Breaking the Heifer’s Neck: More Fun with Deuteronomy

Alright, admittedly, I’ve been slacking in my bible reading in the last week.  I completely spaced off the fact that I had Bible study tonight, so that gave me time to finish The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Boenhoffer [good read] and then get some more time in God’s word.  Just like my past post on Deuteronomy, I came upon something that struck me as funny.

This particular journey will take place in Deuteronomy 21:1-9.  The heading in my Extremely Sanctified Version Bible says “Atonement for Unsolved Murders”.  I don’t know about anyone else, but unsolved murders brings to mind that show they still show on TV sometimes, “Unsolved Mysteries”, where Robert Stack makes this show about seriously weird and unsolved cases, usually murders or disappearing people.  Stuff like that.  If you’ve actually seen this show you know that unsolved murder cases in our day typically have a huge to do and now with all this forensic science it becomes a major ordeal to figure out who did it and why.  Because motive is important and all.  So, it’s a big circus with the cops and the CSI people and the crying women usually in their bathrobes and slippers and for some reason the word “DRAMATIZATION” is in all the shots.  The people of Israel were given far different instruction for what to do in these situations (the bolding is mine):

Deuteronomy 21:1-4

1 “If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley

So, instead of all these people running around, the cackle of police radios and really horrible acting, Robert Stack would perhaps dramatically narrate as such:

Upon discovery of the body of the Jane Doe in the middle of the wilderness, face down in the dust, the elders and judges of Israel conferred.  They looked in all directions and found that there were two cities nearby.  One was 50 paces away, the other [dramatic pause] 48 paces away.  So, to the second city they went and obtained a heifer.  With great difficulty, they located valley with a small river of running water and brought the heifer along.

(A warning flashes on the screen and is narrated for the hearing impaired… by Robert Stack)

The following scene is graphic in nature and may not be suitable for young children.  Viewer discretion is advised.

[Mr. Stack continues…]

Now, one of the elders then took a hatchet and brought it down with a mighty force against the neck of the heifer, thus offering a sacrifice for the sin of the unknown murderer…


I don’t know about anyone else, but I found this to be a bit funny and stood out because typically an offering is burned at the altar.  And I wondered how one would manage to even do that.  I certainly would like to see one of the elders from my church try and break the neck of one of these things:


So, I did what any self-respecting geek like myself would do and I googled it.  Oddly enough, I could not find a whole lot of information about this particular ritual.  The only one that outlined the actual practice came from The Jewish Theological Seminary.  I guess they used a hatchet and I would assume struck directly at the base of the skull or around that area.  I still don’t know how one man and a hatchet could take down a heifer.  Though, I suppose that it wouldn’t be so big since the heifer to be taken could never have worked or pulled a yoke as verse 3 says.

It’s actually very interesting because apart from breaking the heifer’s neck, there is more to the atonement process:

Deuteronomy 21:5-9

5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ So  you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.

So, after the heifer is dead, the priests would minister and bless and minister in the name of the Lord and would settle the disputes.  The next part I found very interesting.  The Elders of the nearest city would have to get involved, wash their hands over the heifer in the valley and deny any knowledge of the event, quite literally washing their hands of the situation.  Some commentary I found on this states that because it’s considered murder, the sacrifice couldn’t be made inside the city but I couldn’t find any ready references for that.

So, there you go.  Another quick trip through another biblical oddity yet again providing proof of what Paul said to his letter to Timothy:

2 Timothy 3:16

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

Now, the animal rights types might not agree with this but thankfully I’m not one of them and this is God’s word which trumps the word of a PETA supporting hippie any day and in every way.

On a serious note, it is interesting to me that in the instances where direct justice could not be dealt out as God told them in Deuteronomy 19:21, an eye for an eye, that they turn to God for atonement and put it in His hands.  I’ve never been involved personally in an unsolved crime and, if it is God’s will, I never will be.  But I think this is something, as a whole, people should learn to do more often. I need to learn to do this more often.  Life’s too short for hate.


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