Both Saint and Cynic put up a post recently (well, 2.5 months ago, but it counts as “recently” in Biblical time) called “The Bible Wasn’t Written To You.” The TL;DR version is that the Bible was written within a particular cultural context, and it isn’t reasonable for a 21st century ready to pop it open in the hopes of finding a note written just for you by God. “The Bible isn’t a horoscope. The Bible isn’t a fortune cookie. The Bible wasn’t written to you.”

The Inspector, by Karen Liebowitz

The Inspector, by Karen Liebowitz

Numbers 19 illustrates this point perfectly.

The chapter opens with instructions for making the “water for impurity.” The ritual involves finding an unblemished red heifer that has never born a yoke. Eleazar is then to take her outside the camp and kill her, then sprinkle her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. The heifer carcass must then be burned (within Eleazar’s sight), along with her skin, flesh, blood, and poop. The priest is then to cast cedarwood, hyssop, and “scarlet stuff” into the heifer’s pyre.

Using hyssop makes some sense. It’s an antiseptic plant, so the symbolic value is fairly obvious (same for the use of garlic, for example). Even so, there is some question as to whether the term is actually referring to the modern hyssop. Cedar wood has similarly been historically used in healing and for spiritual protection. Both are, apparently, quite fragrant – certainly an added bonus in religious ritual if my childhood Sunday coughs are any indication.

The priest should then wash his clothes and bathe. He can then re-enter the camp, but will still be considered unclean for the rest of the day.

A man who is clean should come out and gather up all the heifer ashes and keep them in a clean place outside of came. This is where people should go when they need to use the “water for impurity.” The one who does the ash gathering also has to wash his clothes, and he is unclean for the rest of the day as well.

Contact with the dead

Anyone who touches a dead body is considered unclean for seven days. Notice the repetition of the number 7, evidently considered significant.

The contaminated person must cleanse himself with the heifer water on third day, or else he will not become clean on the seventh.

Interestingly, the gender of the corpse is specified. Apparently, all of this only applies to people who have touched “the body of [a] man who has died” (v.13).

If a man dies inside a tent, anyone who is in the tent is considered unclean for seven days. Likewise, any open vessel is considered unclean. Both of these rules make a lot of sense for hygienic reasons. I’ve heard it said that comparatively few Jews died of the Black Death in part as a result of their cultic hygiene requirements. Of course, that didn’t stop plenty of them from dying of separate, but related, causes.

Out in the open, you have to actually touch the body (or bone, or grave) to become unclean.

If made unclean, the individual is to take some of the heifer ashes and mix it with running water. They are then to dip some hyssop into the water and sprinkle it on the contaminated tent and all its furnishings, plus any people who had been there. For the poor guy who stubbed his toe on a partially buried bone, he’s got to have the hyssop-and-ash water sprinkled on him as well.

On the seventh day after contact, the individual is to wash his clothes and bathe in water (as opposed to?), and he’ll be clean by evening.

If an individual is made unclean and doesn’t go through the cleansing ritual, he is to be cut off from his people, since his presence adds renegade points to his whole community. If our conclusions from Numbers 15 are correct, that means that the person is to be killed. There seems to be a lot of potential for vicious cycles if no blemishless red heifers happen to be available…

To finish up the chapter, we’re told that anyone who touches the heifer water is unclean until the evening, and that anything or anyone an unclean person touches is likewise unclean until evening.

The heifer

Apparently, some Jewish groups have interpreted this chapter to mean that a third temple cannot be built without a red heifer (though why they would single this little bit out and attach so much meaning to it is beyond me), and there seem to be efforts to breed red heifers for the purpose.

Some Christian groups, believing that Jesus won’t visit the neighbourhood again until the temple is rebuilt, are apparently helping out.

This all bodes wonderfully for the peace and stability of Israel, of course.