At first blush, this may seem like a strange chapter on which to affix a title like God values human life. After all, it references things such as murder, stoning, hanging, and captivity. Yet, beneath the discussion — like a strong undercurrent — I see a God who is trying to instill in His people a fundamental respect for life. Let’s take a quick peek at each section:
1. Atonement for an Unsolved Murder (vs 1-9). In Israel, if a person was found dead and nobody knew how they had died, the priests in the nearest city to the body were required to sacrifice a heifer (a valuable one, mind you) in order to "make atonement" for the bloodshed. When I first read that, I thought, what’s that all about? What does a cow’s broken neck have to do with a dead body? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the time and effort involved in carrying out such a ritual. One thing is for sure: nobody in Israel would be able to just ignore a dead body and go on about their business. I think it served to help the people understand that every life is precious to God — even those that end when nobody else is watching. They matter to Him, and so He wanted them to also matter to His people.
2. Marrying a Captive Woman (vs 10-14). There were a lot of beautiful women in the surrounding heathen nations, and I’m sure it often happened that Israelite men were attracted to them. (This is what got them into trouble with the Moabites, remember?) Well, once again, God shows His soft underbelly and tenderness toward women. He instructs the Israelite men who want to marry a captive woman to, first, allow them a month of mourning for their family (presumably killed in battle) and then to be basically granted all the rights of an Israelite wife. That is, if the man decided to "divorce" her, he couldn’t sell her or treat her as a slave. She would not revert to being a "prisoner of war."
3. The Right of the Firstborn (vs 15-17). Oh, how often it is the children who suffer through the marital problems of their parents! There is an unfortunate amount of evidence for that in our own society, and here we see that we did not invent such ills. Only, in Bible times, instead of divorcing the first wife and marrying a second and having an entirely separate family, men usually just added wives to the household. Talk about rivalry and competition — between the wives and the children! So God told His men to respect their firstborn sons — no matter what they came to think of the mother. If more fathers would heed the principle of this advice today, we might have a lot fewer hurting children in our society.
4. A Rebellious Son (vs 18-21). This one sort of made me want to laugh right out loud. If you don’t obey your parents, they will take you to be stoned. First of all, I can’t think of a single Bible story (off the top of my head) where this warning was actually carried out. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for some as we go along. But I think there’s a little clue to this warning in verse 21: "All Israel will hear of it and be afraid." I think this is the Biblical equivalent of, You just wait until your father gets home. I doubt there were many parents who would have actually taken their own children to be stoned to death, but I bet it was a great deterrent to disobedience! (Johnny, clean that toilet right now . . . you know what it says in Deuteronomy about a rebellious son!) On a fundamental level, however, I think this shows the great importance God places on parenting — both on the parent’s responsibility to be good parents and the child’s responsibility to respect authority. A great prerequisite for valuing life!
5. Various Laws (vs 22-23). Last but not least, there is the instruction to bury dead bodies — especially those of folks who died in a public way. How does this show respect for the value of human life? Well, I have often wondered what it would have been like to live under Roman authority in the time of Christ. I have read in the past that crucifixion was so common then that the main highways were nearly littered with crosses and as many as 500 people were crucified per day. Around 40 BC, a Roman historian recorded that 2,000 people were crucified in a single day — simply for the entertainment of Quintilius Varus. But regardless of whether it was done for punishment or pleasure (ugh), such exposure to suffering, death, and dying on a regular basis would have a powerfully desensitizing effect. Here, it seems God wanted to minimize that desensitization has much as possible.
I am so glad that our God values human life — and not just the physical aspects, but the emotional and spiritual aspects as well. He cares about how we are treated. He cares about whether we receive respect from and give respect to others. He cares that we love and are loved. And this isn’t just cheap talk or pretty words: He cares to such an extent that He didn’t even spare His own life in the quest to show us just how much He values us. Wow. What a God!