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with Catholic Commentary by George Leo Haydock

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Deuteronomy 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)

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The expiation of uncertain murder

1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:

2 Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:

3 And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;

4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley:

5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried:

6 And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley:

7 And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.

8 Be merciful, O LORD, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.

9 So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the LORD.

Respecting a captive taken to wife

10 When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive,

11 And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;

12 Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house, and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;

13 And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.

14 And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.

The first-born not to be disinherited for private affection

15 If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:

16 Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn:

17 But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.

A stubborn son to be stoned

18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

20 And they shall say unto 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 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

Malefactors not to be left hanging all night

22 And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:

23 His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

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G Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary

Ver. 1. Land. The Jewish doctors hence infer, that if the corpse was found hanging or drowned &c. or nearer a town of the Gentiles than one of the Israelites, this law did not oblige. They are so exact as to dispute whether the distance must be measured from the nose or from the naval of the deceased. Seld. Syned. iii. 7. But the law shews us, that the author of the murder must be discovered, if possible, as the crime is so grievous as, in a manner, to defile the land, and draw down the vengeance of God, if it be carelessly left unpunished. C.

Ver. 2. Ancients and judges. After the strictest inquiry, if the murderer could not be discovered, the magistrates and senate of the neighbouring cities measured which city the corpse was nearest. Josep. iv. 8. The Rabbins pretend that five of the Sanhedrim were commissioned to make this enquiry, along with the magistrates of the neighbourhood. Others think that the ancients were only the old men. The measuring took place only when the point was contested, and those cities are probably meant, which were of sufficient importance to have twenty-three judges fixed in them. C. — It was presumed that the nearest had been guilty of greater negligence. H.

Ver. 3. Heifer, not above three years old, say the Rabbins. The pagans esteemed those victims more agreeable to the gods, which had not been yoked. Chermon observes, that the Egyptians rejected such as had been once “consecrated to labour.” Grotius. — This circumstance might here indicate, that the murderer was a son of Belial, or “without yoke;” (C. xiii. 13. M.) and the heifer was slain to shew what he deserved, and must expect if he be discovered. H.

Ver. 4. Valley. In such places murders are most frequently perpetrated. Heb. may signify, “a desert,” deep or inaccessible torrent, (H.) on the side of which the heifer was to be slain, and its body was then, it seems, thrown into the water. The ancients first washed their hands over her. Thus the victim of malediction against those who break a covenant, is buried in a ditch, or cast into the sea. Hom. Iliad i. — Was. Some translate the Heb. “shall be,” as if the place was to be hereafter considered as unclean and accursed. C. — The roughness and depth of the valley, denote the hardness of the murderer’s heart, and the depth of his malice. M. — Strike off, or cœdent, “cut the neck,” (H.) at the top, without perhaps separating it entirely from the body. Blood was given for blood, and this was the chief design of the bloody sacrifices. For this reason, the Egyptians impressed a seal upon the horns of the victim, representing a man kneeling, with his hands tied behind his back, as if ready to receive the stroke of death. Plut. Isis.

Ver. 5. Judged. We see here again the great authority of the priests. C. xvii. 9. Heb. “by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried,” as the Prot. render it. H. — Some understand by stroke, the leprosy, of which they were undoubtedly the judges. But it is better to explain it of all wounds, and even of death, (C.) concerning which Moses is here speaking. H. — The Rabbins restrain the authority of priests as much as they can, to give greater power to their chimerical Sanhedrim. They pretend here that they had only to pronounce the blessing, v. 8. Josephus (iv. 8) joins the magistrates with them in the whole ceremony. This awful meeting of so many people, tended to discover the authors of the murder, as all would naturally converse together on the subject, and each person declaring what he knew, some suspicions might at last be formed, which might by degrees lead to the detection. Josephus says rewards were proposed to any who might make a discovery. Draco decreed, that on the very day when a murder was announced, if the author was not known, the whole people (of Athens) should be purified. C. — Abulensis insinuates, that if the murderer was present in the crowd, he might be detected by blood gushing from to corpse of the deceased, &c. as God often brings murder to light in a wonderful manner. Cic. Div. 1. T.

Ver. 6. Wash. This was intended to testify that they were not guilty of the blood which had been shed, and that they wished to remove the punishment of it from themselves upon the head of the heifer, (C.) the representative of the unknown murderer. So Pilate conformed to this custom, when he condemned Christ on the bare accusation of the Jews; (Mat. xxvii. 24,) and the priest, at mass, washes his hands, as an emblem of that innocence, with which he ought to approach the holy of holies. H. — Asterius was stricken with lightning, for touching the altar of Jupiter without having washed his hands. Natal. Myth. i. 10. 14. The pagans generally purified themselves with fumigations, or by sprinkling sea water upon their bodies. Achilles ordered the things which had been used to purify the Greeks, at the siege of Troy, to be thrown into the sea, as being unclean. Iliad i.

