CHAPTER FOUR. Pollution and Homicide

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FOR THE ancient Israelites, the spilling of blood in a homicide was an event

of profound consequence because of the blood itself, not simply because

of the physical harm of the assault. The blood that was spilled polluted.

One of the statutes on homicide concludes with an explicit statement of

the motivation for the statute: The blood of the victim pollutes the land

(Num 35:33, 34):1

33You shall not pollute the land in which you are in, for the blood

itself pollutes the land: expiation cannot be made on behalf of the

land for the blood that was shed in it except by the blood of him who

shed it. 34You shall not defile the land in which you are inhabiting,

in which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell among the Israelites.

1The viewpoint that sin defiles the land rather than affecting the sanctuary is consistent with

the doctrine of H. Cf. Baruch J. Schwartz, “The Bearing of Sin in Priestly Literature,” in

Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Ancient Near Eastern Ritual,

Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom (ed. David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman,

and Avi Hurvitz; Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1995), 6, and Knohl, The Sanctuary of

Silence, 185–186. Ritual impurity and ethical impurity are treated in two discrete crystallizations

of the Priestly traditions, P and H, respectively. It would, however, be incorrect to argue that

only one, H, holds that ethical impurity exists, since there are many references to the polluting

effects of shed blood. Cf. 2 Sam 3:28–29; Isa 26:21; Ps 106:38.

Warnings about purging evil from the midst of the Israelites appear

with frequency in Deuteronomy (Deut 13:6; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22,

24; 24:7), but only with regard to the case of homicide does the warning

specify that it is the blood of the innocent victim that must be removed.

Deut 19:10–13, another of the statutes on homicide, warns the Israelites not

to have pity upon the murderer so that the innocent blood of the victim can

be purged:

10 The blood of the innocent shall not be shed in the land which the

Lord your God is giving to you, imputing bloodguilt upon you. 11 If

a person is hostile to another and lies in wait and strikes him mortally

so that he dies, and flees to one of these towns, 12 the elders of his

town shall send and take him back from there and deliver him to the

blood avenger so that he dies. 13You shall not have pity on him, but

shall make expiation of the blood of the innocent, and it will be well

with you.

Deut 21:1–9, a rite of absolving the community of responsibility for the

death of an unknown homicide victim, specifies that the innocent blood of

the victim is to be sent as far as possible from human habitation so as to be

disposed of:

6 All the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their

hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7 They

shall solemnly declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood nor did

our eyes witness [it]. 8Make expiation, Lord, for your people Israel

whom you redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to remain

amidst your people Israel, and let the blood be expiated.” 9 Thus,

you will remove innocent blood from your midst, for you will be

doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

In the story of Cain and Abel, it is not an accident that when God confronts

Cain about Abel’s murder, God speaks about Abel’s blood crying out

from the ground (Gen 4:10). Blood, !ymd, is not simply a vivid image conjured

up by a creative author for the tale of Cain. Abel’s blood has a real

existence of its own that must be addressed.

In the Bible, blood is a paradoxical substance: It is the most effective

cleanser while being a pollutant.2 Sacrificial blood removes pollution and

sanctifies. It is the principal means of remedying impurity. The annual ceremony

of atonement includes the sprinkling of the Tabernacle with blood

in order to purge defilement from the Tabernacle (Leviticus 16). This allows

the high priest to enter the inner sanctum without dying (Lev 16:2). Blood

is used in the initial sanctification of the Tabernacle and the ordination of

2Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans,

1979), 188.

Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8). Blood removes the initial impurity from the

altar and sanctifies Aaron and his sons for their special station. The covenant

between God and the Israelites is affirmed when Moses splashes blood on the

people, signaling the change in status (Exod 24:6–8). The leper is cleansed

by being sprinkled with blood (Lev 14:5–7, 14, 25).

At the same time, blood is also a powerful contaminant. A discharge of

blood, whether in menstruation, in childbirth, or in recovery from childbirth,

renders a woman unclean (Lev 12: 1–8). The other bodily discharge to incur

impurity is semen. What the discharges of blood and semen have in common

is their relationship to being the source of life.3 Semen and blood symbolize

life, and their loss is death. The other two sources of impurities are the state

of death itself and scale disease, which itself manifests death as the body

wastes away.4 In Num 12:12, Aaron reacts to the sight of Miriam afflicted

by scale disease by exclaiming, “Let her not be like the dead, which comes out

of its mother’s womb with half its flesh eaten away.” Death and that which

resembles death cause defilement. Blood represents both life and death and,

therefore, is both a purifier and a contaminant.

Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible manifests the belief that the vitality of life

is found in blood.5 This is not simply symbolic. Blood contains human and

animal life in a concrete sense. The very life of an animal is contained in its

blood (Lev 17:10, 14; Deut 12:23).6 Therefore the blood of an animal must

not be eaten (Lev 17:10–14, also 7:26–27).7 In the same concrete sense, the

life of a human being is contained in his blood.8 It has corporeality; it is not

simply a metaphor.9

3Milgrom, Leviticus 116, 767, 1002.

4Milgrom, “The Dynamic of Impurity in the Priestly System,” in Purity and Holiness: The Heritage

of Leviticus (ed. M. J. H. M. Poorthuis and J. Schwartz; Jewish and Christian Perspectives

Series II; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 31–32. This is reflected in the rabbinic statement that scale disease

is tantamount to death (tml hlwq` [t[rx] ayh`, b. Sanhedrin 47a). Cf. b. Nedarim 64b (aynt

h[bra !ynb wl @ya` ymw amwsw [rwxmw yn[ tmk @ybw`j), Tanhuma 94.13; Lamentations Rabbah 3.2; Exodus

Rabbah 1.34 (Margalioth 1.105).

5The ancient Israelites literally attributed physical and psychological functions to particular

organs of the body.

6The presence of life in the blood may make eating blood invigorating; see David Sperling,

“Blood,” ABD 1.762. This may be the reason why Saul’s weary soldiers consume meat with

the blood in it (1 Sam 14:31–32).

7This concept is paralleled in other cultures. Cf. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (abridged

edition; New York: Macmillan, 1951), 265.

8This is reflected in the rabbinic practice of burying a murdered person in his or her bloodstained

clothing. See Shulh. an Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 364:4, and Arukh ha-Shulh. an, Yoreh Deah,


9David H. Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery (The Brill

Reference Library of Ancient Judaism; Leiden: Brill, 2001), demonstrates how some statements

that modern critics take metaphorically would have been taken literally by readers in biblical

times and proposes an innovative methodology to determine whether a text was meant literally

or metaphorically or both.

Sin also possesses concreteness. Once sin is committed, it is not a past

event but a real object, an odious, foul object that affects human beings and

human society and that requires disposal.10

These factors, the polluting effect of blood and the physical inherence

of life in blood, cognitively mapped with the physicality of sin, generate the

belief that the spilling of the victim’s blood is the physical consequence of the

sin that must be rectified. Accordingly, Num 35:33–34 and Ps 106:38 warn

that the blood of a murdered person pollutes. When God confronts Cain

about Abel’s murder, God emphasizes that Abel’s blood is crying out from

the ground (Gen 4:10). Abel’s blood has a concrete existence, and so the

blood of the victim cries out from the earth for revenge. David recoils from

“the blood falling11 on the head of Joab and his father’s house” and utters a

curse to ensure that the taint would fall on the murderer’s descendants, not

his own (2 Sam 3:28–29; 1 Kgs 2:32–33). According to a prophetic vision,

when iniquity is punished, the earth will reveal the blood that has been shed

on it and will not cover it up again (Isa 26:21). When the brothers of Joseph

consider killing him and blaming a wild beast for his death, they speak of

slaying him and covering up his blood (Gen 37:26). The sight of blood that is

shed stirs God to revenge: It has been put on stone, not on earth, to prevent

it from being covered up by the dust of the earth (Ezek 24:7–9). Job cries

out that the earth should not cover his blood and thereby efface his cry for

justice (Job 16:18). The blood has a physical existence that can be hidden

by being covered, hsk, and can be shown by being revealed, hlg‘ Covering

the blood is a means of hiding the slaying, while uncovering it brings certain


The technical term used to denote culpability for a killing is, therefore,

!ymd or !d, literally “blood.” The singular form denotes both “blood” and

“bloodguilt, culpability for death,” while the plural refers to “bloodguilt,

culpability for death,” the responsibility for the unlawful spilling of blood.

