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Daniel Block: Deuteronomy 21 consists of five short pieces: verses 1–9, 10–14, 15–17, 18–21, and 22–23. These sections are held together by variations of the land grant formula that frame the chapter (vv. 1, 23); each one opens with a conditional clause (“If, when”), followed by a prescribed response; there is a common concern to separate life and death; and there is an overall chiastic arrangement, with instructions on the rights of the firstborn (vv. 15–17) being the center of gravity.

Verses 1–9 exhibit several links with 19:1–13. This text presents a recipe for restoring the deity–nation–land relationship when it has been disturbed through the most serious of human crimes, but it cannot be addressed by dealing with the criminal; his identity is unknown. This is achieved through a ritual designed to atone for the people and to purge from their midst the innocent blood that has been violently shed. The paragraph divides into three parts: (1) The problem (v. 1); (2) The prescription (vv. 2–8b, though broken in v. 6); (3) The result (vv. 8c–9).

MacArthur: This law, which dealt with an unsolved homicide, was not given elsewhere in the Pentateuch. In the event that the guilty party was unknown, justice could not adequately be served. However, the people were still held responsible to deal with the crime. The elders of the city closest to the place where the body of a dead man was found were to accept responsibility for the crime. This precluded inter-city strife, in case relatives sought revenge. They would go to a valley (idol altars were always on high places, so this avoided association with idolatry) and there break the neck of a heifer, indicating that the crime deserved to be punished. But the handwashing of the elders (v. 6) would show that, although they accepted responsibility for what had happened, they were nevertheless free from the guilt attached to the crime.

Gerald Gerbrandt: Chapter 21 opens and closes with the virtually identical, the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess/ for possession (vv. 1, 23). This frame not only points to the larger context but also to the focus of the instruction, the gifted land. Deuteronomy never speaks of the land of Israel as holy (on one occasion it speaks of the war camp as holy; 23:14), but it retains the conviction that if the land is polluted or becomes unclean, Israel will suffer as result. Unclean land will not produce as it should, and the blessing Israel can expect to receive from the land will be impaired. It thus is important that Israel not pollute the land, or if something happens that otherwise might have this effect, that it perform the necessary ritual to deflect its negative consequences.

Duane Christensen: The law on unsolved murder (21:1–9) is pervaded by a strong sense of communal responsibility for what has happened. The rite of expiation involves the cruel death of a heifer that becomes a substitute for the unknown guilty party. The law is framed in a manner to prevent violent crime by increasing the horror of the enormous wickedness so as to illicit watchfulness against occasions to disobey the terms of the covenant with YHWH. The dread of murder is thus impressed on the hearts and minds of the entire populace so that no one will withhold information or assist the criminal in eluding or escaping justice; for the guilt of innocent blood rests on the entire land.

Eugene Merrill: Laws pertaining to homicide up to this point have involved the presence of witnesses. Commonly, however, corpses are discovered bearing evidence of foul play but with no witnesses to the act or none willing to testify. How could such dilemmas be resolved in Israel in such a way as to exculpate the community, which otherwise must bear corporate responsibility and guilt? The answer lay in a ritual, the details of which comprise the present section.


A. Discovery of a Slain Victim in Unoccupied Field in God’s Land

“If a slain person is found lying in the open country

in the land which the LORD your God gives you to possess,”

Gerald Gerbrandt: The discovery of a body murdered (lit., one who has been pierced) in the open country presents a challenge: in the absence of eye-witnesses, identifying the guilty person becomes difficult. As the passages on the judicial system shows, (eye)witnesses were the primary means of confirming guilt. The first task thus is to determine which town must take responsibility for removing the potentially fatal consequences of the murder.

B. Identity of Murderer Unknown

“and it is not known who has struck him,”

Daniel Block: The opening land grant formula illuminates the corporate significance of the crime (v. 1). The goal of the ritual is to restore the symbiotic relationships among Yahweh, Israel, and her land. The reference to land indicates that murder is not merely a crime against a human being but also a crime against Yahweh, for the land is the object of Yahweh’s special care (cf. 11:11–12) and the gift he graciously grants to Israel (19:10, 21:23). Murderous acts violate its sanctity.

David Thompson: It is clear from this verse that the cause of death when you looked at this body was not natural. Apparently one could see that there appeared to be homicidal wounds on the body in that the person had been “struck.”

Now this word (nacah) in Hebrew means this one had been struck and killed (William Gesenius, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 549). Perhaps the body had a fractured or crushed skull. Perhaps there were stab wounds, but what is clear is that when you looked at this body, you knew it had been a homicide.

