Monday, October 29, 2007

Deuteronomy 21:1–9

Deuteronomy 21:1–9: Atonement for an Unsolved Murder


In this passage, Moses outlines the ritual that the priests are to carry out when an unsolved murder occurs. This is another interesting passage, in the sense that this is not how we create laws in modern times.

If someone is found murdered in a field—the passage doesn’t mention how this would change if the person was murdered in a city—the elders and judges are to measure the distance from the body to all of the neighbouring towns, to find the town that is closest. The elders from that town are then to find a heifer that has not yet begun to work, and they are to bring it to a valley that has a stream, and that has never been plowed or planted. They are to break the heifer’s neck, and the elders are to wash their hands over it, and declare that they don’t know who did this:

Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, O LORD, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent man.” (verses 6–8a)

In this way the Israelites would atone for the bloodshed. As Moses sums up:

So you will purge from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the LORD. (verse 9)


There is a lot of emphasis on this chapter on things being “new,” in some respect. The heifer which is sacrificed has to be young enough that she has never worked; the valley has to be one in which the Israelites have not plowed or planted. I’d say this is similar to other sacrifices that the Israelites had to make, where there were rules for what would be acceptable and what would not.

But aside from that, I’m sure this whole ceremony seems strange to most people, these days. It seems odd that the elders of the closest town—which may not even be the town where the killer lives—have to sacrifice a heifer, and declare that they don’t know who did it. But the fact is, the LORD is teaching the Israelites (and us) that sin is serious, and must be atoned for. I see this as being related—not directly, but somewhat—to the fact that there are many sins in my life that Christ has atoned for that I’m not even aware of. Some passing thought or action that I didn’t even give a second thought to, and yet he paid the price on the cross.

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