CSI Israel: Deuteronomy 21

In Summary:

Remember, Israel is forming into a nation out of whole cloth here. Prior to the Exodus, they were not a nation. Instead, they were a small family group. Family rules are, by nature, quite different from national rules. Within the four walls of your home, you can overlook offenses that cannot be overlooked in large scale—and you can punish those that appear minor but reveal major character issues.

This chapter, then, is part of addressing those types of concerns. We can assume that some of the situations eventually happened, but others may not have occurred. We see regulations for dealing with unsolved murders, captives from conquest, inheritance issues, and rebellious children. The hodgepodge that is Deuteronomy 21 reminds us, first of all, that God’s law roams into all forms of life.

While I find the rules about unsolved murders at the beginning of the chapter quite fascinating, it’s hard to make a direct application of this point. I would suggest the thrust here is this: all lives are important to God. Even if the perpetrator is unknown, society bears guilt for murder and that must be atoned for. Death matters, loss of life matters.

There is also something to be said about the rebellious children segment. It is clear from the infractions mentioned that the “children” in view are not minors. After all, gluttony and drunkenness are adult behaviors—a child cannot participate in those without serious enabling on the part of parents, and the requirement he be taken to the city council of elders would shield against parents shuffling off their responsibilities like that. We need to see from this that parents should raise their children to serve God, which in turn serves the community.

In Focus:

In the middle, though, there are two segments dealing with the treatment of women. They are significant for a couple of reasons. First, we see how a captive woman taken as a wife was to be treated. Second, we see how the offspring of polygamy were to be treated. The latter is easier to address than the former. Polygamy is addressed here as a possible reality but not an approved idea. Further, the assumption is that one wife will be more loved than another, and that the human tendency will be to take it out on the children. (See: Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah.) God clearly declares this to be unacceptable behavior.

This dovetails into the section on the treatment of women taken as wives from battle captives. It is likely that taking wives from captives resulted in polygamous situations and the resultant problem addressed in 15-17.

More than that, though, is the troubling idea of women being forced into marriage. One can accept that marriage was better than slavery, which itself is better than slaughter, but that hardly salves the conscience. This does not sound right. Likely the best response is to see God’s law here as restraining the Israelites from typical behavior of the time.

The Law (not always the practices) of Israel links sexual activity with marriage. Therefore Israel is here forbidden from taking part in the typical “conquer, pillage, and rape,” of a victorious army. If a man sees a woman in the captives he wants, he has to: provide her a home, new clothes (don’t take ‘remove her captive clothes’ as ‘sit around unclothed’ but as ‘replace her clothing’) and a month for you to think about it. That restrains the impulses—and then, if you’re not happy, she goes free as any other Israelite woman would, not as a slave in your home.

And, with that in view, if she has children and your first wife (most of the warriors would have been old enough to be married, at the least) has children, the children must be treated equally.

In Practice:

Obviously, we can’t quite apply this literally. Please do not read this passage and think that God approves of taking women captive in war and making them be your wife. That may have been acceptable, based on the above, in the old covenant. It is not Christian behavior. In fact, we have made not a few mistakes trying to apply Old Testament warfare concepts to Christian living. I digress.

Practically speaking: overall, this chapter speaks to the humanization of people. It’s easy to forget that the stranger who is murdered, the woman who is captured, the scorned wife and her children, are real people with real needs. It’s easy to judge the importance of a life compared to its value to us.

That’s exactly the opposite of how we should practice. Each life matters. Even those with no direct value to you. All people count.

Treat them as such.

In Nerdiness: 

I like the CSI image of Deuteronomy 21:1-7. You’ve got the forensic analysts trying to sort out just who has to deal with this murder.

And it leads me to wonder…does this develop into the concept of jurisdictional limits and ranges for law enforcement today? Going back into the English Common Law system that ours is adapted out of, did they structure investigative authority similarly to this passage, where the “nearest” municipality had to determine the murderer?


If Mel Starr is right in the Hugh de Singleton series, there is some connection. Would be worth nerding up about.

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