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The hermeneutics and genesis of the red cow ritual

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Peer-reviewed

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Article

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Abstract

jats:pThe difficulties with the red cow ritual have long exercised readers of the book of Numbers. The ritual in Num 19:1–22 describes how cleansing from corpse impurity is to be effected. A red cow is burned in a manner carefully prescribed in order to produce ash. Mixed with water, the ash is then sprinkled upon the corpse-impure individual on the third and seventh day of his or her impurity. To some of the rabbis and many subsequent interpreters, the automatic efficacy of the rite appears to be tantamount to pagan magic. In addition, it has long been observed that the red cow ritual has a number of anomalies when compared to other rituals in the Old Testament. The red cow is designated a “purification offering”<jats:inline-graphic xmlns:xlink="http://www.w3.org/1999/xlink" mime-subtype="gif" mimetype="image" xlink:type="simple" xlink:href="S0017816012000132_inline1"/>jats:sup1</jats:sup>but is unlike the purification offerings described in Leviticus 4–5 or, indeed, any other sacrifice: the entire animal, including the blood, is burned outside the camp, and the goal of the ritual is the production of ash for the treatment of future and not past impurity.jats:sup2</jats:sup>Finally, there is what Jacob Milgrom describes as the “paradox of the red cow”: the red cow ritual makes the pure impure and the impure pure.jats:sup3</jats:sup></jats:p>

Description

Keywords

folk rituals, rites, purification rites, Jews, Western Asia, animal sacrifice, Old Testament, numbers

Journal Title

Harvard Theological Review

Conference Name

Journal ISSN

0017-8160
1475-4517

Volume Title

105

Publisher

Cambridge University Press (CUP)
Sponsorship
Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung