Professor Henry Preserved Smith, D.D.
Meadville Theological School, Meadville, PA.

Taken from: The American Journal of Theology


The history of biblical interpretation has many curious chapters, perhaps none more curious than those which deal with the Jewish purifications. The aim of the present essay is to illustrate this fact by a single example. In the nineteenth chapter of the book of Numbers we read how the people are to bring a red cow1 to Moses and Aaron who in turn are to hand her over to Eleazar, son of Aaron. She is then to be led out of the camp where she is to be slain. The priest is to sprinkle of her blood toward the sanctuary seven times. The rest of the blood and the whole carcass, including the skin and the contents of the intestines, are to be burnt, and the priest is to throw into the fire cedar wood, scarlet stuff, and hyssop. After the burning the ashes are to be carefully collected and kept in a clean place. Their use is for ritual cleansing; that is, when persons or things are Levitically defiled by the presence of a human corpse, or by contact with human remains, or with a grave, they must be purified by being sprinkled with water in which some of these ashes have been mixed. The chapter emphatically affirms that all who have part in this rite and any who handle the ashes afterward are thereby themselves made Levitically unclean; its second section defines the nature and extent of the infection for which it provides a remedy; and its conclusion is a threat of excommunication on whoever, being thus defiled, neglects to use the appointed means of purification.

The wording of the passage presents no difficulties and the text does not seem to have suffered in transmission. Slight changes suggested by the versions do not seriously affect the sense, and we may fairly say that we know what the legislator intended to enjoin. But when we try to bring this rite into relation with modern ideas of a divinely revealed system of worship our perplexities are neither few nor small. Why is not the law grouped with other laws of purification? If a sin-offering is here prescribed why should it be offered outside the camp when astringent rule2 requires all sacrifices to be slain at the altar? The fundamental difficulty is met in accounting for the defilement wrought by the presence of death. But we are puzzled further by the prescription of red as the color of the victim, for nowhere else does the law regulate the color of the sacrifices. Of less moment is the requirement of a female victim though this seems contrary to Mosaic custom; for the sin offerings (at least those which are brought for the people at large, as seems to be the case here) are elsewhere males.3 We ask again why scarlet stuff, cedar, and hyssop appear in the ceremony, for though they are used in another rite of cleansing they are not there burnt. More serious is the double effect of the ashes, for while they cleanse the unclean they defile the clean. Even the priest who has charge of the ceremony cannot enter the sanctuary until the end of the day and then only after the ritual bath. As historical students we are impressed by the fact that although the law commands that these ashes be kept always on hand for purification no mention of them is found anywhere else in the Old Testament.4

That there is room here for the ingenuity of the commentator is evident, and it is this which now concerns us. It is of course possible to take the attitude of the simple believer and not to inquire into the reason of what is revealed. Such was the attitude of the earliest Jewish students. They did not inquire why the law was given, but sought only to define as exactly as possible what the law actually demands. Their work has come down to us in a treatise of the Mishna devoted to this subject. Here we learn the limits of age which make the cow suitable or unsuitable for the rite; the casuists insist that two hairs of any color except red make her unsuitable for sacrifice; they give minute directions for the priest who is to conduct the service; they prescribe that the ashes, when gathered, shall be kept in three places, and they guard the use of them with the punctiliousness which meets us in other parts of the Talmud. This Halachic exegesis has left its mark also on the so-called Jerusalem Targum to this chapter, and its results are set forth in great detail by Maimonides.5

Many later Jewish expositors seem to take the ground that it is useless or even sacrilegious to inquire into the meaning of the law, and that their duty is done when they have thus defined what it enjoins. They call attention to the phrase “This is the statute of the law’’ with which the passage begins, and find in it an intimation that this command, like some others, was imposed by the sovereign will of God, a monarch who gives no reasons for his decrees. In fact this word “statute” is used in some other cases of perplexing regulations.6 The early commentary, called the Midrash, declares that Solomon himself did not know the reason of the law, and that he had this chapter in mind when he wrote: “I said I will be wise but it was far from me.”7 Some scholars affirm that the explanation had been vouchsafed to Moses alone, while others go so far as to assert that the Almighty Himself found this section of his law a worthy object of investigation, and that he was found engaged upon it by Moses when he ascended to the mount.8

Yet, however firmly the believer may hold to the Scripture as the law given for him to obey without question, questions will arise. The Bible as a revelation must have treasures of wisdom for the student. If they do not lie on the surface so much the more reason for digging deeper. Even if inclined to rest in the letter one is driven to inquire further by the scoffs of the unbeliever. So it was with the Jews. At a very early day they were obliged to meet the cavils of those who pointed out that the rite of the heifer was very like what the heathen call magic.9 It was inevitable that in answer to such objections a rational explanation of the law should be sought. It was fortunate for the ancient expositor that he was not confined to the literal meaning of his text but could take refuge in the allegorical method.