Here, the plural is used to indicate the abstract. The meaning of the plural

10Baruch J. Schwartz, “‘Term’ or Metaphor – Biblical arqmb afj/[`p/@w[ a`n” [Hebrew], Tarbiz

63 (1994) 149–171; “The Bearing of Sin in the Priestly Literature,” in Pomegranates and

Golden Bells, 7; and The Holiness Legislation [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999), 61–

63. This may be why, in both Hebrew and Akkadian, there are words that denote both sin

and the punishment remedying it – @/ and arnu. Schwartz argues that the putative meaning

“punishment” is identified only in the phrase @w[ a`n, when in fact the word still means “sin.”

The phrase should still be renderd “to bear (the burden of) sin,” and in this case, the sinner is

forgiven when another, most usually God, bears the sin in place of the sinner.

11This verb is derived from lwj, which is a homophonous root with three meanings, “to dance,”

“to fall upon,” and “to tremble.” While it is possible to translate the sentence as “the blood

dancing about the head of Joab,” it is more likely that it should be understood as “the blood

falling upon the head of Joab,” because the point of David’s outburst is to lay the blame upon

Joab. Cf. Jer 23:19 (30:23), where the verb is used to indicate the punishment falling upon

the guilty and to make a play on words with the embodiment of divine anger in the form of a


form, !ymd, has been extended to refer to crime in general (e.g., Isa 1:15

and the offenses enumerated in vv. 16–17). The blood of animals is always

referred to in the singular.

The responsibility for knowingly committing an act for which death is

the punishment is imputed in the expressions wb wymd, w`ar l[ wmd, w`arb wmd

“his blood is on his head.” In the case of homicide, the blood of the victim

attaches itself to the responsible party,12 but when a person deserves death

because of his own misdeed, his blood falls on his own head. The expression

w`arb wmd is used in 1 Kgs 2:37, Josh 2:19a, and Ezek 33:4, where the offender,

ignoring a warning, commited an act that subjects him to punishment, and

in Josh 2:19b, where an explicit promise to protect certain individuals from

death is not fulfilled and the responsibility is accepted by those who made the

promise: here, the idea of clearly knowing that the act committed has made

the one who acted subject to death. 1 Kgs 2:33 refers to the responsibility for

murders where a royal command appears to have been ignored, more clearly

for the death of Abner than for the death of Amasa (cf. 2 Sam 3:24–26). The

phrase w`ar l[ wmd is used in 2 Sam 1:16, where the offender tells the king of

his deed, for which the offender believes he will be rewarded, but the king

decrees that the offender’s own action and admission have condemned him

to death, and in 1 Kgs 2:32 (w`ar l[ wmd), where the offender’s own deeds

have condemned him. The phrase wb wymd is used in Lev 20:9, 11, 12, 13, 16,

27 and Ezek 18:13 to refer to a person’s misdeed for which the punishment

is death.

The concept that the blood of the victim has an objective existence provides

the key to understanding why the avenger is called !dh lag. The primary

meaning of the verb lag is “to restore.”13 Restoration constitutes the role of

another figure in legal actions, the lag, a close male relative who is obligated

to reclaim land sold by a member of his extended family (Lev 25:25;

Jer 32:7–8; Ruth 3:12; 4:3–4)14 and to redeem a relative sold into slavery

(Lev 25:47–49). He acts on behalf of a powerless person in the restoration

of lost property. In the same manner, the victim’s blood is lost and needs to

12H. Graf Reventlow, “Sein Blut komme u¨ber sein Haupt,” VT 10 (1960), 311–327, and Klaus

Koch, “Der Spruch ‘Sein Blut Bleihe auf seinem Haupt’ und die Israelitische Auffassung vom

vergossenen Blut,” VT 12 (1962), 396–416.

13Daube, “Lex Talionis,” in Studies in Biblical Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

1969), 135.

14The title to the land was not retained by the redeemer but devolved to the original owner.

Apparently in some cases, the redeemer purchased the property directly from the relative forced

to sell it without the intermediate sale to a nonrelative (Jer 32:7–8; Ruth 3:12; 4:3–4). In

Jer 32:7–8, Jeremiah assumed title to the land because he had both the right of inheritance and

the right of redemption: In the end, he would have gained the title to the land. Contra Baruch

Levine, “Late Language in the Priestly Source: Some Literary and Historical Observations,”

in Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 1981, Panel Sessions: Bible

Studies and Hebrew Language (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1983), 75.

be recovered.15 The function of !dh lag is to undo the unlawful spilling of

his relative’s blood by spilling the killer’s blood. Blood in its capacity as a

purifying agent removes the stain caused by the spilling of innocent blood,

and when the killer is executed, the pollution is removed. Otherwise, the

pollution persists.16

The use of two different titles raises the question of whether the redeemer,

lag, and the blood redeemer, !dh lag, were one and the same person.

It is likely that two titles indicate different people.17 It appears to me that

lag is the superordinate category, of which !dh lag is a subunit. If the lag

is the closest male relative, it would be reasonable to assume that !dh lag

is also the closest male relative, subject only to the physical strength necessary

to fulfill the required task. The actual difference between the two,

then, is the physical ability required of someone who must pursue and strike

down the slayer. In a percentage of cases, the lag has the capacity to act as

!dh lag; in others, another relative with the requisite characteristics must act

as !dh lag. While it is clear that the lag is the closest relative – the story of

Ruth and Boaz is based on the existence of a relative closer in degree than

Boaz whose primacy must be respected – the avenger, by contrast, most likely

arose from the family’s consensus about which family member possessed the

appropriate characteristics to pursue and strike down another person. The

slayer would not meekly assent to be killed and would most likely fight back.

!dh lag had to undertake a duty that many would shy away from18 and that

many could not undertake. The existence of a special title for the lag involved

in remedying a homicide reflects the concern with the deleterious effects of

spilled blood, the incurring of pollution. This lag is given the special title of

!dh lag, the lag for the blood whose spilling incurred pollution.

A threat of pollution is taken with great seriousness in the Bible. In the

priestly tradition, the Day of Atonement is devoted to purging the sanctuary

of impurity (Leviticus 16): The sanctuary requires decontamination from

pollution created by bodily impurities and also from Israel’s transgressions

15Daube, “Lex Talionis,” in Studies in Biblical Law, 136.

16The implication of Num 35:33 is that execution of the killer is equivalent to purification. Cf.

Jeffrey M. Tigay, Deuteronomy (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication

Society, 1966), 473.

17Although, in fact, Num 35:12 refers to the lag, not to !dh lag.

18One author notes in his analysis of the machinations involved in constituting a vengeance

group, as depicted in the Icelandic sagas, that most people tended to avoid being drafted and

attempted to excuse themselves: “Vengeance, whether in its pure form or legitimated as the

enforcement of an outlawry judgment, was a frightening prospect for avenger and wrongdoer

alike. Vengeance-taking was no easy task; it involved many risks many were understandably

reluctant to incur. Its difficulty and the thinly disguised averseness of avengers to undertake

their grim duty is the main theme of a good portion of the saga corpus. . . . Settlements must

have occasioned as many sighs of relief from reluctant avengers as from anxious wrongdoers

and their kin” (Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 299). In general, being an avenger was

an unhappy business, not eagerly assumed.

penetrating the sphere of the sacred from afar.19 The architecture of the

rebuilt Temple in the vision of Ezekiel was adjusted from that of the old

Temple in order to prevent ritual impurity from imperiling the new Temple:

Huge gatehouses were to be built to protect the entrances, and two courtyards

were to be constructed so that the laity could be banned from the inner

courtyard, next to the Temple building itself.20 In so doing, intruders would

not be able to imperil the purity of the Temple.

