Part 3 of the Deuteronomy overview with commentary featuring chapters 16-21.
Deuteronomy Chapter 16:
Moses gave additional rules on the yearly festivals. For the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Pesach), he reminds them that Passover is on the 14th day of the first month (Abib/Nisan) of the year, which is the month they left Egypt. Passover gets its own sacrificial offering, from the flock and herd, and it must be sacrificed in the designated place of worship at the Tabernacle. They must eat nothing with yeast for seven days so all bread must be matzah (unleavened) and not chametz (leavened). This is to remind them of how they escaped from Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time for yeast. The Passover sacrifice must be done on the evening of the first day because it was after the evening that they left Egypt. They must eat their Passover meat in the same place they sacrificed, in God’s presence, afterwards the next day they can return to their tents. The first and seventh days are days of rest and holy assembly for all of the days in between they must not eat any leaven.
Seven weeks (49 days) from when they harvested the First Fruits (about the second/third day of Passover) of the year will be the beginning of the Festival of the Harvest (Shavuot/Pentecost). They will observe this festival by bringing a voluntary offering. They must eat this voluntary offering in the presence of God with their families, and the Levites from their town as well as orphans, widows, and foreigners. This would be in addition to required special and daily offerings. This is a day of rest and assembly so no ordinary work will be done.
Lastly, they must observe the Festival of Shelters/Tabernacles (Sukkot) for seven days. This will be a time of celebration for the Israelites to eat in God’s presence with their families, the Levites from their towns, and the widows, orphans, and foreigners. They will celebrate this festival to honor God and show him thanks for supplying them with a bountiful harvest.
Each year every man in Israel must observe these three festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in the place that God designates. They must bring a gift based on what they were blessed with that year.
Moses tells them to appoint judges from each of their tribes in all the towns. These judges must be fair and never distort justice for bribes or by showing partiality. In addition, the Israelites are told to never set up wooden Asherah poles or sacred pillars for worship. These are pagan practices and they must only worship their God the way he instructs them.
Deuteronomy Chapter 17:
Moses reminds them that they must not sacrifice any animal with defects and illness. He then reminds them that if there are rumors of someone committing idolatry within a town, the people must investigate and take the perpetrators to the gates and stone them to death. A person cannot be put to death unless there are at least two or three witnesses. The witnesses must cast the first stones, and then everyone else will join in afterward.
Moses then talks about judicial issues. If a local case is too hard to be determined whether it be civil or criminal, serious or mild, such legal matters must be taken to God’s presence at the Tabernacle is set up. The case will be presented before the Levitical priests or the judge on duty at that time. Whatever verdict and sentence they come up with must be carried out. Their sentencing must not be modified in any way. Anyone who rejects their verdict and sentencing must be put to death.
Moses gives them instructions on how monarchs are to rule in their nation if they decide to become a monarchy like the other nations when they enter the land. The king must be an Israelite and not a foreigner. He must not send people back to Egypt to buy horses, they are forbidden from going back to Egypt. In addition, the king must not have many wives, because they may turn his heart towards idols. Lastly, he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself. The king must have his own copy of the Torah, and he must read it every day and night. If he does this he will fear God and will obey the commands. Regularly reading it will prevent him from becoming proud and looking down on everyone else. This law will stay on his mind preventing him from breaking it easily. Plus if the habit is kept up, his descendants will keep on reigning in future generations.
Comment: King Solomon broke all of the restrictions on monarchs in Deuteronomy 17:16-17. Kings were not supposed to buy horses from Egypt, accumulate a bunch of wives (especially pagan Gentile women), or accumulate vast amounts of personal wealth for themselves. Solomon bought 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses from Egypt and Cilicia (1 Kings 10:26-29). Its likely he already had a business contract with Egypt because the first wife of Solomon that is mentioned is the Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 9:16). Speaking of wives he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and since they were foreign women they worshipped idols and convinced Solomon to build shrines for false gods, turning him away from his covenant with his God (1 Kings 11:1-8). Lastly, he accumulated a lot of wealth in gold and silver, and cedarwood (1 Kings 10:14-29). A lot of that wealth came from selling goods to merchants and traders, and kings in Arabia, charging wealthy people to come to hear his wisdom (v25) and reselling chariots from Egypt to the Hittites (v29). He also made money from heavy taxation and conscripting slave labor from various foreigners (2 Chronicles 2:17-18 and 2 Chron 8:7-10). When Solomon died the people went to his son Rehoboam to receive some relief from the heavy taxes but Rehoboam didn’t budge, and this is what lead to Jeroboam’s rebellion (1 Kings 12:1-20 and 2 Chronicles 10) which caused the Kingdom to split between the north (Israel) and south (Judah).
