-long quarantine expresses respect for the woman’s ties to her family of origin and her own psychological and emotional health, providing a cushion from the shock of being torn from her own family.

Gerald Gerbrandt: The rituals in the passage ( shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb) probably are not mourning rituals but rather ones that mark the transition from war captive to full member of the household. They allow the woman time to adjust to the new reality. . .

Most remarkable, at least for Deuteronomy, is that the passage allows an Israelite man to marry a woman who clearly is foreign since she has been captured in war, an allowance in direct tension with the absolute rejection of all intermarriage with former inhabitants of the land (cf. 7:3). But perhaps this very tension points in a helpful direction. The point of this passage is not that capturing women in war is acceptable: such practice is simply part of their world. Rather, its point is that when this happens, and when an Israelite man finds such a woman attractive, he is allowed to make her a full wife rather than treat her as a slave; and once he has done this, he is to treat her with dignity and respect. Neither war nor the patriarchal culture are directly challenged, but both are weakened and undermined at least slightly.

Eugene Merrill: The idea behind all these procedures seems to be that of cutting off all ties to the former life in order to enter fully and unreservedly into the new one. This presupposes a degree of willingness on the part of the maiden to forsake the past and to embrace a new and different way of life, for one can hardly conceive of all this taking place coercively.

2. (:13b) Passion of Marriage Consummation

“and after that you may go in to her and be her husband

and she shall be your wife.”

Peter Craigie: In time of war, there would be a shortage of men through death in battle, and polygamy was one way of dealing with what could become an acute social problem. Note, too, that polygamy was apparently a very ancient practice in the Near East (Gen. 4:19).

David Thompson: She was not to be raped. She was to be cared for and treated with respect of being a wife. Sexuality is an important part of marriage and after this initial month, she was to be intimate with her husband.

C. (:14) The Severing of the Marriage without Exploitation or Abuse

1. Free Release

“And it shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money,

you shall not mistreat her,”

Daniel Block: the Israelite man may not humiliate (NIV “dishonor”) her again by heartlessly treating her as property to be disposed of or exchanged for silver. . .

While this passage seems to assume that divorce was not uncommon in ancient Israel, by no means does it endorse this tragedy in a marriage. Whether or not divorce is morally justifiable, like 24:1–4 this text shows it was tolerated in Israel as a legal reality. With Exodus 21:10–11 our text suggests that releasing a slave wife or captive woman whom an Israelite warrior has married is preferable to the man refusing to fulfill his marital duties.

Duane Christensen: A primary concern in the laws of Deut 21–25 is for protecting the poor and vulnerable in society from exploitation on the part of the powerful.

Peter Pett: The question here is as to what is intended. On the face of it, it is the alternative to marriage. He has had a month to think it over and he is now not convinced that he wants to go ahead with marriage. His attachment has worn off and he no longer has any delight in her, which may also be explained by her reaction to the situation which has made him recognise that it bodes ill for the future. But all have been living in expectation of the marriage. She is being shamed. By sending her away he is humbling her. Thus as compensation he must not sell her, or deal with her as a slave. She must be sent away as a free woman, the position she would have held if he had married her.

Others, however, see the situation as signifying a marriage, made in haste, which has turned out to be a disaster. He had discovered that a beautiful woman did not necessarily make a good wife, especially if she had foreign tastes, and foreign habits. Furthermore she had been given little choice in the matter, and might well have been feeling angry and bitter, or have been traumatised. She might well have been behaving like a shrew. The man might have discovered that he found little delight in his marriage. This may even signify that she had refused him his conjugal rights.

It is clear that both wished the arrangement to end and in these circumstances he could ‘let her go’ presumably by divorcing her (see Deuteronomy 24:1). She must then be allowed to go where she wished for the marriage had made her a free woman, which might well be back to her own country (compare for all this Exodus 21:8-11). He must not try to sell her as a slave, or treat her as such, because he had ‘humbled her’. This may simply refer to having put her in her difficult position, or of having ‘forced’ her to marry him, or because he has had intercourse with her on equal terms, or to the fact that divorce was necessarily usually looked on as a humbling experience for the woman. Whichever way it was he must not try to take any further advantage of her.

2. Fitting Respect

“because you have humbled her.”

