Deuteronomy 21

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Read Deuteronomy 21

Atonement for an Unsolved Murder

21 If someone is found slain, lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who the killer was, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. The Levitical priests shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Lord, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for,and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

Marrying a Captive Woman

10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month,then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

The Right of the Firstborn

15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.

A Rebellious Son

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.”21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

Various Laws

22 If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

Go Deeper

There is a lot here in this chapter that is hard to read and confusing, but let’s dive into it a little deeper and consider what it shows us about God’s character. When it comes to the laws discussed here in Deuteronomy 21, it’s important for us to remember that God is not condoning these actions; instead, He is meeting His people in their sin and pointing them to a better way. Here on this side of Eden, our world is fallen and broken. God knows this. How kind that rather than leaving us to our own direction, He gives us an honorable way to handle and respond to these situations. It’s not a justification but a redirection.

Verses 10-14 address the custom of taking females captive as the plunder of war. God’s directive restored some dignity to the captives, allowing them time to grieve their lost family members. This month-long grieving period allowed the master of the household time to cool off and think more clearly before deciding whether or not to marry the woman. God was not condoning this practice but showing His people that these female captives were not mere possessions to be sold.

Verses 18-21 go to extremes to punish rebellious sons. Parents are to bring their son to the city elders and explain that he is a drunk and a glutton who refuses to listen to them or obey. The men of the city are to stone him to death as a punishment and warning to the community. In a world that debates whether or not capital punishment in response to murder is justified, stoning a rebellious son seems incomprehensible. Let’s look at Matthew Henry’s commentary on rebellion: “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.” points out these extreme measures were reserved for ongoing, deep-seated rebellion against parents and God: “The law requiring rebellious children to be stoned to death was meant for extreme cases to protect God’s people. It would have been heartbreaking for parents to bear the responsibility of initiating such severe measures. However, the Bible never records this law being enforced.” 

In contrast to the unrepentant son of Deuteronomy 21, Jesus offers the rebellious son another path in the New Testament, a chance to choose life rather than death. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son relates the story of a son who wants to return to his father’s household after a period of off-the-rails rebellion. Instead of stoning him, his father welcomes him with open arms, just as our heavenly Father welcomes us when we repent and return to His household. Verses 22 and 23 are translated in ESV, “a man hanged on a tree is cursed.” In that time period, it was common to crucify a man in a prominent place to amplify the humiliation of the  punishment and deter others from committing a crime. Often our worst thoughts and actions are ones that we want to hide the most from people, so imagine the embarrassment of your transgressions not only being known by everyone but on display for all to see. Upon a closer look, we see, hidden in verse 23, mercy: “his body should not remain all night.” Even the punishment here is not in excess. Adam Clarke says about this verse, “It is worthy of remark that in the infliction of punishment prescribed by the Mosaic law, we find that mercy walks hand in hand with judgment.”

In Galatians 3:13-14, Paul references these two verses. “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 pole.’ 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 redeems us. We have been freed of the consequences of our faults and mistakes. We deserve to die and be cursed by God, but Jesus took our place. He traded places with us, taking the cross so that we could be welcomed into His family and forever guided by the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is believe.


  1. In Genesis 16 and 25:9, we see God’s treatment of Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Consider the implications Deuteronomy 21:17 has on that situation. What do God’s words reveal about His character?
  2. Read Luke 12:2-3. How does this remind us of the importance of confession?
  3. Where do you see God’s heart for protection in this chapter?

Pray This


You are a merciful and just God. You see the lost and oppressed. You hear the voices of all who cry out to You. You do not leave us where we are, but rather You have brought us out of the pit and into the light. You take the brokenness of this world and redeem it. You love us too much to leave us where we are. You made a way, sending your own Son to die in our place. We are sinful, broken people in need of Your grace and mercy; let us not forget this truth. May we be a people who fear You, overwhelmed with awe and delight for who you are. All praise be to You, the God who redeems us!

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3 thoughts on “Deuteronomy 21”

  1. Deuteronomy is a heavy read! Human nature is on full display as we read of death, war, captive women and rebellious children in this chapter alone. Stuck in continuous cycles of sin we are hopeless. How desperately we needed a Savior! The innocent blood of Christ was shed for the guilt of mankind. Atonement was made by his sacrifice that we might be redeemed. The Worthy ONE dies for the unworthy. “Oh, praise the One who paid my debt and raised this life up from the dead, JESUS.” (Stanfill) Jesus paid it all!

  2. This is a heavy read but it also reminds of God’s sacrifice for us, as we enter this season of lent leading into to Easter season. We can read and learn from what they experienced and be even more thankful than we are now for what Christ accomplished on that cross. As a mom of a wayward son, what a heavy burden that would be to even think about taking him to the elders! BUT GOD so loved us!!! Romans 5:8 BUT GOD shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Repentance, fasting from something for these days until we celebrate His resurrection, is a way to draw closer to Your Heavenly Creator. Relationship is what God desires above all.

    Thank You God for drawing me nearer to You. Show me what is overtaking me, that leads me from You. Guide me in the path of fasting from that would be best for me to be still and know You are God. Thank You for Jesus making the way for me to be in a relationship with You, that I can just breath and know that in that moment there is peace. Lead me, guide me, show me, give me love goggles to see, give me Your words to speak, help me with kindness, goodness, joy, self control, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, peace, and love for Your body in this world in Jesus name amen

  3. Thoughts on Deuteronomy 21

    Some time ago we had some significant work done on the trees in our front yard. Removing so many untidy limbs and heavy branches to let in the sunlight was dazzling…at first. I should have thought to take “before” pictures. Change is best highlighted in contrast.

    I find s deeper appreciation of the Bible in this same context. This chapter—and God’s commands in general—contrast life “before and after”—or, more importantly—“with or without God.”

    “You used to do it this way … thought to do it that way. I command you do it MY way.”

    And on some pretty weighty matters, too:
    Justice (specifically, the criminal justice system). Conquest. Accountability.

    Historically, such things could be handled VERY harshly. BUT God’s people were instructed to temper their actions with mercy, compassion and dignity.

    As someone with a loved one currently in the hands of the legal system, such thoughts hit home for me. We are completely at the mercy (or lack thereof) of what feels like criminal “injustice”—heavy-handed, arbitrary and broken.


    “The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”
    ‭‭-Psalms‬ ‭9‬:‭7‬-‭10‬ ‭NIV‬‬

    AND GOD has a better system—the perfect plan.

    “Lord, may we act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with You. May we forever hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, that we may be blessed as those who observe justice and do righteousness at all times. (From Micah 6:8, James 2:1 and Psalm 106:3.)

    *See also Romans 3:23-26 and Revelation 15:3.

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