So many things in this chapter, this is going to get really long, so I’m dividing it into parts:
Unsolved Murders (v 1-9)
Deuteronomy has talked about “blood-guilt” from murder, and this section shows how seriously that idea is taken. If a body is found dead in a field and no one knows who killed them, then the nearest town has to take responsibility for the guilt of the crime, regardless of whether the victim or the murderer was from there. They do it by sacrificing a ridiculously high-quality cow (a young, fresh heifer) and asking God to forgive them.
Obviously with modern-day forensic evidence you can sometimes figure out who killed someone without any witnesses, a luxury the ancient Israelites didn’t have. But there’s part of me that would like to see this general idea – a community bears guilt for murders committed in it – applied in the modern day. Far too many deaths are ignored by the media and even the police because the victims weren’t important, because no one claimed their body, because you can’t find the murderer. Every death is important. Every death we can’t prevent or bring justice for is a guilt we carry together.
Marrying Female Slaves (v 10-14)
The Japanese and the English have a telling difference here. In the NCT, verse 11 describes the man as kokorohikare, “attracted to” the woman – literally “his heart is captured” by her. In the NRSV, he merely “desires” her; she captured the attention of a different part of his anatomy.
But let’s be generous and say that the soldier in question really does fall for his captive. There’s no talk of her having any say in things. Granted, women pretty much never had a say in marriages. But most of them hadn’t had their people get conquered by their prospective husband. It’s hard to see her being happy about this.
The main provision that these verses leave for the woman is that he has to allow her time to mourn, and he has to treat her as a freewoman. He can’t sell her, and if she lives in his house with him. If he decides to discard her, she’s no longer a slave. Again, having recently watched 12 Years a Slave, this is bad but it’s far more rights than most slave mistresses were given in the south. It’s as if the writers are trying to make what they know is as unfair situation more fair, but they can’t bring themselves to completely break from the accepted practice of taking people captive.
Heirs from Unfavored Wives (v 15-17)
Surah 4 of the Qur’an declares that “You will never be able to treat wives equitably, even if you are bent on doing that.” Favoritism by a man among multiple wives seems to always have been a problem in polygynous societies. Here Deuteronomy states that even if a husband prefers one of his wives (“the loved and the disliked” in the NRSV, “the loved and the alienated” in the NCT) he must treat his children the same. The eldest son gets the chief portion of inheritance even if his mother has fallen out of favor with his father.
How much he gets is a bit ambiguous. The Hebrew literally says “two thirds,” but it also seems to be assuming only two sons. Both the NCT and the NRSV have it as “a double portion,” i.e. twice as much as anyone else. So if there were three sons, he’d get half and the other two would get a quarter each, and if there were four, he’d get 40% and the others 20% and so forth. That seems more interpretive than literal, and I wonder if it’s based on Talmudic tradition.
Regardless, as the NOAB points out a little snarkily, Deuteronomy affirms primogeniture in spite of Isaac getting inheritance over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Joseph over everyone.
Stubborn and Rebellious Son (v 18-21)
Okay, boring part first: as with the killing of a child who insults his or her parents, Jewish tradition has gotten rid of this law by pointing out that by the time a child is old enough to be legally responsible enough to be put to death, they would be too old to be under the control of their parents and thus couldn’t be “rebellious” in the first place. Justice > legalism.
More interesting part: in the Japanese, they describe him as “giving himself over to dissipation,” or houtou ni fukeru. I didn’t know either word, and in looking up houtou I found that it’s used in the combination houtou musuko – the Prodigal Son.
As I’ve said, the Hebrew Bible is important to me in part because it was Jesus’ Bible. He may very well have been thinking of this when he told that parable. The father, according to this the law, was within his rights to have his son stoned to death for being stubborn, rebellious (v 18), a glutton, and a drunkard (v 20). But instead he forgives his son even before he knows that he’s repented, and throws a party to welcome him back.
Hanging on a “Tree” (v 22-23)
Bodies of criminals are to be shown respect and not left hanging overnight. Public display of executed criminals has been a thing worldwide. The word “tree” is also used for “gallows” or “pole” in other places in the Bible. Assyrians would sometimes impale people on stakes.
Thank heavens for search engines, because I knew I recognized this verse from somewhere in Paul’s letters but I couldn’t think which. It’s in the third chapter of Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—” (Gal. 3:13) and it’s part of an extended argument on curses.
Basically it goes like this: Paul is disputing with other early Christians the idea that non-Jews have to convert to Judaism and follow Jewish law in order to be Christians. He argues that people are actually made right with God by their faith in God, not through following the law. Abraham, after all, was righteous for his faith, long before the law was given to Moses. So it’s faith that really counts.
In spite of this, Deuteronomy 27:36 says that anyone who doesn’t observe all the laws is cursed. So gentiles who don’t obey all of the law are thus under a curse. But, Paul argues, Jesus accepted that curse when he chose to die a cursed death on a “tree” – a cross. Gentiles are thus exempt from following the Mosaic law, allowing the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that “all the nations shall be blessed through you.”
The law here doesn’t equal morality in general, which people tend to misunderstand about Paul, partly because of Luther. Luther blatantly reinterpreted Paul to have “works of the Law” be the many proscribed good deeds and forbidden deeds of Catholic law that he was drenched in growing up. I’m okay with that; Christianity is often a lot worse than Judaism about being legalistic and condemning people for every minor sin (the whole “if you stole one pen, you deserve to go to hell” thing, for example). We could use being reminded that we’re right with God not because we measure up to a standard of “goodness” but because of faith, which gives us the strength to even try to be good in the first place.
Unfortunately he sort of missed that Paul isn’t completely eliminating the Jewish law for Jewish people, which fed into the antisemitism that Luther was drenched in growing up. That did not lead to good places.
But if ever I should get to Paul’s letters, like three years from now or whatever, I’ll talk more about that then. For now, it’s just interesting to notice where some of Paul’s more confusing arguments came from.
The Japanese: genba “scene, murder site,” omomuku “to go to, to proceed to” (v 2), roueki “labor” (v 3), kishibe “shore” (v 4), utonjiru “to alienate, to turn a cold shoulder to” (v 15), houtou “dissipation, debauchery,” fukeru “to indulge in, to lose oneself to” (v 20).