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The Guilt of Innocent Blood

Written By
William O. Einwechter

In the Bible, murder is referred to as the shedding of innocent blood. What should our response be to the shedding of innocent blood? Should magistrates execute killers? Or should they sentence murderers to life in prison? Does it really matter which, as long as dangerous individuals are kept from committing further acts of violence? Can a nation, state, or community contract guilt before God on the basis of their response to murder, i.e., will God judge a people for a failure to punish murder in accord with His law-word? These vital questions are answered for us in Deuteronomy 21:1-9.

Context of Deuteronomy 21:1-9

Textual and Historical Context

Deuteronomy contains the record of Moses’ four addresses to the nation of Israel as it was situated on the east of Jordan in preparation for the conquest of Canaan. Moses’ concern in Deuteronomy is covenant renewal — he calls upon the new generation to renew their covenant with God before they enter Canaan in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. As such, Deuteronomy is a covenantal document containing the following elements: preamble, historical prologue, stipulations (basic and detailed), curses, deposition of the text, and witnesses.

The text of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is found in the section that sets forth the detailed stipulations of the covenant law (Deut. 12:1 - 26:19). These detailed stipulations are given in the form of “statutes,” positive (apodictic) laws requiring or prohibiting specific actions, and “judgments,” case (casuistic) laws which establish justice in a specific case so as to set the precedent for judging the moral duty (justice) in all such related cases. The detailed stipulations are founded on the righteousness of the basic stipulations and apply that righteousness to specific circumstances. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is a case law founded on the sixth commandment against murder (Deut. 5:17), and applies the righteousness of the sixth commandment to the case of an unsolved homicide.

Earlier in Deuteronomy, Moses had stated God’s law in regard to manslaughter, and the distinction was made between accidental killing and murder (Deut. 19:4-13). In the case of an accidental slaying, provision was made in the cities of refuge for the protection of the manslayer from the avenger of blood; but in the case of murder the killer was to be executed. The legislation of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 deals with a third situation in relation to manslaying — the killer and the circumstances of the slaying are not known. This case law establishes what should be done if the magistrates are unable to determine the one who had shed innocent blood within their jurisdiction.

Theological Context 

Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is part of the larger witness of the Bible to the subject of the shedding of innocent blood. God’s law teaches the importance of human life because man is made in the image of God, and, also, of God’s hatred of murder and the murderer (Prov. 6:17). The foundational text on the matter is Genesis 9:5-6:

And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

This text establishes the duty of men (specifically, civil government) to punish murderers by means of the death penalty. According to God, there must be blood for blood, life for life;[1] the offense against God and man in murder can only be paid for by the execution of the killer. 

The sixth commandment protects the life of a man by the definite prohibition of murder (Ex. 21:13; Deut. 5:17). The moral law of God requires us to love our neighbor by doing all in our power to safeguard his life and by refraining from any action that may endanger his life. The statutes and judgments of the law prescribe death for all who violate the sixth commandment by killing their neighbor in anger or premeditation (Ex. 21:12-14; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:16-21, 31; Deut. 19:11-13). So emphatic is God’s law on this, that it specifically states that no mercy is to be shown to a murderer (Ex. 21:14), and that no ransom can be taken for his life (Num. 15:31): yea, “thine eye shall not pity him” (Deut. 19:13), he “shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:12). Deuteronomy 21:1-9, as we shall see, is a significant addition to the texts that give witness to the biblical requirement of death for murderers.

Numbers 35:30-34

In addition to the texts cited above, this passage provides an essential biblical framework for the interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Numbers 35:30-34 is preceded by legislation concerning accidental killing and the provision of cities of refuge for the manslayer (Num. 35:9-30). Interestingly, Numbers 35:25-28 states that the manslayer must remain in the city of refuge where he found sanctuary until the death of the high priest. When the high priest died he was free to return to his home, but not before. 

Numbers 35:30 then turns to the issue of murder and its punishment; it states: “Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death. . . .”  It is important to note the Hebrew wording of the command to put the murderer to death. The Hebrew says, literally, “you shall slay the slayer. . . .”  The same Hebrew word (ratzach) is used to identify both the killer and his penalty; in other words, it is to be done unto him as he did unto his neighbor — life for life.[2]

Numbers 35:31 emphatically states that convicted murderers are to be executed. First, the text says that “no satisfaction for the life of a murderer” can be accepted by the court. The word that is here translated “satisfaction” is the Hebrew word koper which means the price of a life, or a ransom. It is related to the Hebrew term keper, meaning to cover over, pacify, or make propitiation for. Thus, Numbers 35:31 prescribes that nothing can be given to cover over the crime of murder and release the killer from the penalty of death. He cannot ransom his life — not even with all the gold and silver in the world. God’s wrath against the slayer of innocent blood cannot be pacified; no sacrifice on the altar, no prayers of repentance can make propitiation for his crime.[3] The Lord of heaven and earth requires the death of the murderer as the only satisfaction of His justice.[4]

Second, the text uses a unique Hebrew construction to emphasize the absolute necessity of capital punishment (the infinitive absolute used before the main verb). This Hebrew idiom is captured in the English translation, “he shall surely be put to death” (emphasis added). No ifs, ands, or buts — the murderer must die. This is the command of God.

