Deuteronomy 21:1-9 – Unknown Murderer


Deuteronomy 21:1-9


A ritual for washing away of communal guilt when a murderer is unknown.


In Deuteronomy, God is unable to countenance unpunished injustice. If the body of a victim of murder is found in the open, the nearest town or settlement is responsible for carrying out a somewhat expensive expiation ritual. A breeding cow that has never worked is to be taken to land that has never been plowed, and there its neck is to be broken. This is not to be understood as a blood sacrifice, but an expensive (the increase of the herd is severely curbed by the killing of a breeding cow) covering over of the guilt of the leaders of the nearest town. The leaders symbolically wash their hands over the cow’s carcass, asking that God would wash away their guilt. The leaders incurred guilt, according to this ritual, by not providing safety for innocent blood in the land closest to their town. Even if the leaders had nothing to do with the murder itself, they and their town would be held guilty for creating an area in which murder can go unwitnessed and unpunished. The ritual provides atonement (literally “covering”) of their guilt for not punishing/preventing the actions of the murderer.