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Chapter 21

Absolution of Untraced Murder.[a] If the corpse of someone who has been slain is found lying in the open, in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed the person, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances to the cities that are in the neighborhood of the corpse. (A)When it is established which city is nearest the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a heifer that has never been put to work or worn a yoke; the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with an everflowing stream at a place that has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. The priests, the descendants of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord, your God, has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and every case of dispute or assault shall be for them to decide. Then all the elders of that city nearest the corpse shall wash their hands[b] over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, and shall declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood,[c] and our eyes did not see the deed. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not let the guilt of shedding innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Thus they shall be absolved from the guilt of bloodshed, and you shall purge the innocent blood from your midst, and do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.(B)

Marriage with a Female Captive. 10 (C)When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord, your God, delivers them into your power, so that you take captives, 11 if you see a beautiful woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as a wife, 12 and so you take her home to your house, she must shave her head,[d] cut her nails, 13 lay aside her captive’s garb, and stay in your house, mourning her father and mother for a full month. After that, you may come to her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; you must not sell her for money. Do not enslave her, since you have violated her.(D)

Rights of the Firstborn. 15 (E)If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and if both the loved and the unloved bear him sons, but the firstborn is the son of the unloved wife: 16 when he comes to bequeath his property to his sons he may not consider as his firstborn the son of the wife he loves, in preference to the son of the wife he does not love, the firstborn. 17 On the contrary, he shall recognize as his firstborn the son of the unloved wife, giving him a double share of whatever he happens to own, since he is the first fruits of his manhood, and to him belong the rights of the firstborn.(F)

The Stubborn and Rebellious Son. 18 (G)If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not listen to his father or mother, and will not listen to them even though they discipline him,(H) 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders at the gate[e] of his home city, 20 where they shall say to the elders of the city, “This son of ours is a stubborn and rebellious fellow who will not listen to us; he is a glutton and a drunkard.”(I) 21 Then all his fellow citizens shall stone him to death. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear and be afraid.(J)

Corpse of a Criminal. 22 (K)If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and you hang him on a tree,[f] 23 his corpse shall not remain on the tree overnight.(L) You must bury it the same day; anyone who is hanged is a curse of God.[g] You shall not defile the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you as a heritage.


  1. 21:1–9 This law has to do with absolving the community of bloodguilt that accrues to it and to the land when a homicide occurs and the murderer cannot be identified and punished.
  2. 21:6 Wash their hands: a symbolic gesture in protestation of one’s own innocence when human blood is unjustly shed; cf. Mt 27:24.
  3. 21:7 This blood: the blood of the slain, or the bloodguilt effected by the killing.
  4. 21:12–13 Shave her head…: these symbolic actions probably signified the transition or change of status of the woman or perhaps the end of her period of mourning for her previous husband or family.
  5. 21:19 The gate: in the city walls. This open space served as the forum for the administration of justice. Cf. 22:15; 25:7; Ru 4:1, 2, 11; Is 29:21; Am 5:10, 12, 15.
  6. 21:22 You hang him on a tree: some understand, “impaled on a stake.” In any case the hanging or impaling was not the means used to execute the criminal; he was first put to death by the ordinary means, stoning, and his corpse was then exposed on high as a warning for others. Cf. Jos 8:29; 10:26; 1 Sm 31:10; 2 Sm 21:9.
  7. 21:23 Gal 3:13 applies these words to the crucifixion of Jesus, who “redeemed us from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for us.”