The concept of impurity that affects ritual was extended to impurity that

results from ethical violations.21 “Ritual” impurity is incurred as a result of

contact with any one of a number of natural processes and substances: the

remains of dead animals (Lev 11:1–47), childbirth (Lev 12:1–8), scale disease

(Lev 13:1–14:32), genital discharges (Lev 15:1–33), and human corpses

(Num 19:1–22). Its effect is temporary and, in general, limited to the individual

who incurred it. It is removed by bathing and by waiting for a certain

amount of time to pass – a mild sanction. By contrast, “ethical” impurity

is incurred by the committing of certain acts by an individual or individuals

(Lev 18:24–29; 19:31; 20:1–3; Num 35:33–34; Deut 19:10). It has an effect

on entities beyond the physical reach of the offense, whether the nation

of Israel as a whole, the Land of Israel, or the sanctuary (Lev 18:25; 20:3;

Ezek 5:11; 36:17). It desecrates without being in direct contact with the

object of its desecration. Its defilement can only be removed by atonement,

punishment, or exile. Ethical pollution is severe and, worse, dynamic: It is

persistent, contagious, and difficult to remove.

The defiling effect of spilled blood extends beyond that of the victim’s

family and the duties of the blood redeemer. Homicide causes ethical pollution

as well as ritual pollution.22 It threatens the well-being of the entire

19Jacob Milgrom, “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly Picture of Dorian Gray,” RB 83 (1976),

390–399. Baruch J. Schwartz argues that P does not hold that Israel’s transgressions translate

into actual defilement, whereasHand Ezekiel do. According to Schwartz, in P they do not metamorphose

into defilement but infect the sanctuary in a process distinct from, though analogous

to, defilement (Schwartz, “The Bearing of Sin,” 17).

20Moshe Greenberg, “The Design and Themes of Ezekiel’s Program of Restoration,” Int 38

(1984), 192–193, 205–208. Moreover, before the Israelites can return to their land, they must

be purified of both the ritual impurity and the ethical impurity that caused them to be expelled

(Ezek 36:16–18, 22–25).

21Cf. David Z. Hoffman, Das Buch Leviticus (Berlin: M. Poppelauer, 1905–1906), 1.303–304;

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel,” in The Word

of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of his

Sixtieth Birthday (ed. Carol L. Meyers and M. O’Connor;Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns,

1983), 399–414; Jonathan Klawans, “The Impurity of Immorality in Ancient Judaism,” JJS

48 (1997), 1–16; Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2000), 21–42.

22The idea that the blood of the victim polluted the slayer is attested in ancient Greece, but only

Plato was moving in the direction of moralizing pollution. At the same time that Plato retained

the concept of ritual pollution by prescribing that accidental killing required purification, he

also held that the individual who used an agent to kill someone else was polluted in soul and

Israelite polity. It is the incentive for establishing the procedures to adjudicate

homicide. The slayer offends not only against the victim and his family

but also against God, who does not abide in a polluted place or among a

polluted people. Even foreign lands, where God does not dwell, are turned

into desolation because of bloodshed (Joel 4:19).

The fear of spreading pollution explains what happens to the accidental

killer. According to Num 35:28, the accidental slayer is to remain in the

city of refuge until the death of the high priest. If he is found to have killed

accidentally, why should he be forced to remain in the city of refuge? Moshe

Greenberg points out that the answer lies in the two aspects that the city

of refuge has in Numbers 35.23 It is both a refuge that protects the fugitive

and a place of confinement that serves as exile. This is manifested in the

technical term used in the Bible in connection to the cities of refuge, flqm.

The root of flqm in rabbinic Hebrew means “to receive; to contain.” The

first meaning is the commonly used one: It is reflected in the role that the city

of refuge played in protecting the killer from !dh lag. The second meaning is

also extant in the Hebrew Bible, where the root f-l-q is used as an antonym

to the root [-r-`, “to extend”24 in Lev 22:23. The word flqm, therefore, may

be rendered as “containment.” These cities, therefore, can be understood as

“confinement cities” or “prison cities.”25 This is not simply a formal exercise

in philology – there is a profound difference between understanding flqm ry[

as “a refuge/sanctuary” or as “a prison.” A flqm possessed both aspects. Any

killer of a human being, even accidentally, was considered guilty.26 This is

must be dealt with exactly like the actual killer. In general in ancient Greece, the language of

pollution was used to describe outrageous behavior – a misdeed made its perpetrator impure –

but purification was not required. General cleanliness was required for formal, respectful behavior

of any kind, whether making a sacrifice or speaking to an assembly. Homicide never

incurred ethical pollution, despite the idea that pollution did not require direct contact to defile

those with a connection to the dead. A death would make the relatives of the victim impure even

if they were far away. When, for example, the news of a civil conflict in which 1,500 men were

killed reached the Athenian assembly, a purification of the assembly was immediately carried

out. Furthermore, the stain that affected a city or kingdom due to a homicide committed by

its leader or one of its citizens was caused by two factors: 1) the anger of the victim and the

avenging entities working on his behalf, and 2) the social isolation imposed on the killer and

by extension on his associates. Neither one of these factors was defilement. Cf. Robert Parker,

Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), 5,

21, 35–36, 106–108, 112; Michael Gagarin, Drakon and Early Athenian Homicide Law (New

Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1981), 17; Douglas M. MacDowell, Athenian Homicide

Law in the Age of the Orators (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1963), 145;

S. C. Todd, The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 140–141, 272, 274.

23Greenberg, “The Biblical Concept of Asylum,” in Studies in Bible and Jewish Thought, 47.

24This meaning is also found in Lev 21:18; Isa 28:20.

25Sulzberger, The Ancient Hebrew Law of Homicide, 17.

26Greenberg, “The Biblical Conception of Asylum,” 45. Even an accidental fall from a roof

unprotected by a parapet incurred bloodguilt for the death, albeit on the building or household

(Deut 22:8).

why he had to remain in the city of refuge, exiled from his ancestral home,

family, and usual occupation. Num 35:27 explicitly states that the avenger

does not incur bloodguilt if he strikes down the accidental killer outside of

the city of refuge. The accidental killer is still guilty in some sense, and the

blood avenger can kill him if he ventures out of the city of refuge. This idea is

paralleled in other biblical texts.27 Even Deuteronomy 19, with its concern

for preventing the death of the fugitive before he reaches the city of refuge,

does not regard the avenger who kills him on the way to the city of refuge

to be culpable. If the city of refuge is not easily accessible, the community is

responsible, not the blood avenger (Deut 19:10).

The accidental manslayer, while protected within the boundaries of the

city of refuge, is still in danger if he ventures beyond them. He has to remain

within the limits of the city of refuge in order to avoid meeting the blood

avenger. Whether the accidental slayer waits inside the city of refuge for a

short or a long period of time, the blood avenger might still be prepared to

kill him. Indeed, Num 35:26–27 warns of this possibility.

If the accidental manslayer was to be confined to the city of refuge because

of his guilt, why would it be possible for him to leave the city of refuge at

all? Furthermore, if confinement was considered the proper punishment for

accidental homicide, would not a fixed term be appropriate? A release based

on the time of death of the high priest could vary greatly. The high priest

might expire soon after the slayer was judged to be an accidental killer, and

the killer would be freed after spending just a short time in the sanctuary. By

contrast, another accidental killer might have to wait years before the high

priest would die. To add to the mystery, generally a reprieve is granted at the

accession of a leader, not his death; that a high priest’s death should be the

occasion of an amnesty is puzzling.28

27This concept is extended even further by rabbinic texts, which explicitly call the flight to a

city of refuge tWlfi , and which identify certain acts of accidental homicide as so guiltless as not

to require flight to a city of refuge at all. See m. Makkot 2:1–2.

