Can we learn God’s heart from a ritual for a dead body? [Crime & Punishment – Deuteronomy 21, part 3]

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Imagine the scene. In ancient Israel, a murdered body is found in a field, and no one knows who committed the crime. Who should deal with the body, and how does God want the people to deal with the blood guilt? In this series we’ve been exploring the fascinating ritual God commands the people to follow. Read part 1 and part 2, covering verses 1-5, and the beginning of the ritual. What happens then in verses 6-9 is the remainder of the ceremony. Thus far, the nearby towns have measured the distance from the body to their towns. The closest town has jurisdiction, and the elders from that town must take a young heifer to a wadi with a flowing stream, and there they break the neck of the heifer with priests observing them. The elders, then, ritually wash their hands over the dead heifer and they recite a prayer to God declaring on behalf of the people that they are innocent, and they ask God to consider them now atoned for. 

This ceremony has led to some amazing speculation as to what was going on with all these unique features.  Ancient Rabbis, one scholar reports, said that “the ceremony [was] an act of punitive magic. A swarm of worms from the heifer finds the killer and seizes him so that the authorities can bring him to justice; [another Rabbi said] the worms themselves kill him.”[1]  Notice that the text says nothing about these magical worms!

So what is the meaning of the wadi with the stream, the heifer, the neck breaking and the hand-washing?  There are numerous views, and one scholar I listed above suggests that we should see the ritual “as a reenactment of the murder…, since it…suggests a reasonable explanation of why it must take place at a barren wadi: that is, so that the imitation blood guilt is kept far from civilization. Nevertheless,” the scholar says, “this view is far from certain.”[2]

But what is certain, is what happens at the end of the ritual.  The prayer.  By going through this ritual, verse 9 tells us, the people will have purged themselves and the land of guilt from bloodshed, declaring that they are innocent, and they are declared as having done what was right in God’s eyes. 

Fascinating ritual, isn’t it?  It is a unique section of Scripture, but what does it matter to us?  What do we see of God’s heart in this passage? 

Through it all, we see God’s heart for purity.  Even when a crime is committed and though they don’t know who the guilty party is, Israel still needs to atone for it.  Purity in the land, and purity in his people is vital before God.  Tomorrow we add to this theme in part 4 as we have two more illustrations of crime and punishment, through which we will learn more about God’s heart.


[1] Tigay, Jeffrey H. Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996. Print. The JPS Torah Commentary.

[2] Ibid.

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids, Tyler, Connor, Jared and Meagan. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

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