#259. Are the dead impure OR not? (Lev 21:11; Num 19:11-16 vs Mk 5:36-41, 15:46; Matt 9:23-27; Lk 8:41-49; Acts 9:37, etc.)


I’ve long wished to examine the competing if not radically contradictory views on the dead (i.e., a dead body, corpse) between the Priestly writer and later New Testament writers. The problem is finding specific verses in the New Testament that do contradict P’s rather clear and inflexible stance on the dead, specifically as it comes through in Numbers 19.

Nonetheless, even if my choice of NT verses in this contradiction are less than convincing, one can’t deny the utterly contradictory worldviews between the priestly guild that wrote Numbers 19 and NT authors living hundreds of centuries later who did not share in P’s worldview, values, nor beliefs (ditto for many of the contradictions already examined: #183, #222-223, #244).

Let me proceed by first laying out P’s view on death, on a dead body that is, and from there draw out some of the features behind P’s worldview that caused him to view death in the terms depicted in Numbers 19.

Again, I caution my readers, especially my Christian readers: our goal is not to understand P’s views and beliefs about the dead, and his larger worldview, by attempting to mold them onto the beliefs and worldview of later New Testament authors—a process which merely imposes later theological beliefs onto P’s text! Rather, our goal is to understand P’s worldview on its own terms and from within its own historical context.

Numbers 19 is usually referred to as the Red heifer rite. It is a ritual involving the complete burning of a red cow outside the camp from whose ashes, mixed with live water, a solution for expiating a specific impurity is produced—and that impurity is coming into contact with the dead. Here are the specific prohibitions:

Anyone who has contact with a corpse of any human being will be impure for seven days. He must purify himself with the ashes….  (Num 19:11)

Anyone who has touched the corpse of any human being who had died and does not purify himself has defiled Yahweh’s Tabernacle, and that person will be cut off from Israel. (v. 13)

In the event that a human being dies in a tent, everyone who enters that tent and everyone found inside that tent becomes impure for seven days. (v. 14, v. 20)

And anyone having contact, in the open field, with a slain human body, or a corpse, or a human bone, or a grave, becomes impure for seven days. (v. 16)

There are several things we can conclude from these verses about the beliefs of this priestly writer’s guild:

  1. In absolutely no terms can an individual come into contact with the dead, a part of a corpse, the ground of a buried corpse, etc. and not become impure—thus requiring the red-heifer ashes to restore his/her purity.
  2. In the open air, one has to literally touch a corpse or walk upon a corpse or grave to become impure.
  3. In a closed space, however, one merely needs to be present it that same enclosed space with a corpse, a dead family member, etc. to become impure. (Look also at v. 15: the contents of any open container also become impure).
  4. In short—impurity is seen as an air-born contagion! In a closed space, one contracts impurity by being in the same space; in the open air one needs to literally make physical contact. But in both cases it is seen as a contagion! Cf. leprosy (Lev 13-14)
  5. Any individual who immediately fails to purify himself with the red-heifer ashes & water mixture not only remains terminally impure and as a result is banished from the community, but more significantly he/she defiles (or risks defiling) Yahweh’s Tabernacle!—again, air-born contagion!

It is obvious that contact with the dead, a corpse, was not taken lightly by this priestly guild. An individual who had contracted impurity by touching a corpse risked spreading that impurity to others and more significantly to Yahweh’s holy dwelling.

We also clearly see that the beliefs and worldview of this priestly guild are those that ancient priests would have had about their world. That is, as elsewhere in the biblical corpus, the beliefs and worldview of this priestly guild were shaped by subjective and culturally defined perceptions of the world—the world as they perceived it! This subjective, priestly, and culturally conditioned perception of the world was then transferred onto the god of their culture, so that in the text that they themselves wrote it is Yahweh who confirms and legitimates their priestly worldview! This is ancient literature; these are the literary techniques employed by ancient scribes. The Bible is no exception.

The dead was seen as impure and any contact with it resulted in that individual contracting a highly contagious impurity. Such ideas are similar to how we view highly contagious diseases! Again, these were the beliefs of ancient peoples, cultures, and their gods—Yahweh included! The issue then becomes: How does one stop the spread of the infection/impurity? And additionally: Why was death viewed in these terms?

To answer this, we need to look at the procedure for making the purification unction. Much of what follows on Numbers 19 follows Baruch Levine’s commentary (Anchor Bible series). He does a brilliant job in unpacking P’s views about the dead—which as I have been harping away here, is the biblical scholar’s goal: to objectively be able to re-present an author’s beliefs and views, and not merely impose later beliefs and views onto these ancient texts. Levine makes some astute observations pertaining to this rite:

  1. The incineration of the red cow happens outside the encampment, not at Yahweh’s altar! No other sacrifice in P happens outside the camp!
  2. The Aaronid priest does not perform the slaughtering and burning of the cow—the only sacrifice in all of P’s legislation performed by a non-Aaronid!
  3. The Aaronid priest is present, nevertheless, and makes the mixture, but in so doing becomes impure himself. This too is odd. It is the only sacrifice wherein a priest becomes impure by touching it. Normally, the sacrifice and sacrificial offerings are deemed holy.
  4. The ash-water mixture is stored outside the encampment, not in the sanctuary.

In every single aspect of this rite, both Yahweh’s sanctuary (the normal place where sacrifices occur) and the consecrated Aaronid priests are completely disassociated and detached from the ritual. It is from these details that Levine concludes that the rite’s efficacy is founded on the principle of sympathetic magic—a common mindset throughout the ancient world—in this case: “death rids the community/individual of death!”

Blood symbolizes the life-force or nephesh in P (Lev 17:11), and  its sacrificial efficacy is that when thrown upon Yahweh’s alter it has the power to ransom an individual’s blood-guilt or atone for a sin—i.e., render an individual pure again. Conversely, ashes symbolize death.

This explains exactly what we observe in the rite’s procedures above. If the rite symbolizes death—which is needed to rid an impurity of death—this explains why:

  • it is disassociated from Yahweh’s Tabernacle;
  • why no Aaronid priest can perform the rite;
  • and why the mixture is stored outside the community.

Death—which as we have seen, acts as an air-born contagion in closed spaces and a physical contagion in open spaces—must be totally detached from the holy priests and the holy sanctuary, lest the god of life and his priests become infected with the impurity (uncleanliness, unholiness) that death is! Cf. Lev 21:11.

My reader might be a bit perplexed thinking about all the death that does occur at Yahweh’s altar—thousands and thousands of dead animals sacrificed annually. But in actuality, what is most often symbolized in these sacrificial deaths is rather the expiatory power of blood, which is the sacrificial animal’s life force (Lev 17:11).

Yet apparently it seems that these normal expiatory sacrifices where blood is flung upon Yahweh’s altar are unable to rid the impurity associated with death! Or perhaps the expiation of this impurity cannot be done in Yahweh’s holy sanctuary, that Yahweh himself must be completely protected against any contact with the dead, a corpse! This then explains why death and the preparation of the unction to rid the individual of death are disassociated from Yahweh, his altar, and his priests—least Yahweh, Yahweh’s holiness, become infected with the impurity that death is!

Obviously, when we get to the New Testament we are no longer in this worldview—a perception of the world, it must be acknowledged, unique to ancient priests! Neither ourselves nor NT writers held to these views and beliefs. In fact, and ironically, in the Christian theology, its god becomes intrinsically associated with the dead and death—a total about-face!

The closest parallels to the treatment of the dead, a corpse, that I can find in the New Testament without entering into a discussion of the resurrection of the dead (see #6) are passages where Jesus walks into a house where there is a dead corpse (Mk 5:36-41; Matt 9:23-27; Lk 8:41-49, etc.)—thus according to the Yahweh of P contaminating himself with impurity/sin! (remember P’s red-heifer rite and its view on death were “an eternal law” decreed from “Yahweh”)—and passages speaking of Mary and company going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his dead body—who would also contract impurity/sin according to the Yahweh of P! Likewise in Luke 7:14, Jesus would be contaminated by impurity for touching the coffin of the dead boy, and per P’s Yahweh’s “eternal law” would need to immediately expiate his impurity with the red-heifer ashes! There are other places in the NT where a corpse or death is portrayed as being benign—contrary to P’s and P’s Yahweh’s beliefs and worldview!

The point of these parallels is to acknowledge that what is depicted is a radically different worldview and thus different and contradictory view of death and a dead body. In no terms is coming into contact with the dead seen as a severe and highly contagious impurity/sin that required immediate expiation with the red-heifer ashes and live-water for fear of contaminating other individuals, and in the end God himself. Additionally, there is no acknowledgement that such contact with the dead made an individual impure to the point that if he/she didn’t expiate the impurity they were to be banded from the community.

As is evident from the texts themselves, the beliefs and perceptions about death and the dead vary radically between the priestly-written texts of the 5th century BCE and texts of the mid to late 1st century CE. My point? Simply to acknowledge the competing and contradictory worldviews, belief systems, theologies and ideologies that this corpus of 70+ texts written over a 1,000 year period bears witness to, rather than interpret away these differences in a vain attempt to impose one’s modern beliefs on all of these ancient texts across the board.

This also exemplifies what an utterly different worldview these priestly authors lived in. The red heifer rite was performed outside the camp by non-priests specifically because anything pertaining to the dead, a dead corpse, etc. could not remotely even come into contact with Yahweh’s realm. The two are irrevocably inseparable for our priests. Not so in the New Testament.

This leads me to make a further observation, again supported by the comparative analysis of the Bible’s 70+ texts written over a 1,000 year period. Not only did biblical scribes and authors place their beliefs and worldview on the lips of Yahweh and/or Jesus, but they “created” Yahweh and Jesus! Since we’re dealing with different culture’s perceptions of god (well strictly speaking Jesus is not a god in NT writings, but let it slide for the sake of this comparison)—and not God in any objective sense—we must acknowledge the huge and incompatible differences between the Yahweh of the Priestly text whose holiness and purity is threatened by the realm of the dead, so much so that the red-heifer rite of the dead must be performed outside his sanctuary, and on the other hand in the words of Paul, “the god who makes the dead alive” (Rom 4:17).