28Greenberg argues correctly that an amnesty extended at the death of a high priest is unusual

because in general, amnesties occur at the accession of a king so that a new monarch could gain

the favor of the populace (“The Biblical Conception of Asylum,” 45). Generally, Mesopotamian

kings proclaimed m—eˇsarum decrees during their first year of rule, remitting specific types of

debts and pecuniary obligations. They were not pardoning capital crimes. Cf. J. J. Finkelstein,

“Ammis.aduqa’s Edict and the Babylonian ‘Law Codes,’” JCS 15 (1961), 102. There is an

exception to this, the reform of UruKAgina (Ukg. 4 xii 13–22 [ = Ukg. 5 xi 20–29]; Piotr

Steinkeller, “The Reform of UruKAgina and an Early Sumerian Term for ‘Prison,’” AuOr

9 [1991], 227–233). This amnesty was promulgated at the beginning of UruKAgina’s reign,

ca. 2350 b.c.e., and included the release of a variety of offenders, including those who had

committed homicide:

The citizens of Lagash – the one who had lived in indebtedness, the one who had set

up a [false] gur-measure [and] the one who had [improperly] filled [the accurate gurmeasure]

with barley, the thief, [and] the murderer – he swept their prison clean [of

them and] established their freedom.

The answer lies in the status of the high priest. Many scholars have

recognized the expiatory aspect of his death.29 Only the high priest has the

ability to purge guilt for others. Two examples may suffice as proof: 1) In

Lev 4:13–21, he30 makes expiation for the entire community. 2) The gold

plate that the high priest wears on his forehead acts as expiation for the guilt

the people incur (Exod 28:36–38).31 The death of the high priest, whether

soon upon the confinement of the accidental slayer or after many years,

would serve as expiation for the killing. An animal sacrifice would not be

sufficient. Only a human death can undo the killing of a human being, even

if it is accidental. The accidental killer must remain in the city of refuge until

the offense he has committed has been purged by the death of the high priest,

who alone can expiate the guilt of others.32 The stay of the accidental killer

in the city of refuge has a cultic valence. According to Numbers 35, after the

high priest’s death, the accidental murderer is no longer pursued by !dh lag,

because the expiatory death of the high priest is accepted by !dh lag.

Deuteronomy secularizes the stay of the accidental killer, a tendency that

is already at work in Deuteronomy’s conceptualization of the cities of refuge.

There is no mention in Deut 19:1–9 of a requirement that the accidental

killer be detained within the confines of the city. Yet the text does not specify

that he can leave the refuge at all. Deut 19:6 identifies “the hot anger”

of the blood avenger as the impetus for the fugitive’s flight to the city of

refuge. The implication, then, is that the accidental killer can depart when

the anger of the blood avenger is appeased. S. R. Driver extrapolates from

the specification of the emotions of the blood avenger that the length of the

accidental killer’s stay in the city of refuge depends entirely on the feelings

of the blood avenger.33 When the blood avenger calms down and reflects

on what occurred, according to Driver, he will realize that it was only an

accident and will no longer seek to kill the slayer. Of course, it is possible

that the avenger’s rage will never subside, and the accidental slayer will then

be forced to remain in the city of refuge until the avenger dies or the slayer’s

own death.

Alexander Rof´e argues that an emotional reconciliation is not sufficient.34

After the emotions settle, he supposes, the city elders will arrange a monetary

settlement. The accidental killer will not have to be concerned about

the hot anger of the blood avenger once the victim’s family is paid compensation.

The victim’s family has the power to allow the accidental slayer

29E.g., Erwin Merz, Die Blutrache bei den Israeliten (BWAT 20; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1916),

132; N. M. Nicolsky, “Das Asylrecht in Israel,” 168–171.

30The term “anointed priest” is H’s term for head priest. Cf. Lev 16:32.

31This concept is reflected in rabbinic sources. Cf. b. Makkot 11b.

32While ancient Greek culture held that the accidental killer incurred pollution, once he reached

foreign soil he was purified without the need for an expiatory ritual (Parker, Miasma, 118).

33Driver, Deuteronomy, 232.

34Rof´e, “History of the Cities of Refuge,” 235.

freedom of movement. Although compensation is not explicitly mentioned

in Deuteronomy, Rof´e notes that it is assumed as part of the process of reconciliation

in lesser degrees of unlawful death. Thus, ransom is explicitly

preserved in the law of the goring ox, Exod 21:29–30, and the person who

accidentally pushes a pregnant woman and causes harm in Exod 21:22 must

pay a pecuniary mulct (as Rof´e interprets the passage). The problem with

Rof´e’s proof is that in these examples, a person redeeming himself by means

of this payment is under the sentence of death. The accidental killer, by contrast,

has not been sentenced to death. The implication of the other statutes

on homicide is that victims’ families were not permitted to take compensation

at all. For Rof´e to prove his claim, clearer evidence is required.

There is simply not enough evidence to fill in details about the fate of the

accidental slayer according to Deuteronomy with one exception. Whatever

happens to the killer according to Deuteronomy 19, he is not required to

wait until the death of the high priest to leave the city of refuge. There is no

religious element to his stay there. Deuteronomy and Numbers concur on

the punishment of the accidental slayer, his being forced for a period of time

to stay in a city of refuge, but disagree on the reason; they concur on the fate

of the accidental killer, but vary on the reason for his fate and concomitantly

the timing of his eventual release.

Deuteronomy as a whole evinces a general lack of interest in pollution

and the sanctity of place and focuses on the holiness of the people.35 The

statutes on homicide in Deuteronomy 19 display, therefore, two concerns:

1) insuring that the intentional killer is put to death so that the evil is removed

from the midst of the Israelites; and 2) protecting the accidental homicide

from being killed so that his innocent blood is not spilled, imperiling the

Israelites yet again.

At the same time, the polluting effects of blood itself are not ignored

in Deuteronomy.36 The rite of the elimination of bloodguilt mandated by

Deut 21:1–9 reflects the perception that the blood of the victim has a physical

reality that must be removed, as well as the concept that a slaying could

pollute those in whose midst it occurred. The blood must be removed ritually

because the killer cannot be found and executed, the usual method of


1 If, in the land which the Lord your God is giving to you, a corpse

is found lying in open country, and it is not known who struck him

35Weinfeld argues that the distinction between P and D in this regard is that P is theocentric

and D is anthropocentric (Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, 189), while Eyal Regev

contends that for P, holiness is dynamic and, therefore, impurity is also dynamic, in contrast to

D, for which holiness is a static quality (“Priestly Dynamic Holiness and Deuteronomic Static

Holiness,” VT 51 [2001], 243–261). They are both approaching the same phenomena from

different directions, illuminating different aspects of P and D.

36This concept is also the basis for the stipulation that the corpse of an executed criminal should

not be left exposed overnight (Deut 21:23).

down, 2 your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distance

from the corpse to the surrounding towns. 3 The elders of the town

nearest to the corpse shall take a heifer which has never been worked

and has never pulled a yoke, 4 and the elders of that town shall bring

the heifer down to an ever-flowing/perennial wadi which has not been

tilled or sown and shall break the neck of the heifer in the wadi. 5 The

priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God

has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in his name, and every

lawsuit and physical affliction is subject to their ruling. 6 All the elders

of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer

whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7 They shall solemnly declare:

“Our hands did not shed this blood nor did our eyes witness [it].