Numbers 35:32 returns to the subject of the man who killed his neighbor accidentally, and also states that no ransom to release him from the city of refuge will be accepted either. The death of the high priest alone provides for his freedom and return to his home. The significance of this verse for the issue of murder is that it states, by way implication, that the death of the high priest does not release the murderer from the penalty of death. Nothing can save the murderer from his appointed execution.

Number 35:33 explains why it is essential to put murderers to death: the blood that they have shed “defileth the land.” When a man is murdered, the earth opens “her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood” (Gen. 4:11). God did not create the earth for this purpose; thus, when blood is shed the land is profaned and corrupted. The good land that was made to sustain life is defiled when it receives the blood of a murdered man. Furthermore, the blood of the slain man cries out to God for justice (Gen. 4:10). When God created the land He saw that it was good; but now, wherever He sees innocent blood He sees a land that has been corrupted by sinful men; instead of the joyful songs of men enjoying the good land, He hears the mournful cry of the blood of the murdered man calling for justice. 

The text states that the only way that the land can be cleansed of innocent blood is by the execution of the murderer: “and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.” A man defiled the land by his sin, other men can cleanse the land only by their obedience. Those who are charged with upholding God’s law and visiting God’s vengeance on evil doers (Rom. 13:4) cleanse the land of the pollution of innocent blood by obeying God’s command to execute murderers. By taking the life of the murderer, the demands of justice are met, and, therefore, the guilt of innocent blood is removed and the people who live on the land where the blood was shed are freed from the guilt of failing to “slay the slayer.” 

If the magistrates and the people refuse to carry out God’s vengeance on the killer, they themselves will be under the wrath of God for failing to see murder as He sees it and for failing to punish it as He commands. The land would then be polluted in a three-fold way: by innocent blood, by the presence of the murderer, and by the people who have cast reproach upon God and His Word. The community bears the responsibility of investigating the murder and punishing the culprit according to God’s law. If it does not, then it incurs the guilt of disobedience and causes the stain of innocent blood to remain on the community itself because it has disregarded God’s command.

But if the land can only be cleansed of blood by the blood of him who shed it, what is to be done if the murderer cannot be found? Shall the land remain defiled? Shall guilt be reckoned to the people who have not been able to apprehend and execute the killer? No, God in His mercy has provided for such a situation in the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9.

Exposition of Deuteronomy 21:1-9

1  If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:  2  Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:  3  And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;  4  And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley:  5  And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried:  6  And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley:  7  And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.  8  Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.  9  So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.

The Case of an Unsolved Murder (v. 1)

The case laws of the Bible follow the general pattern of setting forth the circumstances of the case (“if . . .”), and then proceed with an explanation of what is to be done in such circumstances (“then . . .”). In verse 1, the particulars of this case are established, and in verses 2-9, the law of God in this case is fixed. Here, the body of a slain man is found lying in a field. The term “slain” means to pierce through, or to mortally wound, and indicates the use of a weapon (such as a sword, knife, or spear) to kill another person.[5]

Thus, the case involves the discovery of a man who evidently had been murdered. But in this case, “it be not known who hath slain him.” That is, there were no witnesses to the crime, no one is able to determine the killer, and there are no leads at present to follow.

What is to be done under such circumstances? How should the community and its leaders respond to the case of an unsolved murder? Murder is a terrible crime, and God’s law states that it defiles the land. Furthermore, God’s law prescribes the execution of the murderer as the only means whereby satisfaction can be made and the land cleansed of innocent blood. In the case of an unsolved murder, must the land remain forever defiled with the blood of the victim? No, for in the law that follows God instructs the magistrates in their duty in the case of unsolved homicide so that the guilt of innocent blood can be covered.

The Determination of Jurisdiction (v. 2) 

The first step to be taken when a man has been slain, found in the fields,[6] and the murderer cannot be discovered is to determine who has jurisdiction, i.e., who has governing authority in the case. The responsibility to determine jurisdiction is given to “thy elders and thy judges.” It is not entirely clear whether these men are the local civil leaders or men from the central tribunal (Deut. 17:8-13; 19:17-18).[7]

The elders and judges are to measure the distance from the slain man to the surrounding cities, and whichever city is the closest has the judicial obligation to carry out the law of God for unsolved murder. Note that it is not the city where the man lived that is responsible, but the city that is closest geographically to the place where the body was found.

