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Aug 17 2008

CSI: Deuteronomy

How to handle an unsolved murder, Old Testament style.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9:

Cow 1
"If in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, any one is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities that are around him that is slain; and the elders of the city which is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer which has never been worked and which has not pulled in the 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.

And 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, neither did our eyes see it shed. Forgive, O Lord, thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and set not the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of thy people Israel; but let the guilt of blood be forgiven them.'

So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord." (Revised Standard Version.)

Got that, everybody?

So. There are two things that immediately leap to mind about this passage.

Life of brian
Okay, three things, since the very first thing that leaps to mind is a totally baffled, almost hallucinatory, "What the fuck?" It makes so little sense that it almost doesn't parse at all. When Ingrid first read it to me (it's the opening quotation to the book she's reading, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"), I thought I was hearing it wrong. It reminds me of nothing more than the Prophets Row scene in "Life of Brian." "At this time, a friend shall lose his friend's hammer. And the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock."

But I think we can take that as a given. So after the hallucinatory bafflement fades a bit, here's what immediately leaps to mind about this passage.

One: This sure blows to smithereens any ideas about the Bible being eternal, perfectly true forever, as useful a guide today as it was when it was written.

NYPD_logo
As Ingrid pointed out: How exactly would this principle operate for an unsolved murder today, in, say, New York City? If a body washed up in the East River, would they measure whether it landed closer to Manhattan or Brooklyn to decide which city had to slaughter the heifer? Would the mayor have to personally do the slaughtering, or would it be okay for the city council to take care of it? Or could it be delegated to a special department: a Department of Unsolved Murder Heifer Slaughtering, to replace the Cold Case Squad? And given the number of unsolved murders in New York City every year, would they have to keep a special feedlot to raise cows specially for the unsolved murder sacrifices?

Two: How was this ever useful? Even at the time it was written? Even in the Bronze Age?

What a weird version of justice this is. Somebody was murdered, you can't punish the person who did it — so you punish a cow?

God Monty Python and the Holy Grail
And what a weird vision of God it is. Why do the city elders have to explain to God that they weren't responsible for the murder? Doesn't God already know? Besides, is God really going to feel better about the injustice of an unpunished murder because an unworked cow gets slaughtered in an unplowed river valley? And if they didn't perform this ritual, would God really punish an innocent city just because it happened to be the closest to where a dead body was found?

(And in fact, as Ingrid pointed out: How would the elders know that the murder wasn't committed by someone in their city?)

And I'm back to my totally baffled, "What the fuck?"

Ingrid keeps saying that I have to be fair: that I have to remember the time and place this was written, and not judge people with a Bronze Age view of the world from my own modern perspective. They didn't have the information or understanding about how the world works that we have today, but that didn't necessarily make them stupid or crazy. Grossly mistaken, yes, but not stupid or crazy.

But in a way, that's exactly my point. So much of the Bible is written with this sympathetic- magic, burnt- offering, appeasing- the- temperamental- Gods mentality of thousands of years ago. I mean, fending off the wrath of your god for an unpunished murder by sacrificing a cow? With all the weird details about exactly what kind of cow, and where? It's like the Greek or Norse myths. We're not talking about a metaphorical scapegoat here, people. We're talking about an actual, literal scapegoat.

Cow 2
Or, in this case, a scapecow.

Now, a lot of progressive Christians would no doubt respond by saying, "You're not supposed to take the Bible literally. It's a divinely inspired metaphor, a history of an evolving understanding of God over the ages. Not all Christians are fundamentalists, and it's unfair to critique all Christianity based on a literal interpretation that many of us don't adhere to."

My usual response to that argument — and the response of countless other atheists — is, "If you're going to cherrypick your sacred text, how do you decide which parts are divinely inspired and which parts are human error? And if you're deciding just by using your own instinct and judgment, rooted in the morals of your society, then how is your sacred text any different from any other book of philosophy or history or guidance, where you take what you need and leave the rest?"

I will, in fact, make that argument again here. In fact, I just did.

But there's something else I want to say as well. And that's this:

How is this passage a useful guide — even as a metaphor?

What is the general principle of life that we can take from this passage? That when you can't punish a wrongdoer, it's an acceptable substitute to punish someone else instead? Or to go through a formalized ritual of punishment that bears no real connection with justice, but looks sort of like it?

Or is the principle at work here a basic "appeasement of God" concept? That God is angered by the injustice of an unpunished murder… and therefore you have to give him sacrifices to chill him out, even if you had nothing to do with it?

Bible
It's not just that this passage is completely useless as a literal guide to modern law enforcement. (Although I am getting a kick out of imagining the "Law & Order" episode where the real killer is never found, and Jack McCoy has to go out to the slaughterhouse to wash his hands over a dead cow and remind God that it wasn't his fault.) It's completely useless as a metaphorical guide to justice. It's completely useless as any kind of guide to anything. I can get more inspiration and guidance from an episode of "Project Runway" than I can from this irrelevant, batshit, Bronze Age guide to life.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Nurse Ingrid

    Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
    Not just cows.