Our passage easily lent itself to this treatment, and even where men expressly asserted that the full understanding was not to be expected until the coming of Elijah,10 the temptation was strong to make parts of the chapter teach in symbols. The guide to the symbol was naturally the analogy of Scripture. In this case the analogy was not one that suggests itself to the superficial observer. It was found in the connection of cow and calf, the calf being the golden calf which the Israelites had set up at Horeb. The cow, said the rabbis, must purge away the guilt of the calf, and the parable was put forward of a slave woman whose little son had made a litter while playing about the royal palace. It is in the nature of things that the mother should be called upon to clean up after him. So the cow was sacrificed to cleanse the guilt of the calf, and the red color of the victim was a reminder of the red color of the idol.11 This explanation, if it can so be called, can never have been regarded as more than an ingenious fancy.

More serious, however, is the attempt which would make the heifer a type of Israel. This also is based on the analogy of Scripture, for Hosea declares that Israel is rebellious like an unruly cow.12 The heifer is to be unused to the yoke because Israel has thrown off the yoke of the law; she is to be red because the young men of Israel are more ruddy than rubies; she is to be without blemish because the bride in the Song is perfect and without spot;13 her being led out of camp typifies the Babylonian exile; the slaughter and burning of the victim pictures the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar; the command to burn skin, blood, and entrails indicates that noble and base-born were alike involved in destruction; the cedar, scarlet, and hyssop point to the three faithful men who were thrown into the fiery furnace, and the ashes represent Israel in exile.14

The ingenuity with which the comparison is wrought out is calculated to impress the reader until he discovers that the heifer may be made with almost equal facility the type of Israel’s enemies. For some of the rabbis find that the heifer is Egypt, which is called a beautiful heifer;15 the red color of the animal is an allusion to Babylon which is the head of gold in Nebuchadrezzar’s dream; she is perfect to point to the empire of the Medes which favored the Jews; without blemish because Alexander bowed down to the highpriest; unyoked to symbolize Rome which never submitted to the yoke of the law. The burning then signifies the destruction of all these kingdoms at the hand of God, and the consumption of blood, flesh, skin, and entrails, shows that high and low, rich and poor, are to perish together.16

The elasticity of the method may be illustrated by another example. This time the heifer bodies forth the law and its study. She is perfect because the law is perfect; unyoked because he who gives himself to the study of the law is free from the yoke of the gentiles; she is given into the hand of the priest to show that divine help is needed in this study; led outside the camp, because this study should be carried on in solitude; she is slain and her blood is drawn by the priest to show that the law must not be studied superficially but in its inner meaning; her blood, sprinkled toward the sanctuary, shows that the law must be studied in accordance with tradition.17

Among the typologists a special place must be reserved for the philosophers. First comes the psychologist who discovers that the heifer signifies the body of man. She is red because the body is the source of sin; unyoked because the body, or matter, does not subject itself to the law of God; she is given to the priest to show that the body should be subservient to the spirit. Next is one who may be called a natural philosopher. He finds the significance of the red color in the fact that the blood which is red is the cause of death by its corruption, and the ceremony pollutes those who have part in it because the heifer carries away the pollution of the camp. Rising higher as he goes on, this author finds a cosmic significance in the seven sprinklings; for they are intended to set forth the seven classes of existences, namely: unformed matter, mineral forms, vegetables, animals, men, angels, and God. Another thinker argues from the fourfold occurrence of the word ויקחו 18 that the Scripture points to the fourfold composition of man, he being made up of soul, body, good impulse, and evil desire. In this case the heifer evidently represents the evil desire since she is unyoked. The ashes both pollute and cleanse because the evil desire leads men to sin, but at the same time gives them the opportunity to obtain merit if they will only be steadfast in resisting. The logical conclusion is not lacking: if the heifer typifies the evil desire, then the fire which consumes her is a type of the fire of Gehenna which awaits the sinner. A heresy seems to creep in when this theory goes on to argue that the burning of the heifer to ashes proves that the punishment of the sinner lasts only till by the natural process of decay his flesh has dissolved into its original elements. But the heresy is at least partially extenuated by the observation that notorious sinners have flesh tough enough to resist decay a long time.19

The Cabbalists should of course have a place in this list. An obscure text like the one before us is the very one to attract their attention. They seem, however, to have found so much material for speculation in the earlier portions of the Pentateuch that they did not reach the later books. The most that an industrious explorer has been able to discover is that they identified the heifer with the oral law, and also with the divine emanation or attribute (one of the ten Sephiroth) named Justice.20

In these ways Jewish expositors seek to get a lesson from a passage which in its literal sense has nothing to teach them. Faint echoes of their theories are found to the present day even in quarters where we should hardly expect them. The Jewish Encyclopaedia, for example, edifies its readers by telling them that the majestic cedar of Lebanon represents pride, and hyssop represents humility.21 Among Christian scholars to whom we now turn we shall find many similar survivals.22 In fact both parties held that the text must contain mysteries. Only the Christians had a key which the Jews refused. That key was given in the New Testament. The fundamental principle was: “Eadem sunt in Vetere et Novo; ibi obumbrata, hic revelata; ibi praefigurata, hic manifesta.”23 The heifer then not only typifies Christ but any and all of the New Testament doctrines. She teaches for example that the flesh is the seat of sin; we slay the cow when we mortify the flesh, and we offer with her faith, hope, and charity set forth visibly in the cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop.24 The double effect of the lustral water, purifying the unclean but defiling the clean, typifies the results of preaching the Gospel which is well known to be a savor of life to some, but a savor of death to others.25 Again the heifer is a type of the sacrament of penance or of the whole body of Christian doctrine.26 Even Protestant commentators are influenced by these theories though they attempt to hold to Christ as the antitype.27