Ver. 7. It. Magistrates are in some degree responsible, if by their neglect the high roads are unsafe. C. — They had testified that they had done their duty. W.

Ver. 9. And, &c. Heb. “Thou shalt put away,” (H.) or “extinguish the voice of innocent blood,” which otherwise would cry to heaven for vengeance. Gen. iv. 10. In this sacrifice, (C.) though it deserves not the name, (M.) we may consider Jesus Christ suffering for the sins of others. C.

Ver. 10. Captives. Some Rabbins say this was only lawful in what they call voluntary wars, which the Lord had not commanded, as in those which were waged against the devoted nations it was not permitted to reserve the women, even though they should embrace the true religion. Calmet seems to be of the same opinion in the proceeding chapter, to which he even refers. But here he thinks that, upon their complying with the condition specified, they might be married, as Rahab was, and consequently this law must be considered as an exception to those general laws, which prohibit matrimony with those nations of Chanaan, which were otherwise ordered to be entirely destroyed. C. vi. 16. “We believe,” says he, “that if these women changed their religion, they might be espoused, of whatever nation they may be.” He seems still to exclude the Chanaanite women, (C. xxiii. 3,) which variation of sentiment shews that the point is not to be easily decided. H.

Ver. 11. Lovest her. The Jewish doctors explain this of an action, which modesty disallows, and which they tolerate nevertheless in the first transports of victory; (Seld. Jur. v. 13,) though the pagans condemned it as unjust and contrary to reason. Grot. Jur. iii. 4. — All know with what reserve Alexander treated women; and the Romans banished one Torquatus, for having violated a prisoner of war. Plut. — Yet the Jews blush not to assert, that such liberties might be taken even with married women, as their former marriage with a pagan was by some deemed null, and by others thought to be dissolved. Josep. iv. 8. C. — The law, however, seems only to allow the marrying of those who had no husbands before, as the women are only said to mourn for father and mother, v. 13. H. — On these occasions the Chinese, and probably the Egyptians also, and the Roman matrons, formerly clothed themselves in white, while almost all other nations assumed black. T.

Ver. 12. Hair. In mourning, people did the reverse to what they were accustomed to do in the days of joy. The men let their hair grow, the women cut this ornament of their head, a thing which the prophets often threaten. Is. xv. 23. Jer. xlvii. 5. &c. C. — Nails. Some would translate the Hebrew “she shall make her nails grow,” as a mark of sorrow, perhaps usual among the pagans faciet ungues. But the Sept. Philo, &c. agree with the Vulg.; (M.) and the Heb. may very well have the same sense. We must not judge of the idea which others have of beauty, by our own sentiments. Some women in America have long nails, and esteem them as marks of beauty and nobility; and in China, they let those of the left hand grow, and cut them in mourning. Hist. Sin. iii. 1. The people of Mauritania take a pride in having long nails. Strabo xvi. The Duke of Burgundy, not 300 years ago, was distinguished among the slain, before Nancy, in France, (H.) by the length of his nails; (C.) and, in ancient times, people never cut them in voyages at sea, unless to express their grief in extreme danger. Huic fluctus vivo radicitus abstulit ungues. Propert. iii. Petron. Why, therefore, might not these captives follow the same custom, as all depends on fashion? C. — The woman being deprived of her ornaments, the passion of the soldier might probably abate. S. Jerom (ep. 84,) applies this to worldly learning, which he endeavoured to make subservient to the truth, after he had cut away what was dead and pernicious in it. D.

Ver. 13. Raiment. In mourning, people wore different clothes from what they did at other times. 2 K. xiv. 2. — One month. So long the mourning for Aaron and Moses continued. C. ult. Num. xx. M.

Ver. 14. Her. Nothing shews the weakness of the Hebrews more than this liberty, which the law was in a manner forced to allow, to prevent greater evils. The soldier who has married a captive, may abandon her, if he set her free, (C.) which was but a slight punishment for his inconstancy.

Ver. 15. Two wives. Moses never expressly (H.) sanctions polygamy; but he tolerates it frequently, as excused by custom, the example of the Patriarchs, &c. a toleration which Christ has revoked, as contrary to the primary design of God, and the institution of matrimony. C. Mat. xix.

Ver. 16. Hated, or less loved. H. — The inheritance goes to the first-born independently of the father’s disposition, in order to prevent the disturbances which would otherwise have taken place in families, where the different wives would have been continually endeavouring to get their respective children preferred before the rest. David, indeed, assigned the throne to Solomon, to the exclusion of Adonias; but this was done by the command of God. 3 K. i. 17. The regulation of Jacob, in favour of Joseph, was made prior to this law. The Jewish doctors inform us that a father cannot disinherit any of his lawful heirs, except the judges ratify his sentence, while he is in health. But if he be dangerously ill, his verbal declaration will suffice, provided he appoint some one whom the law does not reject. For if he were to make a Gentile his heir, the will would be null. The testament must be made in the day time, for which they cite Eccli. xxxiii. 24. They say likewise that a father may, while living, give his effects to whom he pleases, and by this means disinherit his children; or he may give the succession to one of them, who is then considered as a tutor of the rest, and is bound to maintain them with necessaries till the year of jubilee, when each may claim his respective share. Seld. Succes. c. xxiv. But all these regulations seem to contradict the law. C.

