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Red Heifer

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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—Biblical Data:

According to Yhwh's instructions to Moses and Aaron the Israelites prepared for sacrifice a red heifer which was free from blemish and which had not yet been broken to the yoke. It was slain outside the camp, in the presence of Eleazar, representing the high priest; Eleazar dipped his fingers in the blood and sprinkled it seven times in the direction of the tabernacle; then the carcass was burned in his presence—hide, flesh, and blood. The priest himself took cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet, and cast them upon the pyre. Another man, ceremonially clean, then gathered up the ashes of the consumed heifer and stored them in a clean place outside the camp, that they might be used in preparing water of purification. The priest, the man who attended to the burning of the heifer, and the one who gathered the ashes had to wash themselves and their clothes; they remained ceremonially unclean until sunset.

The ashes were dissolved in fresh water, which was sprinkled on those who were contaminated by coming in contact with a dead body or in proximity to the dead. The one so contaminated remained unclean for seven days; he was sprinkled with the water on the third and seventh days, and at sunset of the last day was clean again. The sprinkling was done by one who was clean, and who, after the sprinkling, washed himself and his clothes and remained unclean until sunset. All who touched the water or the unclean person were likewise unclean until sunset. The one who neglected to observe this law was deprived of religious privileges, for he defiled the sanctuary of Yhwh (Numbers 19:1-22). Spoils of war consisting of metal vessels were to be purified by fire and finally cleansed by the water of purification (Numbers 31:21-24).

—Rabbinical View:


—Critical View:

Modern critics declare that Numbers 19 is composed of two sections—1-13 and 14-22. Wellhausen and Kuenen think that the second section is an appendix giving precise instructions regarding the application of the regulation to particular cases; but according to the editors of the "Oxford Hexateuch" (1900) the second section is derived from a body of priestly torot or decisions. Other critics, however, are of the opinion that the more elaborate and peculiar title of the first section—"Ḥuḳḳat ha-Torah"—as well as other indications, suggests rather that this section is the later of the two and belongs to the secondary strata of the Priestly Code (P). The connection of this chapter with the preceding one is explained by Ibn Ezra: both contain "a perpetual statute" for the priests (Numbers 19:21). The connection with the following chapter is thus explained by Josephus: Moses instituted the rite of the red heifer on the death of Miriam (Numbers 20:1), the ashes of the first sacrifice being used to purify the people at the expiration of thirty days of mourning ("Ant." 4:4, § 6).

The sacrifice of the red heifer should be compared with that of the scapegoat, similarly sacrificed outside the camp by one who must purify himself before returning to it. The bullock as the sin-offering of the high priest and the goat as the sin-offering of the people were likewise burned outside the camp—hide, flesh, and dung (Leviticus 16:26-27). The redheifer sacrifice is similar to the heifer sacrifice offered for the purpose of purifying the land from the defilement attending an untraced murder, a heifer "which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke" (Deuteronomy 21:3). In both cases the heifer was chosen as being a more suggestive offering in a rite associated with death. This view is supported by Bähr, Kurtz, Keil, Edersheim, and others. The Jewish exegetes point, in addition, to the uncultivated "rough valley" and the wilderness as suggestive of the check to human multiplication caused by natural death and by manslaughter.

The performance of the rite at a distance from the tabernacle excluded therefrom the high priest, who could not leave the sanctuary; hence he was represented at the ceremony by a substitute. The term "me niddah" (A. V. "water of separation"; R. V. "water of impurity"), rendered by the Septuagint as ὕδωρ ῥαντιςμοῦ ("water of sprinkling"; by Luther, "Sprengwasser"), is interpreted by Rashi by comparing "niddah" with "wa-yaddu" (on Lamentations 3:53) and "le-yaddot" (to cast, throw, or sprinkle; Zechariah 2:4 [A. V. 1:21]). Ibn Ezra compares "niddah" with "menaddekem" (cast you out; Isaiah 66:5), as denoting "exclude from the cultus," like the Neo-Hebrew "niddui" (to excommunicate), and he therefore interprets "me niddah" as "the water of exclusion," e., the means for removing the uncleanness which is the cause of the exclusion; this explanation agrees with the rendering of the Authorized Version "water of separation."

The "cedar-wood" thrown on the fire was probably a piece of fragrant wood of Juniperus Phœnicea or Juniperus Oxycedrus (Löw, "Aramäische Pflanzennamen," p. 57). The explanation may be found in the belief of primitive times, when fragrant woods, such as juniper and cypress and the aromatic plants of the mint family, were supposed to act as a protection against the harmful unseen powers that were thought to be the cause of death. Even in comparatively recent times, in the United States, a juniper-tree planted before a house was regarded as a preventive of the plague.

The essential part of the rite, it is claimed, is of extreme antiquity. Robertson Smith points out that "primarily, purification means the application to the person of some medium which removes ataboo, and enables a person to mingle freely in the ordinary life of his fellows." The best medium is water, but for serious cases of uncleanness the addition of ashes is necessary (Bähr, "Symbolik," 2:495). The symbolical significance of the rite has been interpreted as follows: The majestic cedar of Lebanon represents pride, and hyssop represents humility; uncleanness and sin and sin and death are associated ideas; the ceremony, therefore, is a powerful object-lesson, teaching the eternal truth that a holy God can be served only by a holy people.

The early Jewish conception was that the sacrifice of the red heifer was an expiatory rite to atone for the sin of the golden calf. The color of the heifer, as well as the scarlet thrown upon the fire, represents sin (comp. "your sins be as scarlet"; Isaiah 1:18).

  • Bähr, Symbolik, 1:493-512;
  • Maimonides, Morch, 3:47;
  • Nowack, Hebräische Archäologie, 2:288;
  • Edersheim, The Temple, p. 304;
  • Kent, The Messages of the Bible, p. 347, New York, 1902;
  • Hastings, Dict. Bible.
J. D. E.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Red Heifer'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​r/red-heifer.html. 1901.
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