MacArthur: This phrase clearly refers to sexual activity, in which the wife has fully submitted herself to her husband (cf. 22:23, 24, 28, 29).

Michael Grisanti: The verb ʿnh occurs in several OT passages to refer to rape (Ge 34:2; 2Sa 13:12, 14, 22, 32; Jdg 19:24). Whether or not the Israelite man decides to send the foreign woman away before or after their marriage is consummated, he must not treat her as a slave but as a free citizen. . .

Regardless of whether or not the passage envisions an “official” divorce (šlḥ, “to send away,” can have that connotation; Dt 22:19, 29; 24:1–3; Jer 3:1; Mal 2:16), it does not give divine approval for divorce. Numerous OT and NT passages present divorce in a negative light or prohibit it altogether (Lev 21:7, 14; Dt 22:19, 29; Mal 2:16; Mt 5:31–32; 19:3–9; 1Co 7:10–16). In this legislation, as with Deuteronomy 24:1–4, God addresses a real-life situation without mandating or even recommending divorce.


This discussion perhaps triggered by offspring from a war bride.

A. (:15) The Situation Involving Relationship Complexity

“If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved,

and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons,

if the first-born son belongs to the unloved,”

Gerald Gerbrandt: The complexity of the first case is not hard to understand. A man has taken a second wife, perhaps a younger and more attractive one, and has come to prefer her over the first. Not surprisingly, he then wishes to make the son of the favored wife his principal or “first” heir. Although hypothetical, the regulation echoes the story of Jacob. He had two wives, Leah and Rachel, of whom the second was the more loved and attractive (cf. Gen 29:16–18; NRSV says Leah has “lovely eyes,” but RSV suggests that her “eyes were weak”). It was the sons of Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin, whom Jacob loved. In the end Reuben, the eldest, loses his special place, and the sons of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, are made equal to Joseph’s brothers, thus giving Joseph a double portion (as in Deut 21:17). Since Manasseh and Ephraim each receive tribal territory in the Promised Land, Israel has a visible reminder of such special treatment.

B. (:16-17) The Standard for Protecting the Rights of the Actual First-Born

1. (:16) Negative Prohibition – Don’t Show Favoritism

“then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons,

he cannot make the son of the loved the first-born

before the son of the unloved, who is the first-born.”

2. (:17) Positive Practice – Give the Double Portion to the First-Born

“But he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the unloved,

by giving him a double portion of all that he has,

for he is the beginning of his strength;

to him belongs the right of the first-born.”

Daniel Block: The double share of the inheritance compensates the bekôr for his responsibility to care for the parents in their old age, to provide proper burial upon their decease, and generally to lead the clan after the father is gone. Moses hereby seeks to protect the rights and dignity of the less-favored wife by prohibiting husbands from making children pay for strained relationships between or among parents.

Duane Christensen: Although polygamy was practiced in ancient Israel, without exception it is also depicted as an occasion for family trouble. The law of the right of the firstborn (Deut 21:15–17) was given to limit the extent of that trouble. The story of Adam and Eve presents monogamy as the divine ideal for marriage (Gen 2:20–24). In sharp contrast, the story of Jacob and his two wives illustrates the problem of polygamy: “So Jacob went into Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah” (Gen 29:30). Jacob’s preference here reflects the human condition, for rivalry between the wives in such a polygamous relationship is inevitable.

This rivalry extends to the children in a polygamous family as well, particularly in the matter of the disposition of property. The law on the right of the firstborn (21:15–17) prohibits disinheriting the eldest son without just cause. When a man settles his estate, a child must not fare the worse for his mother’s unhappiness in being the less favored wife. This principle regarding favoritism within the family applies in monogamous relationship today as well, in the sense that parents should give their children what is due them without showing partiality. Parents should show no more differentiation in dispensing affections among their children than God makes in dispensing his grace among his children.

Michael Grisanti: The Mosaic law made this requirement because the firstborn son was the “sign of his father’s strength.” His birth demonstrated his father’s ability to perpetuate the family name (Ge 49:3; Pss 78:51; 105:36). The key issue addressed by this passage is that a husband’s attitude toward his wife must not influence his legal responsibilities to her or her children (Merrill, Deuteronomy, 292). . .

