Breaking the Heifer's Neck: A Bloodless Ritual for an Unsolved Murder
Deuteronomy 21 addresses a case where a murdered person is discovered in the open country and the killer remains unknown.
דברים כא:א כִּי יִמָּצֵא חָלָל בָּאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ נֹפֵל בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא נוֹדַע מִי הִכָּהוּ.
Deut 21:1 If you find a corpse on the ground that YHWH your God gave to you to inherit, fallen in the open country, and it is not known who killed him,
The town nearest the corpse is held collectively responsible. Consequently, the elders of the nearby towns measure the distance to determine which town is closest to the corpse:
כא:ב וְיָצְאוּ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְשֹׁפְטֶיךָ וּמָדְדוּ אֶל הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹת הֶחָלָל.
21:2 Your elders and judges shall go out and measure (the distance) to the cities surrounding the corpse.
Individual and Town Responsibility in Hittite Laws
Hittite law, similarly, holds the people who live in area where the corpse was found to be responsible in a case with an unknown perpetrator. If a murder victim is discovered on someone’s property (#6): 
If a person, man or woman, is killed in another city, (the victim’s heir) shall deduct 100 gipeššar (= approximately 3 acres) from the land of the person on whose property the person died and take it for himself.
According to this law, the default responsibility for the person’s death falls on the owner of the land where the corpse is found, who is required to make substantial compensation to the victim’s kin.
Most significant for our purposes is the end of the later revision of the law (Law 6, expansion IV), which deals with a case where the victim is found in an uncultivated place outside the city:
If it is not private property but an uncultivated place, 3 dannas (= approximately 4.5 kilometers) in each direction (is measured), whatever city is determined, (the heir) takes the same [payments]. If there is no city, he forfeits his claim.
Thus, when the body is found outside a city, the nearest city must take responsibility. This is exactly the case envisioned in Deuteronomy.However, whereas the Hittite law – like ancient Near Eastern law collections in general – requires monetary compensation to the victim’s family, Deuteronomy 21 prescribes a ritual.
Breaking the Neck
The ritual begins with the breaking of a heifer’s neck:
כא:ג וְהָיָה הָעִיר הַקְּרֹבָה אֶל הֶחָלָל וְלָקְחוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא עֶגְלַת בָּקָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא עֻבַּד בָּהּ אֲשֶׁר לֹא מָשְׁכָה בְּעֹל.כא:ד וְהוֹרִדוּ זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא אֶת הָעֶגְלָה אֶל נַחַל אֵיתָן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יֵעָבֵד בּוֹ וְלֹא יִזָּרֵעַ וְעָרְפוּ שָׁם אֶת הָעֶגְלָה בַּנָּחַל….
21:3 And it will be that the city closest to the corpse, the elders of the city shall take a female heifer of the herd that has not been used for labor and has not pulled a yoke. 21:4The elders of that city shall take the heifer down to a perennial stream that has not been cultivated and has not been sown, and they shall break the heifer’s neck there in the stream…
The elders take a heifer to an uncultivated place and break its neck in a perennial stream. What is the meaning of this peculiar mode of ritual killing? Scholars have offered various interpretations of this ritual. The heifer serves as;
- A sacrifice
- A substitute killing for the (unknown) murderer.
- A representation of the punishment that would fall upon the elders if they are speaking falsely.
- A dramatization of the murder.
What is missing from many of these approaches is an explanation for the form of killing. Why is the animals neck broken instead of it being slaughtered? The only other place the Torah commands neck breaking of an animal is in the law of dedicating first-born animals, where it is stated of donkeys:
שמות יג:יג וְכָל פֶּטֶר חֲמֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ…
Exod 13:13 But every firstling donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck…
Here the breaking of the neck underlines the fact that the donkey is inadmissible as an offering, which strongly suggests that the ritual killing in Deut 21 was also not intended as a sacrifice. Instead, I suggest that the distinguishing characteristic of this killing technique is that it is bloodless. In other words, in contrast to the rabbinic interpretation of the ritual, which assumes the animal is decapitated with an axe blow to the back of the head (m. Sotah 9:5), the biblical text seems to envision a killing that avoids cutting the skin or the jugular veins altogether.
The animal’s neck is to be broken at a naḥal ʼetan, in whose waters the elders are to wash their hands:
כא:ו וְכֹל זִקְנֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא הַקְּרֹבִים אֶל הֶחָלָל יִרְחֲצוּ אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הָעֶגְלָה הָעֲרוּפָה בַנָּחַל.
21:6 All of the elders of that city that is closest to the corpse shall wash their hands in the stream over the broken-necked heifer.
Although the rabbis interpreted this expression as referring to a dried-up stream (since the verse states that the ritual should take place on land that was not worked),[11 it seems clear that it refers to a perennial stream, one whose waters flow throughout the year. This can be inferred from the only other occurrence of this expression in the Bible, Amos 5:24:
עמוס ה:כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם מִשְׁפָּט
וּצְדָקָה כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן.
Amos 5:24 But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream.
This dovetails with the previous observation about neck-breaking: Just as the form of killing serves to minimize the possibility of blood, the location of the killing guarantees that any incidental blood will be immediately washed away. The absence of any perceptible blood sets the stage for the elders’ declaration.
The Elders’ Denial: Whose Blood?
The meaning of this rite becomes clear when we look at the elders’ enigmatic declaration:
כא:ז וְעָנוּ וְאָמְרוּ יָדֵינוּ לֹא (שפכה) [שָׁפְכוּ] אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ. כא:ח כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר פָּדִיתָ יְ-הוָה וְאַל תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם הַדָּם.
