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Law concerning Murder by Persons Unknown


If, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess, a body is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck the person down, 2then your elders and your judges shall come out to measure the distances to the towns that are near the body. 3The elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; 4the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. 5Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord, and by their decision all cases of dispute and assault shall be settled. 6All the elders of that town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, 7and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. 8Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

Female Captives

10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

The Right of the Firstborn

15 If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, 16then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. 17He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

Rebellious Children

18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

Miscellaneous Laws

22 When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

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1. If one be found slain in the land. This Supplement: is of a mixed character, relating partly to the civil, and partly to the criminal law. We are informed by it how precious to God is the life of man; for, if a murder had been committed by some unknown person, He requires an expiation to be made, whereby the neighboring cities should purge themselves from the pollution of the crime. Whence it appears that the earth is so polluted by human blood, that those who encourage murder by impunity, implicate themselves in the guilt. The question here is as to a secret crime, the guilt of which attaches to the neighboring cities, until, by the institution of a diligent inquiry, they can testify that the author is not discovered; how much less excusable, then, will they be, if they allow a murderer to escape with impunity? The rite prescribed is, that the elders of the nearest city should take a heifer which had not drawn in a yoke, and bring it into a stony and barren valley, cut off its neck with the assistance of the priests, wash their hands, and bear witness that their hands as well as their eyes are pure, as not being cognizant of the criminal. God chose a heifer that had not born a yoke, in order that the satisfaction made by innocent blood might be represented in a more lively manner; whilst it was to be killed in a desert place, that the pollution might be removed from the cultivated lands. For, if the blood of the heifer had been shed in the middle of the market-place of the city, or in any inhabited spot, the familiarity with the sight of blood would have hardened their minds in inhumanity. For the purpose, therefore, of awakening horror, it was drawn out into a solitary and uncultivated spot, that they might be thus accustomed to detest cruelty. But although, properly speaking, this was not a sacrifice which could be offered nowhere except in the sanctuary, still it nearly approached to the nature of a sacrifice, because the Levites were in attendance, and a solemn deprecation was made; nevertheless, they were not only employed as ministers of the altar, but also as judges, for their office is expressed in the words, that they were “chosen to minister to God, to bless the people, and to pronounce sentence as to every stroke.”

6. And all the elders of that city. The washing of their hands had the effect of stirring them up the more, so that they should not inconsiderately protest in that solemn rite that they were pure and guiltless; for it was just as if they had presented the corpse of the dead mall before God, and had stood themselves opposite to it to purge away the crime. At the same time, also, they ask for pardon, because it might have been through their carelessness that the man was smitten; and again, since, by the sacrilege of Achan alone the whole people were contaminated, it was to be feared lest the vengeance of God should extend more widely on account of the offense committed. And thus they were again taught how greatly God abominates murders, when the people pray that they may be pardoned for the crime of another, as if, by the very looking upon it, they had contracted guilt. God at length declares that He will not impute it to them, when they have duly performed this rite of expiation; not because the heifer was the price of satisfaction to propitiate God, but because in this way they humbly reconciled themselves to Him, and shut the door against murders for the time to come. On this account it is said — “Thou shalt put away the blood from among you;” for if the murder be passed over without observation, there remains a blot upon the people, and the earth itself, in a manner, stinks before God.