The Killing of an Unworked Heifer (vv. 3-4) 

After jurisdiction has been determined, “the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer. . . .” Notice that the people of the city are given the duty, but that the duty will be carried out by the elders (magistrates) who will function as the representatives of the people. The corporate responsibility of the entire community is here established. When a murder is committed the people cannot turn their backs in indifference, believing that the matter concerns the rulers only. Corporate responsibility means that there is corporate guilt for failing to obey God’s law in this matter. Moreover, the land wherein they dwell has been defiled, and it must be cleansed of innocent blood lest God’s sanctions fall upon the whole community. Rushdoony states:

Does the Bible teach nothing of community responsibility? As a matter of fact, Biblical law does assert community responsibility, a responsibility to see that justice is done. There is community guilt, if justice is not done. . . . This is dealt with in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. If a murder cannot be solved, the whole community bears the responsibility as well as the unknown murderer. The murderer bears responsibility before God for the murder, and the community for failing to avenge the murder, for failing to bring the murderer to justice. Since the offense is against God, the leaders of the community make atonement to God for the offense, so that no guilt be incurred by them.[8]

The civil rulers of the city that have jurisdiction, as representatives of the people,[9] are charged with the duty of cleansing the land of innocent blood in the case of an unsolved murder because they would have been responsible to prosecute and execute the murderer if he was known. The procedure for removing the guilt of murder from the community when the killer could not be found involved the taking of an unworked heifer to a rough and barren valley, and then killing the heifer there. The reason why an unworked heifer was chosen is debated.[10]

Perhaps the best explanation is that the heifer represents potential life and productivity, but before these are realized its life will be cut off. Likewise, the murder of a man cuts off a life prematurely, and all the potential and productivity of that life made in the image of God are lost.[11] The sadness they would feel, and the loss sustained in the death of the heifer reflects the sadness and loss (though much greater) suffered in the community by the murder of the man. The site where the heifer was to be slain was a barren rough valley[12] that had never been sown. Again, there are varying opinions on why such a place was designated by God.[13] However, it seems that Poole is on target when he says that “such a desert place might beget a horror of murder and of the murderer.”[14]

Once they were in the uninhabited and uncultivated valley, the elders of the city were to “strike off the heifer’s neck.” The Hebrew word used here means to break the neck of an animal,[15] and, no doubt, that is its meaning here.

The Presence of the Priests (v. 5)

The elders of the city were to be accompanied by “the priests, the sons of Levi,” when they went to the rough valley to kill the heifer. The priests, however, did not do the killing, nor were they there to offer the heifer as a sacrifice — their presence was judicial. These priests were present as representatives of the central tribunal that had been established by God to settle all matters of judgment that could not be resolved in the local courts (Deut. 17:8-13). That these are members of the central court is confirmed by the phrase, “and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried.” This description of the work of these priests is identical to what is said of the work of the central tribunal in Deuteronomy 17:8-9. Kline states, “The priests’ function in the case at hand was to be purely judicial, for the slaying of the heifer (v. 4b) would not be a cultic sacrifice, but a judicial execution.”[16] They were present “as those who were authorized by the Lord, and as representatives of the divine right, to receive the explanation and petition of the elders, and acknowledge the legal validity of the act.”[17]

The Washing of the Elders’ Hands (vv. 6-7) 

After the heifer was slain, the elders of the city were to wash their hands over the dead animal and declare, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” By this action and these words they symbolized their innocence in regard to the crime — their hands did not commit the murder, neither were they able to determine who had committed the crime.

The symbolism of killing the heifer by the elders is now evident. The crime of murder must be punished by death according to God’s law. In this circumstance, however, the killer could not be determined, so the heifer was killed in his place in a “ceremonial execution.”[18]

By their actions the magistrates, as representatives of the city, indicate their abhorrence of murder and their resolve to execute the murderer. Numbers 35:33 indicates that the land can be cleansed of innocent blood only “by the blood of him that shed it.” Since the murderer is not known, his blood cannot be shed, and so the blood of the heifer is shed as a substitute.[19]

Therefore, Deuteronomy 21:1-9 teaches that every murder must be accounted for by an execution, or the guilt of innocent blood rests on the land and the people. The underlying theology of the text is that murder must be punished by the death of the murderer. If the killer cannot be found, then a heifer must be offered as a substitute.

