Preparations for War and Unsolved Murders

Deuteronomy 20:1-21:9

Moses tells the people what to do in preparation for future wars. He notes that the people should not be afraid if they encounter an enemy that seems more numerous or more powerful than they, as God will be by their side. The priest will announce to the people that God is with them and they should not be afraid. The officers will tell anyone who has recently built a new home, planted a new vineyard, gotten engaged or is deathly afraid that they may be excused from battle.


Before attacking a city, the priest will offer peace to the inhabitants, under condition that the residents pay tribute and serve the Children of Israel. However, if they refuse, the people are to lay siege to the city, killing the men and taking the women, children and booty for themselves. This applies only to a distant city, however; cities within the borders which God has promised to the Children of Israel are to be wiped out entirely. The members of the seven nations may not be allowed to remain within the boundaries of Israel lest they lead the Israelites astray towards idolatry.


The Israel Bible points out that according to some authorities, even the seven original Canaanite nations must be offered peace initially, provided they reject idolatry. The Land was given to the People of Israel as an inheritance, but they desire to live in it in peace with their neighbors.


During the course of such a war, trees may be cut down for siege purposes. Fruit trees, however, must be left alone, as they have done no harm.


Finally, if an unidentified body is found on the road between cities, the distance between the body and the cities should be measured and the elders of the closer city called upon to take responsibility for the body. They will take an unworked heifer to a valley which cannot be farmed and axe its neck there, in the presence of the priests. The elders shall wash their hands over the body of the heifer and declare that they were not responsible for the man’s death.


The Israel Bible points out that the axed heifer is one of the few non-agricultural commandments which may only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the commandment is incumbent on the congregation as a whole, and the congregation of Israel is only considered complete when it resides in the land of Israel. This reminds us of the centrality of the Land in the lives of the People of Israel.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

What do you think is the significance of the axed heifer ritual? Why do you think it must be performed?

Comments ( 7 )

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  • Alejandro Escontrias

    3 key points:
    1. Land distance
    2. City Leadership
    3. Blood on the ground
    Holy Land, land defilement and responsibility, purification

  • Pauline Graham

    Perhaps the red heifer I believe is the shed blood of the innocent animal, which reminds us of the death of Yeshua the Messiah, who she'd His blood for us all. The red heifer is an atonement for the person who was killed. Regarding the fruit trees, its silly to destroy that which can feed you. No fruit no produce, no wealth as you sell them, or barter for them for other things. Men who are distracted by the things of life, are no use to the service of the LORD.

  • Herman Arentsen

    Blood spilled on the earth, but unknown by who. So there is a kind of collective responsibility taken upon the shoulders of the elders of the nearest town. The blood of the heifer is for the atonement of a possible guilt of the elders and Kohanim of that town. G-d will forgive the people when they wash their hands and declare their innocence.

  • Angela B

    What I know about the red heifer is that if burnt to ashes, its ashes have the ability to cleanse the land of whatsoever filth is on it. However, this time round, according to Deut 21:4-9, it is the blood of the heifer, not its ashes. Perhaps then the blood did the same role of cleansing the people of innocent blood shed yet the one responsible is unknown.

    • Wiliam Dunlap

      The Red Heifer and the Cycle of Life and Death. Yehuda Amichai In Numbers 19, which corresponds to the Torah portion of Chukat, the Torah describes the ritual of the red heifer: the ritual slaughter of a red cow with no blemish, and the burning of the cow together with cedar wood, hyssop, and red thread.

  • Jayne

    This form of killing would produce blood which is the requirement for remission of sin as it is evidence that a life has been taken. Sin brings death and the elders would perhaps do this incase the person had been murdered.

  • Diana Brown

    I believe King Solomon admitted he didn’t understand the laws of the red heifer and he was the wisest among us. I don’t understand either but I know if you obey God’s Command in faith even if you don’t have understanding, HaShem will see you performing His Words. He will reward you for it. In fact, He is rich in Mercy and Grace and He is so willing to bless us for obedience. Perhaps Tsivya, you could enlighten us please? Thank you.

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