What was the Red Heifer?
In Numbers 19 a rite is described in which the ashes of a "red heifer" and of certain objects are mixed with running water to obtain the so-called "water for impurity."
(Such is the correct translation of the American Standard Revised Version in Numbers 19:9 , Numbers 19:13 , Numbers 19:10 , Numbers 19:21 ; Numbers 31:23 . In these passages, the King James Version and the English Revised Version, through a misunderstanding of a rather difficult Hebrew term, have "water of separation"; Septuagint and the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible , 390-405 ad) have, "water of sprinkling." the English Revised Version margin, "water of impurity," is right, but ambiguous.)
This water was employed in the removal of the uncleanness of a person or thing that had been in contact with a dead body, and also in removing ritual defilement from booty taken in war.
1. Origin and Significance of the Rite
The general origin of the rite is clear enough, as is the fact that this origin lies back of the official sacrificial system of Israel. For the removal of impurity, ritual as well as physical, water, preferably running water (Numbers 19:17 ; compare Leviticus 14:5 ; Leviticus 15:13 ), is the natural means, and is employed universally. But where the impurity was unusually great, mere water was not felt to be adequate, and various substances were mixed with it in order to increase its efficacy. So (among other things) blood is used in Leviticus 14:6 , Leviticus 14:7 , and dust in Numbers 5:17 (see WATER OF BITTERNESS ).
The use, however, of ashes in Numbers 19:17 is unique in the Old Testament, although parallels from elsewhere can be adduced. So e.g. in Ovid Fasti , iv.639-40, 725, 733, in the last of these references, "The blood of a horse shall be a purification, and the ashes of calves," is remarkably close to the Old Testament. The ashes were obtained by burning the heifer completely, "her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung" (the contents of the entrails) (Numbers 19:5 ; compare Exodus 29:14 ). Here only in the Old Testament is blood burned for a ceremonial purpose, and here only is burning a preliminary ; elsewhere it is either a chief act or serves to consume the remnants of a finished sacrifice - Leviticus 4:12 and Numbers 19:3 are altogether different.
The heifer is a female . For the regular sin offering for the congregation, only the male was permitted ( Leviticus 4:14), but the female was used in the purificatory ceremony of Deuteronomy 21:3 (a rite that has several points of similarity to that of Nu 19). An individual sin offering by one of the common people, however, required a female ( Leviticus 4:28 ), but probably only in order to give greater prominence to the more solemn sacrifices for which the male was reserved.
A female is required again in the cases enumerated in Leviticus 5:1-6 , most of which are ritual defilements needing purification; a female was required at the purification of a leper (in addition to two males, Leviticus 14:10 ), and a female, with one male, was offered when a Nazirite terminated his vows (Numbers 6:14 ). Some connection between purification and the sacrifice of a female may be established by this list, for even in the case of the Nazirite the idea may be removal of the state of consecration.
But the reason for such a connection is anything but obvious, and the various explanations that have been offered are hardly more than guesses. The most likely is that purificatory rites originated in a very primitive stage when the female was thought to be the more sacred animal on account of its greater usefulness. Of the other requirements for the heifer she must be "red," i.e. reddish brown (Numbers 19:2 ). Likeness in color to blood is at first sight the most natural explanation, but likeness in color to ripe grain is almost equally plausible. It may be noted that certain Egyptian sacrifices also required red cattle as victims (Plutarch, De Isid . 31).
The heifer is to be "without spot" ("faultless"), "wherein is no blemish," the ordinary requirement for sacrifices. (The Jewish exegetes misread this "perfectly red, wherein is no blemish," with extraordinary results; see below.) But an advance on sacrificial requirements is that she shall be one "upon which never came yoke." This requirement is found elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 21:3 and in 1 Samuel 6:7 (that the animals in this last case were finally sacrificed is, however, not in point). But in other religions this requirement was very common (compare Iliad x.293; Vergil, Georg . iv.550-51; Ovid, Fasti iv.336).
