Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 1. Land. The Jewish doctors hence infer, that if the corpse was found hanging or drowned &c., or nearer a town of the Gentiles than one of the Israelites, this law did not oblige. They are so exact as to dispute whether the distance must be measured from the nose or from the naval of the deceased. (Selden, Syned. iii. 7.) But the law shews us, that the author of the murder must be discovered, if possible, as the crime is so grievous as, in a manner, to defile the land, and draw down the vengeance of God, if it be carelessly left unpunished. (Calmet)
Ver. 2. Ancients and judges. After the strictest enquiry, if the murderer could not be discovered, the magistrates and senate of the neighbouring cities measured which city the corpse was nearest. (Josephus, [Antiquities?] iv. 8.) The Rabbins pretend that five of the Sanhedrim were commissioned to make this enquiry, along with the magistrates of the neighbourhood. Others think that the ancients were only the old men. The measuring took place only when the point was contested, and those cities are probably meant, which were of sufficient importance to have twenty-three judges fixed in them. (Calmet) — It was presumed that the nearest had been guilty of greater negligence. (Haydock)
Ver. 3. Heifer, not above three years old, say the Rabbins. The pagans esteemed those victims more agreeable to the gods, which had not been yoked. Chermon observes, that the Egyptians rejected such as had been once “consecrated to labour.” (Grotius) — This circumstance might here indicate, that the murderer was a son of Belial, or “without yoke;” (chap xiii. 13.; Menochius) and the heifer was slain to shew what he deserved, and must expect if he be discovered. (Haydock)
Ver. 4. Valley. In such places murders are most frequently perpetrated. Hebrew may signify, “a desert,” deep or inaccessible torrent, (Haydock) on the side of which the heifer was to be slain, and its body was then, it seems, thrown into the water. The ancients first washed their hands over her. Thus the victim of malediction against those who break a covenant, is buried in a ditch, or cast into the sea. (Homer, Iliad i.) — Was. Some translate the Hebrew “shall be,” as if the place was to be hereafter considered as unclean and accursed. (Calmet) — The roughness and depth of the valley, denote the hardness of the murderer’s heart, and the depth of his malice. (Menochius) — Strike off, or cœdent, “cut the neck,” (Haydock) at the top, without perhaps separating it entirely from the body. Blood was given for blood, and this was the chief design of the bloody sacrifices. For this reason, the Egyptians impressed a seal on the horns of the victim, representing a man kneeling, with his hands tied behind his back, as if ready to receive the stroke of death. (Plut.[Plutarch,?] Isis.)
Ver. 5. Judged. We see here again the great authority of the priests, chap. xvii. 9. Hebrew, “by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried,” as the Protestants render it. (Haydock) — Some understand by stroke, the leprosy, of which they were undoubtedly the judges. But it is better to explain it of all wounds, and even of death, (Calmet) concerning which Moses is here speaking. (Haydock) — The Rabbins restrain the authority of priests as much as they can, to give greater power to their chimerical Sanhedrim. They pretend that here they had only to pronounce the blessing, ver. 8. Josephus ([Antiquities?] iv. 8,) joins the magistrates with them in the whole ceremony. This awful meeting of so many people, tended to discover the authors of the murder, as all would naturally converse together on the subject, and each person declaring what he knew, some suspicions might at last be formed, which might by degrees lead to the detection. Josephus says rewards were proposed to any who might make a discovery. Draco decreed, that on the very day when a murder was announced, if the author was not known, the whole people (of Athens) should be purified. (Calmet) — Abulensis insinuates, that if the murderer was present in the crowd, he might be detected by blood gushing from the corpse of the deceased, &c., as God often brings murder to light in a wonderful manner. (Cic.[Cicero,?] Div. i.) (Tirinus)
Ver. 6. Wash. This was intended to testify that they were not guilty of the blood which had been shed, and that they wished to remove the punishment of it from themselves upon the head of the heifer, (Calmet) the representative of the unknown murderer. So Pilate conformed to this custom, when he condemned Christ on the bare accusation of the Jews; (Matthew xxvii. 24) and the priest, at mass, washes his hands, as an emblem of that innocence, with which he ought to approach to the holy of holies. (Haydock) — Asterius was stricken with lightning, for touching the altar of Jupiter without having washed his hands. (Natal. Myth. i. 10. 14.) The pagans generally purified themselves with fumigations, or by sprinkling sea water upon their bodies. Achilles ordered the things which had been used to purify the Greeks, at the siege of Troy, to be thrown into the sea, as being unclean. (Iliad i.)