The New Testament itself made a modest beginning with the allegorical application of our passage, for the Epistle to the Hebrews says: ‘For if the blood of bulls and goats, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that have been defiled, sanctify to the cleanness of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”28 It may be said that the passage does not make the heifer directly typical of Christ; that it simply argues from a fact conceded by both Jews and gentiles. But the argument of the epistle is to show that the whole Levitical service is an adumbration of Christ, and the application of this principle to each particular ordinance was easily made. We are not much surprised therefore when the Epistle of Barnabas elaborates the type without reserve. The author says:

And what think you this type was—that it was enjoined on Israel that the men who were sinners should offer a heifer and slay it and burn it; that then boys should take the ashes in vessels and should bind scarlet wool around a stick (see here again is the type of the cross, both the scarlet wool and the hyssop); and that thus the boys should sprinkle the people one by one, that they might be cleansed from their sins? Consider how it is said to you in a similitude: The calf is Jesus; the men who make the offering are the sinners who brought him to death. . . . And the boys who sprinkle are those who preach to us the good tidings of remission of sins and cleansing of heart. . . . And why are there three boys that sprinkle? In witness of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because these men were great with God. And why was the wool upon the stick? Because the kingdom rests upon the cross, and because they who hope upon him will live forever.29

The author does not confine himself to the biblical text but describes the ceremony as he supposes it to be performed. His data are in general accord with Jewish tradition—the employment of boys to mingle the ashes and the water, for example. In one point he makes a serious deviation from his text. This is where he substitutes a calf for the heifer. When we reflect that the gender of the sacrifice is a real obstacle to the parallel between type and antitype we can hardly acquit the writer of violent treatment of his subject. Yet the determination to find a type of Christ was so strong that no one seems to have objected to this incongruity, and the interpretation passed into Christian tradition.

As evidence of this I will cite at once the greatest of the Fathers, Augustine, who holds that the heifer signifies the human nature (carnem) of Christ; it is a female because the weaker sex properly sets forth the weakness of the flesh; the red color foreshadows the cruel passion; the sinlessness of the Savior is shown by the heifer’s freedom from the yoke; the victim was handed over to Eleazar, the future high priest, to indicate that the true sacrifice will be offered in the future (future to the Old Testament, that is) dispensation; the sprinkling of the blood toward the sanctuary speaks for itself; it was done seven times because the number seven is the one which pertains to spiritual things; the fire which burned the heifer prefigures the resurrection of Christ, through which he entered the heavenly life; the cedar, scarlet, and hyssop correspond to the three graces of hope, love, and faith; those who burned the heifer are the men who buried the body of Jesus; the ashes which purify the unclean prefigure the preaching of the Gospel which converts sinners; the water of sprinkling is the sacrament of baptism, and the hyssop with which it is applied is faith; finally the threat of excommunication uttered against those who neglect the rite really warns us of the punishment of those who refuse this sacrament.30

So complete a demonstration could not fail to impress succeeding generations. Among Catholic scholars it would be most thoroughly adopted. But even Protestants, though nominally rejecting the allegorical method, retained a typology which allowed them to adorn their exposition with many allegorical features. With them the sprinkling no longer typifies baptism, but teaches the imputation of the merits of Christ, and emphasis is laid upon the cleansing from dead works rather than cleansing from sins in general. But the substance of the exposition is the same. Carpzov is moved to his thorough study of this chapter by the belief that the chief end of all the ceremonial laws is the adumbration of Christ, and Zeller re-edits Maimonides’ treatise with the same faith.31 The latter quotes, with approval, L’Empereur’s demonstration that the location of the sacrifice of the heifer (the Mount of Olives) was the place of Jesus’ agony—a coincidence too striking (as both authors regard it) to be accidental.32 Gerhard, the great theologian, sees in the burning victim Christ on the cross consumed by the fire of love, while to others the fire typifies the eternal Spirit by which Jesus offers himself to God. The cleansing is then good Protestant justification and sanctification. The sacrifice was a means of grace to the Jews before the coming of Christ so far as they applied to themselves the blood of Christ by faith.33 A detailed exposition may be found in Matthew Poole’s Annotations34 which probably well represent the older English expositors. He says that the red color of the heifer was adapted to set forth the bloody nature and complexion of sin, and also the human nature of Christ and especially his blood from which this water and all other rites had their purifying virtue; the heifer’s being without blemish made her a fit type of Christ, while her being unyoked may signify either that Christ was free from the yoke of the law until for our sakes he took upon himself our yoke, or that Christ was not drawn or forced to undertake our burden but did voluntarily choose it; the heifer was brought without the camp partly because it was reckoned an unclean and accursed thing, being laden (ceremonially) with the sins of all the people, and partly because Christ was to suffer without the camp; the sprinkling of the blood before the sanctuary was by way of atonement or satisfaction; the burning of the victim signified the sharp and grievous suffering of Christ for our sin, and the priest was made unclean by this rite to show the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood, but also to show that Christ, though without sin in himself, was reputed by men and judged by God as an unclean and sinful person by reason of our sins which were laid upon him; the cleansing on the third day typifies the resurrection of Christ and that on the seventh shows that our perfection in this life is gradual and not complete until we come to that eternal Sabbath which the seventh day respects; the living water used in the purification manifestly points to the Holy Spirit, who is often compared to water and by whom alone true purification is accomplished. Finally we read:

It is strange that the same water should cleanse one person and defile another; but God would have it so, partly to teach us that it did not cleanse by any virtue in itself or in the work done, but only by virtue of God’s appointment; partly to mind the Jews of the imperfection of their priesthood and their ritual purifications and expiations, and consequently of the necessity of a better priesthood and sacraments and way of purifying which these outward rites did point to; partly to show that the efficacy of God’s ordinances doth not depend upon the person or quality of his ministers, because the same person who was polluted himself did and could cleanse others.

