Animals are always guilty of humans’ crimes

In this weekly Torah portion a Biblical law known as ‘’beheaded heifer’’ prescribes the neck-breaking of a she-calf in a ravine as a required ritual for the nearest community in which vicinity a corpse was discovered, but without any clues as to the identity of the slayer. The dispatch of the innocent animal was to gesture the townsfolk’s moral washing off their hands; indeed, a public admission that it was none of them who ‘’shed this blood’’, or even saw it happen. Yet, a heifer was to forfeit its life because an anonymous human murdered one of his fellows.

This is another example — one of numerous others — where the fate of the Bible’s fauna was effectively hinged on humanity’s failed moral track record, even as the animals did not commit the evil that humans had. Yet, they would be paying a dear price or perish as collateral innocent victims.

This phenomenon goes back to the serpent in the Garden, which was the only party there whom God cursed for the human pair’s defiance of His fiat that forbade them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. That curse was the harbinger to the Biblical frequent phenomenon where humans mess up galore and receive their comeuppance, but animals collaterally share such divine bills.

We witness again this modus-operandi when all land and winged animals perish in the colossal flood (except those representative survivors on Noah’s Ark), though the deluge was the result of humanity’s corruption and depravity. Later it will be the fauna in the ‘’firebombed’’ sinful twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that will perish for the people’s malevolence, as it will be when the Ten Plagues descend on Egypt, and when the 600 Egyptian horses drown in the Red Sea; all resulting from God’s lashing out at man for his heinous misdeeds.

When the Israelite conquer Jericho (the first city in the Promised land to fall into their hands) all animals perished too by the edge of the sword. There, an Israelite warrior, one Achan son of Zerah, kept to himself from the forbidden spoils of Jericho. God’s prescribed retribution saw to it that Achan, “his sons and daughters, his ox, donkey, and sheep… and all that he had” were stoned and burnt, even in the valley of Achor.

Traditional exegesis explains that Achan’s children were his accomplices in either hiding the loot, or at least by keeping a hush about it, thus deserving their execution. Nevertheless, no such commentary refers to the household’s animals that were also killed due to their master’s maleficence; though innocent, they became collateral victims too.

King Saul ordered by the Seer Samuel to dispatch the whole nation of Amalek and its livestock carried out the mission, though the animals that his troops dispatched did not know that they belonged to the proscribed Amalekite nation. And when Doeg, a chief officer in King Saul’s administration, ferociously murdered in cold blood the priests of Nob at the King’s command for innocently feeding and aiding the fugitive David, sought out by the phobic Israelite monarch, he dispatched also the town’s women, every child or infant “and ox and donkey and sheep.”

Jonah’s indifference, if not his active desire to witness how God scuppers Nineveh’s both human and cattle populations too, drives God to chastise his callous prophet: “Should I not take pity on the great city of Nineveh…and [its] many animals as well?” Those animals would have also been devastated had not the Ninevites repented their immoralities, thus meriting God’s forgiveness.

Alas for the ‘’beheaded heifer’’ in this weekly Torah portion which neck had to be broken in a ravine to ”cleanse” the conscience of a town in which vicinity a corpse was discovered, but no one to be indicted for the crime.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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