How to handle an unsolved murder, Old Testament style.
"If in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, any one is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities that are around him that is slain; and the elders of the city which is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer which has never been worked and which has not pulled in the yoke.
And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley.
And the priests the sons 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 by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled.
And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, 'Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed. Forgive, O Lord, thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and set not the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of thy people Israel; but let the guilt of blood be forgiven them.'
So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord." (Revised Standard Version.)
Got that, everybody?
So. There are two things that immediately leap to mind about this passage.
Okay, three things, since the very first thing that leaps to mind is a totally baffled, almost hallucinatory, "What the fuck?" It makes so little sense that it almost doesn't parse at all. When Ingrid first read it to me (it's the opening quotation to the book she's reading, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"), I thought I was hearing it wrong. It reminds me of nothing more than the Prophets Row scene in "Life of Brian." "At this time, a friend shall lose his friend's hammer. And the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock."
But I think we can take that as a given. So after the hallucinatory bafflement fades a bit, here's what immediately leaps to mind about this passage.
One: This sure blows to smithereens any ideas about the Bible being eternal, perfectly true forever, as useful a guide today as it was when it was written.
As Ingrid pointed out: How exactly would this principle operate for an unsolved murder today, in, say, New York City? If a body washed up in the East River, would they measure whether it landed closer to Manhattan or Brooklyn to decide which city had to slaughter the heifer? Would the mayor have to personally do the slaughtering, or would it be okay for the city council to take care of it? Or could it be delegated to a special department: a Department of Unsolved Murder Heifer Slaughtering, to replace the Cold Case Squad? And given the number of unsolved murders in New York City every year, would they have to keep a special feedlot to raise cows specially for the unsolved murder sacrifices?
Two: How was this ever useful? Even at the time it was written? Even in the Bronze Age?
What a weird version of justice this is. Somebody was murdered, you can't punish the person who did it — so you punish a cow?
And what a weird vision of God it is. Why do the city elders have to explain to God that they weren't responsible for the murder? Doesn't God already know? Besides, is God really going to feel better about the injustice of an unpunished murder because an unworked cow gets slaughtered in an unplowed river valley? And if they didn't perform this ritual, would God really punish an innocent city just because it happened to be the closest to where a dead body was found?
(And in fact, as Ingrid pointed out: How would the elders know that the murder wasn't committed by someone in their city?)
And I'm back to my totally baffled, "What the fuck?"
Ingrid keeps saying that I have to be fair: that I have to remember the time and place this was written, and not judge people with a Bronze Age view of the world from my own modern perspective. They didn't have the information or understanding about how the world works that we have today, but that didn't necessarily make them stupid or crazy. Grossly mistaken, yes, but not stupid or crazy.
But in a way, that's exactly my point. So much of the Bible is written with this sympathetic- magic, burnt- offering, appeasing- the- temperamental- Gods mentality of thousands of years ago. I mean, fending off the wrath of your god for an unpunished murder by sacrificing a cow? With all the weird details about exactly what kind of cow, and where? It's like the Greek or Norse myths. We're not talking about a metaphorical scapegoat here, people. We're talking about an actual, literal scapegoat.
Now, a lot of progressive Christians would no doubt respond by saying, "You're not supposed to take the Bible literally. It's a divinely inspired metaphor, a history of an evolving understanding of God over the ages. Not all Christians are fundamentalists, and it's unfair to critique all Christianity based on a literal interpretation that many of us don't adhere to."
My usual response to that argument — and the response of countless other atheists — is, "If you're going to cherrypick your sacred text, how do you decide which parts are divinely inspired and which parts are human error? And if you're deciding just by using your own instinct and judgment, rooted in the morals of your society, then how is your sacred text any different from any other book of philosophy or history or guidance, where you take what you need and leave the rest?"
I will, in fact, make that argument again here. In fact, I just did.
But there's something else I want to say as well. And that's this:
How is this passage a useful guide — even as a metaphor?
What is the general principle of life that we can take from this passage? That when you can't punish a wrongdoer, it's an acceptable substitute to punish someone else instead? Or to go through a formalized ritual of punishment that bears no real connection with justice, but looks sort of like it?
Or is the principle at work here a basic "appeasement of God" concept? That God is angered by the injustice of an unpunished murder… and therefore you have to give him sacrifices to chill him out, even if you had nothing to do with it?
It's not just that this passage is completely useless as a literal guide to modern law enforcement. (Although I am getting a kick out of imagining the "Law & Order" episode where the real killer is never found, and Jack McCoy has to go out to the slaughterhouse to wash his hands over a dead cow and remind God that it wasn't his fault.) It's completely useless as a metaphorical guide to justice. It's completely useless as any kind of guide to anything. I can get more inspiration and guidance from an episode of "Project Runway" than I can from this irrelevant, batshit, Bronze Age guide to life.