The reader will see that a whole body of divinity is thus evolved from this chapter. Minor details may be gathered by a careful gleaning among the commentators as, for example, that the cedar which is thrown into the midst of the flame corresponds to the lance which pierced the side of Jesus.35 Others see in the cedar a type of the exaltation of Christ, in the hyssop his humiliation, and in the scarlet stuff his bloody sacrifice. Subsequent commentators have not had the courage to present so complete a picture as Poole or his editors, yet some features of the tradition, as we may now call it, appear down to recent times. Matthew Henry is perhaps the most highly esteemed of English commentators. He affirms that the sacrifice of the heifer “was typical of the death and sufferings of Christ, by which he intended not only to satisfy God’s justice but also to purify and pacify our consciences, that we may not only have peace with God but peace in our own bosoms.” He learns from the uncleanness of those who were concerned in the rite that all who had a hand in putting Christ to death contracted guilt thereby.36 Similar details might be quoted from Adam Clarke, Thomas Scott, the Comprehensive Commentary, and others. The persistence of tradition may be illustrated from an American publication, the once widely read Notes of George Bush. This author, after examining various theories, decides that we may safely consider the burning of the heifer to represent the excruciating sufferings of Christ; its ashes are then the permanent merits of this sacrifice; the running or living water means the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, called the water of life and the laver of regeneration; while the mixture of ashes and water fitly represents the inseparable union which exists between the justification and sanctification of the sinner; the heifer was given to Eleazar not only to signify that our Lord’s sacrifice of himself was to be at a distance in the succession of the priesthood, but also to represent in Eleazar that whole sanctified body which Peter styles “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, to whom Christ was given by the Father for sanctification and deliverance. He adds that the red color typifies the blood of Christ, shed in the passion, and adopts other points with which we are already familiar—that the defilement of the persons employed in the rite points to the imperfection of the Mosaic ordinances, also that it prefigures the guilt of those who crucified Jesus, and, further, that the purification on the third day foreshadows the resurrection of Christ, while that on the seventh day indicates that our sanctification in this life is gradual.37 One rubs his eyes and looks again at the date to see whether this book was really published in the nineteenth century, and asks himself to what end the Reformers rejected the allegorical method.

The thoroughness with which German scholars wrought at all theological science in the last century leads us to turn to them, but the result cannot be said to be any great addition to our knowledge. The orthodox are under the bias of the typical interpretation and even the more liberal show traces of its influence. A well-known standard work bears the significant title: Symbolism of the Mosaic Ritual,38 and an elaborate essay devoted to the chapter now under discussion is entitled: “On the Symbolical Value of the Rite for Removing the Uncleanness Contracted by Contact with a Dead Body.”39 Not to leave us in doubt on the orthodox view, Hengstenberg roundly affirms that all the purifications in the books of Moses have symbolical and typical character.40 Yet in spite of this agreement in principle these scholars are not agreed in the interpretation of our chapter. The greater part of Kurtz’ essay (seventy-three pages) is an argument against Hengstenberg. The latter had affirmed that the red color of the heifer is significant of sin, while Kurtz holds with equal firmness that it denotes life. Kurtz, again, holds that the victim is a female because the female is the source of life, while his opponent argues that a female was chosen because the Hebrew word for sin is of the feminine gender.41 Both these scholars were earnest and devout defenders of orthodoxy. It did not occur to either one that if interpretations so diverse could be given to the same passage there must be some fault of method. Yet the obsession of the commentators infected the dogmatic theologians. A book once regarded with high favor, and perhaps still read, has the title: Typology of Scripture, or the Doctrine of Types Investigated in Its Principles and Applied to the Explanation of the Earlier Revelations of God Considered as Preparatory Exhibitions of the Leading Truths of the Gospel.42 Did space permit, quotations from this book might be given as irrational as any from the Fathers.