Deuteronomy Chapter 18:
Moses reminds the Levites and priests that they will not receive an inheritance of land and that all of their income will come from offerings brought to them from the people because God is their inheritance. The priest will receive cattle, sheep, and goats as offerings from the people and they may eat from the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. In addition, they get the first part of their grain, new wine, olive oil, and wool at shearing time. If a Levite moves from a town to the place where the Tabernacle will be, he will be allowed to minister with the other Levites and eat from the sacrifices even if he makes money from the sale of his property.
Moses reminds them that when they get to the land they must not follow the customs of the Canaanites. No one can sacrifice their children, practice fortune-telling, sorcery, interpreting omens, witchcraft, spell casting, work as mediums or psychics, or engage in necromancy. These things are detestable to God, and these practices are the reason he is driving out the Canaanites. Israel must be better than them and do what is right.
Moses said that God will send them more prophets like him in the future. He says this is because when God spoke to them from the fire on Mt Sinai (Horeb), they were terrified and preferred if Moses spoke for God. Therefore God will send them prophets and they must heed the warnings of the prophets. If a person claiming to be a prophet speaks lies instead of God’s word or speaks in the name of a false god, the Israelites do not have to listen to them and that prophet must die. They will know if a prophet is true or not based on if his word comes to pass. If a prophet says something will happen and it doesn’t then it is not God’s word, and the Israelites have nothing to fear from that prophet.
Deuteronomy Chapter 19:
Moses reiterates the importance of cities of refuge and reminds them that when they take the land they still have three more cities of refuge to designate. [They previously were told to designate six cities of refuge and three of them are east of the Jordan in the territories claimed by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (Deut 4:41-43).] These cities are for the refuge of people who kill by accident and without malice towards the victim. They must divide the land into three districts one for each city. If the distance between the cities is too great the slayer may be killed by an avenger unfairly since they couldn’t make it to a city of refuge while awaiting trial. An example of a situation, that calls for this would be this: If a man was chopping trees and the ax head flew off and killed another person and that person’s family wanted revenge in the heat of the moment, so the slayer must have a safe place to stay until the trial. If they keep his commands and God blesses them with more territory the Israelites are to add three more cities of refuge. The cities of refuge will prevent the death of innocent people. However, if someone has animosity towards his neighbor and ambushes him on purpose and kills them, then that person is a murderer and the relatives of the victim are to put him to death.
Moses reminds them to conduct themselves righteously in the land. They must not move ancestral boundary markers on land. Whenever there is a civil or criminal dispute, a conviction can only be made with two or three witnesses. If a false witness is involved in a case, both the witness and the accused are to stand before the priest and judges at the time. After an investigation, if the judges have concluded that the witness is lying then they will be punished for whatever crime in which they falsely accused their neighbor. This will purge the evil from the community and the others will fear God and avoid doing such wicked things. They are not to pity the guilty, the rules are a life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Deuteronomy Chapter 20:
Moses assures them that if they go out to battle and see larger forces than their army, they don’t have to fear because God is on their side. The priest is to inspire the people before each battle and remind them that God is on their side.
When they are about to go to war the officials should ask the men to get their affairs in order. If a man hasn’t dedicated his house yet, he should go dedicate his home and do so just in case he dies and someone else gets the house as an inheritance for their children. If a man has planted a vineyard but hasn’t made use of its fruit yet, he should go back and reap the harvest for food and offering, or else someone else may reap the harvest of his vineyard if he dies. If a man is engaged but not married yet, he should go back and marry his wife so that no one else takes her before he has a chance to have children. (These things are done so that inheritances and offerings can be preserved for soldiers in case they die.) Lastly, the officials will ask if any man is afraid, and they will be sent home because their lack of faith may demoralize others. Once the officials finish they will appoint commanders.
When they advance on a town they must offer it peace, if the town accepts, then they will become slaves and laborers for the Israelites. If they want war, then the Israelites can attack the town. Every male must be killed, however, they can take the women and children as captives and livestock and treasures as spoils. This course of action applies to towns that are far away from Canaan. For the towns of Canaan itself, everyone (both humans and animals) must be destroyed that way the Israelites won’t learn their customs and follow their practices. These nations included the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. If the battles drag on the Israelites must not cut down fruit trees, instead, these trees should be used for food. Only trees that don’t produce fruit can be cut down and used for equipment.
Comment: In Deut 20:10-18, they were told not to make peace with the local Canaanite nations and wipe them out in order to avoid copying their practices. For faraway nations, they could offer peace and subjection and only were to fight if they refused. When fighting faraway nations, they were told to kill only the men and they could keep the plunder and livestock, as well as the women and children as captives. However, they were to kill everyone among the local Canaanites to kill both humans and livestock (presumably because the livestock was dedicated to false gods). The Canaanites were explicitly judged by God through Israel’s actions. According to Joshua 11:19, most cities did not want peace with the Israelites except the Hivites of Gibeon. They are Canaanites who pretended to be non-Canaanites and tricked Israel into sparing them and in exchange they became slaves. In the end, God always warns even Gentile nations, through dreams (Genesis 20:3-7, Genesis 40 and 41, Daniel 2) or by sending prophets (1 Kings 18 and 22, Jonah 1). It’s made clear from Rahab’s words in Joshua 2:9-11 and from the Hivites of Gibeon in Joshua 10:24-25, that these nations already knew God was sending Israel to judge them. They were afraid of Israel because they heard what God did for them in Egypt and with the other nations they fought in the wilderness. In Joshua 11:20, God hardened the hearts of the wicked kings like he did Pharaoh so they would experience maximum judgment. How a person or nation responds to the warning will determine if they receive mercy or not.
