Deuteronomy 21:1-9 – Sacrifices Made When You Know They Don’t Deserve It

Posted: March 8, 2017 in 05-Deuteronomy
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Deuteronomy 21:1-9

Cleansing for an Unsolved Murder

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), as the old cliché goes, “would have a cow” over this passage. Here, we have probably a young cow that has not yet been yoked just minding his oblivious brain’s business and the next thing ya know, he is being led down to a nearby stream or river and, bam, his neck is broken. Game over. This passage is one of those that is hard to explain in the modern world of the 21st century. Bart Simpson would tell PETA “don’t have a cow, man!” Why in the world does God tell His people to break the neck of a cow as some type of penance for not knowing who to blame for a murder? Seems kind of a random thing to do by today’s standards.


I think that the only way to understand this passage is to think of an illustration. The one that comes to mind is when you child gets in trouble. Like when they get in trouble with a neighbor for breaking something on the neighbor’s property. You are called to come get your kid. Then, it is explained to you what the child has done. You stand up for your kid and offer to pay for the damages caused by your child. It’s going to cost you money and/or time to put things back the way they were at your neighbor’s house and it’s going to inconvenience you. It’s also going to cause you to have to repair the relationship with the neighbor so that your neighbor will not treat your child harshly (because of one act of negligence in the past) in the future. Inside your house, you are going to discipline your child but there is no way that you were going to let the neighbor do that. Inside your house, there will be ways in which you will cause your child to see the error of their ways. You may even force them to apologize to the neighbor. However, you will have paid the price for the damage done, not the child. You paid the price so your child would not have to.


In my life, I can only harken back to the time (and I have written about it before here) when my friend, Donnie, and I vandalized the elementary school in Travelers Rest, SC by tearing the phone wires out of the junction box that took the phone lines from the street and joined them to the internal phone wiring of the building. We got caught. The only thing that prevented us from being sentenced to time in juvenile detainment was that my dad and Donnie’s dad paid to have the phone wiring repaired that the school. My dad and Donnie’s dad were innocent of any wrongdoing, but they sacrificed their hard-earned money to cover our lapse in judgement.


Similarly, in my life, more recently, there is someone who is dear to me that seems unable to see that finding a job is a priority in her life. This person gets mad at me for constantly hounding her about how she is living her life. She is very capable of having a life that is more than just a hand-to-mouth existence, but every day she waits to get a job the harder it becomes. She would rather do odd jobs here and there. She would rather sleep late every day and stay up all night. She won’t speak to me for months and months because she knows how I feel about the lifestyle she is leading. She is so smart and could have been a leader in some business setting by now. She knows how I feel so she ignores me. Until. She ignores me until she needs money. I am her fallback position. When the lights get cutoff at her place or the water gets cut off after 3-6 months of non-payment, she comes to me for more than a thousand dollars to help get these utilities turned back on. I was told my friends and family not to do it and that she needs to learn. But tears of a dear one will crumple a soft heart and all the bluster of anger. I keep paying the price for her mistakes and she goes back to ignoring me…until the next crisis. How many times will I sacrifice for this loved one?


That idea of a sacrifice of an innocent cow for something that someone else did, how sometimes we sacrifice for our kids when they have done something wrong so that they do not get punished by others, or how we sometimes sacrifice for loved ones even though they do not warrant our help is what I thought of this morning when I read:


21 If someone is found slain, lying in a field in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess, and it is not known who the killer was, 2 your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance from the body to the neighboring towns. 3 Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke 4 and lead it down to a valley that has not been plowed or planted and where there is a flowing stream. There in the valley they are to break the heifer’s neck. 5 The Levitical priests shall step forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister and to pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord and to decide all cases of dispute and assault. 6 Then all the elders of the town nearest the body shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, 7 and they shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8 Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Lord, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.” Then the bloodshed will be atoned for, 9 and you will have purged from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, since you have done what is right in the eyes of the Lord.


Just think how important cows were in ancient Israel. Just think about how important cows are in rural, farming communities today. They are money to the farmer. They are work animals to the farmer. They are extremely important to him, maybe even more so in ancient Israel. The amount of farm animals that a person had in ancient Israel was an indication of wealth. In economies where cash is not yet the primary medium of economic exchange, property signifies wealth. Property was a medium of exchange. I will give you these cows for that grain and so on. So, to give up a cow for a sacrifice was a big deal. It would be for a farmer today too. It had better be for a good purpose. Here, the sacrifice is to atone for a murder for which we could find no one to blame. Someone gets away with a murder but a price must be paid for loss of life. The sacrifice of the cow, God knew, was a big deal. He wanted the people to understand that they should exhaust every effort to solve murders and have the rightful person pay for it. However, there are times where they could not find the person who did it. So, a sacrifice of atonement for the purposeful loss of life had to be done.


This sacrifice to me point us toward Jesus Christ. He, himself, was blameless and innocent. He had done nothing but live a sinless life and pointed us all toward a right relationship with God. He died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. We are the blame-ful ones. He is the blame-less one. Jesus was led to slaughter to make atonement for the ugliness and unsolvable nature of our sins. Our sins are the unsolved problem that we have with God. We cannot exist in His presence because of our sin. God said though that sending His Son to the death He did not deserve on the cross was His way of pouring out His wrath against sin rather than pouring it out against us, as we deserved. Jesus was the innocent that was slaughtered. He protects us from the punishment we deserve. He sacrificed for us even though we often ignore Him. He sacrifices for us even when we don’t appreciate what He did. He has sacrificed for us even before we come to know Him. He love us that much that He sacrificed His life for us for the possibility that we would one day come to appreciate it – come to Him and proclaim Him our Lord and Savior. The cow did not deserve to die for something somebody else did. Jesus did not deserve to die for our sins. He was innocent. However, He offered Himself up for us as a way to reconcile us to the Father. He did so willingly to atone for our sins. He knew we did not deserve it, but He did it anyway. Just like a parent lovingly sacrificing for their child even though the child does not deserve the grace being shown by the parent. That’s love. There is no greater love than the love that Jesus Christ has for us. Amen and Amen.


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