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There is, in the portion of the week, Shoftim, a bizarre commandment. When the Israelites occupy Canaan (remember, Shoftim is part of Moses’ discourse to the Israelites on the banks of Jordan River) and someone slain is discovered lying in the open, if the identity of the killer is not known, the elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distance from the body to neighboring towns. Then, the elders of the nearest town shall find a heifer that has never been worked and has never been yoked. They will take the heifer to an “overflowing wadi” that has never been tilled or sown, and break the heifer’s neck. Then the elders of the town nearest the corpse shall wash their hands over the dead heifer, and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” The declaration concludes with a plea that God absolve the Israelites.
The commentators don’t say what happens to the body of the victim, and the commentators don’t say what happens to the heifer. The heifer was probably not eaten, because sacrificial animals had their throats slit.
There are parallels in ancient Mideast cultures. The Jewish Study Bible says the Hammurabi Code had a parallel provision, and the Hittite Laws had an analogous provision. The provision of the Hammurabi Code and the Hittite Laws concern whether financial liability exists. By contrast, the Torah procedure relates to atoning for the spilled blood of the victim. Most of the time, we can’t discern the origin of Israelite laws, such as kashrut and sha’atnez (don’t commingle two species of plants). The origins of these laws are lost in the shrouds of antiquity.
The Jewish Study Bible says that the heifer’s “immaturity and physically intact state symbolize the human victim’s innocence.” If this is correct, it probably is a coincidence.
The “overflowing wadi” reminds me of the mikvah: mayim haim, living water. I don’t know what the meaning is, of the heifer being killed in living water, but I suspect anthropologists would have a field day.
The wording of the declaration that the elders say, reminds us of the prayer that farmers say when they bring the first fruits to the Temple. It is a long-standing ritual, and the elders declare that no Israelite had a part of the killing.