8Make expiation, Lord, for your people Israel whom you redeemed,

and do not allow innocent blood to remain amidst your people Israel,

and let the blood be expiated.” 9 Thus, you will remove innocent

blood from your midst, for you will be doing what is right in the eyes

of the Lord.

When the animal is killed in an uncultivated area and the elders wash their

hands of the blood, this act relocates the blood to an area far from human

concern.37 The drainage of the blood into the perpetually flowing

brook, carrying the blood away, removes the blood even farther.38 Washing

hands is a sign of innocence,39 and by so doing the elders demonstrate

the community’s blamelessness. The ceremony is undertaken because

the expiation cannot be gained from executing the killer. The community

nearest the spot where the corpse was found must undo the defilement

and establish that it is not responsible for the crime. The representatives

of the community perform the rite on its behalf in order to remove

the blood and the bloodguilt. The killing of the animal is a ritual

reenactment of the slaying in a place where the defilement will be least


As we have seen, the biblical term, !dh lag, manifests anxiety over the

polluting effects of the blood itself. Biblical law extends the contamination

of the victim’s blood by conceiving of it as polluting the Israelite people or

37Cf. David P. Wright, “Deuteronomy 21:1–9 as a Rite of Elimination,” CBQ 49 (1987), 387–


38The same concept is assumed by Mic 7:19 – when sins are cast into the depths of the sea,

they are disposed of.

39Cf. Pss 26:6 and 73:13. By washing their hands over the animal after it is killed, the elders are

formally displaying their innocence, not transferring their guilt to the animal. In rituals in which

guilt is conveyed to an animal, such as sending a goat to Azazel (Leviticus 16), the washing of

hands is done before the animal is slaughtered.

40Tigay, Deuteronomy, 472–475;Wright, “Deuteronomy 21:1–9,” 393–399. Ziony Zevit, “The

__gl ˆa Ritual of Deuteronomy 21:1–9,” JBL 95 (1976), 377–390, discusses reconstructions of

the pre-Israelite ritual on which the Deuteronomic ritual may have been based.

the Land of Israel. The stain is removed by blood in its capacity as purifying

agent: The intentional killer is executed, and the accidental killer must wait

until the death of the high priest for his release from the city of refuge. Even

Deuteronomy, with its tendency toward secularization, mandates that the

community in which an unsolvable slaying has occurred must perform a

ritual to wash away the blood.

The Mesopotamian material contains a pale reflection of the concern

with the damaging effects of the victim’s blood. In ABL 753, r. 5, a petitioner

implores the king not to ignore the blood of his murdered subjects:


1 . . . 2 I d30-ib-ni i-na me-x-x-x 3 sˇa UNUGki lu´UNUGki-a-a i-du-ku

4 u`


hu-bu-us-su-nu i


h-bu-tu LUGAL be-l´ı-a 5 da-mu ˇsa IRmeˇs-ˇsu la

´ u-maˇs-ˇsa8-ar ˇSA` -u´ 6 a-ga-nim-ma sˇad-da-gisˇ I d30-ib-ni 7 lu´URIMkia-

a ki-i i-du-ku man-ma 8 a-na UGU LUGAL be-l´ı-ia ul u´ -sˇak-sˇi-du

9 u` lu´NUNki-u´ -a ki-i i-du-ku 10man-ma-a-ma a-na LUGAL be-l´ı-a ul

iq-bi 11 u` en-na lu´UNUGki-a-a id-du-uk 12 LUGAL be-l´ı-a di-i-ni sˇa

URU-sˇu u` sˇa I`Rmesˇ -sˇu 13 li-pu-usˇ a-na LUGAL be-l´ı-ia 14 [al-tap]-ra

LUGAL be-l´ı-a lu-u´ i-di

2–5 Sin-ibni in the . . . of Uruk has killed the people of Uruk and plundered

their goods. Let the king, my lord, not ignore the blood of his

servants. 6–10When sometime ago Sin-ibni killed the people of Ur, no

one informed the king, my lord, and when he killed the people of

Sippar, no one told the king, my lord. 11–14Now, he has killed the

people of Uruk. May the king my lord render justice for his city and

his servants. I have sent [this message] to the king my lord so that the

king my lord may know.

In ADD 321, the delivery of the compensation “washes away the blood.”

On rare occasions, a person is described as being “polluted with blood,” ina

damˆe ballu,41 but it is not clear that this individual is even a killer:


1 a-na be-l´ı-ia 2 q´ı-b´ı-ma 3 um-ma ki-ib-ri-dda-gan 4 `IR-ka-a-ma 5 awa-

tam mi-im-ma le-mu-ut-ta-am eˇs-me 6 li-ib-bi ma-di-iˇs i




hi-id 7 a-

sˇa-ar s[u-q]´ı-im sˇa-a-tu sˇa dda-gan 8 u´ -


ha-al-la-q[ ´ u-ˇs]us.

a-bu-um i-s.u´ -

um 9 ´ u-u[l i]s.-s.a-ab-ba-at 10s.

a-bu-um [m]a-du-um-ma is.-s.a-ab-ba-at

11 ` u i-[na-an-na] L´U b[e-e]l [a]r-nim 12 ˇsa i-na [da-m]i-im ˇsa-a-[t]u

13 ba-al-lu-ma 14 mu-s.´ı-ˇsu i-s `a-a




hu-ru 15 u` ki-ma UR.DU´ R sˇa-gi-[eem]

16 a-sˇa-ar i-na-asˇ-sˇa-ku u´ -ul i-de 17 i-na-an-na as-[s]u´ -ur-ri 18 be-l´ı



ha-am-mu-ut.-ma iˇs-tu ´e-k´ al-lim 19 a-na zu-q´ı-im it-t[a]-s.´ı 20 a-dis.


am sˇu-nu-ti be-l´ı l[a u´ -s]a` -an-ni-qu-ma 21 a-ia-bi-sˇu u` le-em-ni-[sˇ]u

41See Bauer Asb. 71 (Theodore Bauer, Das Inschriftenwerk Assurbanipals [Leipzig: J. C.

Hinrichs, 1933], 71:13), ˇsa ina U ˇ S.MEˇS asakku ballu.

22 a-na sˇa-pa-al sˇe-p´ı-sˇu 23 la isˇ-ku-nu-ma u` ka-la-sˇu-nu 24 a-na nepa-

ri-im la u´ -sˇe-ri-bu 25UD 3 KAM UD 4 KAM 26 b[e-l´ı i-na] li-ib-bi

´e-k´ al-li-ˇsu 27 la us.-s.´ı

1–4To my lord, say: Thus says Kibri-Dagan, your servant. 5–10 I have

heard about an evil affair, and my heart is troubled. Wherever that

street [may be] which Dagan will destroy, not a small troop but a

large troop should be taken prisoner. 11–16 And now, that criminal

who was polluted with that blood is looking around to make his

escape, and like a vicious dog, I do not know where he will bite

[next]. 17–19Now, certainly my lord will wish to leave the palace

in a hurry. 20–27 As long as my lord does not put pressure on that

troop, and [as long as] he has not brought his enemies and those

who wish him evil into submission and has not put all of them

into the workhouse, my lord must not leave his palace for 3 or

4 days.

It is equally possible that this refers to actual bloodshed or is a vivid description

of a vicious offender.

There are a number of other references that might refer to the defilement

caused by bloodshed, but it must be acknowledged that these

references are oblique. A text from the El-Amarna archive, from the fourteenth

century b.c.e., EA 8, refers to “returning the blood.” In this letter,

Burnaburiyash II, the Kassite king of Babylonia (Karaduniyash), dispatches

a letter to Naphu’rureya (Amenophis IV/Akhenaten), the king of

Egypt, demanding action on behalf of Babylonian merchants who have

been killed in Canaan, an area under Egyptian rule. Burnaburiyash II

offers two reasons: One is that the blood of the victims must be returned.

Another text, CCT IV 30a, from the Old Assyrian period, declares

that since the king in question has spilled blood, his throne is


1 a-na i-na-a qi-bi-ma 2 um-ma e-la-ni-ma iˇs-tu 3 a-li-k ` a-ni i-d´ı-ku-buum

4 u` ILLAT-su´ U-tum sˇa




hi-im 5 u` a-na-ku a-na E´ .GAL-lim 6 nita-

na-li-ma ru-ba-u´ 7 ki-ma i-ta-pu-lim i-ta-na-[pu]-lu-ni-a-ti 8 a-ma



h-ra-at 9ma-m`ı-tim sˇa [u´ -b´ı-lu-ni-a-t´ı-ni 10 a-na ka` -ri-im la´ -puta-

nim 11 u` sˇ´ı-[pa´ -ar]-ni im-gu5-ur-sˇu-nu-ma 12 a-wi-lu-u´ i-ta-ba-alku-

tu` 13 [LUGAL] da-me e-ta-pa´ -a´ sˇ-ma 14 ku-s´ı-sˇu la´ ta-aq-na-at 15 sˇ´ıik-

na-tum a-


hu-ra 16 [ru]-ba-u´ i-na ba-ri-sˇu-nu 17 [i]-ta-t.u` -lu a-bi a-ta

18 be-li a-ta ki-ma 19DUB-pa´ -am ka´ -ru-um 20 isˇ-me-u´ -ni mu-



sˇu 21 te´-ir-ti ka` -ri-im 22 u` te´-ir-ta-ka` li-li-kam-ma 23 la´ tal-kam a-makam-

ma 24 ta-ta-wa [ . . . ]-ma a-d´ a-[ˇsu] 25 e-l ´ a-[ . . . ]-id 26 a-na-ku a-na

[ . . . ]-sˇu-[a] 27 u` a-di u4-[me-ima-ni-im] 28 na-ak-zu-t´ı-ia [ . . . ] 29 a-nit

´am a




h-[bi4 . . . ] 30 a-ta a-l ´ a-[ . . . ]-k `a ma-[ . . . ] 31 i-ˇsu u4-me-e

ma-ˇs´ı-[ . . . ] 32 a-ta-ˇsa-ab a-na k` a-ri-[im] 33 l ´a tal-kam-ma . . . [illegible]

1–7To Ina say: Thus said Elani, When I came here, Idi-Kubum and his

colleagues, the ten-men committee of



˘ h


hum, and I kept going up

to the palace. Instead of answering directly, the princes repeatedly answered

evasively. 8–11 Here is a copy of the oath which they brought us

for writing down in the kˆarum and [concerning which] our envoy satisfied

them. 12 The citizens have revolted. 13–14 [The king] has spilled

blood and therefore his throne is unstable. 15–17 Conditions are worsening.

The princes are conspiring[?] among themselves. 17–18You are

my father. You are my lord. 18–23When the kˆarum has read the tablet,

make an appeal to it. Let the advice of the kˆarum and your advice

come to me. Do not come! You should talk it over there [at Kanish].

24–29 . . . I shall give him [it] . . .I to [. . . ]-shua and to [this day] my

finances . . . this . . . 30–32 As for you . . . I will stay here for half a day.

32–33Take heed of what the kˆarum [advises you]. . . .Do not come! . . .

This claim seems to be akin to the Israelite concept of spilled blood polluting.

However, it is equally possible that this reference does not refer to pollution

at all but to the general state of revolt. And even if these vague references

do refer to defilement incurred by a homicide, the pollution affects only

the slayer.42 The possible defilement from a slaying is never extended to the

entire country.

In a possible parallel to the rite in Deut 21:1–9, the Hittite laws contain

provisions regarding a corpse found in a field when the killer presumably

cannot be identified:

HL 6

If a person, man or woman, is killed in another[?] city, [the victim’s

heir] shall deduct 12,000 square meters [ = 3 acres] from the land

of the person on whose property the person was killed and shall take

it for himself.

Late version of 6

If a man is found killed on another person’s property, if he is a

free man, [the property owner] shall give his property, house and

60 shekels of silver. But if [the dead person] is a woman, [the property

owner] shall give [no property, but] 120 shekels of silver. But if

[the place where the dead body was found] is not [private] property,

but open uncultivated country, they shall measure 3 DANNA’s in

all directions, and whatever village is determined [to lie within that

42Another reference might be found in CT 51 147 24 (transliterated and translated in Erica

Reiner, “A Manner of Speaking,” in Zikir ˇsumim: Assyriological Studies Presented to F. Kraus

[Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten 5, 1982], 282–289): “If he keeps turning

his head, he is polluted with blood.” Toorn suggests that restless movements of the head were

associated with the expression that blood(guilt) comes back upon the head of the perpetrator

(Sin and Sanction, 159, n. 50).

radius], he shall take those very [inhabitants of the village].43 If there

is no village, [the heir of the deceased] shall forfeit [his claim].

The law is concerned solely with determining who must pay compensation.

Indeed, the extraordinarily high penalty for a slaying in the vicinity

of a village – the confiscation of the entire village – may have been intended

to prevent the inhabitants of the village from shielding their own.44

In sharp contrast to the prescription in Deut 21:1–9, no rite of purification is


The same concern with providing compensation for the victim when

the killer has not been apprehended is found in a statute in the Laws of


If a life [is lost during a robbery for which the robber is not arrested],

the city and governor shall pay 60 shekels of silver to his kinsman.

LH 24 provides for a case in which the killer has not been arrested when

a person has been killed in the course of a robbery. The city and governor

must pay sixty shekels to the victim’s kinsmen if the robber is not arrested.

It appears that the communal authorities must discharge the obligation to

the family against whom the act of killing was perpetrated.45 Once again,

the only concern is a financial one – there is no concern with pollution.

CTH 172, a letter from the Hittite emperor in response to the Babylonian

king’s demand that those who killed Babylonian merchants in areas

under Hittite hegemony be executed, contains an ambiguous reference to



15 [ . . . ] a-ka-an-na ta-asˇ-pu-ra um-ma-a lu´DAM.GA` R.MESˇ -ia i-na

kura-mur-ri kuru´ -ga-ri-it 16 [u` i-na kur . . . i-du]-uk-ku i-na kur



na-pu-ul-ta u´ -ul i-du-uk-ku 17 [sˇum-ma i-na kur


ha-at-ti na]-puul-

ta i-du-uk-ku sˇu´m-ma LUGAL i-sˇi-im-me a-na a-ma-ti sˇa-a-sˇi

18 [ . . . d]a-i-ka-na ˇsa na-pu-ul-ti i-s.a-ab-ba-tu4-ma a-na ˇSEˇS.MEˇS ˇsa

di-ki 19 [ . . .KUG.BABBAR a-na] mu-ul-le-e sˇa lu´ di-ki SˇESˇ .MESˇ -sˇu´

i-le-eq-qu- ´ u ` u l ´ uda-i-ka-na 20 [ . . . aˇs]-ra ˇsa na-pu-ul-tu4 i-na ˇSA` -sˇu´

di-ku ul-la-lu u` sˇu´m-ma SˇESˇ .MESˇ -sˇu´ 21 [KUG.BABBAR mu-ul-le]-e

u´ -ul i-ma




ha-ru da-i-ka-na ˇsa na-pu-ul-ti 22 [ . . . l]i-pu-ˇsu ˇs ´ um-ma L´U



hi-t ´a a-na LUGAL i-


ha-t.u a-na KUR-ti sˇa-na-ti-ma 23 [ . . . ] u` a-na

43It is unlikely that this could be translated as “he shall take those very same payments [from

inhabitants of the village].” Cf. Hoffner, The Laws of the Hittites, 173–174, n. 8, and Hoffner,

“On Homicide in Hittite Law,” 303–305.

