This is a special chapter, which also forms a whole in the five sections that make it up. We find here the holiness of life and personal rights, seen from different angles. We also discover a marvelous overview of God’s plans with His people. There are also spiritual applications to make.
1 - 9 Removal of the Guilt of Innocent Blood
1 “If a slain person is found lying in the open country in the land which the LORD your God gives you to possess, [and] it is not known who has struck him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure [the distance] to the cities which are around the slain one. 3 It shall be that the city which is nearest to the slain man, that is, the elders of that city, shall take a heifer of the herd, which has not been worked and which 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 has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the LORD your God has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the name of the LORD; and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them. 6 All the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley; 7 and they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [it]. 8 Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O LORD, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel.’ And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them. 9 So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the LORD.
Here it is about someone who has died a violent death, while the perpetrator is unknown. The scene of the crime is the open country, not a city. The first murder in the history of mankind also occurs in the field (Gen 4:8). If no perpetrator is known, in society everyone normally goes unpunished. For God this is not so. For Him it is certain that there is guilt and to that awareness the people must come. One of them is a murderer. The people must learn to see that guilt as their guilt.
The blood that has been shed is innocent blood (verses 9-10) in the sense that one does not know who the perpetrator is. Yet there is guilt, because it happened among the people. The whole land is involved (verses 1,8). To atone for the guilt of the land (verse 8), a sacrifice must be brought. God provides a means by which the general guilt of people and land will be removed. Should crime go unpunished, justice is not satisfied. If the perpetrator can’t be traced, the guilt that rests on the land and the people must be removed in another way. The general guilt of the individual’s act can also be seen in Joshua 7 (Jos 7:1; cf. 2Sam 21:1-2).
In Deuteronomy 19 a provision has been made for manslaughter in which the manslayer is known (Deu 19:1-13). In this chapter a provision is made in case the murderer is not known. To work forgiveness for the shed blood, a heifer’s neck must be broken by the elders and these elders must then wash their hands over the heifer. During this washing of hands, the elders, as representatives of the people, have to declare themselves innocent of this shed blood. Then they must ask the LORD to keep his redeemed people innocent.
There is no atonement in the usual sense of the word here. Nothing happens with the blood of the heifer. It is rather atonement through justice. The heifer dies instead of the unknown murderer, through which the land is cleansed of guilt (cf. Num 35:33).
The prophetic application lays ahead in Israel’s future. Israel will realize their culpability in the death of the Lord Jesus (Zec 12:10) at that time. Those alive at that time will not be literally responsible for His murder. They are literally innocent, but as a people they are guilty of bloodshed. Thus, the people, represented in the elders, stand in the valley: personally innocent, but corporately guilty. The fact that it takes place in a valley symbolically indicates the humiliation related to this event.
The heifer is brought “down to a valley with running water, which has not been plowed or sown”. The running water speaks of the never-ending grace of God. The fact that the valley has not been plowed or sown indicates the absence of any human work or any human effort with the hope of a future result. The work that God does for atonement is exclusively the result of His grace without any contribution from man.
The laying on of the hands is the identification with the murderer present in their midst, although he is unknown. By the sacrifice, the people are freed from the guilt that rests on them. The judgment strikes the heifer and not the guilty people as a whole. They wash their hands as a sign of identification with the sacrifice (Psa 26:6; 73:13) and not like Pilate, who didn’t want to have anything to do with the sacrifice (Mt 27:24).
Both the murdered and the heifer represent the Lord Jesus. The murdering of the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:52) is the result of His rejection by man. Giving Christ as a means of reconciliation is the answer of God’s grace. This can be seen on the cross. There man has brought the Christ and at the same time God gives Him as reconciliation.
There is also an application to the church. Evil that is present in a local church affects all the people of God. The borders of the land do not apply to the church of God. Yet not every person in the local gathering is equipped to deal with the evil that is present. This is done by the ‘cities’ closest to them, and not every single one of these, but specifically the elders and judges who represent the element of responsibility. It is important to know where the first spiritual responsibility lies. There must be a ‘measured’ approach as to who has the first responsibility.
An individual can only deal with evil if there is no guilt on his own hands. Only then can there be identification in the awareness that the whole people are guilty. It is about brothers who are closest in a spiritual sense. They can deal with it. They are brothers who, as priests, are accustomed to being in God’s presence. They are not only concerned with serious evil as murder, but with “every assault” (verse 5). For such believers, it is important that the priestly and the judicial element are in balance.
10 - 14 The Captured Woman
10 “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her.
This section (verses 10-14) and the following section (verses 15-17) both deal with marriage and the special relationship between husband and wife. In both sections the Bible presents the relationship between God and His people as a pattern for marriage relationship.
The first section is about the marriage between an Israelite man and a woman from a foreign people imprisoned from war. This cannot be a woman from the nations of Canaan (Deu 20:16-18), but from one of the nations outside of the land (Deu 20:15). By marrying her he becomes her husband instead of her master. In this way, the woman enters into the rights of a daughter of Israel. The man may not therefore just send her away if he is no longer pleased with her (cf. Exo 21:8). God has allowed that someone sends away his wife. That is because of the hardness of man’s heart, for “from the beginning it has not been this way” (Mt 19:7-8). He also binds to this consent various command for the protection of the woman.
Before the Israelite can take the captured woman to be his wife, various conditions must also be met. It should not be just an excitement of lust. When he comes home, she shall shave her head, trim her nails and remove her former clothes. Everything that has made her attractive in her previous state and has characterized her, must be disposed of.
