Deuteronomy 21

Listen to Deuteronomy 21

Atonement for Unsolved Murders

1 "If in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him,
2 then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities.
3 And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer 1that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke.
4 And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley.
5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen 2them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and 3by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled.
6 And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man 4shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley,
7 and they shall testify, 'Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed.
8 Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and 5do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.'
9 So 6you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

Marrying Female Captives

10 "When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive,
11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife,
12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails.
13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and 7lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.
14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall 8let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you 9treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.

Inheritance Rights of the Firstborn

15 "If a man has two wives, 10the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved,[a]
16 then on the day when 11he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn,
17 but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is 12the firstfruits of his strength. 13The right of the firstborn is his.

A Rebellious Son

18 "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them,
19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives,
20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.'
21 14Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. 15So you shall purge the evil from your midst, 16and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

A Man Hanged on a Tree Is Cursed

22 "And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree,
23 17his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for 18a hanged man is cursed by God. 19You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Deuteronomy 21 Commentary

Chapter 21

The expiation of uncertain murder. (1-9) Respecting a captive taken to wife. (10-14) The first-born not to be disinherited for private affection. (15-17) A stubborn son to be stoned. (18-21) Malefactors not to be left hanging all night. (22,23)

Verses 1-9 If a murderer could not be found out, great solemnity is provided for putting away the guilt from the land, as an expression of dread and detesting of that sin. The providence of God has often wonderfully brought to light these hidden works of darkness, and the sin of the guilty has often strangely found them out. The dread of murder should be deeply impressed upon every heart, and all should join in detecting and punishing those who are guilty. The elders were to profess that they had not been any way aiding or abetting the sin. The priests were to pray to God for the country and nation, that God would be merciful. We must empty that measure by our prayers, which others are filling by their sins. All would be taught by this solemnity, to use the utmost care and diligence to prevent, discover, and punish murder. We may all learn from hence to take heed of partaking in other men's sins. And we have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, if we do not reprove them.

Verses 10-14 By this law a soldier was allowed to marry his captive, if he pleased. This might take place upon some occasions; but the law does not show any approval of it. It also intimates how binding the laws of justice and honour are in marriage; which is a sacred engagement.

Verses 15-17 This law restrains men from disinheriting their eldest sons without just cause. The principle in this case as to children, is still binding to parents; they must give children their right without partiality.

Verses 18-21 Observe how the criminal is here described. He is a stubborn and rebellious son. No child was to fare the worse for weakness of capacity, slowness, or dulness, but for wilfulness and obstinacy. Nothing draws men into all manner of wickedness, and hardens them in it more certainly and fatally, than drunkenness. When men take to drinking, they forget the law of honouring parents. His own father and mother must complain of him to the elders of the city. Children who forget their duty, must thank themselves, and not blame their parents, if they are regarded with less and less affection. He must be publicly stoned to death by the men of his city. Disobedience to a parent's authority must be very evil, when such a punishment was ordered; nor is it less provoking to God now, though it escapes punishment in this world. But when young people early become slaves to sensual appetites, the heart soon grows hard, and the conscience callous; and we can expect nothing but rebellion and destruction.

Verses 22-23 By the law of Moses, the touch of a dead body was defiling, therefore dead bodies must not be left hanging, as that would defile the land. There is one reason here which has reference to Christ; "He that is hanged is accursed of God;" that is, it is the highest degree of disgrace and reproach. Those who see a man thus hanging between heaven and earth, will conclude him abandoned of both, and unworthy of either. Moses, by the Spirit, uses this phrase of being accursed of God, when he means no more than being treated most disgracefully, that it might afterward be applied to the death of Christ, and might show that in it he underwent the curse of the law for us; which proves his love, and encourages to faith in him.

Cross References 19

  • 1. [Numbers 19:2]
  • 2. See Deuteronomy 10:8
  • 3. Deuteronomy 17:8, 9; Deuteronomy 19:17
  • 4. [Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13; Matthew 27:24]
  • 5. [Jonah 1:14]
  • 6. Deuteronomy 19:13
  • 7. [Psalms 45:10]
  • 8. [Jeremiah 34:16]
  • 9. Deuteronomy 24:7
  • 10. [Genesis 29:30, 33; 1 Samuel 1:4, 5]
  • 11. 1 Chronicles 5:1, 2; [1 Chronicles 26:10; 2 Chr. 11:19, 20, 22]
  • 12. Genesis 49:3
  • 13. Genesis 25:31, 33; Genesis 27:36
  • 14. Deuteronomy 13:10; See Joshua 7:25
  • 15. See Deuteronomy 13:5
  • 16. Deuteronomy 13:11; Deuteronomy 17:13; Deuteronomy 19:20
  • 17. [Joshua 8:29; Joshua 10:26, 27; John 19:31]
  • 18. Cited Galatians 3:13
  • 19. Numbers 35:34

Footnotes 1

  • [a]. Or hated; also verses 16, 17

Chapter Summary


This chapter treats of the beheading of the heifer, for the expiation of unknown murder, and the rules to be observed in it, De 21:1-9 of a beautiful captive woman an Israelite is desirous of having for his wife, and what methods he must take to accomplish it, De 21:10-14, of giving the double portion to the firstborn, which he must not be deprived of in favour of the son of a beloved wife, De 21:15-17 and of the stubborn and rebellious son, who remaining so must be put to death, De 21:18-21 and of burying a person hanged on a tree the same day he is executed, De 21:22,23.

Deuteronomy 21 Commentaries

The English Standard Version is published with the permission of Good News Publishers.