44Hoffner, The Laws of the Hittites, 174.

45See Samuel Greengus, “Legal and Social Institutions of Ancient Mesopotamia,” CANE, 469–


da-a-ki u´ -ul par-s.u SˇESˇ -ia sˇa-’a-al-ma liq-bu-ni-ik-ku 24 [ . . . a]-ka-anna

ˇsa EN

˘ h

´e-t.i-i la-a i-du-uk-ku l ´ uDAM.G ` AR i-du-uk-ku 25 [ . . . L]´U

s ´ u-ba-ri-i a-i-ka-a i-di ˇs ´ um-ma i-du-uk-ku-ma i-na-an-na ˇSEˇS.MEˇS

DAM.G ` AR.MEˇS di-ku-ti 26 [sˇup-ra]-am-ma di-in-su´ -nu lu-mur

15–17 Since you wrote to me as follows: “My merchants are being

killed in the land of Amurru, the land of Ugarit, [and the land of . . . ].”

They do not kill [as punishment] in Hatti . . . they kill. 17–18 If the king

hears about it, [they investigate] that matter. They arrest the killer

and deliver him to the brothers of the slain man. 19 If his brothers

accept the silver as compensatory payment, [they allow] the killer

[to go free]. 20 The place in which the killing occurred is purified

[?]. 20–22 If his brothers do not accept the silver as the compensatory

payment, they may make the killer [their slave].46 22–24 If a man who

has committed an offense against the king escapes to another land,

killing him is not permitted. Inquire, my brother, and they shall tell

you thus.Now, if they do not kill an offender [against the king], would

they kill a merchant? 25–26 [But in regard to] the Subareans, how am

I to know if they are killing people? Now send me the brothers of the

dead merchants so that I can investigate their lawsuit.

It is possible to render the phrase [ . . . aˇs]-ra ˇsa na-pu-ul-tu4 i-na ˇSA` -sˇu di-ku

ul-la-lu in line 20 as a command that the place in which the slaying occurred

should be purified. However, it can also be understood as an order to take

an oath. Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., suggests that the guilt or innocence of the

inhabitants of the place is determined by whether they exonerate themselves

by taking an oath.47 This is a possibility because in Hittite, parkunu-, “to

purify,” can be understood in three distinct meanings: in the sense of cleaning

something normally, in a ritual sense, and in a judicial sense of exonerating

or proving innocent.

We have already noted that there is a striking contrast between

Mesopotamia and the biblical materials in regard to certain technical terms

for the parties involved in remedying the homicide. The Bible refers to lag

!dh, the blood redeemer, whereas the Mesopotamian documents refer to b—el

damˆe, a term that can refer either to the slayer or to the claimant from the

46This rendering follows that of Gary Beckman (Hittite Diplomatic Texts [ed. Harry A. Hoffner,

Jr.; SBL Writings from the Ancient World 7; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996], 136), and Horst

Klengel (“Mord und Bussleistung im Sp¨ atbronzezeitlichen Syrien,” in Death in Mesopotamia,

190). Albertine Hagenbuchner suggests “they give to them the killer,” (Die Korrespondenz

der Hethiter [Texte der Hethiter 16; Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1989], 2.292), but it is unclear

whether she means that the killer is executed or reduced to slavery.

47“Homicide in Hittite Law,” in Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons: Studies in Honor

of Michael C. Astour on His 80th Birthday (ed. Gordon D. Young, Mark W. Chavalas, and

Richard E. Averbeck; Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 1997), 305.

victim’s family, as was discussed in the appendix to Chapter Two. The biblical

term is unambiguous, the Mesopotamian term ambiguous. The fact that

the term b—el damˆe, “the owner of the blood,” can refer to both reflects the

shared responsibility manifest in the Mesopotamian process and does not

reflect a preoccupation with the contaminating effects of the victim’s spilled


Blood, in Mesopotamian thought, was not thought to be a cleansing

substance. In the myth of Atrahasis, the gods purify themselves in water,

a rite instituted by Enki – they do not purify themselves by the blood

of the slain god, the god later used to fashion human beings.48 After the

killing, all the gods must bathe: It is more than the splattering of the

blood that must be washed off. The defilement associated with the killing

must be removed, even though the chief culprit has deservedly been put to

death. Blood was a polluting substance and, therefore, even a lawful execution

required the gods to purify themselves. The polluting effect of blood

makes clear why the Mesopotamians acknowledged the need for purification.

The inability of blood to purify enables the term b—el damˆe, the owner

of the blood, to apply to either the slayer or the claimant from the victim’s


It may be speculated that the Mesopotamians did not extend the polluting

effects of the victim’s blood to apply to a country as a whole or nation

as a whole for three reasons.49 First, impurity in Mesopotamia was of demonic

origin.50 A person who sinned or was under a sorcerer’s spell became

susceptible to the onslaught of demons. The goal of purification rituals was

to exorcise demons and send them back to their proper homes. Committing

a sin did not cause any violation of pure space, as it did in biblical thought.

Committing a sin did allow a human being to come under the power of a

demon and the impurity that accompanied the demon.51

48William L. Moran, “The Creation of Man in Atra


hasis I 192–248,” BASOR 200 (1970), 51.

49A group has financial responsibility in the interterritorial law of the ancient Near East, but

in the Hebrew Bible, there is group responsibility for the ceremony only. See the analysis of

communal responsibility in Chapter Seven.

50For example, in the ˇSurpu rituals, tablet VII describes an attack of demons on a man

whose god has withdrawn from him and who therefore needs to be purified, and tablets

V–VI characterize a man’s plight as “an evil curse like a galluˆ -demon has come upon this

man” (Erica Reiner, Sˇurpu: A Collection of Sumerian and Akkadian Incantations [AfO

Beiheft 11; Graz: n.p., 1958]). Cf. Wright, The Disposal of Impurity, 248–249; H. W. F. Saggs,

The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Hawthorn, 1962), 302–318; Karl Frank,

Lamashtu, Pazuzu und andere Damonen (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1941); Oppenheim,

Ancient Mesopotamia, 180, 199–206; R. Campbell Thompson, The Demons and Evil Spirits

of Babylonia (London: Luzac and Co., 1903), 1. 48–49, 75, 79, 103; Toorn, Sin and Sanction,

117–154; Milgrom, Leviticus 116, 1071–1079; E. Jan Wilson, Holiness and Purity in

Mesopotamia (AOAT 237; Kevelaer: Butzon und Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener,

1994), 45, 68–78.

51A god did have to be pure in order to exercise his divine functions. Cf. the statement of

Ereshkigal after she has intercourse with Erra in the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal: “I am

Second, in biblical thought, impurity had an effect on national institutions

and concerns because the Israelites conceived of themselves as a holy

people. The concept of ethical pollution made the defiling effects of spilled

blood a grave threat to that status. Therefore, the rituals meant to offset

the damage of impurity had a common goal, to remove pollution from the

Israelite body politic. This concept shaped the disposal of ritual impurity.

Mesopotamian and Hittite rituals used numerous means to dispose of impurity

– burial, sealing in containers, throwing in sea or river, sending to and

depositing in foreign lands, burning – whereas the Priestly sources used a

limited repertoire. The reason for this is clear – the nonbiblical rites have no

common goal, whereas the Priestly rites in the Hebrew Bible have a single

common goal – to protect the sanctuary’s holiness and the community’s purity.

52 Even Deuteronomy with its secularizing tendencies mandates a rite to

safeguard the community from the deleterious effects of spilled blood. In contrast,

the well-being of the sanctuary is protected in the Mesopotamian ak¯ıtu

festival, the well-being of society is protected in the Hittite plague rituals,

and the well-being of the suffering patient is protected in the Mesopotamian

purification rituals with no larger social goal. Impurity in P is solely impersonal,

with no connection to the underworld, nor does impurity have any

connection to mythology.

