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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the Bible

Numbers 19

Verses 1-22

Numbers 19:1-22 . The Purification of the unclean through Contact with the Dead.— This was effected by sprinkling the unclean person twice within seven days ( Numbers 19:12 mg., Numbers 19:19) with running water, the virtue of which had been intensified by various ingredients, viz. the ashes of a red cow, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet thread. The use of running water in such lustrations was doubtless based on the belief that springs and wells (pp. 100, 216) were the abodes of superhuman powers, and that a Divine quality pertained to water drawn from them, which was capable of neutralising impurity. Amongst the Greeks a vessel of spring water was placed at the door of a house where a death had occurred, for the purification of those who might become contaminated ( cf. Eurip. Alc. 98– 100). But in the rite here prescribed the water was not regarded as having in itself sufficient purifying virtue, but was fortified by other things which were likewise believed to possess potent qualities. The admixture with it of the ashes of an animal finds a parallel in the use by the Romans of the ashes of unborn calves mixed with the blood of a horse, at the purificatory festival of the Parilia (Warde Fowler, Roman Festivals, pp. 71, 83); and the original idea behind it probably goes back to a totemistic stage of religious thought. The requirement that the cow should be red in colour is more difficult to explain. The selection of red-haired puppies for sacrifice at the Roman festival of the Robigalia to promote the ripening of the crops is not an illuminating parallel, for the choice of animals of such a colour for such a purpose was obviously due to their resembling the ruddiness of ripe corn, the sacrifice of them being a piece of sympathetic magic. Some have thought that the redness of the cow here required was associated with the idea of blood ( Genesis 9:4 *), wherein was the life (the antithesis of death)* Possibly this is the right explanation of the scarlet thread; but with regard to the red cow, another suggestion may be hazarded, viz. that the colour was chosen as being that of the red earth beneath which the dead dwelt, and that the cow was originally a sacrifice to the spirits of the dead. (Among the Romans, victims of a black colour were offered to chthonic deities.) The cedar and the hyssop (the last the caper, or else a species of marjoram) were doubtless credited with magical virtue; for trees were considered to be sacred, and the myrtle, laurel, and olive have been used for religious purposes by various peoples. That the whole rite originally involved contact with holy powers is implied in the circumstances that the cow had to be burnt outside the camp ( cf. Hebrews 13:11 f.), and that everyone concerned with the preparation of its ashes, or with the water with which they were mingled, was rendered unclean until the evening; for “ uncleanness,” in this and some other instances, was equivalent to sanctity, which incapacitated for secular occupations all who became infected with it.

Numbers 19:2 . heifer: better, “ cow,” since the Hebrew word is used of cows in 1 Samuel 6:7. The choice of a female animal occurs also in the sin offering and in the sacrifice offered in atonement for a murder by an unknown person ( Leviticus 4:27 f., Deuteronomy 21:3).— wherein . . . blemish: cf. Leviticus 22:20; it was thought that the potency of the sacred animal would be reduced by any physical imperfection.— upon which . . . yoke: this was a condition generally observed in the case of animals intended for religious purposes ( cf. Hom. Il. x. 293, Od. iii. 383, Verg. Æ n. vi. 38), for it was felt that use in the field generally impaired the virtue or acceptability of the victim.

Numbers 19:9 . water of separation: strictly “ water (for the separation) of impurity,”— a sin offering: better (as suggested by LXX), “ a means of purification from sin” (and so in Numbers 19:17); the slaughtered cow was not a sacrifice but a physical agent for removing impurity.

Numbers 19:12. Render (with LXX) as in mg.; cf. Numbers 19:19.

Numbers 19:13 . sprinkled upon him: strictly, “ poured (or dashed) over him” ( cf. Numbers 18:17), the verb differing here and in Numbers 19:20 from that used in Numbers 19:4; Numbers 19:18.

Numbers 19:18 . hyssop: cf. Psalms 51:7. Amongst the Romans branches of olive and of laurel were similarly used as sprinklers in lustrations (Verg. Æ n. vi. 230, Juv. ii. 158).

Numbers 19:21 . unto them: read (with LXX), “ unto you.”— unclean: this consequence was due to the holiness of the water, just as in later times the Jews held that the Holy Scriptures “ defiled the hands” (pp. 39, 202).

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Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". 1919.