The woman’s long hair indicates the place she has in creation in relation to the man (1Cor 11:15). She indicates with it that she wants to be submissive and devoted to the man. If she cuts it off, she detaches herself from that place. For the captured woman, cutting her hair and trimming her nails denotes disavowal of her previous relationship status. She renews vows as it were, by letting them grow again in the new relationship into which she now has come. She may also mourn the previous relationship from which she was removed for a month. She is given time to grieve for what came before, in preparation for what is yet to come. That too is a gracious provision from God.
In the prophetic application, this section (verses 10-14) precedes the previous section (verses 1-9). As said, the relationship between God and Israel is compared with that of husband and wife (Eze 16:1-14). In that relationship there is an engagement time, a time of detachment from the old state, here a month. This happened when God redeemed Israel from Egypt and accepted it as His people (Jer 2:2).
A time comes, however, when God can no longer be pleased with her. In verse 14, specific indication is not given as to the root cause of displeasure. In the break that has come between God and His people, there is no question or doubt. The root cause of God’s displeasure with her is entirely due to Israel’s behavior. He sent her away because of her unfaithfulness that culminated in the rejection of His Son, which is evident in the picture of verses 1-9.
God did not sell His people, but let them go where they themselves wanted to go. Nonetheless, He has not given up His rights to His people. This is discussed in the following section (verses 15-17).
15 - 17 The Right of the Firstborn
15 “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and [both] the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, 16 then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before 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 the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.
Having two women is not according to God’s thoughts. Yet God, through circumstances brought about by sin, can teach us something about the relationship He has with the two peoples to which He has committed Himself: Israel and the church. As the bond of marriage is inseparable and the relationship in marriage is that of love, the picture of marriage is apt to understand these relationships.
In the example we see a man who has two wives. One wife is loved by him, the other is unloved. Each of the wives has borne him sons. The right of the firstborn comes to the fore here. In such an instance, the man may not be led by his natural feelings. If the firstborn son is the son of the unloved wife, he must give him the right of the firstborn. He is entitled to the double potion of the inheritance. In this case, the man may not give that double portion to the son of the beloved.
When we apply this to the relationship God has with His earthly people, Israel, and His heavenly people, the church, we see the following. God had to reject His earthly people, as verse 14 indicates. They have been given the place of the unloved (cf. Hos 1:6,8-9).
Following on from the rejection of His earthly people, another people took their place. This people are a people from the nations that are not God’s chosen. Now, however, they are accepted by Him to be His people (Rom 9:25). In so doing, God has established analogous relationships. The church is now God’s beloved.
That does not mean that God has rejected Israel forever. The firstborn is the son of the unloved and he gets the rights of the firstborn. God will indeed fulfil all the promises He has made to this people; they get their double part.
In Jacob and his two wives – Lea and Rachel – we see such an illustration. Jacob works for Rachel and gets Lea. After that he works for Rachel and gets her too. In a similar vein, the Lord Jesus came for Israel yet He received the church. But He will also have Israel, as Jacob received Rachel. Israel has the rights of the eldest. The people are now the unloved wife, but soon the people will again become the beloved wife and will have the rights that are in connection with the Firstborn, the Lord Jesus, Who was born from her.
The church is now connected with the Lord Jesus (2Cor 11:2). Can He find His pleasure in us? God allows also for the Christian testimony to go its own way. On the whole, He no longer is pleased with it. Nevertheless God continues to recognize in that Christian testimony what this principle of first birth represents: in the midst of this Christian testimony is “the church of the firstborn” (Heb 12:23). God will never fail to acknowledge what He Himself has worked in it.
18 - 21 The Rebellious and Disobedient Son
18 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. 20 They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘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 city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear [of it] and fear.
Both with Israel and the church the important thing is a remnant. That remnant will repent and receive the blessing of the firstborn. The whole will have the character of “a stubborn and rebellious son”. They don’t want to obey and will be judged. As the parents have to do with the rebellious son, likewise God deals with stubborn confessors.
In this section it is about an extraordinary contempt for God’s commandment to honor the parents. All the men of the city must stone the rebellious son to death. This son is a picture of the wicked mass of the people who will die in judgment.
The remnant, which is miserable and poor, is reconciled, while the whole of the firstborn son once called out of Egypt by God (Exo 4:22) will perish. The same applies to the church. Those who belong to the church bear the name ‘son’, but God cannot recognize them as such if they do not separate themselves from evil (2Cor 6:17-18).
22 - 23 Burial of a Hanged Person
22 “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.
In these verses we have a third aspect of the cross of Calvary: the death of the Lord Jesus as the Accursed, “for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”” (Gal 3:13). The cross reveals:
1. The guilt of mankind, because he brought Him to the cross (verses 1-9).
2. God’s grace toward mankind (verses 10-13).
3. That God must renounce Him when He makes Him a curse (verses 22-23).
The remnant has earned nothing. They exist as “a remnant according to [God’s] gracious choice” (Rom 10:5). In itself it is nothing better than the wicked mass. It owes everything to Him Who has become a curse. They will look on Him “Whom they have pierced” (Zec 12:10) and that is their salvation.
Verse 23 prescribes that a hanged person must be buried. This also happened to the Lord Jesus. The spiritual application of this to us is important. Our old man must be buried. We testify of this in baptism (Rom 6:4a). We must constantly take this into account throughout our lives. The question is: Do we make true what we confessed in baptism? Nothing more of the old man should become visible in our lives (Rom 6:6). God no longer wants to see anything of the curse. The grave is locked above us and nothing more of our old life should be visible.
God wants to see in our lives the new, that we walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4b). God has more pleasure in us if we behave as true firstborn sons, which is the case if we would understand more of the curse that God has pronounced on, and exercised upon the Lord Jesus.