We have a murder on our hands! In part 1 of this series on crime and punishment in Deuteronomy 21, a dead body has been found. But the murderer can’t be found, or is thus far unknown. God has told Israel that the body bring blood guilt on the land, and as we saw in part 1, he takes this very seriously. So God gives them a method to deal with the blood guilt in the land Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 2-9.
Look at Verse 2. The leaders of local towns are to measure the distance from the body to their various towns. This measurement would most likely happen by counting paces. Is God saying that that the murder was committed by a person who lived in the town closest to the body? No. Again this is not about finding out who did it. We are told that they don’t know who did it, and right now there is a more pressing issue: the body and blood spilled on the land. What we are seeing here is the method Israel is to use to determine which town had jurisdiction to deal with the body.
Once they determine which town is closest to the body, then that town has to deal with the body and blood guilt. This brings us to verses 3-4, and what have in these verses is something that has no exact parallel in the Old Testament Law.
We are told they are to take a heifer, a cow that has never been worked, never worn a yoke. Most likely that means it would be young, probably around 1 year old or so. And they are to take that heifer out to a valley with unplowed, unplanted land, but with a flowing stream. This is called a wadi, which are common in the Middle East. Many wadis have dry riverbeds that flow with water during the rainy season. The wadis that are to be used for this ritual, however, are to have a constantly flowing stream. Here’s the thing, though. While there are many wadis in Israel, only very few have a constantly flowing stream. Some towns are quite far from a wadi with a stream. Why would God want them to perform a ritual in such a remote area? There is much speculation and very little agreement as to how to interpret this. What is agreed upon though is found in the verses that describe the end of the ritual. Before they get to the end of the ritual, however, there are a few steps the elders of the town must perform.
First they are to break the heifer’s neck. No easy task. How do you break the neck of a cow? Cows have huge necks! More importantly, though, why would God want them to break its neck?
God had already told Israel about a sacrificial procedure for the nation on what is called the Day of Atonement, where the sins of the nation would be placed on an animal that was sent outside the camp. That animal was called the scapegoat. The Day of Atonement scenario has echoes of what we read here in Deuteronomy 21, but this is different.
The breaking of the heifer’s neck means there is no bloodshed, and further there is no altar. That means this heifer with the broken neck is not being sacrificed. There are plenty of passages in the OT Law that teach things like, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” But here there is no bloodshed. What is going on here?
We have to continue on in the description to fully understand the meaning. In verse 5, after the elders have broken the neck of the heifer, the priests step in as representatives of the Lord, but we are not told why. Perhaps as representatives of God, for this ceremony to be official, they need to be there. The people of that town, if they are serious about dealing with the purity of the land, and they do have a dead body on their land making the land impure, definitely want God’s approval for the purification ceremony, and apparently it requires the priests to be there.
So what is this ritual all about? We’ll explore that further next in part 3.