The emergence of belief in the resurrection of the dead, the vindication of Yahweh’s slain righteous through this resurrection, and the granting of an eternal life in a postmortem after-world existence all of which only arose in the 2nd century BCE cause, in effect, the Yahweh of the pre-Christian era to become intimately associated with the dead and the cult of the dead righteous—ideas and beliefs unheard of to the Yahweh of our 5th century priestly guild!

As a side note, I’m now thinking that this might be the reason why the Sadducees of this later time period—the hardline priests—didn’t belief in the resurrection. First, it’s not an idea nor belief found in the Torah, and it is only present in 1 place in all of the Hebrew canon (Dan 12:2—a 2nd century BCE text). But more specifically, given the worldview painted by our Aaronid priests and their Yahweh, the raising of once dead corpses into the realm of the living would equate to a complete and utter catastrophe of impurity, of death threatening via contamination the realm of the living, of breaching the boundary between the dead and the living that is nowhere breakable in the Hebrew canon. Such an idea—that is belief in the resurrection of the dead—would have been abominable to these priests! It threatens the very holiness of Yahweh and the world he created, wherein the forces associated with death (chaos, darkness, bareness, untamed waters) were subdued and separated out from creation by the creator deity so that life could be created and sustained (see my series: Genesis 1:1-2)!

In conclusion, and as we’ve seen in numerous other examples, the worldview and beliefs presented as Yahweh’s in Numbers 19 are in fact the subjective views and beliefs of the priestly guild that wrote this text and placed their beliefs and ideology on the mouth of their culture’s deity, Yahweh. Likewise, the views and beliefs expressed by NT writers living centuries later and in a drastically different geopolitical and religious world also represent the subjective beliefs of their writers, which were also legitimated by presenting them as their culture’s deity, or more often as the beliefs and views of Jesus.

3 thoughts on “#259. Are the dead impure OR not? (Lev 21:11; Num 19:11-16 vs Mk 5:36-41, 15:46; Matt 9:23-27; Lk 8:41-49; Acts 9:37, etc.)

  1. The Levites served the temple of Elohim and not of the world. For He above knows that the evil inclination of man if they not witness the piety of man, that is given by desire to be the servant of the house of Israel (the struggle to reveal). For one must read that Torah was given to understand that of the spirit of man and not in what he wears, but that which dwells and becomes revealed within.

    For all of man seeks to find its purpose. For the Levite’s purpose was to be a humble servant without restriction of worldly needs. For a place was set for them at the table of heaven (root) and not of the earth (branch).

    For them at the level of corporality, the intellect has clouded the judgment of man to recite parts of verses to interpret his meaning and not of His meaning. For man sees a business model other than a spiritual model.

    So why look for imperfections when one can perfect its cause. Why worry of the dead (past) when you are physically living (present) to live eternally (future).

    For charity is the great virtue of man, for only the living share that of obtaining purpose.

  2. After one dies their body transforms from a solid to a gas and some materials (decomp). Thanks to the biological aspects of the gut provides the aspect of recycling remains. If one reads Leviticus and current science you will see the ancients were not ignorant of the body, that of the corpse and ramifications such as illness cause by insects and other biological vectors during this period. For the doctors at the time priests>judges>teachers), tried to keep the living from living with the dead. Airborne-you bet but what did they know other than smell.

    For one to understand contradictions in the present is hindsight. For in the past they had nothing and now one pieces together their belief of the past. For the red heifer of the past is telling the present the red herring is still alive. As man uses his intellect to convince them who listen that no such thing exists as faith. For without faith, all would not exist today. For man sees only what they believe in for this is their reality.

    As Albert Einstein’s is quoted as saying in regard to quantum mechanics: “spooky action at a distance”. Is this not faith of existence?

  3. On page 672, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia makes some interesting observations:

    The use, however, of ashes in Nu 19:17 is unique in the Old Testament, although parallels from elsewhere can be adduced. So e.g. in Ovid Fasti, iv.639-40, 725, 733, in the last of these references, “The blood of a horse shall be a purification, and the ashes of calves,” is remarkably close to the Old Testament…The most likely is that purificatory rites originated in a very primitive stage when the female was thought to be the more sacred animal on account of its greater usefulness. Of the other requirements for the heifer she must be “red,” i.e. reddish brown (Nu 19:2). Likeness in color to blood is at first sight the most natural explanation, but likeness in color to ripe grain is almost equally plausible. It may be noted that certain Egyptian sacrifices also required red cattle as victims (Plutarch, De Isid. 31)…an advance on sacrificial requirements is that she shall be one “upon which never came yoke.” This requirement is found elsewhere only in Dt 21:3 and in 1 Sam 6:7 (that the animals in this last case were finally sacrificed is, however, not in point). But in other religions this requirement was very common (compare Iliad x.293; Vergil, Georg. iv.550-51; Ovid, Fasti iv.336).

Leave a Reply