By virtue of the fact that this crime was committed “in the land” indicates that this was committed in the sacred Promised Land that God had given to Israel. So this crime is a double homicide crime. First, it is a crime against the victim, and second, it is a crime committed in God’s appointed sacred land.

So the question arises what do you do? How do you make this right? How do you keep on track for the blessings of God if you find a murdered dead body?

Charlie Garrett: It describes the conditions under which the situation occurs. A person has been slain, his body is a defiling influence, and the perpetrator is unknown. If such is the case. . .


A. (:2) Determination of Responsible Locality by the Legal Authorities

“then your elders and your judges shall go out

and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one.”

Daniel Block: The purpose of this action is not to establish responsibility for the murder, but to identify the community that should take responsibility for purging Israel of its bloodguilt.

Charlie Garrett: In this, the zaqen, or elders, are those who represent the citizens. Generally, it is the elders who are responsible for proper conduct within the families, and for maintaining proper standards for all who issue from the tribe to which they belong. The word zaqen is from the same root as zaqan, a beard. Thus, it signifies someone who has age and experience.

The judges represent the magistrate who makes legal decisions. They are those who would sit in the gates of the city and attend to all legal matters. In this case, these elders and judges are to leave the city in order to conduct the affairs as directed by Moses. They are to go out to where the slain man is. . .

B. (:3-4) Death of Innocent Substitute (Young Heifer) in an Appropriate Place

1. (:3) Heifer Selected by the Elders of the Responsible City

“And it shall be that the city which is nearest to the slain man,

that is, the elders of that city, shall take a heifer of the herd,

which has not been worked and which has not pulled in a yoke;”

2. (:4) Heifer Slaughtered in a Valley with Running Water

“and the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which has not been plowed or sown,

and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley.”

Daniel Block: The elders remove the heifer to a flowing wadi (v. 4a). Like the heifer, the location of the ritual is described with three qualifications:

(a) There must be a wadi flowing with a perpetual stream of water;

(b) no service has been performed in it;

(c) it has never been planted (with seed).

The instructions envisage an Edenic oasis, a virgin river valley where plants grow naturally, rather than a place watered by a stream only in the rainy season.

The elders break the heifer’s neck at the wadi (v. 4). Since the action results in the death of the animal, it probably involves a blow to the neck with a large pole or axe. Presumably this method was prescribed to avoid bloodshed, which might explain why a young cow was needed. Seasoned draft animals develop strong neck muscles, making it difficult to break the neck and perhaps necessitating slitting the jugular—which is to be rigorously avoided in this ritual. The significance of this aspect of the ritual is unclear. This is obviously not a sacrifice, since it is performed by laypersons far away from any altar . . . it seems best to view the ritual as a reenactment of the murder, with the goal of banishing the defilement of the land. An innocent life has been taken in an innocent locale, with rituals performed in such a way that the land does not lose its innocence by absorbing additional blood.

Gerald Gerbrandt: The heifer that has never been worked, one that has not pulled in the yoke; and a wadi with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown—both have an unspoiled quality to them and thus are appropriate for a sacred ceremony (v. 4). The text identifies three elements of the ceremony, all performed by the elders:

– they break the neck of the cow (v. 4),

– they wash their hands (v. 6),

– and they say a prayer (vv. 7–8).

Charlie Garrett: Some Jewish commentators say that this land was to never be tilled or sown again. That is rather unintelligent. First, it is not to be found in Scripture, and secondly, the purpose of this is atonement. It is as if they cannot understand the meaning of atonement by making such a ridiculous insertion into the text.

The land itself is not at this time being plowed or sown. That is the condition set forth. Once the land is atoned for, it is atoned for. To say that it is never to be plowed or sown again would defeat the entire purpose of atoning for the death. For now, and to effect that atonement, the elders are to bring it to such a valley. . .

C. (:5) Delegation of Judicial Authority to the Local Priests

1. Approach of the Priests

“Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near,”

Meredith Kline: Here is a clear affirmation of the ultimate judicial authority vested in the priesthood.

Charlie Garrett: Despite it being conducted by the elders, the priests are the mediators of the Levitical law. Therefore, the rite is overseen by them. . .

As this is a matter of Levitical law, it is right that the priest was to be in attendance. In these verses so far, we have seen the elders and judges included in measuring from any near city – a moral and judicial matter. Then the elders being involved in the moral aspect of choosing the heifer. Now the elders and priests involved in completing the rite of atonement – a moral and Levitical matter.

