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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Red Heifer

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RED HEIFER . The ashes of a ‘red heifer’ more correctly a red cow added to ‘running water,’ formed the most powerful means known to the Hebrews of removing the defilement produced by contact with a dead body. The method of preparing the ashes and the regulations for the application of the ‘water of impurity’ (see below) are the subject of a special section of the Priests’ Code ( Numbers 19:1-22 ). It will be advisable to summarize the contents of the chapter, in the first place, and thereafter to inquire into the significance of the rite in the light of recent anthropological research.

1 . The chapter above cited consists of two parts; the first part, Numbers 19:1-13 , gives instructions for the preparation of the ashes, and ( Numbers 19:11-13 ) for the removal by their means of the defilement contracted by actual contact with the dead body. The second part, Numbers 19:14-22 , is an expansion of Numbers 19:12 f., extending the application of ‘the water of impurity’ to uncleanness arising from a variety of sources connected with death.

The animal whose ashes acquired this special virtue had to be of the female sex, of a red, or rather reddish-brown, colour, physically without blemish, and one that had never borne the yoke. The duty of superintending the burning, which took place ‘without the camp,’ was entrusted to a deputy of the high priest. The actual burning, however, was carried through by a lay assistant, which fact, taken along with the detail (Numbers 19:5 ) that every particle of the animal, including the blood , was burned, shows that we have not to do here with a ritual sacrifice, as might be inferred from the EV [Note: English Version.] of Numbers 19:9 . The word there rendered ‘sin-offering’ properly denotes in this connexion (cf. Numbers 8:7 ) ‘a purification for sin’ ( Oxf. Heb. Lex . 310 a ; cf. Sacrifice, § 14). The priest’s share in the ceremony was confined to the sprinkling of some of the blood ‘toward the front of the tent of meeting’ ( Numbers 8:4 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), in token of the dedication of the animal to J″ [Note: Jahweh.] , and to the casting into the burning mass of a piece of cedar wood and a bunch of hyssop bound with a piece of scarlet cloth (such, at least, is the regulation of the Mishna treatise dealing with this subject).

A third person the priest and his assistant having themselves Become ‘unclean’ through contact with these sacred things (see below) now gathered the ashes and laid them up ‘without the camp in a clean place,’ to be used as occasion required. The special name given to the mixture of ‘running water’ (Numbers 8:17 , lit. ‘living water,’ i.e. water from a spring, not a cistern) and the ashes is properly ‘water of impurity’ ( Numbers 8:9 ; Numbers 8:13 ; Numbers 8:20-21 so RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ; Amer. RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘water for impurity’; EV [Note: English Version.] water of separation ), i.e. water for the removal of impurity or uncleanness. This powerful cathartic was applied to the person or thing to be cleansed, either by being thrown over them (see Gray, Com . on Numbers 8:13 ), or by being sprinkled with a sprinkler of hyssop ( Numbers 8:18 ). This was done on the third and seventh days, after which the defiled person washed his person and garments, and was then restored to the privileges of the cult and the community. The only other reference to ‘the water of impurity’ is in the late passage, Numbers 31:23 .

2. The clue to the significance of the rite above described is found in the primitive conception of uncleanness, as this has been disclosed by modern anthropological research (see Clean and Unclean). In all primitive societies a dead body in particular is regarded as not only unclean in itself, but as capable of infecting with uncleanness all who come in contact with it or are even in proximity to it. The Semites shared these ideas with primitive communities in every part of the world. Hence, although the literary formulation of the rite of the Red Heifer in Numbers 19:1-22 may be late, the ideas and practices thereof are certainly older than the Hebrews themselves.

While the central idea of the rite the efficacy of ashes as a cathartic, due probably to their connexion with fire (cf. Numbers 31:23 , and Farnell, The Evolution of Religion , 101 n. [Note: . note.] ) has its parallels elsewhere, the original significance of several of the details is still very obscure. This applies, for example, to the red colour of the cow, and to the addition to her ashes of the ‘cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet’ (for various suggestions see, in addition to Gray, op. cit., Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] iv. 208 ff.; Bewer in JBL [Note: BL Journ. of Biblical Literature.] xxiv. (1905) 42 ff., who suggests that the cow may have been originally a sacrifice to the dead).

The value of the chapter for the student of Hebrew ritual lies in the illustration it affords of the primitive conceptions of uncleanness, especially of the uncleanness of the dead, and of the ‘contagiousness of holiness,’ the nature of which has been so clearly expounded by Robertson Smith (see RS [Note: S Religion of the Semites.] 2 446ff. ‘Holiness, Uncleanness, and Taboo’). The ashes of the red heifer and the water of impurity here appear, in virtue of their intense ‘holiness,’ as ‘a conducting vehicle of a dangerous spiritual electricity’ (Farnell, op. cit. 95), and have the same power as the dead body of rendering unclean all who come in contact with them (see Numbers 31:7 ff., Numbers 31:21 f. and art. Clean and Unclean).

There are no inventions in ritual, it has been said, only survivals, and in the rite under review we have one of the most interesting of these survivals. The remarks made in a previous article (Atonement [Day of]) are equally applicable to the present case. As re-interpreted by the compilers of the Priests’ Code, the rite conveys, in striking symbolism, the eternal truth that purity and holiness are the essential characteristics of the people of God.

A. R. S. Kennedy.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Red Heifer'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/r/red-heifer.html. 1909.

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