Ver. 17. Double portion. If a person left six children, his effects were divided into seven equal parts, and the eldest son received two of them, though others think that he was entitled to one-half of the whole, (C.) in order to enable him to support the dignity of the family, (H.) and the greater expenses which he had to incur for sacrifices and solemn feasts. Grot. — If he were dead, his children or heirs were entitled to his portion. This was the prerogative of the first-born, 1 Par. v. 2. Selden. — The right to the priesthood, if they might have claimed it before the law, was now given to the family of Aaron. Females had no privilege above one another. They received equal shares, when there was no male issue, Num. xxxvi. H. — First. Heb. “the beginning of his strength.” See Gen. xlix. 3.

Ver. 18. Son. The Rabbins do not look upon children as bound by the law, till they be 13 years old. Their faults, before that age, are imputed to the father, and he is to be punished for them. When, therefore, a son has attained the competent years, the father makes attestation of it in the presence of ten Jews, declaring that he has instructed his son in the commandments, customs of the nation, and daily prayers; and that he now sets him at liberty to answer, in future, for his own faults, praying that God would enable him to lead a virtuous life. C.

Ver. 19. Ancients. In considerable cities there was a tribunal of three, and another of 23 judges. The former took cognizance of the first accusation, and condemned the stubborn child to be scourged: but the latter sentenced him to be stoned in case of a relapse, provided both parents concurred in prosecuting their son, as they would not both surely be guided by passion. Theod. q. 20. The Rabbins, according to their custom, modify this law, and exempt girls, orphans, and boys under 13 years of age. Seld. Syned. — Josephus (xvi. 17,) says that the parents laid their hands on the head of the undutiful, and then all the people stoned him. Moses has not specified the punishment of parricides, (C.) as he deemed it next to impossible. H. — But we may hence judge how he would have chastised so heinous a crime. The Romans formerly sewed such wretches in a leathern sack, (Cic. Invent. ii.) but afterwards they enclosed with them a dog, a cock, a viper, and a monkey; and having first whipped them so as to fetch blood, placed them in a chariot drawn by black oxen, and hurled them into the sea or into some river. Justinian. — Solomon sentences those who contemn their parents to be the food of crows and eagles. Prov. xxx. 17. No restraints were laid by the ancient Greeks on the authority of a father, as he was esteemed the most equitable judge. Sopater, ap. Grot. C.

Ver. 22. Gibbet. Whether the person was first killed, as the Jews assert, or he was left to die upon the gibbet, see Calmet’s Diss. It is also a matter of doubt, whether he was nailed to the gibbet, or hung on it by a rope. Bonfrere.

Ver. 23. Of God. Chal. “he has been fixed on the gibbet for sinning against God.” Sym. and Arab. “he has blasphemed the Lord.” Syriac, “the man who has blasphemed shall be hung.” Only people accused of great crimes such as blasphemy and idolatry, were condemned to this reproachful death, and prayers were not said for them in the synagogue, as they were for other persons, during the 11 months following their decease. C. — They are not to be remembered before God. Their dead bodies are to be buried before sun-set, that the country may not be defiled. The punishment itself is extremely infamous, and the name of God is often used by the Jews, to express something in the highest degree, as the cedars of God, &c. H. — Some understand this passage, as if the body were not to be left on the gibbet, because man, being created to the likeness of God, he will not allow the body to be insulted. Homer (Il. xxiv.) says that Achilles offered an insult to the earth, when he dragged the dead body of Hector round the walls of Troy. Others think, that the criminal having been treated with due severity, as accursed of God, his corpse must not be deprived of decent burial. Res sacra miser. The Jews refused this privilege to none but suicides, (Josep. Bel. iii. 25,) while the Egyptians and Phœnicians suffered the bodies to rot upon the gibbet, whose inhumanity God here reproves. S. Paul reads this verse in a different manner both from the Heb. and Sept. leaving out of God, and substituting, with the Sept. the words every one, and on a tree. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. Gal. iii. 13. S. Jerom remarks, that on this, as well as on other occasions, he adheres to the sense, without following the express words of Scripture. He also observes, with Tertullian, that only those are declared accursed by the law, who are hung for their crimes; and as Jesus Christ suffered not for any fault of his own, but being willing to appear in the character of one accursed, he has procured for us all blessings. C. — In a mystical sense, that man is accursed who is obstinate in sin, hanging as it were on the tree, which was the occasion of our first parents’ transgression. W. — S. Jerom seems to think that the Jews have inserted of God, to intimate that Christ was accursed of him. H.