In 1931 my late teacher Cyrus Gordon, who died in 2001, was a young archaeologist working at an excavation in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. As one might imagine, the region was much safer than it is in our day. Indeed, usually there were no problems with the local villagers on such scholarly expeditions. On one occasion, however, as professor Gordon related, a minor annoyance occurred. Each morning the archaeological team would awake to find that its Jeep had been overturned. The men would turn the Jeep right side up each time, but the next day they would find that the Jeep had been overturned again. After several days of such activity, the archaeologists complained to the local mukhtar (the Arabic word for “mayor,” though in the typical village he serves as mayor, chief of police and magistrate all rolled into one). The mukhtar said he would take care of the matter.
Later that day the mukhtar came to the archaeologists and said, “Your Jeep will not be overturned again.” The excavators asked, “What did you do?” The mukhtar pointed to the nearest house situated atop one of the nearby hills and said, “Do you see that house up there? My men went in there and roughed up the place.” The archaeologists asked, “Are they the ones that overturned the Jeep?” And the mukhtar replied, “No, but they will find out who did it, and they will take care of them.” The archaeologists understandably were astonished by such a display of justice, but the mukhtar had a ready reply. He had been exposed to some Western ideas of jurisprudence, and he explained to the American visitors, “You see, we have a different sense of justice than in your society. In your society, you punish criminals. In our society, we punish crimes.”
I first heard this story from professor Gordon when I was a graduate student in the 1970s. Our graduate seminars typically involved reading ancient texts in various Semitic languages, and the usual approach was to compare one ancient Near Eastern culture to another. Most often we would apply knowledge gained from reading the literature of the Babylonians or the Canaanites or the Egyptians to the Bible. But very frequently something in a text would resonate with one of my teacher’s life experiences from his years in the modern Middle East. And he delighted in sharing such stories with us.
The comparison between something experienced in this century and something from 3,000 years ago is possible because the Near East is a region of tenaciously traditional lifestyles and values. Obviously, the Near East today is rapidly changing, so when we speak of the traditional Near East, we do not have in mind people under the influence of Western society who may speak English or French and who dress in European fashion (as one encounters in urban settings in the modern Middle East). Instead, we must seek out villagers and Bedouins whose social world has changed little since antiquity.
For the biblical scholar today, often such villages and Bedouin tribes are inaccessible. Most scholars of the Bible today have traveled extensively in Israel, but have limited experience in other countries. And since Israel is the most westernized of the Middle Eastern countries, it is not the best place to study traditional Near Eastern life. Fortunately, however, the generation of scholars to which I belong had teachers who experienced the Near East both before the increase of Westernization and before modern politics made travel in many countries extremely dangerous.
How does all this relate to this week’s portion? The last of the many laws presented in Shoftim is the law of unsolved homicide. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 describes a situation whereby a slain corpse is found in the open field between two cities and the identity of the slayer is unknown. The elders of the two cities are to measure the distance between the site and their cities, and the residents of the closer city must perform a ritual of expiation and atonement. The specifics of this ritual are rather strange. A heifer that has never been worked must be taken to a wadi, and there it is to be killed by breaking its neck. The elders of the closer city are to wash their hands over this slain animal and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve your people Israel whom you redeemed, O Lord, and do not place innocent blood amidst your people Israel.”
Now the elders of the closer city are by no means guilty of an offense, but it is interesting to note that a crime has been committed and thus expiation is necessary. One need only compare what would occur under similar circumstances in the United States. Obviously, the police would do all they could to investigate the crime. But if no murderer were found, that would be the end of the case. True, the police file would remain open, for years in fact, but no further criminal procedure would be necessary. To be sure, no one would have to be absolved of or punished for the crime. The reason is obvious, and indeed it was stated by the mukhtar in the story related above. In our society, we punish criminals. If no criminal is found, then the case does not proceed further. But in the Near East, crimes are punished. This is true not only in the story that professor Gordon related, but said story explains the law in Deuteronomy more adequately than a dozen scholarly monographs on biblical theology and law.
Gary Rendsburg is the Paul and Berthe Hendrix memorial professor of Jewish studies at Cornell University.