This long search brings us to one conclusion: The whole theory of types and allegories must be given up simply because it leads nowhither. It is inconceivable that if God wished to teach all the beautiful and profound doctrines found by the expositors in this text, he would have wrapped them up in so obscure a transaction, and left us without a hint of his real intent and purpose. We turn then to the rationalists who at any rate have rejected the allegorical interpretation. And of the most of them it is true that they see what the real problem is. For what we want first to know is why the presence of a dead body produces defilement. The attempts of the theologians to explain the reason are particularly unfortunate. One says that the law proceeded on the hypothesis that human nature was wholly infected by sin. Another says that bodily states are described as defiling in order to awaken the sense of sin; while still another declares that the dead are unclean because the revolting and polluting effects of natural death are due to the power of spiritual death.43 All these are without warrant in the Old Testament, and these authors would probably confess in their better moments that the emphasis laid by the ceremonial law on ritual defilement would obscure the vision concerning ethical shortcomings. On the other hand the various rationalistic explanations do not seem to help us much. Maimonides44 says that the system of clean and unclean was ordained to inculcate reverence for the sanctuary. If it were allowed to every man to approach God as often as he chose, access to the Presence would be undervalued. There is here a vague apprehension that these regulations are concerned with access to the sanctuary. But it is almost unthinkable that God would impose arbitrary restrictions to keep men away from worship. Especially in the time of bereavement, when they most need divine consolation, we should expect him to invite them near. That the rite of purification is concerned with approach to God is recognized sometimes even by those who are swamped in their theological theories. Thus Bahr recognizes that “purification means restoration to communion with God which has been disturbed by contact with death.”45 This is refreshing, yet it brings us only a little way. Why has death disturbed the communion with God?

The reason for this disturbance has usually been sought in the mind of Moses the lawgiver. He designed, says one inquirer, to keep Israel separate from the gentiles—racial purity was what he had at heart. Here the effect is put for the cause. Exclusiveness actually resulted from the law but was not an end in itself. Even if we explain the laws of clean and unclean in this way, we are not helped in the matter of the heifer. A distinctively modern explanation seeks the reason for the laws in their sanitary benefits. The dead were made unclean to prevent infection, or to promote early interment, or to secure separation of cemeteries from dwellings.46 Others suppose that the defilement is the expression of natural disgust at the corpse, which decays and sends forth a bad odor, and at the odor itself which cleaves to persons and things.47 But it is not only the putrefying corpse that defiles; a single bone of a human body, no matter how free from taint or odor, has the same effect as a corpse and so has a grave, though the body of the occupant has long mingled with the dust. By some the law is supposed to be a discouragement to the superstitious Egyptian practice of embalming.48 But no one has shown why the lawgiver did not make known his purpose. If he had had any of these objects in mind there is no reason why he should not have secured his end by definite and specific injunctions. And even if these hypotheses explained the defilement they would not help us to understand the rite of the heifer, for no one would pretend that a little ashes mingled with water constitute an efficient antiseptic.

Up to this time we have purposely left out of view one line of inquiry, that is, the comparative. This is now our only hope, and it does give us ground for hope. For we easily discover that these ideas of defilement and purification are common to nearly all religions. The fact has long been known, though the inference from it has only lately become clear. The resemblance of the rite of the heifer to heathen ceremonies was early forced upon the attention of the Jews themselves, for to their own evident embarrassment they were accused of practicing magic.49 The Christian Fathers did not hesitate to bring the Hebrew hyssop into connection with the herbs used in Greek cathartic rites, and hyssop itself is regarded as a plant of special virtue by the Greeks.50 The sprinkling of water prepared in some peculiar way was a common method of lustration outside of Israel. The ashes of the sacrifice are mentioned by Ovid as means of purification.51 The color of sacrificial victims is a matter of importance in gentile religion, while the stipulation that the heifer should be unacquainted with the yoke is a common requirement outside Israel. Many of these resemblances were noted by early commentators,52 but the author who most fully collected them and considered their bearing was Spencer in his work, De Legibus Hebraeorum.53

Spencer in his extended discussion of this subject begins by saying that no one will think this a new rite or one contrary to the custom of antiquity. He then adduces the Egyptian parallels and finds them of such a nature that there must be connection of Egyptian and Hebrew usage. His theory is that God designed to oppose and contradict heathen superstitions. With reference to the red color, for example, he discusses various theories that have been advanced only to find them unsatisfactory.54 But from Plutarch he ascertains. that the Egyptians offered red bulls to Typhon and also that red cattle were sacrificed, on the theory that the souls of wicked men migrated into them. On the other hand cows were sacred to Isis.55 Putting the facts together Spencer argues that the heifer was chosen in order to bring the Egyptian “vaccine cultus” into contempt, that she was to be red in order to show that God would accept a sacrifice despised by the Egyptians, and finally that there was a purpose to expiate the worship of Typhon to which the Israelites had been addicted in Egypt. There was therefore a certain accommodation of Israelite law to heathen custom in order to meet the particular need of the time.

The theory of accommodation was fiercely assailed,56 but the array of facts was so telling that they had to be considered. To this extent attention was turned away from the phantasms of the typologists and in the direction of a really historical explanation.. At first the commentators held that the resemblances between Jewish and gentile ritual could be accounted for by assuming the originality of the former—the devil had instigated his followers to imitate: Mosaic ordinances, the counterfeit being well adapted to lead men. away from the true.57 But it is hardly necessary to point out that direct borrowing from the Hebrews was in most cases impossible, and while the devil may have means of conveyance unknown to us, he is at best only a deus ex machina who should be invoked only as a last resort.