But it needs to be emphasized that this ceremony is not a sacrifice for sin; it is not part of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The heifer was not killed at the tabernacle (the only place were sacrifices for sin could be offered); it was not killed by the priests, but by the elders; its blood was not offered or sprinkled at the altar. This case has to do with civil law and what the civil rulers are to do when they are faced with an unsolved murder. This case does not deal with the forgiveness of sin, but the removal of the guilt of innocent blood from the community where the murder was committed. The guilt of innocent blood still rests on the head of the murderer after the ceremony is complete; it does not effect forgiveness for him. If the killer was later discovered, then he would need to be put to death for his crime. This ceremony removes the guilt of innocent blood from the magistrates and people because by means of it they have testified to the utter wickedness of murder and of their resolve to punish the murderer with death in accord with God’s law. The symbolism of Deuteronomy 21:3-7 is well summarized by Keil:

As the murderer was not to be found, an animal was to be put to death in his stead, and suffer the punishment of the murderer. The slaying of the animal was not an expiatory sacrifice, and consequently there was no slaughtering and sprinkling of blood; but as the mode of death, viz. breaking the neck (vid. Ex. xiii. 13) shows, it was a symbolic infliction of the punishment that should have been borne by the murderer, upon the animal which was substituted for him. . . . If the murderer were discovered afterwards, of course the punishment of death which had been inflicted vicariously upon the animal, simply because the criminal himself could not be found, would still fall upon him.[20]

The Prayer of the Elders and the Declaration of the Law (vv. 8-9)

After the elders had slain the heifer and declared their innocence in the matter by the symbolic washing of their hands and by their words, they now offer a prayer to God to be merciful and not lay the charge of innocent blood upon “thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed.” God will hear this prayer when it is spoken by those who have obeyed His law in the slaying of the heifer, and the Word of God declares, “And the blood shall be forgiven them.” The civil rulers and the people of the city where the murder was committed are thus absolved in the matter, and the land is cleansed.

In verse 8, the words “merciful” and “forgiven” are both forms of the same Hebrew verb, kapar, which means to cover over, atone for sin, make propitiation for, or to forgive. In its first occurrence, it is in the Piel stem, and thus it is a prayer to God to cover the people, i.e., to be propitious to them and consider their obedience in the slaying of the heifer as sufficient and satisfactory for cleansing their city of innocent blood. In its second occurrence, kapar is in the Hithpael stem, and thus it is a declaration that “the blood shall be covered for them,”[21] i.e. God will cover the innocent blood and deal with them as if the blood had never been shed in their midst.[22] Note carefully that the text limits the covering of the blood to “them” for the covering does not include the murderer whose guilt still remains.[23]

By implication, it can be said that in the case of an unsolved murder innocent blood would be laid to their charge if they did not bother to investigate the crime, or if they did not slay the heifer as a substitute for the unknown criminal. To treat the murder in their midst in any way less than God had commanded would mean that the guilt of innocent blood still rests on them and the land.

Verse 9 concludes this case law by the stating that the procedure explained in vv. 2-8 is the way that God has provided for the removal of the guilt of innocent blood when there is an unsolved murder. The verse contains an important phrase for understanding how the stain of innocent blood is removed from a people when the murderer cannot be found, but also, by implication, when the murderer is known. 

The guilt of innocent blood can only be put away “when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.” To do what is right, biblically speaking, is to do that which is commanded by God in His Word. In the context of civil legislation, to do what is right is to follow the standard of justice set down in the law of God. In regard to murder, the justice required by God’s law is the execution of the convicted murderer. If the murderer cannot be discovered, then a heifer must be killed in his place. Capital punishment for murder is right because it alone is the just punishment for this horrible, violent deed of hatred against God and against man. The guilt of innocent blood rests on those who will not do “what is right in the sight of the Lord,” i.e., they will not punish murder as God has commanded, or will not follow the law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 when there is an unsolved murder within their jurisdiction.

Application of Deuteronomy 21:1-9

General Considerations

In seeking to apply the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 to today we must begin by understanding the theology that informs the text. Next, we need to determine how that theology functions in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Finally, we should ascertain what the New Testament has done with the teaching of Deuteronomy 21:1-9. Has the New Testament canceled this law, announced its fulfillment in Christ, modified it, or taken it over intact?

The theology that underlies the law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is that human life is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and, therefore, of greatest value in the eyes of God. Consequently, when a man sheds the blood of another man, he not only shows contempt for human life, he also assaults God Himself in whose image the victim was made (Gen. 9:6). Murder is an expression of hostility to both God and man. Murder is an offense against man, but an even greater offense against God, who not only gave man life, but also created him in His own image.[24]

Murder is a desperately wicked act, the depth of which is understood by God only (cf. Jer. 17:9). The Creator, who alone is God and the source of all truth and righteousness, has declared to man that the just penalty for murder is death, and has empowered man (specifically civil government) to impose this penalty on murderers (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12-14). Capital punishment for murder is the visitation of God’s vengeance (Rom. 13:4) on all who assault the divine image in man by shedding innocent blood. The teaching of the law of God is that every murder must be punished by the execution of the killer, and that the land can be cleansed of innocent blood only by the blood of him who shed it (Num. 35:33).