Even though the practice of polygamy was tolerated during the time of the OT, it represented a violation of God’s instituted order (the biblical ideal). Also notice that despite this toleration in OT times Mosaic legislation sought to prevent worse evils and abuses from occurring, and the absence of stiff civil or religious penalties for polygamy does not imply its legitimacy. Even if polygamy was “allowed” in certain OT scenarios, this allowance does not imply that polygamy was desirable or recommended. The absence of any word of censure or condemnation does not necessarily indicate the condoning of a given practice. The teaching and practice of the NT resoundingly supports monogamous marriage.

Meredith Kline: The principle here enforced is that parental authority is not absolute. A father’s mere personal preference did not justify disregard of the divinely sanctioned customary rights of those who were under his parental authority.


This discussion perhaps triggered by the rival interactions between offspring of a favored wife vs. unfavored wife.

A. (:18) The Situation Involving an Insubordinate Son

1. Rebellious and Stubborn in a Life of Disobedience

“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son

who will not obey his father or his mother,”

2. Rejects All Attempts at Discipline

“and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them,”

B. (:19-20) The Surrender of the Son to the Judgment of the Elders

1. (:19) The Inquisition

“then his father and mother shall seize him,

and bring him out to the elders of his city

at the gateway of his home town.”

Warren Wiersbe: This was more than a family concern, for it involved the peace and reputation of the community. The solidarity of the people of Israel was an important element in their civil, social, and religious life, for the sin of a single person, family, city, or tribe could affect the whole nation (see Deut. 13; Josh. 7:1-15). This is also true of the church, for as members of one spiritual body (1 Cor. 12), we belong to each other and we affect each other (1 Cor. 5).

David Guzik: It is important to note that the parents could not, by themselves, execute this penalty. They had to bring the son on trial before impartial judges. This is in contrast to ancient Greek and Roman law, which gave fathers the absolute right of life or death over their children. This was a control of parental authority more than it was an exercise of it.

2. (:20) The Indictment

“And they shall say to the elders of his city,

‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious,

he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’”

Duane Christensen: The charge that the son “is a glutton and a drunkard” appears to be proverbial in nature, as a typical example of insubordination (cf. Prov 23:20–21; 28:7). . .

Drunkenness, whether induced by alcohol or other substance abuse, leads inevitably to disobeying God’s law—with all its necessary consequences. . .

At the heart of the legislation here lies the need for the stability of the family. Sound family life requires the authority of the parents, upheld by respect for the law. Like disrespect for parents, disrespect for the law breeds contempt for discipline in general, whether divine or human, and the ultimate breakdown of society itself. At the same time, we do well to remember that the restraint of laws can never be so effective in the inculcation of parental respect as conversion of the heart, and the lovingkindness that comes from the enabling Spirit of God within.

Gerald Gerbrandt: Each of these requirements has the effect of limiting or controlling the arbitrary use of power by the father. The story of Judah and Tamar takes for granted that Judah has the authority to have his daughter-in-law executed for having “played the whore” (Gen 38:24). In the world of ancient Israel, parents do not require special regulations allowing them to exercise severe discipline over their children. In a time when cursing mother and father was understood to deserve death (Lev 20:9; cf. Deut 27:16), and when the larger household was the primary context for judicial decisions, parents had all the power they needed. This regulation controls the potential abuse of that power: a strong case of repeated rebellion is required, both mother and father must agree, and the community determines the verdict.

The central thrust of the passage may be limiting the unilateral authority of the father, but the reference to the rebellious son hints at another level of meaning. Previously Deuteronomy has spoken of Israel as a child whom God has carried through the harsh wilderness (1:31, lit., son), as a child whom God disciplines (8:5, again lit., son), as a people who has repeatedly rebelled against their God (1:26, 43; 9:7, 23). Is Israel the son about whom this passage is speaking?

Peter Craigie: They stated his crime (he will not listen to our voice) and indicated that his character was not befitting a member of the covenant community of God: he is a glutton and a drunkard. The latter words do not specify the crime, but indicate, by way of example, the kind of life that has resulted from disobedience to parental authority. The crime, in other words, is disobedience, but the result of the crime is the dissolution of a proper style of life.

