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Red Heifer

RED HEIFER. The ashes of the red heifer were used for the removal of certain types of ceremonial uncleanness, such as purification of the leper, or defilement incurred through contact with the dead (Num.19.2). See also Animals.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

In Nu 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 Nu 19:9,13,10,21; 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 A.D.) 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:

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 (Le 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 (Ps 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 Le 14:4 and Nu 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 (Nu 19:7,8,10), 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" (Nu 19:3), and the ashes, when prepared, were also kept without the camp (Nu 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 (Nu 19:17-19). The same water was used to purify booty (Nu 31:23), and it may also be meant by the "water of expiation" in Nu 8:7.

4. Of Non-Priestly and Non-Israelitish Origin:

5. Obscurity of Later History:

The later history of the rite is altogether obscure. As no provision was made in Nu 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 (Parah, iii.5) probably means that the rite had been obsolete long before New Testament times. Still, the existence of the tractate, Parah, and the mention in Heb 9:13 show that the provisions were well remembered.



Baentsch (1903), Holzinger (1903), and (especially) Grey (1903) on Nu; Kennedy in HDB; Edersheim, Temple and Ministry, chapter xviii (rabbinic traditions. Edersheim gives the best of the "typological" explanations).

See also

  • [[Animals

  • Sacrifice and Offerings