Since Spencer’s time our knowledge of gentile rites has been greatly increased. To begin with the fundamental idea, namely, the ritual uncleanness of the dead, we may say that it is almost universal. It is found in India, for the laws of Manu devote a number of paragraphs to it;58 the Persian sacred books emphasize it;59 Greek and Roman literature speaks of it;60 it is attested among the American Indians, in Africa, Thibet, and many remote regions. And along with the uncleanness we have purifications resembling those of the Pentateuch.61 Among the Greeks those who had eaten of the offering to a hero could not come into the sanctuary of Zeus until they had bathed.62 The Galli who covered the body of a dead comrade with stones could not come into the sanctuary of their goddess for seven days, and if one of them only saw a corpse he could not enter the temple until the following day, and then only after purifying himself.63 The Sabeans wash themselves after touching a corpse.64 On the Gold Coast those persons who have taken part in a funeral go in procession to the nearest brook and sprinkle themselves.65

The words “clean” and “unclean” give us a very inadequate idea of the beliefs we are discussing. Let us use instead the word “taboo.” Taboo is the quality which belongs to a being regarded as divine, demonic, or uncanny. This quality is infectious or contagious. A man or thing becomes taboo by contact with one of these beings or even by being in their presence. It is evident that where divinities are hostile or unsympathetic the taboo imparted by one would be unpleasant to others. Hence the danger of coming from the service of the hero into the presence of Zeus. Tolerant of associate gods as Zeus was, he had to draw the line somewhere, and to come before him redolent of a sacrifice to an underworld divinity would arouse his wrath. Now Yahweh, as we know, is a jealous God; anything which suggests another god is repugnant to him. His own taboo, which is sacredness, is dangerous if taken into the sphere of common life, and the taboo of another divinity is uncleanness. That which is most sacred is in fact treated like that which is unclean.66

If the uncleanness of the dead is to be explained at all it must be on the ground of taboo, that is that it is derived from the worship of the dead. This at once accounts for the fact that the more honorable the creature the more polluting his corpse. The dead body of the most disgusting animal pollutes for a single day only, while the corpse of the high priest—the most sacred of men—pollutes for seven days, and then must be counteracted by a special lustration. The corpse of Alexander made the whole army taboo because the living man had been so powerful, and his departed spirit was a divinity of proportionate dignity. Josephus relates that Miriam died and had a public funeral after which Moses purified the people by sacrificing the red heifer and sprinkling the ashes. He knew that his gentile readers would understand exactly what was meant.67

The worship of the dead is directly attested in most regions where we find the death taboo. This is a matter of common knowledge and it is unnecessary to give citations. Among the rites of worship none is more widespread than sacrifice. Attempts have been made to differentiate between offerings to the dead and sacrifices to the gods, but without success. If it be said that the offerings are intended to nourish the souls of the departed, the reply is obvious that this is precisely one object of the sacrifices. So late an author as Ezekiel does not hesitate to speak of the fat and blood which are burned on the altar as the food of Yahweh.68 And if it be said that the desire to rid oneself of the presence of the ghosts is the motive, we can only respond that the desire to protect oneself from hostile divinities is in evidence in almost all religions. We must recall the fact that the gods of polytheism survive in monotheistic religion in the form of demons, cobolds, or ginn, and that the rites paid them persist in the form of magic, or else are adopted in some modification in the new faith. In Israel death and the demons are associated down to recent times. Talmudic authorities assert that death is caused by an “angel” except in the rare cases where it is caused by the kiss of God.69 ‘The taboo of house, utensils, and food is explained by the theory that an evil demon may spring from them upon human beings in their vicinity. The consciousness that the demons in this case are actually the souls of the dead seems to have been lost, but this is in line with what we find in other religions where the manes and the underworld deities are confused or merged.

Now if the rite of the heifer came to us from some source other than the Mosaic law we should have no hesitation in seeing in it a sacrifice to the dead. Its distinctive marks, and those which give the commentators most trouble, are precisely those which in other religions characterize sacrifices to the dead.70 First of all, the red color of the victim finds striking parallels. Red coffins, red banners at funerals, red objects given to the dead man, red pigment applied to the corpse, even are widely attested.71 The choice of the red color is explicable because it is the color of blood and therefore of life. To this extent Kurtz was right in his contention as against Hengstenberg. Among the Greeks red victims were offered to the underworld deities, who are, as we have seen, associated with the shades. The archon of Plataea who on other days might not wear any but white garments wore crimson when invoking dead warriors to the banquet.72 It is possible that Spencer is right in bringing into this connection the red victims offered to Set, for Set seems to have been a god of pestilence and death.

Professor Bewer has already called attention to the biblical parallel in Deuteronomy where, as in the case before us, we have an ancient offering to the dead. It is in accord with gentile custom that a female victim be brought to the shades, and the parallel becomes exact when we notice that a barren cow is Ulysses’ offering to a dead friend, and that the Mishna requires the red heifer to be unapproached by the male, which is also the obvious intent of the passage in Deuteronomy.73

The most remarkable thing about the heifer is that her blood was shed away from the sanctuary, whereas in all other offerings Yahweh claims the blood for the altar. Jewish tradition forbids the priest to use a vessel to catch the blood of the heifer. So much as is necessary to sprinkle toward the sanctuary he must receive in his hand, which is then wiped on the carcass.74 We must conclude that originally the blood flowed to the ground. But this is precisely what the blood was allowed to do in sacrifices for the dead. The sprinkling of a little of it toward the sanctuary is a very superficial attempt to disguise the original rite.

