Deuteronomy 21:9 (CSB)
9 You must purge from yourselves the guilt of shedding innocent blood, for you will be doing what is right in the Lord’s sight.
This passage is concerned not with the killing of a person that has a witness, but a killing that has no witness, or at least no witness that will testify. Previously we have seen passages concerned with crimes that have been observed, but now Moses addresses a capital crime where there is not any, and how the nation is to respond in order to be reconciled with God.
Apparently, since someone must take the lead in the prescribed ceremony, the rule is that the town closest to the victim is the one to do so. Deut. 21:1 specifically points out that the victim is found in the land God is giving to the Israelites, suggesting an additional gravity to the situation since this is not just a crime against man, but also against God.
A young cow that has not been broken, or used for work, is brought to unworked land, near flowing water, and its neck is broken as a sacrifice of sorts, but without the bloodshed. The unbroken cow suggests an “undefiled” sacrifice, as does the unworked land. Perhaps the moving water is symbolic of the carrying away of sin that the ceremony is for? And the lack of bloodshed highlights the difference between this sacrifice and a “typical” sacrifice that occurs at an altar.
The elders would then recite a statement, declaring their innocence in the crime, and the fact that the perpetrator is unbeknownst to them. This appears to be critical, this vocal confession and request for mercy from God, since it is after the quote of the statement that Moses declares they will be cleansed of responsibility for the bloodshed.
In the end though, we see the common theme of these commands: purging guilt and evil from God’s people so that they will be right with God.
Lord, thank you for your mercy! We are not always the ones guilty of specific sins and crimes, yet we may be held accountable due to our proximity to one who does sin, either physically or relationally. And when we are in the blast zone of sin, I pray that rather than feed it, or ignore it, that we take steps to make things right, and most importantly, that we seek you. Amen.