This theology is applied to the case of an unsolved murder in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. It instructs the people of Old Testament Israel and their civil rulers in what to do when the murderer cannot be found, and, therefore, cannot be executed to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. To clear themselves and their land of the guilt of innocent blood they must slay a heifer in the place of the murderer, wash their hands, and declare their innocence in the matter. By means of this ceremony they express their horror over the murder and their resolve to punish all murders (not just the one in view) by the execution of the killer. In other words, they express their full agreement with and submission to all that the law teaches concerning man as made in the divine image, concerning the evil of murder, and concerning the just penalty for murder. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 applies the teaching of the law that every murder must be punished by the death of the murderer to the circumstance of an unsolved murder.

What does the New Testament do with the theology that informs the law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9? None of the theology that undergirds Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is repealed or modified in the New Testament. Man still bears the image of God (James 3:9), and, therefore, murder is just as much an assault on the divine image in man as it was in the Old Testament. The change from the Old Testament economy to the New Testament economy has not changed the nature of murder in any way; it is still just as vile and wicked a deed as it was in the Old Testament era.

If God has not changed, if the nature of man has not changed, and if the evil character of murder has not changed, then it follows that the penalty for murder has not changed either. If death was the just sentence for murder in the Old Testament it must also remain as the just sentence for murder in the New Testament. The New Testament does not cancel the death penalty for murder, but in fact upholds it when it teaches that civil government has the power of the sword (symbolic of capital punishment, Rom. 13:4) from God for the purpose of visiting God’s wrath on evil doers. God’s vengeance against murderers is still the same, and magistrates are required by Him to exercise this vengeance today. The law of the Old Testament concerning the punishment of murder is still in full force.

If it is true that the theology that informs the text of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 remains in full force in the New Testament, does it not also follow that Deuteronomy 21:1-9 still gives the divine law for men and nations when faced with the case of an unsolved murder? If God’s law still requires men to punish murder with death, if the guilt of innocent blood is still charged to all who fail to punish murder with death, if every murder must still be accounted for by an execution, then the law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 must still express, in some fashion, God’s will for us today. 

If Deuteronomy 21:1-9 does not teach us how to deal with the case of an unsolved murder today, then what part of Scripture does? If we reject the law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9, then we have no scriptural teaching to guide us in our moral duty in such circumstances. Or don’t we need to concern ourselves now with the guilt of innocent blood in a case of unsolved murder? But if not, why not? Wright challenges us to see the significance of this case law:

It is often when the OT seems most culturally remote from us that we need to pay closest attention to its challenge. What ought to strike us from this law is not the oddity of a cow with a broken neck in an uninhabited wadi, but the expected response of a whole community through its civic, judicial, and religious leaders to a single human death. In our society, a violent death has to be particularly gruesome or shocking (e.g., of a child or of the defenseless aged) to become even newsworthy, let alone a matter for public penitence. We have lost not only any concept of corporate responsibility (having rejected a sovereign moral God to whom we might be corporately responsible), but we have increasingly lost any sense of the sanctity of life itself. . . . We can tolerate millions of abortions. What need have we for rituals of cleansing that would acknowledge responsibility even where personal guilt cannot be assigned? Shedding innocent blood (v.9) has become a fact of life, silently sanitized by statistics. Symbolic reenactment is left to the commercialized catharsis of cinema and television.25

We conclude that the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9, in its general equity, is still binding on men and nations in the New Testament era. However, this does not mean that the New Testament has not modified the details of this law.

The law of unsolved murder was given in the context of Old Testament Israel. It assumes the geographical setting of the land of Palestine, the presence of elders who sit in the gates of the cities ruling the people, the jurisdictional unit of the city, a central court with Levitical priests presiding as judges, and the symbolic shedding of the blood of a heiffer. With the coming of Christ and the New Testament administration of the covenant, these details of the law have been modified and are no longer binding. But the essence of the law, as the expression of the community's innocence, hatred of murder, and firm resolve to punish it with death, is still binding.

Therefore, when there is a homicide, and, after a reasonable amount of time, no specific leads in the case can be established, the civil magistrates who hold authority in the jurisdiction where the murder took place are responsible to act in accord with the theology and the general equity of Deuteronomy 21:1-9.

Specific Applications of the Case Law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 

1. This case law is a strong witness to the necessity of capital punishment for murder. 

It joins with other Scriptures to declare that each murder must be accounted for by an execution, and only by that execution can the land be cleansed of the guilt of innocent blood. It teaches that magistrates, as representatives of the people, are responsible to carry out God’s vengeance against those who shed innocent blood.[26]

2. This case law solemnly teaches that a society that will not execute murderers heaps the guilt of innocent blood on it own head every time a killer is permitted to live. 

