29 September 2010

Sacrifices for an Unsolved Murder: Community Responsibility in Ancient Israel

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                A fascinating example of the comprehensiveness of the Torah is the law recorded at Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 1-9. This law outlines the procedure for dealing with an unsolved murder, and helps modern readers to understand the great value that the ancient Israelites put on life—in spite of the brutal, bloody times in which they lived.
                According to the Law of Moses, anytime a murder victim’s body was found within the borders of the Promised Land, the village elders and judges would do what they could to solve the crime. If they were unable to find the murderer, though, the crime still required expiation. In an example of the concept of community responsibility that is (as far as I know) unique among the cultures of the early Bronze Age, a procedure had to be followed in order to absolve the nearest community of bloodguilt, and to remind everyone that the crime of murder could not be committed without serious, public consequences. These consequences could serve to motivate any witnesses to the crime into coming forward with what they knew.
                The procedure was this: the older men of the communities around the body were to measure the distance from the corpse to their cities and determine which city was closest. The elders of that city then acquired a young cow. Deuteronomy specifies that the cow must never have pulled a yoke. There is another Hebrew phrase used to describe the animal, but it is unclear—it either means “a cow that has not been used for work” or “a cow that has not bred.”
                This animal was led to a torrent valley in which there was running water, but the soil of which did not permit the growing of crops. (Interestingly, the Torah specifies that it must be a valley in which there was “customarily no tilling or sowing of seed;” in some areas of Israel there were few areas in which a crop had not been planted at some time, or that were not growing grain as a result of seeds that had spread naturally).
                There, over the running water, the Levites of the city were to break the animal’s neck. The Mishnah explains that this was done by striking the animal behind the ears with a heavy, broad-bladed axe. Apparently this unusual method of execution related to the unsolved nature of the crime. Sacrifices in Israel (almost) always involved the shedding of blood—it was the blood that was considered sacred and representative of the animal’s life. In this case, though, the animal was being executed, not as a sacrifice, but in place of the murderer. Had its blood been ritually shed, it might have seemed to be an atonement for the criminal’s crime, but it was not mean to absolve him of guilt. In fact, if the murderer was identified at some later time, he would be executed in line with what the Torah required. The killing of the bull allowed the city to put off the burden of their community guilt, as the next instructions make clear.
                After the animal was killed, the priests were to approach and observe as the elders of the city washed their hands over the body. There, in the hearing of the people they recited: “Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed. Do not set it to the account of your people Israel, whom you redeemed, O Jehovah, and do not put the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel.”
                What was done with the cow afterward is not specified, although it seems likely that the body was disposed of ritually rather than butchered and eaten. This ritual must have helped to provide a measure of closure for the families of the murder victim, and for the rest of the community.

To learn more about everyday life in Bible times, check out my series The Eternal Throne Chronicles, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

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