Preparations for War and Unsolved Murders
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?