Questions concerning life and death remain before us. In the passage we are considering now, more aspects of the sixth commandment are unfolded. If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it . . . (Deuteronomy 21:1-23)
In old Israel, when a man was found slain, the closest city assumed covenantal responsibility for the crime (vv. 1-9). When a man found a beautiful woman among the captives, he was permitted to take her as a wife under certain conditions (vv. 10-14). The next two laws give us a balance within the government of the home. First, the rule of the father concerned the rights of inheritance could not be arbitrary or capricious (vv. 15-17). On the other hand, a son who was defiant and unteachable was to be executed by the men of his city (vv. 18-21). And last, the land was not to be defiled by leaving a corpse hanging overnight (vv. 22-23).
First is the question of the unsolved murder. The Bible does not speak (as we do) about the sanctity of human life. But we do learn a great deal that shows us the dignity of human life -- and this is because of the sanctity of God's law. This is one such passage (vv. 1-9). When a body is found, the elders of the closest city are required to break a heifer’s neck in a rough valley. The elders are involved (vv. 3-4), as well as the priests of God (v. 5). It is our modern practice to consider the law of God barbaric and calloused, but look here at the differences between us. Here, the elders of the city assume responsibility for a murder that was simply close to their town, with the culprit unknown. The elders of our cities will not take responsibility for the murder of millions of unborn children—and the murderers advertise in the yellow pages. And we have the nerve to say the Old Testament law is barbaric. Further, note an important distinction we must seek to maintain, that between guilt and responsibility. The elders claim they are innocent of the deceased’s blood (v. 7). But at the same time they assume responsibility for it (v.8).
The second part of this passage has to do with war brides. This law concerns behavior in war, and so rightly falls under this category. First, note that by implication rape is prohibited in time of war (vv. 10-14). We know this woman is from a distant city (and not a Canaanite city) because she is still alive. Given the situation, it is clear that the force of this law falls on the victorious soldier, and protects the dignity of the captive woman. She is given time to mourn (vv. 12-13). She could not be raped in the immediate aftermath of battle (v. 13). She had to put off her former idolatrous customs in order to be married (v. 13). Once she was humbled in this way, she had the rights of a free woman (v. 14).
The third portion concerns the rights of the first born. All human government is under the law of God, and this includes the government of the family. Because polygamy is not God’s pattern for marriage, it is not surprising that it causes family tangles. This situation is one of them (vv. 15-17). If a father were to disinherit a son, it had to be for legitimate cause, and not simply because the first born son was the son of the less favored wife. The inheritance of the first born was a double portion.
But sons have responsibilities as well (vv. 18-21). If a son is stubborn and rebellious, to the point where both father and mother turn him over to the elders of the city, the men of the city will stone him. Such a son is striking at the closest symbol of the sacred, and so was executed. This is a feature of Old Testament law that did not embarrass the Lord Jesus in the slightest. Quite the contrary (Mark 7:10).
If a man is executed, his body must not be left hanging after sundown (vv. 22-23)—lest the curse pass from him to the land. Being made a curse for us—Paul appeals to this passage as a glorious statement of the gospel (Gal. 3:10-13). Can we see the gospel here? But Christ was innocent—we need to learn the difference between guilt and responsibility. We especially need to do so because a full understanding of the gospel depends upon it. All the sins—Christ died for sinners, and this includes all the sins mentioned in this chapter. Christ died for murderers. He died for lustful men. He died for stupid sons. He died for foolish fathers. Christ died for sinners.