Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Red Cow

Daily Readings
Psalm 72 + Numbers 19 + Deuteronomy 12 + Matthew 28

Quote for the Day
And Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20

Daily Text: Numbers 19:1-3, 9, 17-19

The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 2This is a statute of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish and on which no yoke has been laid. 3You shall give it to the priest Eleazar, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. 9Then someone who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept for the congregation of the Israelites for the water for cleansing. It is a purification offering. 17For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt purification offering, and running water shall be added in a vessel; 18then a clean person shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on whoever touched the bone, the slain, the corpse, or the grave. 19The clean person shall sprinkle the unclean ones on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying them on the seventh day. Then they shall wash their clothes and bathe themselves in water, and at evening they shall be clean.

The Red Cow
The concern in chapter 19 with impurity resulting from touching a dead body is a puzzle that remains unsolved even by the rabbis. A red cow was to be sacrificed and burnt completely, its ashes to be mixed with water and used to purify one who had been in contact with the dead. This fear of touching the dead is ancient, there being some fear that the spirit of the dead one might harm the community.

Gray pointed out a number of contemporary practices that serve to show that this one was not peculiar to the Jews. “Thus to refer to some parallel practices that indicate the prevalence of the same doctrine: ‘Among the Navajos [of North America], the man who has been deputed to carry a dead body to burial, holds himself unclean until he has thoroughly washed himself in water prepared for the purpose by certain ceremonies.’ ‘Among the Basutos of South Africa, warriors returning from battle must rid themselves of the blood they have shed….Therefore they go in procession…to the nearest stream to wash….It is usual in this ceremony for a sorcerer, higher up the stream, to put in some magical ingredient, such as he also uses in the preparation of the holy water which is sprinkled over the people with a beast’s tail at the frequent public purifications.’ ‘The Zulus…purify themselves by an ablution after a funeral.’ ‘Tibetan…mourners returning from the funeral stand before the fire, wash their hands with warm water over the hot coals, and fumigate themselves thrice with proper formulas’ (Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. Pp.433 f., 437; cp. Frazer, GB. I.322-325). The Madangs of Borneo, after depositing the coffin, pass through a cleft stick, the ends of which, when all have passed through, are tied close together again. Then all who have taken part in the ceremony bathe before returning home, and rub themselves with rough pebbles (Hose in Geographical Journal, ivi. 45f.) [414:243].”

One source suggested that the custom of whitewashing graves could have served to direct attention to them so they would not be accidentally touched [185:1149]. Just one of the difficulties reasonably noted is that the very ashes used to purify one who had touched a dead body, made the one who handled these purifying ashes unclean! Without question there is some concern here about the purity of the community, and for some reason the most holy place in the tabernacle.

Christians referred to this practice in Hebrews 9:13-14 to emphasize the superiority of Jesus sacrifice, but in so doing spoke of it in its Hebrew context as efficacious. Augustine noted that “The spotlessness of the cow and her death outside the camp suggested to Christian interpreters the story of Jesus; red, the color of the blood of the passion; the cedar,hope; the hyssop, faith; the scarlet, charity. The dead who make men unclean are man’s dead works [185:1149].” Finally, Josephus notes that this ceremony was used when Miriam, the sister died. Cf. Numbers 20:1. [412:119] It does not seem at all unlikely that the placement together of this observance and the announcement of Miriam’s death are deliberate. Not only that, an announcement of Aaron’s death is imminent. In both these cases there would have been a tie back to the sanctuary in that the high priest, Aaron in the first case, and Eleazar in the second, would have attended the bodies of the dead and would have had access to the sanctuary. There is so much mystery surrounding the death of those we love.

The Bustle in a House
Emily Dickinson

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,--

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.


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