Deuteronomy 19-22

Good morning! We continue to breeze through the laws of Deuteronomy with today’s reading, Deuteronomy 19-22. A wide variety of rules here address the community’s experiences in the land. Some of these laws are in keeping with those given in Exodus and Numbers, but others are adaptions to the realities of later life in Israel.

Chapter 19 explains again the function of cities of refuge for those who unintentionally commit murder. They are evenly distributed so as to be close enough to provide accessible sanctuary for all in Israel. This custom seeks to hold in tension an expectation of “life-for-life” justice with a recognition that not all killings are premeditated murder. Righteousness is also called for in terms of reliable property boundaries and truthful testimony (sought in this later category by killing false witnesses as a deterrent).

Deuteronomy 20 lays out the conditions for righteous warfare. What’s most interesting here is that before battle, priests are to exhort those who fight to go home if they have new property, new spouses, or are afraid. God fights for Israel, so those who are unable to wholly and faithfully fight alongside God are encouraged to choose other important life commitments over battle. Some foreign towns attacked in warfare may be offered peace and their residents enslaved (but left alive). This provision, sadly, doesn’t apply to anyone in the towns of Canaan—the earlier total ban stands against them. A final rule regarding the protection of fruit-bearing trees in a prolonged siege reveals the importance of vegetation in this semi-desert landscape. Trees are “non-combatants” that receive greater protection than their human counterparts!

Laws regarding daily life continue in chapter 21 with instructions for how to handle an unsolved murder in the open countryside. Elders of the closest town wash their hands over a sacrificed heifer to purify the town after innocent bloodshed. (Would this earlier custom have led Pilate to wash his hands of Jesus’ innocent blood?) Captive non-Israelite women can be married after a month of purification and mourning, which stands in sharp contrast with stipulations against intermarriage elsewhere in the Torah. Marriage to foreign women is later considered an invitation to the worship of false gods. Parents cannot favor younger children over the eldest in matters of inheritance (which is ironic considering God’s evident preferences), and children may be stoned if they are rebellious against mother and father.

Deuteronomy 22 lists both miscellaneous laws and those related to sexual relations. One theme of the first laws is a compassionate regard for property and life, lest the neglect of one leads to the suffering of another. Another common element is a desire to keep everything in its proper category: proper clothing on the proper gender, only one type of crop in a vineyard, only one type of animal pulling a plow at a time, and garments of only one type of cloth. This sounds like superstition to us, but I wonder if it had a useful purpose at one time (beyond exerting social control and conformity). The section regarding sexual relations is mainly concerned with how to handle various transgressions. The man who doesn’t believe his new wife is a virgin presents her for judgment to the local authorities and her parents can present counter-evidence. (This seems to be some advance from the swallowing of muddy water by the woman, as prescribed in Numbers 5!) Both partners caught in adultery are put to death, as well as both people when a man rapes an engaged woman in town (because the woman did not cry out for help). This leaves unanswered the question of what happens if she did cry out but nobody responded. (Does the writer assume that nobody in this neighbor-compassionate society would ignore her cries?) If an engaged woman could not have counted on rescue from bystanders because she was attacked in the open country, only the rapist is put to death. The non-engaged woman who is raped is subject to lifelong marriage with the rapist. “That’ll show him!”, the law code assumes, with no thought given to her well-being. That provision and many others here remind us that these laws are from an entirely different culture, yet there are some humanitarian concerns here also. I look forward to reading your reactions also. Happy reading!

Read Deuteronomy 19-22.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Deuteronomy 23-26. Thanks for reading!

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