C. (:21) The Stoning of the Son to Purge the Evil and Deter Future Rebellion

1. Corporate Stoning of the Son to Death

“Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death;”

Eugene Merrill: The severity of the punishment appears to outweigh the crime, but we must recognize that parental sovereignty was at stake. Were insubordination of children toward their parents to have been tolerated, there would have been but a short step toward the insubordination of all of the Lord’s servant people to him, the King of kings. This, of course, would have resulted in the breakdown and eventual dissolution of Israel as a chosen vessel.

2. Concern to Purge the Community of Evil

“so you shall remove the evil from your midst,”

3. Communication of the Case Should Deter Future Rebellion

“and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.”

Daniel Block: Although the procedure appears straightforward, several details deserve comment.

(1) The appearance of both father and mother before the elders reflects the status of women in the home. Because contempt for one’s mother is as objectionable as rebellion against one’s father, her voice also needed to be heard.

(2) The prescribed procedure shows that ultimate authority over life and death rests with the community. Since the body of elders was made up of heads of households, when parents present the case of a rebellious son to them, they appeal to peers to offer their righteous verdict. The effect is to reinforce social structures designed to promote the health of the community. The procedure in the gate is not conceived as a trial in the modern sense. The parents appear before the elders alone; in the proceedings the delinquent son does not defend himself and in so doing present a picture different from that painted by his parents. This does not mean the process was unfairly one-sided. The entire community, including the elders, will have witnessed the son’s incorrigibility and the efforts of the parents to correct him. The procedure is driven by a commitment to righteousness within the community when parental efforts fail.

(3) With a formal declaration of his social pathology before the elders, mother and father express their frustrations with an insubordinate son, who has renounced the parental bond. To the vices cited in verse 18 they add that he is “a glutton [NIV ‘profligate’] and a drunkard,” who wastes the resources of the community (cf. Prov. 23:20–21). The crisis is not caused by naughty children, but by a young man who refuses to grow up and take his rightful place at home and in society. Domestic dysfunction has become a public issue; the son’s conduct undermines the social order and communal peace.

(4) Finally, Moses calls on the entire community to administer the punishment—in this case, stoning the incorrigible son to death. Unlike 17:7, which requires witnesses to a crime to initiate the execution, here the parents are not mentioned, presumably out of respect for their affection for their son. Having turned him over to the elders does not mean parental instincts have been stifled.


This discussion perhaps triggered by the execution of the incorrigible son.

A. (:22) The Situation Involving the Corpse of a Criminal Displayed on a Tree

1. Legitimate Capital Crime

“And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death,”

2. Legal Execution

“and he is put to death,”

3. Lifted Up for Humiliating Public Display on a Tree

“and you hang him on a tree,”

Daniel Block: Displaying the body of a criminal by hanging it in a public place served two purposes:

– to shame the individual even after his death,

– and to deter others from committing the crime.

Duane Christensen: The hanging of persons by the neck until dead was not practiced in ancient Israel, but it was common to display the corpse of an executed criminal upon a post or a tree as a spectacle for all to see, so as to strike terror in others. What is prescribed here is that no matter what time of day bodies were so displayed, they must be taken down at sunset and buried, lest the land itself be defiled. According to the law, touching a dead body was defiling; therefore dead bodies must not be left hanging, because, by this same rule, that would defile the land.

B. (:23a) The Statute = Bury on the Same Day

1. Stated Negatively

“his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree,”

2. Stated Positively

“but you shall surely bury him on the same day”

Gerald Gerbrandt: The reason for the curse is not the public exposure, or even the death itself, although both of these have defiling power, but the crime committed that led to the execution.

Michael Grisanti: To be hung on a tree is tantamount to being under God’s curse, and to leave the corpse hanging there overnight is to desecrate the land that Yahweh has bestowed on his chosen nation and to invite God’s curse to fall on the entire land.

C. (:23b) The Safeguard against Desecrating the Promised Land

“(for he who is hanged is accursed of God),

so that you do not defile your land

which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”

John Schultz: In these verses the criminal is cursed, and the curse is limited to the person while the land is protected. The hidden blessing of this law does not become apparent until the New Testament, where it is applied to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul quotes these verses when he says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Christ lifted the curse from the earth by putting it upon Himself. The redemption of the sinner will, ultimately, affect the whole of creation. Therefore, Paul can prophecy: “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” All this was, of course, hidden from view when Moses gave this decree for the burial of executed criminals.