21:7 They shall recite, saying: “Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not seen it. 21:8Expiate (כַּפֵּר) for your people, Israel, that you have redeemed, YHWH, and do not place innocent blood amidst your people, Israel,” and the blood shall be expiated.
Does “this blood” refer to the blood of the dead person or to that of the heifer? If the former, then the rite of the breaking of the heifer’s neck would seem to be superfluous and the expression “this blood” misleading. The latter possibility is equally difficult: if the point of the ritual killing was to be bloodless, then how can they refer to “this blood”?
The key to the solution is to recognize that this statement is deliberately operating on two different planes of meaning. In its immediate context, the announcement refers to the fact that no blood has been spilled in the killing of the heifer. However, since the allusion to “this blood” is at tension with the immediate context–any of the heifer’s blood which may have been spilled has already been washed away–an alternate referent comes to mind, namely the dead person.
In other words, the out-of-place expression “this blood” serves a double function, referring simultaneously to the blood of the person murdered and the blood of the heifer. The logic of this rite could be restated as an analogy: just as this heifer died bloodlessly, so too, the person died without the shedding of blood.
Kill Him, Just Don’t Shed His Blood (Joseph Story)
This preoccupation with the presence of actual blood might strike us as a formal technicality, but it is represented elsewhere in the Bible. A similar conception seems to underlie Reuben’s tactical argument to his brothers by which he sought to save Joseph (Gen 37:22):
בראשית לז:כב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן אַל תִּשְׁפְּכוּ דָם הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְיָד אַל תִּשְׁלְחוּ בוֹ לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל אָבִיו.
Gen 37:22 Reuben said to them: ‘Shed no blood! Cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but let no hand be upon him’ in order to save him from them and return him to his father.
Reuben’s tactic involves convincing his brothers not to act as the direct cause for Joseph’s death, so as not to bring upon themselves bloodguilt. The alternative of throwing him in a pit in the wilderness would potentially reach the same purpose but without instigating the automatic dynamic of blood retribution. Like our ritual, this narrative presumes a direct causal relations between the literal spilling of blood and divine retribution.
Cleansing the Land of Blood
The eglah arufah (broken-necked heifer) ritual is consistent with the ideology of the Torah regarding bloodguilt, which repeatedly makes clear that human life is incommensurable with monetary restitution, which is why the Torah does not have a parallel law to that of the Hittite requirement to reimburse the family.
This approach is not limited to Deuteronomy and appears as a fundamental principle informing other biblical law collections as well. For example, the book of Numbers forbids a blood avenger to forgo his demand for capital punishment in exchange for monetary ransom (kofer):
במדבר לה:לב וְלֹא תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לָנוּס אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ לָשׁוּב לָשֶׁבֶת בָּאָרֶץ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן.לה:לג וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ.
Num 35:32 Nor may you accept ransom in lieu of flight to a city of refuge, enabling one to return to live on his land before the death of the priest. 35:33 You shall not incriminate the land in which you live, for blood incriminates the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that was shed on it except by means of the blood of him who shed it.
According to this, if innocent blood that was shed is left on the land unavenged, it brings a curse on the land and its inhabitants. The only thing that can expiate for this blood is blood (Gen 9:5–6):
בראשית ט:ה וְאַךְ אֶת דִּמְכֶם לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אֶדְרֹשׁ מִיַּד כָּל חַיָּה אֶדְרְשֶׁנּוּ וּמִיַּד הָאָדָם מִיַּד אִישׁ אָחִיו אֶדְרֹשׁ אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם.ט:ו שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם.
Gen 9:5 But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! 9:6Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man.
With this idea of the need to atone for spilt blood, the problem that gives rise to the eglah arufah ritual is clear. The end of the passage explains:
כא:ט וְאַתָּה תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי מִקִּרְבֶּךָ כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְ-הוָה.
21:9 Thus shall you purge the innocent blood from your midst when you act justly in the eyes of YHWH.
As nobody knows who the perpetrator is, no blood can be spilled to atone for the murder. And yet, innocent blood was spilled on the land and that cannot be left without a response—thus, the unusual ritual described here.
Ritual as Virtual Reality
The ritual of the broken-necked heifer offers unequivocal evidence for the belief that the community is collectively responsible for homicides committed in its midst. As long as the mandated retribution has not been carried out, the entire society lived under the imminent threat of a collective divine retribution. The extent of this anxiety is revealed here, in Deuteronomy 21, addressing a case in which the community is powerless to carry out the necessary punishment.
The heifer ritual could be viewed as creating a virtual reality, whose purpose was to alter the circumstances in actual reality. In asserting the virtuality of ritual, the ritual theorist Bruce Kapferer contrasted the chaotic, uncontrolled aspect of everyday life with the ability for ritual to achieve a “slowing down of the tempo of ordinary life and a holding in abeyance or suspension some of the vital qualities of lived reality …thus allowing the dynamics of reality formation to be entered within and retuned, readjusted.” Put simply, ritual provides the possibility for a ‘time-out’ in reality, enabling the participants to readjust its inner workings.
In the case of the broken-necked heifer, the elders’ denial of culpability for “this blood” deliberately employs a double reference, linking the ritual reenactment with its real-world counterpart. This reenactment of the killing serves to retroactively erase the blood-guilt of the original murder. Viewed in this light, this ostensibly bizarre ritual turns out to be surprisingly coherent: a virtual solution to a very real problem.
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August 14, 2018
January 9, 2020
Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His research focuses on biblical ritual and conceptions of purity and pollution in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures as well as on early halakhic traditions in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
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