Ver. 7. It. Magistrates are in some degree responsible, if by their neglect the high roads are unsafe. (Calmet) — They had testified that they had done their duty. (Worthington)
Ver. 9. And, &c. Hebrew, “Thou shalt put away,” (Haydock) or “extinguish the voice of innocent blood,” which otherwise would cry to heaven for vengeance, Genesis iv. 10. In this sacrifice, (Calmet) though it deserves not the name, (Menochius) we may consider Jesus Christ suffering for the sins of others. (Calmet)
Ver. 10. Captives. Some Rabbins say this was only lawful in what they call voluntary wars, which the Lord had not commanded, as in those which were waged against the devoted nations, it was not permitted to reserve the women, even though they should embrace the true religion. Calmet seems to be of the same opinion in the preceding chapter, to which he even refers. But here he thinks, that upon their complying with the condition specified, they might be married, as Rahab was, and consequently this law must be considered as an exception to those general laws, which prohibit matrimony with those nations of Chanaan, which were otherwise ordered to be entirely destroyed, chap. vi. 16. “We believe, says he, that if these women changed their religion, they might be espoused, of whatever nation they might be.” He seems still to exclude the Chanaanite women, (chap. xxiii. 3,) which variation of sentiment shews that the point is not to be easily decided. (Haydock)
Ver. 11. Lovest her. The Jewish doctors explain this of an action, which modesty disallows, and which they tolerate nevertheless in the first transports of victory; (Selden, Jur. v. 13,) though the pagans condemned it as unjust and contrary to reason. (Grotius, Jur. iii. 4) — All know with what reserve Alexander treated the captive women; and the Romans banished one Torquatus, for having violated a prisoner of war. (Plutarch) — Yet the Jews blush not to assert, that such liberties might be taken even with married women, as their former marriage with a pagan was by some deemed null, and by others thought to be dissolved. (Josephus, [Antiquities?] iv. 8) (Calmet) — The law, however, seems only to allow the marrying of those who had no husbands before, as the women are only said to mourn for father and mother, ver. 13. (Haydock) — On these occasions the Chinese, and probably the Egyptians also, and the Roman matrons, formerly clothed themselves in white, while almost all other nations assumed black. (Tirinus)
Ver. 12. Hair. In mourning, people did the reverse to what they were accustomed to do in the days of joy. The men let their hair grow, the women cut this ornament of their head, a thing which the prophets often threaten, Isaias xv. 23., and Jeremias xlvii. 5, &c. (Calmet) — Nails. Some would translate the Hebrew “she shall make her nails grow,” as a mark of sorrow, perhaps usual among the pagans faciet ungues. But the Septuagint, Philo, &c. agree with the Vulgate; (Menochius) and the Hebrew may very well have the same sense. We must not judge of the idea which others have of beauty, by our own sentiments. Some women in America have long nails, and esteem them as marks of beauty and nobility; and in China, they let those of the left hand grow, and cut them in mourning. (Hist. Sin. iii. 1.) The people of Mauritania take a pride in having long nails. (Strabo, xvii.) The Duke of Burgundy, not 300 years ago, was distinguished among the slain, before Nancy, in France, (Haydock) by the length of his nails; (Calmet) and, in ancient times, people never cut them in voyages at sea, unless to express their grief in extreme danger. Huic fluctus vivo radicitus abstulit ungues. (Propert. iii.; Petron.[Petronius?]) Why, therefore, might not these captives follow the same custom, as all depends on fashion? (Calmet) — The woman being deprived of her ornaments, the passion of the soldier might probably abate. St. Jerome (ep. 84,) applies this to worldly learning, which he endeavoured to make subservient to the truth, after he had cut away what was dead and pernicious in it. (Du Hamel)
Ver. 13. Raiment. In mourning, people wore different clothes from what they did at other times, 2 Kings xiv. 2. — One month. So long the mourning for Aaron and Moses continued, chap. xxxiv., and Numbers xx. (Menochius)
Ver. 14. Her. Nothing shews the weakness of the Hebrews more than this liberty, which the law was in a manner forced to allow, to prevent greater evils. The soldier who has married a captive, may abandon her, if he set her free, (Calmet) which was but a slight punishment for his inconstancy.
Ver. 15. Two wives. Moses never expressly (Haydock) sanctions polygamy; but he tolerates it frequently, as excused by custom, the example of the Patriarchs, &c.; a toleration which Christ has revoked, as contrary to the primary design of God, and the institution of matrimony. (Calmet) (Matthew xix.)