10. When thou goest forth to war. The same thing is now commanded respecting wives as above respecting meats. As regarded the Canaanites, who were destined and devoted to destruction, we have seen that the Israelites were prohibited from taking their women to wife, lest this connection should be an enticement to sin; but Moses now goes further, viz., that the Israelites, having obtained a victory over other nations, should not marry any of the captive women, unless purified by a solemn rite. This, then, is the sum, that the Israelites should not defile themselves by profane marriages, but in this point also should keep themselves pure and uncorrupt, because they were separated from other people, to be the peculiar people of God. It was better, indeed, that they should altogether abstain from such marriages; yet it was difficult so to restrain their lust as that they should not decline from chastity in the least, degree; and hence we learn how much license conquerors allow themselves in war, so that there is no room for perfect purity in them. Wherefore God so tempers His indulgence as that the Israelites, remembering the adoption wherewith He had honored them, should not disgrace themselves, but in the very fervor of their lust should retain some religious affection. But the question here is not of unlawful ravishment, but Moses only speaks of women who have been made captives by the right of war, for we know that conquerors have abused them with impunity, because they had them under their power and dominion. But since many are led astray by the blandishments of their wives, God applies a remedy, viz., that the abjuration of their former life should precede their marriage; and that none should be allowed to marry a foreign wife until she shall have first renounced her own nation. To this refers the ceremony, that the woman should shave her head, and cut her nails, and change her garments, and lament her father and her family for an entire month, viz., that she may renounce her former life, and pass over to another people. Some of the rabbins twist the words to a different meaning, as if God would extinguish love in the minds of the husbands by disfiguring the women; for the shaving of the head greatly detracts from female beauty and elegance; and “to make the nails,” for so the words literally mean, they understand as to let them grow; and the prolongation of the nails has a disgusting appearance. But their gloss is refuted by the context, in which she is commanded to put off the raiment of her captivity.: But I have no doubt but that their month of mourning, their shaven head, and the other signs, are intended by God for their renewal, so that they may accustom themselves to different habits. And with the same object they are commanded to bewail their parents as if dead, that they may bid farewell to their own people. To this the Prophet seems to allude in Psalm 45:10, when he says, “Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house;” for he intimates that otherwise the marriage of a foreign woman with Solomon would not be pure and legitimate, unless she should relinquish her superstitions, and devote herself to God’s service. Nor was it needless that God should require the Israelites diligently to beware lest they should take wives as yet aliens from the study of true religion, since experience most abundantly shows how fatal a snare it is. But although we are not now bound to this observance, yet the rule still holds good that men should not rashly ally themselves with women still devoted to wicked superstitions. 5151     Addition in Fr., “Pour s’envelopper en leur impiete."

14. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her. I have been compelled to separate this sentence from the foregoing context which I have explained elsewhere; 161161     Vide vol. 2, p. 70. for Moses there gave instructions how a captive woman was to be taken to wife if her beauty attracted a Jewish husband. That law then had reference to chastity and conjugal fidelity, and especially to the purity of God’s worship; but now Moses prescribes that, if a man have dishonored a captive woman, he should not sell her, but let her go free, and by this satisfaction wipe out, or at any rate diminish, the injury. Hence we infer that this rule of justice depends on the Eighth Commandment, Let none defraud another. This condition was at least tolerable for the captive; for, although chastity is a special treasure, yet liberty, which is justly called an inestimable blessing, was no trifling consolation to her. The penalty, then, of lust, was that the conqueror should lose his booty.

15. If a man have two wives. Inasmuch as it is here provided that a father should not unjustly transfer what belongs to one son to another, it is a part and supplement of the Eighth Commandment, the substance of which is, that every one’s rights should be preserved to him. For, if the father substituted another son in the place of his first-born, it was unquestionably a kind of theft. But, since it rarely happens that a father unnaturally degrades his first-born from his precedence, if all are born of the same mother, God reminds us that He did not enact this law without cause; for, where polygamy was allowed, the mind of the husband was generally most inclined to the second wife; because, if he had loved the first with true affection, he would have been contented with her as the companion of his life and bed, and would not have thought of a second. When, therefore, the husband grew tired of his first wife, and desired a second, he might be coaxed by her blandishments to leave away from the children of his first marriage what naturally belonged to them. Hence, therefore, the necessity of the remedy whereby the father’s power of altering the right of primogeniture is barred; for, although they might allege that they only gave what was their own, yet it was an act of ungodly arrogance to reject him whom God had deigned to honor. For he who arrogates such power to himself, or who assigns the birth-right to whom he will, almost arrogates to himself the ability to create. This right, as is stated in verse 17, was a double portion of the paternal inheritance. The reason which is added, is equivalent to saying, that the first-born is the principal honor and ornament of the father. Still, if there was a just cause for disinheriting the first-born, another successor might be substituted in his stead, as Jacob shewed in his case when he disinherited Reuben. (Genesis 49:4.) When it is said, “before the son of the hated,” some expound it to mean “during his lifetime;” others retain the Hebrew phrase, “before his face.” Their opinion, however, is probable, who take this particle comparatively, for “instead of her son.” The wife is called hated, not that her husband is positively her enemy, but because he loves her least; for contempt is considered as hatred, and he is called an enemy who does not render conjugal benevolence.

