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Red Cow

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Red Cow

    Numbers 19 describes an unusual ritual, to be performed in cases of impurity resulting from contact with a corpse, requiring a red cow (Hebr. pārâ, whose usual translation “heifer” is probably too precise; cf. Gen. 15.9; 1 Sam. 16.2). Remarkable aspects of the passage include that it specifies not only the sex but the color of the animal, that the whole animal be burned, and that participants in the act of purification are themselves rendered ritually impure (see Purity, Ritual). The ashes of the sacrifice are mixed with running (literally, “living”) water to produce a substance called mê niddâ.

    Hyam Maccoby has interpreted these puzzling aspects of the ritual by focusing on the term mê niddâ. Usually the phrase is translated “water for cleansing” (NRSV), but it can also be rendered “water of separation.” The word niddâ is also used for a menstruating woman, “separate” from normal spheres of activity because her physical state demonstrates her participation in the divine process of giving life. Similarly, contact with the equally sacred power of death also separates individuals from the community. The red cow ritual uses “waters of separation” to counteract the effects of such contact. The substance is a symbolic substitute for blood, the sign of life. The requirement that the sacrifice be both red and female suggests that it represents the blood of potential life, of menstruation or birth. Like the divine, it is inherently powerful, and can therefore have a different effect on those who prepare it and those who receive it.

    Other scholars have connected the ritual with a cult of the dead (cf. Homer, Odyssey 11.23–50; see Afterlife and Immortality, article on Ancient Israel; Israel, Religion of). The tractate Para of the Mishnah is devoted to the ritual described in Leviticus 19.

    Drorah O'Donnell Setel

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