In this, all classes of the society are involved in the purging away of the bloodguilt which, until it is accomplished, is attached to the entire community.

2. Calling of the Priests

“for the LORD your God has chosen them to serve Him

and to bless in the name of the LORD;”

3. Role of the Priests Regarding Judicial Authority

“and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them.”

Michael Grisanti: The priests, God’s chosen representatives, must be present at this ceremony even though their precise involvement is not clear. The verse summarizes their role in the life of Israel: to minister, pronounce blessings in Yahweh’s name, and adjudicate certain legal cases.

Daniel Block: their presence at this ritual was required to ensure its proper performance and to serve as witnesses. Presumably at the end they will announce the lifting of bloodguilt and the replacement of this curse with the blessing on Yahweh’s behalf.

D. (:6-8) Deliverance from the Guilt of Innocent Blood Sought by the Elders

1. (:6) Washing of Hands

“And all the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley;”

Eugene Merrill: Inasmuch as the murderer was unknown, it was the guilt or innocence of the community at large that was at stake. In light of this uncertainty the town elders, on behalf of all the people, were to symbolize the innocence of the community by washing their hands over the carcass of the heifer (v. 6), then state their collective innocence of the deed or even of being witness to it (v. 7), and plead with the Lord to accept their act of exculpation and absolve them of any blame for the death of the victim (v. 8). Once this was carried out sincerely and properly, the removal of guilt effected by it would be proclaimed, presumably by the priests who must somehow become instruments of this declaration.

Peter Craigie: The symbolism of the various actions now becomes clear: the crime deserved to be punished, as the broken neck of the heifer indicated, but the hand-washing of the elders showed that, although they accepted responsibility for what had happened, they were nevertheless free from the guilt attached to the crime. The symbolic action is reinforced by the spoken words of the subsequent verses.

2. (:7) Profession of Innocence

“and they shall answer and say,

‘Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it.’”

David Thompson: There was to be an honest account given by the leaders. They were to publicly acknowledge that they had no idea who had done this. There was to be no cover-up.

3. (:8a) Petition for Forgiveness

“Forgive Thy people Israel whom Thou hast redeemed, O LORD,

and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Thy people Israel.”

Gerald Gerbrandt: the prayer offered to God. In fact, the grammar of its petition— Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel—exposes that Israel did not understand the ritual itself to take care of the guilt of the murder in some magical way (v. 8). The real removal of the guilt is God’s action in response to the prayers of his people— Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt—and not a consequence of the mechanics of the ritual (v. 8).

Michael Grisanti: Reference to “your people Israel . . . your people” (21:8) as those who need this divine atonement demonstrates that the nation as a whole, not just the nearby community, needs to rectify their relationship with Yahweh.

Peter Craigie: The forgiveness is sought for the whole people (Israel is mentioned twice in the prayer for forgiveness), not simply for the city nearest the crime. A basis for forgiveness is offered in the prayer; it is not the merit of Israel, but the fact that God had ransomed (see also 7:8) his people from the bondage of Egypt. The act of ransom had been an act of grace, and on the basis of such glorious precedent, the elders sought another act of grace in receiving the forgiveness of God. But further, if all the land were punished on account of an act of murder by a person unknown, then the great work of God, initiated in the Exodus, could be brought to an untimely end. Thus the prayer for forgiveness has in mind not only the well-being of the people, but also the purpose of God.

4. (:8b) Acceptance of Forgiveness

“And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them.”

Earl Kalland: Though the word kapar (“atone”) appears twice in v. 8, the atonement mentioned is not an atonement within the sacrificial system; for the blood of the heifer was not offered. It is rather an atonement for justice; the heifer suffered death in place of the unknown criminal, in order to clear the land of guilt.


A. Removal of Guilt of Innocent Blood

“So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst,”

Michael Grisanti: The atonement envisioned here is not part of the sacrificial system but concerns the correction of a horrible injustice. The death of the cow clears the land and the people of Israel from their corporate guilt.

L. M. Grant: They bring no offering to make atonement for the guilt, because the guilty person was not known, but they were to ask the Lord to provide atonement according to His own perfect wisdom, and that He would not charge Israel with the guilt of this murder (v.8). Thus they would clear themselves fully from any identification with the evil. God would Himself provide atonement on their behalf, and the guilt of innocent blood would be put away (vs.8-9).

B. Righteousness Reinforced

“when you do what is right in the eyes of the LORD.”

David Thompson: We may assume that this could mean God would also permit the homicidal felon to surface so he could be punished.