“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. . . shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled a yoke. . . and shall break the heifer’s neck. . . 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. . . 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. . . – Deuteronomy 21:1-9
This portion of Deuteronomy is like “CSI: Holy Land” meets “CSPAN.” We get a glimpse into early crime scene investigation as well as lessons on public administration.
Unsolved murders must have accounted for a high proportion of murders thousands of years ago. If nobody came forth with information and the deceased had no obvious enemies, how could authorities proceed short of relying on unsound tactics like the torture of potential informants? Happily, that is not what Moses suggests. In fact, he doesn’t suggest conducting an investigation at all. Maybe the investigation part goes without saying, but a literal reading of the passage quoted at the top of this post would seem to indicate that no investigation is necessary. Instead, authorities with a murdered body on their hands should make a sacrifice, declare their ignorance of the murderer’s identity, and ask God to forgive the people for this shedding of innocent blood. Through these actions, the leaders atone for the spilling of innocent blood and protect society from God’s vengeance.
While I think this approach to unsolved murders makes a fair amount sense in the context of the time period, it begs the philosophical question of why God would punish all of society for the murder rather than just the murderer. That would not only seem to be more fair, it would also solve the crime by default. Perhaps God wants his people to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to managing their civil affairs, but reserves the right to punish them as a collective if they fall so woefully short as to allow murderers to roam free without atonement. I dunno, that analysis seems like a stretch. But it does seem clear that the leaders of early Israel have an ethical obligation to respond to crimes, even unsolvable ones, in order to protect the safety of the populace. That’s a progressive message, even if 21st century readers don’t agree 100% with the policework there.
A segment on the duties of Israel’s kings provides another indication that early Hebrew government was supposed to serve the interests of the people rather than the leaders. A king “must not acquire many horses for himself. . . And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold,” says Deuteronomy 17:16-17. But shunning excessive wealth alone does not a good king make. ”And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom,” the chapter says in verses 18-19, “he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law. . . And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them.” A king, apparently, was to be a sort of religious student-in-chief. This is very different than if the king were the high priest or the head of the church as one might expect in a true theocracy. According to Moses’s law, only Levites serve as religious authority figures. A king’s religious role, like that of the average citizen, is to be a devout follower of God’s word. This may not constitute a complete separation of church and state, but it is not exactly a perfect religious dictatorship, either.
It seems like I always hear negative things about Deuteronomy, but so far I’ve enjoyed it quite a lot. The chapters are short, too, so it’s going pretty fast. On I go.