In Greek religion victims for the dead were wholly consumed, either on the ground or on very low altars. The burning of the heifer is more thorough than in the case of any other Hebrew sacrifice with which we are acquainted, and as no altar is mentioned it must have been on the ground. And the ground chosen is not without significance. When the Levitical legislation mentions the sanctuary it has the temple in mind. The provision of our text that the ceremony shall take place “before the sanctuary”? means in reality that it is to be located on the Mount of Olives, as in fact is distinctly stated in the Mishna. But the Mount of Olives was a place of sepulture for Jerusalem from early times. The Talmud again is aware of this for it provides that the heifer and her train shall cross the Kedron valley on a bridge purposely raised to avoid contact with the graves.75 The place of sacrifice therefore was the very place haunted by the spirits of the departed.

It is difficult to determine what idea was connected with the hyssop, cedar, and scarlet stuff. It is possible that the cedar was emblematic of life and used as a prophylactic; as evergreen trees are planted near graves in China and elsewhere. Hyssop we have already brought into connection with the fragrant herbs which were effective against the ghosts in Greece. The scarlet stuff would then be the emblem of life like the red color of the heifer. On the other hand it is possible that these objects are remnants of the property— garments and weapons—once burned at the grave. In either case these confirm our theory rather than disprove it.

The defilement of those who take part in the rite now becomes perfectly intelligible. The ashes of the sacrifice consecrate those who are sprinkled, and consecration to the dead is pollution for the service of Yahweh. Gentile parallels are well known. No different is the lustration by water in which a brand from the altar has been quenched, or the application of the blood of the sacrifice to the worshiper.76 Originally then the water consecrated those who took part in the rite, and this is the reason why it is called “water of separation.” How it comes to be a means of purification is now the problem. The probability is that in the intention of the author it did not in itself purify, for it seems that the one who was sprinkled still had to wash his clothes and bathe before he could enter the sanctuary.77

The conclusion from our inquiry seems obvious: We have in the rite of the heifer a veritable superstitio, a survival from animistic religion naturalized in the law of Israel. The state of mind of the compilers who are responsible for its insertion here may easily be conceived. They were conscious that the rite was hallowed by antiquity and too deeply rooted to be abolished. The popular belief (shared probably by the compilers themselves) held that the ghosts of the departed could not rest unless the traditional rites were duly observed. Although the ghosts were no longer regarded as gods, yet they had uncanny powers and might wreak their vengeance on the community if they were neglected. It was therefore safest to retain the traditional rite, but at the same time put it under proper safeguards. Hence the commitment to the priest second in rank who had (probably) supervision over public order. By the presence of this officer and by the sprinkling of the blood toward the sanctuary the ceremony was made a quasi-sacrifice to Yahweh.

The line of investigation which we have followed with reference to the red heifer might profitably be taken with reference to several other chapters of the Levitical legislation. The general result would be similar. We should be convinced that the religion of Israel instead of being born fully grown at Sinai is a growth in which, through a long period of time, many diverse elements were taken up and assimilated. The advantage of our method is that it removes the religion of Israel from the isolation in which it has too long been shut up, and brings it into the general stream of human progress. Whether we thus succeed in explaining its enigmas better than they were explained by the older scholars with their allegories and types the reader must be left to judge.



1) The versions have heifer following the lead of the Greek, and this, as we shall see, is in accord with Jewish tradition.

2) Lev. 17:8 f.

3) Lev. 4:14.

4) The exception in Num. 31:19, which is obviously an example intended to show how the ashes should be used, only emphasizes the silence elsewhere.

5) R. Mosis Maimonidis Tractatus de Vacca ruja. Latinitate donatus ab Andrea Christophoro Zellero (1711). The Mishna tract is entitled Para and an English translation of it will be found in Barclay, The Talmud (1878). The Targum is printed in the fourth volume of Walton’s Polyglott and elsewhere.

6) A considerable part of my wisdom comes from the dissertation of J. B. Carpzov, De Vacca ruja, altera eaque dogmatica (1692). The first or exegetical part of this treatise I have not seen. The difficulties of the Jewish commentators are illustrated by Carpzov at length, pp. 8-19.

7) Koh. 7:23 f.; cf. Wünsche, Der Midrasch Bemidbar Rabba (1885), p. 460.

8) Wünsche, Midrasch, p. 465.

9) Ibid., cf. Carpzov, p. 11.

10) According to Spencer, De Legibus Hebraeorum, p. 356.

11) Even Izaaki, though he deprecates inquiry into the reason for the law, quotes this reason or justification from Moses ha-Darshan.

12) Hosea 4:16; the Hebrew word used is the same as in our passage.

13) Canticles 5:2, 6:9, 4:7; Lamentations 4:7.

14) From the Yalkut, cited by Carpzov, pp. 73 f. A variant makes the cedar and hyssop represent noble and base-born; cf. Surenhuys’ Mishna, VI, Praefatio, folio H.

15) Jer. 46:20.

16) Friedmann, Pesikta Rabbati (1880), folio 65. Other Jewish authors are quoted by Carpzov.

17) Abarbanel, cited by Carpzov, pp. 83 f.

18) Ex, 25:2; 27:20; Lev. 24:2; and our passage.

19) These speculations of Jewish thinkers are all taken from Carpzov, who gives citations at length.

20) Carpzov, pp. 53-59.

21) Vol. X, p. 345.