On the subject of soldiers taking slave women and such, these were not things God told them they must do but rather things that were allowed to do. In the ancient world, it was common for women to actually dress up and look their best when they were being conquered in order to make lovers out of their conquers. The purpose was survival so that they and their children could be protected from living in a desolate wasteland with no army or men to do the typical male task like building structures and using heavy tools. Women in those days would rather marry their conquers than live as widows in poverty, so this allowance actually would have benefited the women, and Israel was allowed to do this because it was better than the alternative. Otherwise, these single mothers are responsible for their normal duties as mothers as well as protecting their families from the elements, poverty, and wild animals, all with no societal infrastructure, military protection, or economic security
Imagine being a single widow in a city with no men. There is no modern construction equipment to close the gap in physical prowess between the sexes, so it would be difficult to rebuild the city’s walls, not to mention how dangerous it is. In addition, one would have to fight lions and bears to defend your family which is normally the men’s job. Likewise, you aren’t trained in men’s jobs like metallurgy, lumberjacking, or sailing/fishing in order to keep special exports going for the local economy. Even if you could sail, who will watch the children while you are at sea? You are the last line of defense for your children. If you have teenagers then there is a better chance of survival without you because they are old enough to adapt and take care of their younger siblings, but if you have young children then they will likely die without you so you must live so they can live. That means avoiding risky behaviors like fighting predators, sailing, and building massive structures. Men did these things because men are more expendable, and this is because of sexeconomics. If there is at least one man society can more easily repopulate, even if that man dies, as long as he gets some women pregnant with sons beforehand. It makes sense in this scenario to marry your conquerors. Most women wanted to live a soft life, and the best way to guarantee that was to marry a man so they could take the brunt of the hardship in life, even if marrying their conquerors.
Deuteronomy Chapter 21:
Moses prescribed this procedure for unsolved murders in the land. When they are in the land and they find a murder victim. The elders and judges must measure the distance from the body to the nearest town. Once the nearest town is determined they must take a young heifer that has never been yoked to a stream in a region that has never been plowed or planted. They will break the heifer’s neck at this location. Then the Levites will come to pronounce a blessing for the unsolved murder because it is they who preside over violent criminal cases. The Elders of the nearest town must wash their hands over the dead heifer and say a prayer. The prayer: “Our hands did not shed this person’s blood, nor did we see it happen. O Lord, forgive your people Israel whom you have redeemed. Do not charge your people with the guilt of murdering an innocent person.” After this, that town and all of the community will be absolved of guilt for the shedding of blood.
Moses gives instructions on marriage to captive women from war. When they take women captive from war the women will stay in the house of the men that want to marry them for a whole month in mourning for their families. A captive woman will cut her nails, shave her head and change her clothes at the beginning of the mourning period. Once that period is over the men can marry them. If things don’t work out they may not sell them because these wives are to be treated like free women and be given their freedom in divorce, rather than be treated like slaves.
Then Moses addressed fair treatment in inheritance. If a man has two wives and loves one more than the other, and the firstborn comes from his least favorite wife, he is not allowed to give the firstborn’s birthright to the other son because his mother is the favorite.
Next Moses addressed how to deal with rebellious sons. If there is a rebellious youth that disrespects his parents and they can’t control him with discipline, they can bring him to the elders at the town gate. If found guilty the men of the town will stone him outside the city gates. This is someone who lives wild and is a glutton and drunkard and is a general pest to the community.
Moses said if someone is put to death and then hung on a tree as a warning to others, the body must be taken down by sunset. Anyone who is hung on a tree is a curse in the sight of God.
Comment: Previously we are told that when someone commits murder they must be put to death because not even a sacrifice will cover their sins in Numbers 35:30-34. In addition, Num 35:33 says murder spiritually defiles the land. However, if the murderer is unknown, then they must spiritually purify the land with this ritual involving their elders of the nearest town washing their hands over a sacrificed unyoked heifer, in this unplowed land in Deut 21:1-9.
According to Deut 17:6, a person cannot be put to death without the word of two or three witnesses, so that means the rebellious son in Deut 21:18-21 is put to death because of his parent’s testimony as witnesses. It would take a lot for parents to have their kids executed, we must not read this as if happened casually or is taken lightly.