  2. 2
    Nita

    Er, frankly, I don’t share your bafflement at this. (OK, maybe it’s because I view the Bible as a mixed bag of myths, old laws, legends – even an old love song and someone’s philosophical treatise! – rather than a universal spiritual guide. People can draw moral inspiration from practically anything ;)
    Firstly, why do you view this ritual as a kind of punishment for the murder? A cow is not “someone else” (to ancient Jews at least), it’s a valuable piece of property. Especially if it’s a young, healthy cow, as the law instructs. And sacrificing it is a penalty for the city (more like “village” in modern terms, I suspect) council for having a “cold case” on their hands.
    What is it good for? Well, for one thing, it’s a pretty good incentive to try and find the murderer after all. And for another, it provides closure for the incident, which prevents it from being used in inter-village quarrels in the future (and if you read the Bible, you know that these people are quite quarrel-prone).
    It seems like the point was to prevent the problem of nobody wanting to deal with bodies found on no man’s land (and, subsequently, murderers having an easy way to prevent investigation). It does have a huge loophole, though – all you have to do as a murderer is move the body closer to the neighbouring village :P

  3. 3
    Jason Failes

    “Ingrid keeps saying that I have to be fair: that I have to remember the time and place this was written, and not judge people with a Bronze Age view of the world from my own modern perspective.”
    And for the thousands of religions dead, forgotten, or tiny and keeping to themselves, that’s a fine stance to take.
    But for a religion whose members actively promote its dominance in all aspects of society? Give it to them with both barrels, Greta.

  4. 4
    Raging Bee

    And if you’re deciding just by using your own instinct and judgment, rooted in the morals of your society, then how is your sacred text any different from any other book of philosophy or history or guidance, where you take what you need and leave the rest?”
    That interpretation works for me. And it probably works for nearly all Christians as well, whether they admit it or not.
    As for the cow ritual, I’m inclined to agree with Nita: it’s a half-decent means of showing remorse for an unsolved case, in a time when such things happened a lot more than they do now, and in a political climate where each such unsolved case could be the spark for yet another round of tribal feuding.
    As for why such a ritual had to be described in the Bible: that was probably the only means of keeping the demands for “compensation” from getting even more outrageous. Grieving relatives had to be told “This is what our holiest book of laws requires — no more, no less.”
    It does have a huge loophole, though – all you have to do as a murderer is move the body closer to the neighbouring village :P
    True — but moving a corpse is never easy, and the whole act of moving a corpse, looking for a relatively isolated spot, dumping the corpse, and buggering off from the dump-site afterword, only increases the risk of getting caught.

  5. 5
    arensb

    What is the general principle of life that we can take from this passage? That when you can’t punish a wrongdoer, it’s an acceptable substitute to punish someone else instead? [
]
    Or is the principle at work here a basic “appeasement of God” concept? That God is angered by the injustice of an unpunished murder… and therefore you have to give him sacrifices to chill him out, even if you had nothing to do with it?

    Yup.
    Notice how what you wrote applies to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and forgiveness of humanity’s sins. In fact, this is the only way I can make the passion story make any kind of sense.
    Or, a bit more charitably: in a nomadic society, how do you punish wrongdoers? If John steals Bob’s sheep, he should be made to give it back; on top of that, you can kill one of John’s other sheep to dissuade him from trying to steal sheep in the future. Over time, this evolves into a more general notion of “if you do something bad, you have to sacrifice something”.
    Of course, the sacrifice has to be proportional to the crime: a pair of doves for a minor offense, a sheep for a bigger crime, and so forth. In extreme cases, a father might sacrifice his child. In extreme extreme cases, the king of a country might have to sacrifice his son, to pay for an unbelievably heinous crime.
    Extrapolate one step further, and you get the notion of a god sacrificing his only son to pay for every crime everywhere.
    No, it doesn’t make sense if you think about it for more than ten seconds, or if you look at the larger picture (how does sacrifice help anyone? Isn’t God sacrificing to himself? etc.), but I think something like this is at play in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

  6. 6
    Ubi Dubium

    What I want to know is, what happens to the heifer next? I checked, and Deuternomy does not say. Can’t imagine letting it go to waste, so I am thinking cookout.
    So a dead body is found, the nearest city elders appropriate a cow from some poor herder because it’s “gods will”, take it out to a stream bank, kill it, wash their hands, and spend the rest of the day gorging on steak. Oh yes – I can see why the elders would want that passage to stay in their laws!

  7. 7
    Eshu

    Hehe, it kind of reminds me of Mitchell and Webb‘s Stone Age Murder: “So some time, before now, this man was killed with some kind of stone implement and no one saw them do it… The perfect crime.”
    Deuteronomy makes me wonder what they’d have to do if they found a murdered cow in the middle of nowhere.