Ver. 16. Hated, or less loved. (Haydock) — The inheritance goes to the first-born independently of the father’s disposition, in order to prevent the disturbances which would otherwise have taken place in families, where the different wives would have been continually endeavouring to get their respective children preferred before the rest. David indeed assigned the throne to Solomon, to the exclusion of Adonias; but this was done by the command of God, 3 Kings i. 17. The regulation of Jacob, in favour of Joseph, was made prior to this law. The Jewish doctors inform us, that a father cannot disinherit any of his lawful heirs, except the judges ratify his sentence, while he is in health. But if he be dangerously ill, his verbal declaration will suffice, provided he appoint some one whom the law does not reject. For if he were to make a Gentile his heir, the will would be null. The testament must be made in the day time, for which they cite Ecclesiasticus xxxiii. 24. They say likewise that a father may, while living, give his effects to whom he pleases, and by this means disinherit his children; or he may give the succession to one of them, who is then considered as a tutor of the rest, and is bound to maintain them with necessaries till the year of jubilee, when each may claim his respective share. (Selden, Succes. c. xxiv.) But all these regulations seem to contradict the law. (Calmet)
Ver. 17. Double portion. If a person left six children, his effects were divided into seven equal parts, and the eldest son received two of them, though others think that he was entitled to one-half of the whole, (Calmet) in order to enable him to support the dignity of the family, (Haydock) and the greater expenses which he had to incur for sacrifices and solemn feasts. (Grotius) — If he were dead, his children or heirs were entitled to his portion. This was the prerogative of the first-born, 1 Paralipomenon v. 2. (Selden) — The right to the priesthood, if they might have claimed it before the law, was now given to the family of Aaron. Females had no privilege above one another. They received equal shares, when there was no male issue, Numbers xxxvi. (Haydock) — First. Hebrew, “the beginning of his strength.” See Genesis xlix. 3.
Ver. 18. Son. The Rabbins do not look upon children as bound by the law, till they be 13 years old. Their faults, before that age, are imputed to the father, and he is to be punished for them. When, therefore, a son has attained the competent years, the father makes attestation of it in the presence of ten Jews, declaring that he has instructed his son in the commandments, customs of the nation, and daily prayers; and that he now sets him at liberty to answer, in future, for his own faults, praying that God would enable him to lead a virtuous life. (Calmet)
Ver. 19. Ancients. In considerable cities there was a tribunal of three, and another of 23 judges. The former took cognizance of the first accusation, and condemned the stubborn child to be scourged: but the latter sentenced him to be stoned in case of a relapse, provided both parents concurred in prosecuting their son, as they would not both surely be guided by passion. (Theodoret, q. 20.) The Rabbins, according to their custom, modify this law, and exempt girls, orphans, and boys under 13 years of age. (Selden, Syned.) — Josephus ([Antiquities?] xvi. 17,) says that the parents laid their hands on the head of the undutiful, and then all the people stoned him. Moses has not specified the punishment of parricides, (Calmet) as he deemed it next to impossible. (Haydock) — But we may hence judge how he would have chastised so heinous a crime. The Romans formerly sewed such wretches in a leathern sack, (Cic.[Cicero,?] Invent. ii.) but afterwards they enclosed with them a dog, a cock, a viper, and a monkey; and having first whipped them so as to fetch blood, placed them in a chariot drawn by black oxen, and hurled them into the sea or into some river. (Justinian) — Solomon sentences those who contemn their parents to be the food of crows and eagles, Proverbs xxx. 17. No restraints were laid by the ancient Greeks on the authority of a father, as he was esteemed the most equitable judge. (Sopater, ap. Grotius) (Calmet)
Ver. 22. Gibbet. Whether the person was first killed, as the Jews assert, or he was left to die upon the gibbet, see Calmet’s Diss. It is also a matter of doubt, whether he was nailed to the gibbet, or hung on it by a rope. (Bonfrere)
Ver. 23. Of God. Chaldean, “he has been fixed on the gibbet for sinning against God.” Symmachus and Arabic, “he has blasphemed the Lord.” Syriac, “the man who has blasphemed shall be hung.” Only people accused of great crimes, such as blasphemy and idolatry, were condemned to this reproachful death, and prayers were not said for them in the synagogue, as they were for other persons, during the 11 months following their decease. (Calmet) — They are not to be remembered before God. Their dead bodies are to be buried before sunset, that the country may not be defiled. The punishment itself is extremely infamous, and the name of God is often used by the Jews, to express something in the highest degree, as the cedars of God, &c. (Haydock) — Some understand this passage, as if the body were not to be left on the gibbet, because man, being created to the likeness of God, he will not allow the body to be insulted. Homer (Iliad xxiv.) says that Achilles offered an insult to the earth, when he dragged the dead body of Hector round the walls of Troy. Others think, that the criminal having been treated with due severity, as accursed of God, his corpse must not be deprived of decent burial. Res sacra miser. The Jews refused this privilege to none but suicides, (Josephus, Jewish Wars iii. 25,) while the Egyptians and Phœnicians suffered the bodies to rot upon the gibbet, whose inhumanity God here reproves. St. Paul reads this verse in a different manner both from the Hebrew and Septuagint, leaving out of God, and substituting, with the Septuagint, the words every one, and on a tree. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree, Galatians iii. 13. St. Jerome remarks, that on this as well as on other occasions, he adheres to the sense, without following the express words of Scripture. He also observes, with Tertullian, that only those are declared accursed by the law, who are hung for their crimes; and as Jesus Christ suffered, not for any fault of his own, but being willing to appear in the character of one accursed, he has procured for us all blessings. (Calmet) — In a mystical sense, that man is accursed who is obstinate in sin, hanging as it were on the tree, which was the occasion of our first parents’ transgression. (Worthington) — St. Jerome seems to think that the Jews have inserted of God, to intimate that Christ was accursed of him. (Haydock)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
The expiation of a secret murder. The marrying of a captive. The eldest son must not be deprived of his birth-right for hatred of his mother. A stubborn son is to be stoned to death. When one is hanged on a gibbet, he must be taken down the same day, and buried.
1 When *there shall be found in the land which the Lord thy God will give thee, the corpse of a man slain, and it is not known who is guilty of the murder,
2 Thy ancients and judges shall go out, and shall measure from the place where the body lieth, the distance of every city round about:
3 And the ancients of that city, which they shall perceive to be nearer than the rest, shall take a heifer of the herd, that hath not drawn in the yoke, nor ploughed the ground,
4 And they shall bring her into a rough and stony valley, that never was ploughed, nor sown: and there they shall strike off the head of the heifer:
5 And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come, whom the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister to him, and to bless in his name, and that by their word every matter should be decided, and whatsoever is clean or unclean should be judged.
6 And the ancients of that city shall come to the person slain, and shall wash their hands over the heifer that was killed in the valley,
7 And shall say: Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it.
8 Be merciful to thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, O Lord, and lay not innocent blood to their charge in the midst of thy people Israel. And the guilt of blood shall be taken from them:
9 And thou shalt be free from the innocent’s blood that was shed, when thou shalt have done what the Lord hath commanded thee.
10 If thou go out to fight against thy enemies, and the Lord thy God deliver them into thy hand, and thou lead them away captives,
11 And seest in the number of the captives a beautiful woman, and lovest her, and wilt have her to wife,
12 Thou shalt bring her into thy house: and she shall shave her hair, and pare her nails,
13 And shall put off the raiment, wherein she was taken: and shall remain in thy house, and mourn for her father and mother one month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and shalt sleep with her, and she shall be thy wife.
14 Rut if afterwards she please thee not, thou shalt let her go free, but thou mayst not sell her for money, nor oppress her by might: because thou hast humbled her.
15 If a man have two wives, one beloved, and the other hated, and they have had children by him, and the son of the hated be the first-born;
16 And he meaneth to divide his substance among his sons: he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born, and prefer him before the son of the hated;
17 *But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the first-born, and shall give him a double portion of all he hath: for this is the first of his children, and to him are due the first birth-rights.
18 If a man have a stubborn and unruly son, who will not hear the commandments of his father or mother, and being corrected, slighteth obedience:
19 They shall take him, and bring him to the ancients of his city, and to the gate of judgment,
20 And shall say to them: This our son is rebellious and stubborn, he slighteth hearing our admonitions, he giveth himself to revelling, and to debauchery, and banquetings:
21 The people of the city shall stone him: and he shall die, that you may take away the evil out of the midst of you, and all Israel hearing it may be afraid.
22 When a man hath committed a crime for which he is to be punished with death, and being condemned to die, is hanged on a gibbet:
23 His body shall not remain upon the tree, but shall be buried the same day: *for he is accursed of God that hangeth on a tree: and thou shalt not defile thy land, which the Lord thy God shall give thee in possession.
1: Year of the World 2553, Year before Christ 1451.
17: 1 Paralipomenon v. 1.
23: Galatians iii. 13.