If the guilt of shed blood is charged to a city when the murderer is not known, and it will not obey God’s law and follow the ceremony of Deuteronomy 21:1-9, then it is manifest that the guilt of innocent blood clings to a people who will not execute the murderer when he is known. The land can be cleansed of innocent blood only by the blood of him who shed it. When we think of this fact in the light of our American context, we should shudder at the guilt that clings to this land and its people! Though a few executions for murder take place in a few states, the overwhelming majority of murderers are not put to death.[27]

What’s more, a sentence of death for murder is superfluous if the murderer is never actually put to death (i.e., remains on “death row” indefinitely). A sentence of life in prison may take a killer off the streets, but it does not cleanse the land of innocent blood. God’s sanctions will fall upon a land and people that is polluted with the stain of innocent blood.[28]

3. The general equity of this case law calls for some kind of public ceremony for the removal of guilt of innocent blood from the community when the murderer is not known.

In such a ceremony, presided over by the civil authorities, three aspects, at the least, should be present: 1) A clear and unequivocal declaration of the wickedness of the shedding of innocent blood and the firm intention to seek the murderer and his execution in accord with God’s law; 2) A washing of hands with the affirmation, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it”; 3) A plea to God for mercy and cleansing of the land (not the murderer) from the guilt of innocent blood on the basis of Jesus Christ's atoning sacrifice.[29]

4. The tremendous guilt of state-sanctioned abortion is brought home by this case law. 

Abortion must be defined as the shedding of innocent blood, i.e., murder. Every time a child is killed by the abortionist’s knife or chemicals, a murder is committed. If we consider the number of abortions since the Supreme Court’s 1972 Roe v. Wade decision, the amount of innocent blood shed in this land is staggering, and not one drop has been cleansed by the judicial execution of those responsible of carrying out the crime.[30] The guilt of the innocent blood shed in every abortion has been charged to this nation in the court of heaven. The land stinks with the blood of abortion, and the blood of the innocents cries to God for vengeance. If one unsolved murder brings the land and its people under God’s judgment, what is the guilt and deserved judgment of this nation for the millions and millions and millions of abortions since 1972!?[31]

How can this land ever be cleansed from all this blood? A mere reversal of Roe v. Wade, as desirable as that is, will not suffice to cover the blood shed by abortion these past 27 years.  Forgiveness for the holocaust of abortion is not simply a prayer away; Numbers 35:33 and Deuteronomy 21:9 indicate that much more is required: “and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it”; “So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.” At the very least, there must be deep humiliation and repentance (such as is described in Jonah 3:5-9), public acknowledgment of the guilt of innocent blood that rests upon this nation, and the criminialization of abortion wherein it is defined as murder and the death penalty prescribed.[32] “Who can tell whether God will be gracious to” us that the land “may live?” (2 Sam. 12:22).

5. This case law establishes the responsibility of civil rulers to act as representatives of the people in doing what is right in the sight of the Lord to cleanse the land of innocent blood. 

Therefore, when we vote for those who will be our civil rulers we must be certain that they actively support capital punishment for murderers. A magistrate (candidate) who opposes the death penalty for murder is a dangerous man for he stands against the only penalty that will cleanse the land of innocent blood, and, therefore, he willfully contributes to the pollution of the land by blood. All who vote for such a man become partners (to some degree) in his sin because by their vote they ask him to represent them on this issue. A candidate’s view on capital punishment for murder should be a “litmus test” issue for Christian voters.

6. Pilate’s washing of hands and his declaration, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (Matt. 27:24), are nearly identical to the actions prescribed for the elders in Deuteronomy 21:6-7. 

When judged in light of the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9, we see how perverse and cowardly Pilate’s actions were. As chief magistrate in that jurisdiction he was responsible to protect innocent blood, not turn a just man over to a murderous mob. The washing of his hands and his declaration of innocence were empty, evil actions, because he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord. All the water in the world could not cleanse his hands from the guilt of innocent blood.[33]

7. This case law is illustrative of the importance and applicability of the civil case laws of the Old Testament. 

This study has demonstrated that the case law of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is the application of the unchanging moral law of God concerning murder and its punishment to the specific circumstance of an unsolved murder. As such, this case law provides us with enduring moral law that is to guide us in our duty before God when confronted with the same situation. The function of all the case laws is the same: they apply the moral law of God to particular cases so that we might know what is just and right in all such related cases.

1. ^ The Genesis 9:5-6 command of blood for blood is an early statement of the lex talionis principle of justice: “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21:23-25; cf. Deut. 19:21).

2. ^ Again, we see the application of the lex talionis standard of justice to the crime of murder.

3. ^ Nor can any amount of time in prison, including life in prison, pay for the crime before God. The sentence of life in prison grants the killer life (albeit under less than desirable circumstances), when God’s law calls for the killer’s life to be taken by execution. Life in prison for murder may satisfy the sentimentalities of autonomous man, but it does not make satisfaction for murder in the courts of heaven.

