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Beginning at Moses… (4): Expiation

Stephen Fellowes, Skibbereen, Republic of Ireland


While it is difficult to apply all the details of Deuteronomy 21.1-9 in a typical way to Israel’s treatment of their Messiah, there are certainly a few suggestive thoughts. They are very worthy of our consideration, and ought to draw out our hearts in worship to the One who suffered for sin.

If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: and it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; and the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley: and the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried: and all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley: and they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them. So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord (Deut 21.1-9).

The Shedding of Innocent Blood

The case before us is one of an unsolved murder. The murderer has not been found, but the guilt still needs to be atoned for (v 9). The land has been defiled (Num 35.33-34), and responsible men must act. The nearest city would be called upon to send both elders and judges to deal with the matter and, assisted by priestly men (Deut 21.5), every matter would be tried. Judas could lament that “I have betrayed the innocent blood” (Mt 27.4). The Lord Jesus was absolutely unimpeachable. Many voices were raised against Him, and many accusations were made throughout His life, especially before Pilate and Herod, but nothing was ever substantiated, and no evidence was ever produced. In fact, in that very scene where we hear Pilate speak of His faultlessness, his wife also speaks of His justness (v 19). His truly was “innocent blood”.

The blood of the person found slain was shed in “the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Deut 21.1): the land with all its variety and fulness; all theirs as a gift from God. Although at the actual time of our Lord’s crucifixion the nation was under the heel of Gentile dominion because of their sin, they were nevertheless the people whom God had abundantly blessed. Writing to the Romans of the unparalleled privileges that Israel had, Paul declared:

Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen (Rom 9.4-5).

But what did they do to Him? They took Him, and by wicked hands crucified and slew Him (Acts 2.23); in fact, they “desired a murderer ... and killed the Prince of life” (3.14-15). They shed “the innocent blood” in the land.

The Heifer in the Valley

A heifer which had never known the yoke of servitude was to be brought by the elders down “unto a rough valley” (Deut 21.4). Mr Darby translates this “an ever-flowing watercourse”, which may well be the idea because it obviously links with the washing of hands over the heifer (v 6). Its neck was then to be struck off (v 4). This ritual speaks of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ in a two-fold way:

Firstly, His death could certainly be viewed as a ‘valley experience’, both in terms of His sufferings and the despicable actions of His creature, man. As the elders brought the heifer “down”, so the cross was a ‘downward’ experience for the Lamb of God; not only at the hands of wicked men, but also in the depths of His sufferings for sin. The Psalmist prophetically expressed the anguish the Lord would experience: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing” (Ps 69.2). R C Chapman said beautifully that “Christ descended lower and lower, even to the depths of the cross; but in the sight of God it was a perpetual ascent to the throne of glory.” This glorification could not take place, however, without His descent first into “the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps” (88.6).

This valley was not rich, lush grassland with the fragrance of flowers filling the nostrils and the songs of birds in the ears. Ah no, this was “a rough valley”. The 22nd Psalm leaves us in no doubt as to its fearful terrain. There He was surrounded by the “strong bulls of Bashan” (v 12), compassed by dogs (v 16), and the lion’s mouth was opened against Him (v 21). Calvary was truly a rough experience for our Saviour, particularly when we appreciate the moral beauty of His person. How often we have delighted in the “fine flour” of the meal offering in Leviticus 2, typifying that perfect Man with no coarseness or roughness of nature. He never had to be made fine flour, whereas we all need the grinding of the school of God to even us out and to knock off our rough edges. In contrast, He was fine flour in essence. Also, consider the “fine linen” of the priests’ garments (Ex 28.39); that dazzling white, smooth material that displayed beautifully the sinless antitype. How touching it is that such a One as this should experience the roughness of the valley.

Secondly, His death was also a brutal experience. The elders were to “strike off” the neck of the heifer: Mr Darby translates it “break the heifer’s neck”, and Robert Young gives “beheaded”. Either translation indicates the extreme force and violence that the animal would have experienced. Again, we turn to Calvary and see Him who did no violence (Isa 53.9) “cut off out of the land of the living” (v 8). Daniel, in His great prophecy of the 70 weeks, tells us that Messiah will be “cut off” (Dan 9.26). Think again of that charge in the early chapters of the book of Acts, where it is stated repeatedly that the nation “slew”, “crucified” and “killed” their Messiah. The husbandmen of the vineyard (Mt 21.38-39), seeing the son and heir coming, contrived to cast Him out and kill Him.

Guilt Put Away (Expiation)

The point must not be missed that the stroke that fell upon the heifer’s head ought to have fallen upon the head of the murderer. But, because the murderer could not be found, the land and the people contracted the guilt, and it must be atoned for. The elders displayed their innocence regarding the death in the washing of their hands over the heifer, and they then declared their innocence (Deut 21.6-7) while, at the same time, making a plea to Jehovah for forgiveness (v 8).

We think of a future day when Israel, as a nation, will accept full responsibility for their shedding of innocent blood. Rather than protesting their innocence, they will declare their absolute guilt. Isaiah 53 outlines this for us, especially in the words “but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (v 5). Zechariah chapters 12 and 13 speak of the complete thoroughness of the nation’s repentance: “every family apart” (Zech 12.12, 14). In the feast of Atonement, viewed from a dispensational standpoint (Lev 23.26-32), it is stated no less than three times in a handful of verses that “ye shall afflict your souls”. Here in type, as well as in prophecy, we see Israel’s future repentance. Only then will it be truly said that they did “that which is right in the sight of the Lord” (Deut 21.9).

(To be continued …)


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