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Moses' fifth speech, Final, Unsolved murder

Feb 15, 2013

Moses continues his fifth speech in Deuteronomy 21, turning his attention to the problem of unsolved murder.

1 If a slain person is found lying in the open country in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, and it is not known who has struck him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance to the cities which are around the slain one. 3 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; 4 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.

In any society there will be times when a murder is unsolved for lack of witnesses or evidence. In such a case, the first course of action would be to issue a public adjuration for any and all witnesses to step forward and give testimony. Leviticus 5:1 speaks of this:

1 Now if a person sins, after he hears a public adjuration to testify, when he is a witness, whether he has seen, or otherwise known, if he does not tell it, then he will bear his guilt.

The wording is a bit convoluted, so let me paraphrase this:

1 When a public adjuration is issued, it is a sin for a witness to withhold evidence.

A public adjuration is unnecessary except in cases where evidence is lacking or when witnesses are unknown. And so, if a man is found murdered with no witnesses to solve the case, a public adjuration would be the first step to take. Any witness refusing to come forth to tell what he saw or heard is a false witness, guilty of blasphemy according to the Third Commandment.

If public adjuration does not produce any witnesses that might resolve the case, then the judges were to decide which city is closest to the murder scene, and then gather the elders of that city to present the case to the Supreme Court of Heaven for judgment. They were to take a young heifer which has not pulled a plow and were to break its neck in a nearby valley near running water.

Why did God require this ceremony? We know that all of the sacrificial animals were types of Jesus Christ and represented Him throughout the time the Old Covenant was in force. The death of the heifer in this case shows us that the liability for the unsolved murder was placed upon Christ when He would die on the cross for the sin of the world. With no murderer for the judges to charge with the sin—or for the victim to forgive (if led by the Spirit)—the case was, in essence, referred to the Supreme Court for resolution.

Certainly, God knows all the details about every unsolved murder, and so God Himself would judge the murderer in His own way and in His own time. But at the same time, the blood that was shed was covered (atoned) through the heifer, representing Jesus Christ. It had to be a heifer that had not pulled a yoke, because such labor represented the curse of sin that had been imposed upon Adam in Genesis 3:17-19. An unyoked heifer prophesied that Christ would not be under the curse of Adam’s sin, but yet would be held liable for sin.

Another detail was that the heifer’s neck was to be broken. This prophetic act pictured breaking a “stiff neck,” or breaking the power of an obstinate and stubborn heart. In applying this act to a case of unsolved murder, it indicates that the murderer had a stubborn heart, but that his penalty was being paid by Christ in the form of the heifer.

This does not mean the murderer (or any other sinner for that matter) will avoid judgment. God holds us accountable for sin, even as believers, in order to train us as His children. In fact, believers are part of the body of Christ and are therefore partakers of His cross. But in the end, because He is our Father, He takes upon Himself the primary responsibility for the sin of the world (1 John 2:2).

This action involving the heifer also relates to Numbers 19, where a red heifer was used as a burnt offering, and its ashes used to cleanse those who had become unclean by touching a dead body. Death renders a person unclean, because God is life, and to approach God we must have life. Our very mortality renders us unclean, but we apply the ashes of the red heifer (Christ) to ourselves, which cleanses us from all sin. We are clean also by believing the word that He has spoken (John 15:3). When we abide in Him, we continually partake of His life, Jesus explained to His disciples.

Once again, the red heifer represented Jesus Christ, for He was crucified “outside the camp” at the top of the Mount of Olives, where the ashes of the red heifer were kept. It is the place where David made sacrifice as well (2 Samuel 15:30), when, as a type of Christ, his throne was usurped by Absalom with the help of Ahithophel, who betrayed him.

The main difference is that the red heifer became a burnt offering, while the heifer in Deuteronomy 21 was to have its neck broken. The heifer was to have its neck broken near “running water.” This reminds us of the law of leprosy found in Leviticus 14. The first bird was to be killed over running water, pointing first to Christ’s baptism unto death and later to His actual death on the cross. This law is a revelation of the manner by which we may come into immortality, because leprosy represents mortality in the Scripture. Leprosy rendered men unclean under the Old Covenant, because it represented mortality that has befallen all men and made them unclean before God.

The connection between the heifer and the bird is that both of their necks were to be broken. So we see in Leviticus 1:15 that the birds were killed by wringing off their heads, thus breaking their necks.

And so, to summarize the law of unsolved murder, the judge (priest) was first to issue a public adjuration, and then, if there no witness came forward, he was to present the case to the Supreme Court for judgment. God is seen judging the case by providing Christ to cleanse the land and provide forgiveness. Moses continues in Deuteronomy 21:5,

5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come near, for the Lord your God has chosen them to serve Him and to bless in the name of the Lord; and every dispute and every assault shall be settled by them.

This tells us that the priests were the judges in “every dispute.” Under the Old Covenant, the descendants of Aaron were the priests. Under the New Covenant, the priests of the Order of Melchizedek are the ones called to rule and reign with Christ as “priests of God” (Revelation 20:6). The change of priesthood is explained more fully in the book of Hebrews, along with other changes of form, such as the change from animal sacrifice to the perfect sacrifice of Christ Himself.

6 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; 7 and they shall answer and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. 8 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.” And the bloodguiltiness shall be forgiven them.

These elders were the representatives of all the people who had been adjured to come forward as witnesses if they had seen or heard something. Their act of hand washing was on behalf of all the people, and it served as the official ceremony that put the case into God’s hands for judgment. Their declaration in verses 7 and 8 was an oath of innocence that was spoken on behalf of all the people. This oath meant that anyone who was NOT innocent was guilty of blasphemy—taking God’s name in vain—and would be held liable for violating the Third Commandment. Likewise, any witnesses who failed to come forth to testify in the case became liable before God.

In the New Testament, we see Pilate washing his hands in Matthew 27:24, while making the statement, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” He apparently knew the law of God well enough to know the proper procedure to follow. He knew that there were no credible witnesses against Jesus, but he was coerced into allowing His execution. The people then responded in the next verse,

25 And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

In other words, as Pilate presented the case to the Supreme Court of Heaven, he washed his hands as a declaration of innocence. The people responded with an oath, saying in effect, “If Jesus is innocent, then His blood will be upon us and our children.” While this oath has had a temporary negative effect upon them, in the end, the blood of Jesus will cover them, even as the heifer brought atonement and forgiveness in Deuteronomy 21. It is, in fact, ironic that their oath called for His blood to be upon them, for in the end, their prayer will be answered in a way that they are not expecting.

The heifer ceremony was thus similar to the case of the jealous husband in Leviticus 6, who had the right to bring his wife to the priest and make her take an oath of innocence. Both cases involved a lack of witnesses, requiring them to resolve the cases in the Supreme Court of Heaven. It was referred to the high court by means of an oath, which then ended the dispute (Hebrews 6:16).

9 So you shall remove the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

In other words, this is how to resolve all unsolved murder. In the broader view, bringing all unsolved or suspected crimes to the Supreme Court of Heaven is the “right” way to remove guilt and liability in eyes of God.

This is the end of Moses’ fifth speech, according to Ferrar Fenton. Moses’ sixth speech on the laws of war may possibly be included in the fifth speech, but we will defer to Fenton’s scholarship and treat it as a separate speech.


This is the final part of a series titled "Moses' Fifth Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.

Moses' Fifth Speech


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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