Third, the Mesopotamian pantheon was remote for the average worshiper.

An individual’s religious sentiment was focused on his personal

gods.53 In contrast, the single Israelite God claimed the exclusive adoration

of both individual and nation.54 Therefore, the action of a single individual

could imperil all. The effect of sin was limited to an individual

in Mesopotamia, whereas sin could have an impact on an entire nation in

ancient Israel.

While the biblical concepts of pollution retained the valence of defilement,

the language of purification was utilized in Mesopotamia in the legal realm

without any miasma attached. The verbs zakuˆ , “to become clean; to become

free from specific claims or obligations,”55 and eb—ebu, “to become purified;

D to clear a person from legal claims,”56 refer to freedom from legal claims.

sexually defiled, I am not pure, I cannot execute the judgment of the great gods” (O. R. Gurney,

“The Sultantepe Tablets VII: The Myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal,” AnSt 10 [1960], 122, ll. 7_

and 23_) and the description: “The pure god who is suited for kingship” (W. G. Lambert, “The

Gula Hymn of Bullutsa-rabi,” Or 36 [1967], 127, l.157).

52Wright, The Disposal of Impurity, 273–274.

53Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University

Press, 1976), 155–164.

54Toorn, Sin and Sanction, 4–5, 114. Even though a personal god for a Mesopotamian could

be one of the great cosmic powers, like Shamash or Sˆın, the relationship remained on the level

of an individual and a god and was never extended to an entire nation.

55Cf. CAD/Z, 25–28.

56Cf. CAD/E, 4–6.

Just as a purified person was freed from the control of demons, a person

purified in the legal sense was freed from obligations. Obstructions, whether

demons or debts, were removed.

The divergence between biblical and Mesopotamian conceptualizations

of homicide is not surprising. Cultures living in close proximity to one

another can understand a legal issue differently. Let a New World example

suffice. Although the Comanche and the Cheyenne Indians of the

North American plains were neighbors, their treatment of homicide differed

greatly.57 The Comanche strongly held to the belief that only a killing could

redress a killing. They did not distinguish between types of killing – even

the blood avenger could be killed by the offender’s kin. At the same time,

this belief meant that only the actual killer was affected by the deed and

only he could be dispatched in revenge. Homicide was a secular affair. The

Cheyenne, in contrast to their neighbors the Comanche, did conceive of a religious

effect of law, although it was limited to homicide. Homicide was a sin:

It polluted the killer, the tribal sacred objects, and the well-being of the tribe

as a whole. Disgrace befell all the Cheyenne when a murder occurred. They

would have difficulty finding food. Game would disappear. Even war fell

under the pall. The chiefs, whose authority devolved from the sacred, had

jurisdiction over homicide, whereas the military associations, really men’s

clubs, solved other disputes.58 The rest of Cheyenne law was secular.

The Israelites may have even been aware of the difference between their

law and the law of other people. In 2 Sam 21:1–14, the Gibeonites demand

Saul’s sons as recompense for Saul’s extermination of the Gibeonites:

1 There was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after

year. David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord said, “There is

bloodguilt on Saul and on his house because he put the Gibeonites to

death.” 2 The king summoned the Gibeonites and said to them – now,

the Gibeonites were not Israelites but were a remnant of the Amorites,

with whom the Israelites made an oath, but Saul sought to wipe them

out on account of his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. 3 David

said to them, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make expiation

so that you bless the Lord’s portion?” 4 The Gibeonites said to him,

“We cannot have any claim on silver or gold with Saul or his house

nor can we have any claim to put to death any person in Israel.” He

replied, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” 5 They [then] said to

the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us so

57Hoebel, The Law of Primitive Man, 156–169.

58Hoebel speculates that the Cheyenne originally had a sacred conception of homicide (The Law

of Primitive Man, 263). Then, in the course of establishing sacred tribal objects, the Cheyenne

utilized the idea of pollution to stamp out feud. Hoebel singles out the Cheyenne for their

creativity in fashioning such an effective end that so many other peoples at their level of social

and economic development missed.

that we should have no place in the territory of Israel – 6 let seven of

his sons be given to us and we will impale them before the Lord in

Gibeah of Saul, chosen of the Lord.” The king replied, “I will do so.”

7 The king had compassion on Mephiboshet son of Jonathan son of

Saul because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between

David and Jonathan son of Saul. 8 The king took Armoni and Mephiboshet,

the two sons that Rizpah daughter of Aiah bore for Saul, and

the five sons of Michal daughter of Saul whom she bore for Adriel

son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9He gave them to the Gibeonites;

they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord, and all seven

died together. They were put to death in the first days of the harvest,

the beginning of the barley harvest. 10 Rizpah daughter of Aiah took

sackcloth and spread it on a rock for herself from the beginning of the

harvest until rain fell upon them from the sky: she did not allow the

birds of the sky to rest upon them or the beasts of the field by night.

11 David was told what Rizpah daughter of Aiah, concubine of Saul,

had done. 12 David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of

Jonathan his son from the citizens of Jabesh-Gilead, who stole them

from the square of Beth-Shean, where the Philistines had hung them

when the Philistines had struck down Saul at Gilboa. 13He brought

up the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from there and

gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. 14 They buried

the bones of Saul and of Jonathan his son in the territory of Benjamin

in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father. They did everything the king

commanded. Thereafter God accepted prayers for the land.

The king asks the Gibeonites how the defilement could be expiated, assuming

that the killings incurred pollution. The Gibeonites’ diplomatic suggestion

that they could not demand compensation from any Israelite or the

death of any Israelite indicates that they would accept either as the just punishment

for the deaths of their fellow countrymen. Understanding the hint,

the Israelite king indicates to the Gibeonites that he will agree to whichever

penalty they prefer. The writer of the story, in formulating the negotiating

positions, assumes that the Israelites conceived of homicide as defiling while

the non-Israelites (in this case, the Gibeonites) do not and would accept either

monetary payment or execution (albeit in the end, they prefer the death

of those associated with the culprit).59 Although we do not know what the

59McKeating argues that the Israelites put curbs on blood feud under the influence of a

Canaanite sacral conception of homicide (“The Development of the Law on Homicide in

Ancient Israel,” 46–68). According to McKeating, the Gibeonites as well as the rest of the

Canaanites already had a sacral conception of homicide, regarding it as a pollution of the land,

a defilement to be expiated. Therefore, the Gibeonites rejected monetary payment, even though

they were aware that this was the Israelite way. The Canaanite conception inspired the Israelites

to assume a sacral conception of homicide. In order for the defilement to be expiated their way,

neighbors of the Israelites actually thought, in the mind of the writer of this

biblical story the Israelites conceived of homicide differently. This is even the

case here, which reflects a characteristic of political killings, in which those

who have not killed but who are associated with the killer are liable to be


Both in Mesopotamian texts and in the Bible, the spilled blood itself

was perceived to have a real existence that was dangerous and needed to be

remedied. However, only in the Bible was it conceived to affect more than the

killer himself. The nation as a whole or the land of Israel would be contaminated.

In contrast, in Mesopotamia, there was no indication that the larger

community need be concerned about possible contamination from the spilled

blood. The references to the victim’s blood in Mesopotamian texts indicate

that the spilled blood is conceived to have a concrete existence of its own

that requires the attention of the parties involved, but no one else.

the Gibeonites in fact asked for a sacrifice (2 Sam 21:4–6) but worded it in such a way as to

allow their demand to be interpreted as a killing for a killing. However, this seems to be what

David is doing. McKeating’s explanation would work if the Gibeonites had used David’s words

and David had used their words. The Israelites assumed a sacral conception of homicide, not

the Canaanites. McKeating has the polarities reversed: It is David who represents the “older”

sacral conception of homicide, and the Gibeonites the monetary.