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Chapter 21

Absolution of Untraced Murder.[a] If the corpse of someone who has been slain is found lying in the open, in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess, and it is not known who killed the person, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances to the cities that are in the neighborhood of the corpse. (A)When it is established which city is nearest the corpse, the elders of that city shall take a heifer that has never been put to work or worn a yoke; the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a wadi with an everflowing stream at a place that has not been plowed or sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the wadi. The priests, the descendants 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 every case of dispute or assault shall be for them to decide. Then all the elders of that city nearest the corpse shall wash their hands[b] over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi, and shall declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood,[c] and our eyes did not see the deed. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not let the guilt of shedding innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.” Thus they shall be absolved from the guilt of bloodshed,

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  1. 21:1–9 This law has to do with absolving the community of bloodguilt that accrues to it and to the land when a homicide occurs and the murderer cannot be identified and punished.
  2. 21:6 Wash their hands: a symbolic gesture in protestation of one’s own innocence when human blood is unjustly shed; cf. Mt 27:24.
  3. 21:7 This blood: the blood of the slain, or the bloodguilt effected by the killing.

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