If someone is found slain, lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who the killer was, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. The Levitical priests shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. 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, Lord , and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for, and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the Lord. – Deuteronomy 21:1-9
OK so this is an odd passage. There are several aspects that have me puzzled. Why would atonement be required for an unsolved murder? Why a heifer that has never been worked? Why a broken neck in a stream? Why in a field that has never been plowed or planted? How does the neck-breaking action of the priests atone for the Israelites? How does having someone else do the dirty deed of killing the heifer purge the Israelites of guilt in the neck-breaking of the heifer?
So many questions so little time….I have another Netflix confession. I have been watching episodes of the 80’s drama Murder She Wrote for the last couple of weeks. This passage sounds like a teaser for an episode…”Murder and the Heifer with a broken neck”. Jessica Fletcher would probably already have this passage figured out, but I am left feeling like the inept local sheriff. She probably would have worked with the local elders to solve the murder rather than rush to cold cock a young heifer, but alas God has called me to “walk on water” even when the passages feel like wobbly waves….so here goes.
Since we know nothing about the murdered person we are not likely to solve the murder, and perhaps that is not the real point of this passage. It does seem odd that the people are told to trust the priests and ignore the fact that their is a guilty person running around, literally getting away with murder. Unless what God is communicating here is that it is the atonement that is the important part not the guilt or innocence of a murderer.
This reminds me of the seemingly odd accounting when it comes to the atonement provided by Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. The main point of Jesus dying on a cross for us is not what we have done to require atonement, but what He has sacrificed for us regardless of our sins that require atonement.
Our sins come as a result of choices, just like the slain person in the field was there because someone chose to murder them. I think this passage is about redemption not retribution. From a human, J.B. Fletcher, perspective we want to know who done it, but what God seems to be saying is that it does not matter “who done it”. What matters is that “He done it” — He accepted the atonement and relationship that occurs through the ritual with the heifer, and later with Jesus on the cross.
I admit the details of the location of the atonement, by a stream, in a field not plowed or planted, are still somewhat confusing to me. Unless God is trying to get across the idea that atonement is something we cannot achieve by any work of plowing or planting. It is part of the spiritual realm and fabric that required God to send Jesus to die on a cross. Something that just is, rather something we as humans can build, plant, or influence by any amount of clever sleuthing, sorry J.B.
The details of the heifer are also confusing. Perhaps there is a cultural context I am ignorant about. What seems clear is that the atonement actions they are describing with the heifer are very different than the extensive blood letting and animal parsing that has characterized atonement offerings on the altar at the tent of meeting up to this point. It is not clear to me why shedding blood in this “natural” setting is prohibited while it is required on the altar. Hopefully this is one of those passages that will become more clear later as I continue my journey. What does seem clear is that God is more interested in redemption than retribution, and if God were to star in His own TV drama it would probably be called “Redemption He Wrote”.
Prayer: God your gift of atonement is an amazing and awesome mystery. Help us to accept it regardless of our reason for needing it.