22) An interesting example is Grotius’ adoption of Philo’s theory that the mingling of ashes and water in the lustration is to teach man that he is made of those elements and that self-knowledge is the best purification; cf. his Adnotationes to this chapter.

23) Augustine, Quaestionum in Heptateuchum Libri Septem (Migne, Patrologia Latina, Vol. XXXIV, col. 732).

24) Gregory the Great, Moralium Liber VI, 37 (Migne, Vol. LXXV, col. 761).

25) Deyling, Observationum Sacrarum, Pars III, p. rot.

26) See the passages in Carpzov, pp. 146, 152, ff., 163.

27) An example is Baumgarten cited by Kurtz in his article, Studien und Kritiken, 1846, p. 678.

28) Heb. 9:13 f.

29) Ep. Barnabae, chap. viii.

30) Quaest. in Heptateuchum (Migne, XXXIV, col. 733 ff.).

31) Carpzov, pp. 59, 152, 171; Zeller, Prefatio.

32) L’Empereur, Talmudis Babylonici Codex Middoth (1630), pp. 14, 58.

33) These I have taken from Carpzov, pp. 150, 156, 161.

34) Annotations upon the Holy Bible, 4th ed., 1700.

35) Zeller, p. 402. The same author gives in tabular form the corresponding features of type and antitype embracing sixteen items, pp. 500 ff.

36) An Exposition on the Old and New Testaments by Matthew Henry, late Minister of the Gospel, 4th ed., 1737.

37) Notes Critical and Practical on the Book of Numbers, by George, Bush New York, 1858, pp. 272-80.

38) Symbolik des Mosaischen Kultus von K. C. W. F. Bähr, Heidelberg, 1839.

39) By Kurtz in the Theol. Studien und Kritiken, 1846.

40) Christologie des alten Testamentes (1885), II, 299.

41) This surely verges on the trivial, and shows the straits into which he is brought who will explain everything. It is amusing to note also that when Hengstenberg makes the cedar and hyssop represent the majesty and forgiving love of God, Kurtz retorts that these could not be burned. The reader who is interested may examine the confused and obscure language under which Keil attempts to conceal his inability to carry out his typological explanation, Biblische Archäologie?, p. 309.

42) By Patrick Fairbairn, American ed., 1857.

43) Keil, Archäologie, pp. 295, 303; Bahr, II, 464; Bush, p. 279. Similar views are found of course in the older treatises as, for example, in Deyling, Observationes, III, go.

44) Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, translated by M. Friedlander (1885), III, 166, 244.

45) Symbolik, p. 502.

46) Michaelis, Mosaisches Recht, IV, 211-16.

47) Knobel, Die Bücher Numeri, Deuteronomium und Josua, p. 95.

48) Palfrey, The Jewish Scriptures and Antiquities, I, 363. The sanitary theory has survived into recent literature.

49) Wünsche, Midrasch Bemidbar Rabba, p. 465; cf. Carpzov, pp. 11, 16.

50) See the quotations of Bahr, Symbolik, II, 503.

51) Fasti, iv, 639, 725, 733-

52) Various parallels are given by Poole, Synopsis Criticorum, by Rosenmiiller, Scholia, by Clericus, and by others.

53) I have used the edition published at the Hague in 1686.

54) As, that it was a common color and so the cow would be easily obtained; or,, on the other hand, that it was the color of the choicest animals. He explicitly rejects. the typical reference to the Messiah, and the Jewish fancy that the cow was somehow: connected with the golden calf.

55) Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, chap. xxxi.

56) For example, Carpzov, pp. 183 ff.

57) So Adam Clarke remarks.

58) SBE, Vol. XXV, pp. 177 f.

59) SBE, Vol. IV, pp. 74-118.

60) Citations in Grotius and Poole. Alexander’s army was “defiled” by the death of its king (Knobel, Numeri, p. 96).

61) On the whole subject see Frazer, The Golden Bough, I, 331-39; III, 397-401.

62) Archiv für Religionswissenschajt, Beiheft to Vol. VIII, p. 41.

63) De Dea Syria, 53.

64) Haarbrücker, Schahrastani, II, 76.

65) Further examples are given by G. B. Gray, Commentary on Numbers, pp. 244f. Cf. also Bähr, II, 467, whose list should have made him doubt the sufficiency of his own theory.

66) Compare the regulations for the handling of the sacred things, Lev. 6:28, with the rules for the unclean.

67) Antiquities, iv, 4, 6.

68) Ezek. 44:7.

69) Carpzov, pp. 63, 127.

70) This was first pointed out so far as I know by Bewer, JBL, XXIV, pp. 41-44.

71) See an article “Rot und Tot” in the Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, IX, x ff.; also Aston, Shinto, p. 56; De Groot, Religious System of China, I, 31, 94 f., 111; III, 1196, 1219.

72) Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, p. 249.

73) Deut. 21:1-7; cf. Rohde, Psyche, p. 54.

74) Zeller, p. 362.

75) The theory is that the contagion of a grave does not pass through an air space.

76) Spencer, I, 359; Sommer, Biblische Abhandlungen, p. 333.

77) The evidence for the worship of the dead in Israel is fully discussed by Lods, La croyance à la vie future et le culte des morts dans l'antiquité israélite, Paris, 1906.