4. ^ The primary purpose of the death penalty for murder is to meet the demands of justice; life for life is the only just recompense for murder according to God’s law. However, God’s law also states that this penalty, properly and expeditiously carried out, will have a strong deterrent effect on others (cf. Deut. 17:13; 19:20; Ecc. 8:11).

5. ^ Please note that the murder was committed with a weapon other than a gun for guns had not been invented yet by man. Murders took place before guns came along because murder proceeds from the evil heart of man (Matt. 15:19), not from any particular weapon. This fact is lost on the misguided souls of today who cry out for the elimination of private ownership of guns or for “gun control” to stop murder.

6. ^ If the murder had taken place in a town or city or very close to one, the question of jurisdiction would not arise. But in this case the body is found in the fields, and it is not immediately clear who has jurisdiction. It should be remembered that the civil government of Israel was decentralized and local in orientation. Each town and city governed itself and its surrounding territory. The people chose their own magistrates, and these civil rulers sat in the gate of the city to judge the people (cf. Deut. 16:18; 21:19; 22:15).

7. ^ The context of Deuteronomy would favor the local elders who had the primary responsibility to govern the people and decide controversies. Appeal was made by the local magistrates to the central court only when the matter could not be settled on the local level. Most commentators would concur with Poole who states that these men are “the judges and rulers of all neighboring cities, who were all concerned in this inquiry.”  Matthew Poole, Commentary on the Holy Bible, 3 vols (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979 [1685]), 1:375. Craigie differs with this view and states, “The elders and judges referred to in this verse are the representatives of a central legal authority, rather than a local authority (as in v. 3).” Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 279.

8. ^ Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 271.

9. ^ Biblical law establishes the concept of representative government. The leaders are chosen by the people to govern, represent the people they govern, and are answerable to the people to govern wisely and justly. As representatives of the people they are not lords over them, but are there to serve the people by upholding and enforcing God’s law.

10. ^ Craigie contends that a heifer that had not been employed in farm work could be “considered sacred for its use in the symbolic act.” The Book of Deuteronomy, p. 279. Calvin suggests that “God chose a heifer that had not borne a yoke, in order that the satisfaction made by innocent blood might be represented in a more lively manner. . . .” John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, 4 vols., trans. Charles W. Bingham (Grand Rapids: Baker Book  House, 1989), 3:26. Poole believes that the heifer must be one that never bore the yoke to symbolize the murderer “who by this act hath shown himself to be a son of Belial, who would not bear the yoke of God’s law.” Commentary on the Holy Bible, p. 375.

11. ^ Cf., J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London: Soncino Press, 1960), p. 834.

12. ^ The Hebrew refers to a wadi that flows with water in the spring when it is fed by rain and melting snow from the mountains, but then dries up (cf. Job 6:15).

13. ^ Craigie says that it, as the heifer, was chosen because it had never been subjected to human use. The Book of Deuteronomy, p. 279. Calvin remarks that “it was to be killed in a desert place, that the pollution might be removed from the cultivated lands.” Commentary on the Last Four Books of Moses, 3:26. Hertz believes that the valley had a perpetual spring and, “Its running water would carry away the blood of the heifer, and thus symbolize the removal of the defilement from the land.” The Pentateuch, p. 834.

14. ^ Poole, Commentary on the Holy Bible, p. 375.

15. ^ Cf. Ex. 13:13; 34:20; Isa. 66:3.

16. ^ Meredith G. Kline, “Deuteronomy,” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, eds. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 184.

17. ^ C. F. Keil, The Pentateuch, 3 vols. trans. James Martin, in Commentary on the Old Testament, by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 3:404.

18. ^ Kline, “Deuteronomy,” p. 184.

19. ^ Oehler states: “The blood shed was to be removed from the midst of the people, and this was effected by the symbolical infliction of capital punishment upon the heifer. . . . Here, then, the idea of a poena vicaria applies: satisfaction is to be made to Divine justice by a symbolical infliction of punishment, which serves, ver. 8, for a covering of blood-guiltiness to the community in question.” Gustav F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. George Day (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1978 [1873]), p. 322.

20. ^ Keil, The Pentateuch, 3:404-405.

21. ^ Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles Briggs, The New Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1907; reprint ed. Lafayette, IN: Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981), p. 498.

22. ^ In regard to the usage of kapar in this text, Kalland states: “Though the word kapar (‘atone’) appears twice in v.8, the atonement mentioned is not an atonement within the sacrificial system; for the blood of the heifer was not offered. It is rather an atonement for justice; the heifer suffered death in place of the unknown criminal, in order to clear the land of guilt.” Earl S. Kalland, “Deuteronomy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 10 vols., ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 3:13.

23. ^ In regard to the killer, whom God, who see all things, knows, the blood still cries out for vengeance. If, in God’s providence, the murderer becomes known to the civil authorities in the future, it will be their duty to put the murderer to death. But if not, God will, according to His own wisdom and purpose, visit His sanctions on the killer both in this life and at the judgment of the last day.