2. Use of Cedar and Hyssop
While the heifer was being burned, "cedar-wood, and hyssop, and scarlet" (i.e. scarlet wool or thread) were cast into the flames. The same combination of objects (although differently employed) is found at the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14:4 ), but their meaning is entirely unknown. The explanations offered are almost countless. It is quite clear that hyssop was especially prized in purifications (Psalm 51:7 ), but the use of hyssop as a sprinkler and the use of ashes of hyssop may be quite unrelated. Hyssop and cedar were supposed to have medicinal properties (see CEDAR ; HYSSOP ).
Or the point may be the use of aromatic woods. For a mixture of cedar and other substances in water as a purificatory medium compare Fossey, Magie Assyrienne , 285. The scarlet wool offers still greater difficulties, apart from the color, but it may be noted that scarlet wool plays a part in some of the Babylonian conjurations (Assyrian Bibl ., XII , 31). But, obviously, none of this leads very far and it may all be in the wrong direction. All that can be said definitely is that Leviticus 14:4 and Numbers 19:6 show that the combination of objects was deemed to have a high purificatory value.
3. Application and Sacredness of the Ashes
The ashes, when obtained, were used in removing the greatest of impurities. Consequently, they themselves were deemed to have an extraordinarily "consecrated" character, and they were not to be handled carelessly. Their consecration extended to the rite by which they were produced, so that every person engaged in it was rendered unclean (Numbers 19:7 , Numbers 19:8 , Numbers 19:10 ), an excellent example of how in primitive religious thought the ideas of "holiness" and "uncleanness" blend. It was necessary to perform the whole ceremony "without the camp" (Numbers 19:3 ), and the ashes, when prepared, were also kept without the camp (Numbers 19:9 ), probably in order to guard against their touch defiling anyone (as well as to keep them from being defiled). When used they were mixed with running water, and the mixture was sprinkled with hyssop on the person or object to be cleansed (Numbers 19:17-19 ). The same water was used to purify booty (Numbers 31:23 ), and it may also be meant by the "water of expiation" in Numbers 8:7 .
4. Of Non-Priestly and Non-Israelitish Origin
In addition to the similarities already pointed out between Numbers 19 and Deuteronomy 21:1-9 , the rites resemble each other also in the fact that, in both, laymen are the chief functionaries and that the priests have little to do (in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 they are mere passive witnesses). This suggests a non-priestly origin. The title "sin-offering" in Numbers 19:9 , Numbers 19:17 (unless used in a unique sense) points to an original sacrificial meaning, although in Nu 19 the heifer is carefully kept away from the altar. Again, the correspondences with rites in other religions indicate a non-Israelitish origin.
Such a ceremony may well have passed among the Israelites and have become prized by them. It contained nothing objectionable and seemed to have much of deep worth, and a few slight additions - chiefly the sprinkling ( Numbers 19:4 ; compare Leviticus 4:6 , Leviticus 4:17 ) - made it fit for adoption into the highest system. Some older features may have been eliminated also, but as to this, of course, there is no information. But, in any case, the ceremony is formed of separate rites that are exceedingly old and that are found in a great diversity of religions so that any elaborate symbolic interpretation of the details would seem to be without justification.
The same result can be reached by comparing the countless symbolic interpretations that have been attempted in the past, for they differ hopelessly. As a matter of fact, the immense advance that has been gained in the understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament rites through the comparative study of religions has shown the futility of much that has been written on symbolism. That a Certain rite is widely practiced may merely mean that it rests on a true instinct. To be sure, the symbolism of the future will be written on broader lines and will be less pretentious in its claims, but for these very reasons it will rest on a more solid basis. At present, however, the chief task is the collection of material and its correct historical interpretation.
5. Obscurity of Later History
The later history of the rite is altogether obscure. As no provision was made in Numbers 19 for sending the ashes to different points, the purification could have been practiced only by those living near the sanctuary. Rabbinical casuistry still further complicated. matters by providing that two black or white hairs from the same follicle would disqualify the heifer (see above), and that one on whom even a cloth had been laid could not be used. In consequence, it became virtually or altogether impossible to secure a proper animal, and the Mishnic statement that only nine had ever been found ( Pārāh , iii.5) probably means that the rite had been obsolete long before New Testament times. Still, the existence of the tractate, Pārāh , and the mention in Hebrews 9:13 show that the provisions were well remembered.
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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).