Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden
The Torah prescribes a bizarre-seeming ritual in the case on an unsolved murder. The elders of the town nearest to where the body is found go to a nearby river and upon untilled land on the riverbank they kill a heifer, wash their hands over the body of the heifer, and state that they didn’t kill the man nor saw it done, and beg God for forgiveness.
The ritual, while symbolic, doesn’t appear to do much in terms of finding the murderer nor achieving any sense of justice.
Rabbeinu Bechaye, however, on Deuteronomy 21:1 (Shoftim) explains that in fact, the ritual, in a backhanded way, does flush out and identify the hidden murderer.
In an agrarian, pre-industrial age, before detectives, forensic evidence or social media, it was no mean feat to apprehend a murderer who wished to keep a low profile.
Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes Maimonides who describes that the highest probability is that the murderer is from the closest town. When the elders get involved and start measuring the distance from the victim’s corpse to the nearby towns to determine which town is closest, this causes everyone in the area to talk about the murder.
When the elders of the closest town then take the heifer to be killed at the riverbank, it gets even more people to talk about the murder, which will eventually cause the murderer’s identity to be discovered.
If the murderer is still not revealed and the elders in front of all the townspeople vow that they don’t know who the murderer is, it will cause an even greater embarrassment and eventually someone who knows something, who has some hint as to who the murderer may be, will come forward.
Part of the ritual is that the untilled riverbank land where the heifer is killed can never be worked again. Such a major economic blow to the community will create an even bigger commotion, will be greatly distressful and lead to more discussion and remembrance of the murder case which will never be forgotten.
In the natural course of social dynamics, with the unworkable land as a significant, public and constant reminder as to the open murder case, the murderer will be found, and the court, the king or the blood redeemer will see that justice is done.
It is interesting that what at first glance seems like a non-sensical ritual is in reality a sophisticated social and communal prescription for flushing out a murderer.
I wonder how many other rituals we have that are as deep, as sophisticated and as powerful, which we don’t realize or appreciate?
To Umberto Eco, whose excellent The Name of the Rose novel, captured some of the challenges of pre-industrial sleuthing.