24. ^ Kaiser explains: “It was because humans are made in the image of God that capital punishment for first degree murder became a perpetual obligation. To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy. That murderer’s life was owed to God; not to society, not to grieving loved ones, and not even as a preventive measure for more crimes of a similar nature.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), p. 91. Emphasis added.

25. ^ Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, in New International Biblical Commentary, eds. Robert L. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), pp. 233-234.

26. ^ The effective use of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 in the debate (particularly the debate in the church) over capital punishment for murder, is dependent on the understanding of the theology that supports the law. The power of Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is that once it underlying theology is grasped, it shows how serious a matter murder is for a community, how the guilt of innocent blood is charged to a people who will not execute murderers, and how important it is for a people to do what is right in the sight of the Lord in civil law.

27. ^ Since 1976 there have been 482,000 homicides in the United States, but there have only been 629 executions for murder. Human Events, vol. 56, no. 18 (May 19, 2000), p. 1.

28. ^ This kind of pollution of the land is far more serious than chemical pollution. Environmentalists want to save the land from pollution of human waste, but usually care little about saving the land from the pollution of human blood.

29. ^ In our submission to God and our appeal to His mercy, we need to remember that the heifer’s death was a ceremonial execution whereby the people expressed innocence in the murder and their resolve to punish the murderer by death. There was no typology at work in the slaying of the heifer; Christ is not the antitype of the slain heifer of Deuteronomy 21:4. The guilt of innocent blood remains on the murderer; it is only the community that is cleansed by obedience and an appeal to the mercy of God in Christ.

30. ^ Many who bring their children to be aborted do so with a significant measure of ignorance as to the nature of their deed due to the brainwashing of the liberal elite and a civil law that says abortion is a “constitutional right.” In our opinion, the greater guilt lies with the abortion industry, liberal judges, politicians, media, and groups who emphatically defend “abortion rights,” than with most of the women who have been duped into having an abortion.

31. ^ In view of the countless murders that have never been punished by death, and of the millions of abortions that have been performed, the prospect of a fearful visitation of God’s righteous wrath against this nation is very real.

In fact, we must ask ourselves: How can we escape severe judgment for all the innocent blood that has been shed in America? God did not spare Judah. He sent bands of the Chaldees, Syrians, Moabites, Ammonites, and finally Babylon to destroy Judah “for the sins of Manasseh, according to all he did; And for the innocent blood that he shed: for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood; which the Lord would not pardon” (2 Kings 24:3-4, emphasis added; cf. 21:16). God did not spare Egypt or Edom: “Egypt shall be a desolation, and Edom shall be a desolate wilderness for the violence against the children of Judah, because they have shed innocent blood in their land” (Joel 3:19). The psalmist declares that God’s wrath was kindled against Israel for their sins, one being that they “shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and daughters. . . .” (Ps. 106:38), and so He abhorred Israel and gave them into the hands of the heathen. Is not abortion the shedding of innocent blood, even the blood of sons and daughters? Will God not also abhor us and judge us?

32. ^ The question arises in regard to the status of those who have had abortions or performed abortions prior to a time when the civil law is changed to make abortion a crime punishable by death. Does biblical law require that all these be put to death?

A law that prescribes the punishment of a person for an act which was not considered a crime by the state when it was committed is called an ex post facto law. There is no indication in the Bible that at the time God gave His law to Israel through Moses, that it was to be considered ex post facto law. The biblical text points to the application of the civil penalties of the law in Israel from the time of the ratification of the covenant, but not before (e.g., all who had committed adultery prior to the ratification of the covenant were not rounded up and executed). Consequently, as a repentant nation brings its civil laws into conformity with biblical law the new laws should not be ex post facto.

But in the light of Numbers 35:33 can this reasoning be applied to crimes that involve murder? If the killer is not executed how can the land be cleansed of innocent blood? Careful, biblical reflection is necessary on this question.

In regard to abortion, since the death of each child was at the hands of the abortionists, perhaps the best course to removing the guilt of innocent blood is to apply the law ex post facto to them. Through the execution of these “doctors” of death by the civil authorities the land would be cleansed of blood by the blood of the one who actually shed it. (Note: Vigilante slayings of abortionists do not cleanse the land of innocent blood because such “executions” are not representative of the community, nor sanctioned by Scripture.)

33. ^ Modern politicians who say they are personally opposed to abortion while at the same time giving active support to laws that sanction the killing of unborn children often try to wash their hands of innocent blood by saying such things as, “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I will not impose my own view on matters of public policy”; or, “I do not endorse abortion, I only support a woman’s right to choose what is best for herself and her family.” Their “noble” statements are about as righteous and courageous as Pilate’s; and certainly just as futile for cleansing their hands of innocent blood.

This a revised version of the article that was originally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 143, no. 3, May - June 2000.