18. If a man have a stubborn. What God had previously adverted to in two clauses, tie now embraces in a general law, for it cannot be doubted but that by rebellious children all are designated who are abusive or insulting to their father and mother. For if it be a capital crime to be disobedient to parents, much more is it to strike, or beat them, and to assail them with reproachful words. In sum, Moses declares that those are deserving of death who are of such a stubborn and intractable disposition as to reject the authority of their father and mother, and to hold them in contempt. Whence also we infer what it is to honor our father and mother, for the punishment is only denounced for the transgression of the Commandment. When, therefore, the law delivers over to death all who contumaciously rebel against the discipline of their parents, it follows that they have refused them their due honor. An admirable means, however, of moderating the severity of the law is introduced, when God requires the case to be decided on the evidence of the father and mother; and commands that it should be publicly heard, so that none may be condemned at the will of private individuals. By the Roman law the power of life and death over his children 1111     “A father among the Romans had the power of life and death over his children. He could not only expose them when infants, but, even when his children were grown up, he might imprison, scourge, send them bound to work in the country, and also put them to death by any punishment he pleased, if they deserved it. Sall. Cat., 39.; Liv., 2:41; 8:7; Dionys., 8:79.” — Adam’s Rom. Antiq. was given to the father, because it was not probable that fathers would be carried away by such senseless inhumanity as to deal cruelly with their own bowels; but, since sometimes fathers are found who are not unlike wild beasts, and examples show us that many, blinded by hate or avarice, have not spared their own children, this concession of the Roman law is justly to be repudiated. I allow, indeed, that those who desired to inflict punishment on their children called their friends into council; but, whereas, the walls of a private dwelling conceal many disgraceful things, God imposed a much better restraint on parents when He did not suffer them to go further than to lay the information and to give their testimony. For, although he would have credit given to their testimony, still, when the children were brought to the tribunal of the judges, a legal trim undoubtedly ensued; and this form of proceeding is prescribed, viz., that the father and mother should bring their son and make their complaint before the judges of his incorrigible stubbornness. It is true that the sentence is immediately subjoined; yet we must infer, nevertheless, that the judges pronounced it before the criminal was stoned, else it would have been ridiculous that they should sit there like cyphers. The very mention of a trial, therefore, implies that the son was heard in his defense, so as to clear himself of the crime, if he was not guilty of it: for, suppose the moroseness of the father and mother were notorious; or that the father accused the son by the instigation of a stepmother; or that any unworthy spite were discovered; or that the father and mother had conspired to destroy their son in a fit of passion: the defense of the cause is, therefore, implied in the adverb then, 1212     The particle ו sometimes has this force, but is here translated in A V and for it would have been more than absurd that the son should be condemned without being heard. Especially, when he was to be stoned by the whole people, it was necessary that he should be first convicted; and on this ground he was brought forth publicly, that he might be allowed to plead his cause. But although those were condemned who were addicted to other vices also, yet Moses expressly mentions gluttons and drunkards, to show that, although no capital crime were alleged, still, dissolute profligacy was sufficient, if the son could not be corrected by his parents; for it is plain that those are in a desperate state who have so east away submissiveness and shame as to receive no profit from the admonitions of their parents. From the end of the verse we gather what was the twofold object of the punishment — that the earth should be purged of the sins whereby it was in a manner, polluted, and that the death of him who had transgressed might be an example to all.

The object of this precept was to banish inhumanity and barbarism from the chosen people, and also to impress upon them horror even of a just execution. And surely the body of a man suspended on a cross is a sad and hideous spectacle; for the rights of sepulture are ordained for man, both as a pledge and symbol of the resurrection, and also to spare the eyes of the living, lest they should be defiled by the sight of so horrible a thing. Moses does not here speak generally, but only of those malefactors who are unworthy of the honor of burial; yet the public good is regarded in the burial even of such as these, lest men should grow accustomed to cruelty, and thus become more ready to commit murder. Moreover, that they may take more careful heed in this matter, he declares that the land would be defiled, if the corpse should be left hanging on the cross, since such inhumanity pollutes and disgraces the land. And this was more intolerable in Judea, which God had given as an inheritance to his elect people, that he might be there worshipped reverentially, and purely, every profanation being excluded. The man so hanged is called 4242     See margin, A. V. “the curse of God,” because this kind of punishment is detestable in itself. God, indeed, does not forbid criminals to be crucified, or hanged on a gallows, but rather gives His sanction to this mode of punishment; He only, by His own example, exhorts the Israelites to abhor all atrocity. Although, therefore, He does not disapprove of the punishment, He still says that lie abominates those that are hanged on a tree, that the scandal may be immediately removed; nor does He call them accursed, as if their salvation was to be despaired of, but because the hanging was a mark of His curse. This passage Paul applies to Christ, to teach us that He was made κατάρα (a curse) for us, that He might deliver us from the curse of the Law. (Galatians 3:13.) For, since all are guilty of transgression, and thus the whole race of mankind is implicated in the curse, there was no other mode of deliverance, except that Christ should substitute Himself in our place. Nor was God unmindful of His sentence, when He suffered His only-begot, tea Son to be crucified. Hence it follows that He submitted Himself to our condition, in order; that we might receive God’s blessing; since He was

made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness
of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21.)