  8. 8
    arensb

    I wanted to understand that comment, so I put “Mitchell and Webb” in YouTube’s search box, and… now it’s two hours later. Damn you, Eshu! Da-a-amn you-u-u-u!

  9. 9
    Julanar

    If someone has to sacrifice something, why is it always an innocent animal? That’s just plain barbaric.
    Yes, I know that a lot of these sacrifices involved transferring human sins to an animal. That’s even more barbaric, not to mention just plain fucked up.
    I’ve never understood how the whole sin-transfer concept could possibly be fair. Misdeeds aren’t like money that can just be transferred from one bank account to another. And at least people who sacrifice THEMSELVES have a choice.

  10. 10
    DeSwiss

    “If in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, any one is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities that are around him that is slain; and the elders of the city which is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer which has never been worked and which has not pulled in the yoke.”
    Okay, what we have here is an issue of jurisdictional authority over the “investigation” of the crime. Obviously in the days before things like surveying and arithmetic, it was impossible to draw accurate boundary lines other than maybe using permanently fixed objects like the oak tree at Mamre (see: Abraham’s summer home), or a water-filled spring in the desert (see: Sarah makes Abraham kick Hagar and Ishmael out on their asses).
    So the use of a measurement of the closest town to the dead body has nothing to do with solving the crime per se, but to see who must take charge of the case — and also bear any expenses related to it. And it would seem that since this passage doesn’t clearly indicate who it is that must cough-up the Heifer Tax, I can only assume that the elders and judges of the appropriate jurisdiction must pay this cost from its temple coffers or by charging a surtax on its people.
    In this case (according to previous biblical passages concerning regular tithing to the priests), I must conclude that when heifers are sacrificed in this way instead of in oblation to Yahweh, then the people of the village are left with two choices: (1) they either have to increase their contributions of livestock (a tax increase); or (2) suffer a loss of blessings from Yahweh if they don’t (reduction in divine services).
    In the first instance, a tax increase clearly shows that this was underlying basis for formation of the Democratic Party. And in the second, it shows that this was village run by Republicans and is in all probability where the Republican “Trickle-Down” theory had its genesis.

  11. 11
    hipparchia

    I don’t know why the hell the bronze age herders did all that.
    But I can see how a Christian can recycle this passage as a sort of prophecy or “warning” about that uproming sacrificing of the only son.
    Unworked heifer, human born of a virgin- let’s kill a critter that’s a bit weird and we’re all set.

  12. 12
    hoverFrog

    Poor cow. What happens if the cow neck breaking\hand washing ritual gets carried out and then someone comes forward and confesses?
    That’s always the problem with these substitutive animal death penalty type punishments. They could have ordered that the city give a cow to the murdered person’s surviving relatives or to the community that he or she came from. It could be returned if the murderer was found later.
    But nooooo, much better to take an absolute approach to punishment. Never leave something open for later resolution or further investigation when you can just perform a ritual and claim an end to it. Never mind that this very literally allows someone to get away with murder because the death has been “paid for” already.
    Time for cow herders to find a new city to live in.

  13. 13
    mossum

    The passage makes no sense to me, but I do find it very moooooooving.
    Sorry.

  14. 14
    Alexis Kauffmann

    Maybe the Deuteronomy is a book of encrypted messages to which we don’t have both the algorithm and the password to decode. Very useful.

  15. 15
    Jon Longhi

    At what point in the ritual do they serve the hamburgers?

  16. 16
    Prometevsberg

    “Department of Unsolved Murder Heifer Slaughtering” mmm..now THAT is a cop-show concept!

  17. 17
    Skeptico

    “If you’re going to cherrypick your sacred text, how do you decide which parts are divinely inspired and which parts are human error?”

    Well obviously this one is human error because it makes no sense. Clearly they should waterboard the cow first until it confesses.
    Now the talking snake – that’s obviously literally true.
    Deuteronomy 21 – my new favorite bible passage.

  18. 18
    Prairie Kittin

    Christians have a bumpersticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”. There you go. Cow gone!
    You commit a sin, then close your eyes, say you are sorry, and voila! You are forgiven and can go on your merry way to sin again. Isn’t it wonderful to have a religion that takes all the responsibility for your actions and lays it on the back of someone else?
    I never was into the whole human sacrifice thing and the representation of the dead guy on the stick kind of creeps me out. But, then, you go to church, the priest or pastor holds up a cracker and tells you it’s the body of this dead guy and you are supposed to eat it! (After drinking the grape juice that is supposed to be his blood!)
    So, here we have a religion that abdicates all responsibility for wrong doing, believes in human sacrifice, adds ritual cannibalism into the mix, and the whole cow thing starts to make a weird sort of sense!
    By the way, the ritual cannibalism also explains what happened to the sacrificed cow.

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