Why Does Eleazar Sprinkle The Red Cow Blood? Making Sense of a Biblical ritual

William K. Gilders


Numbers 19:1-10 is a prescriptive ritual text concerned
with the preparation of the ashes of a burnt “red cow” to be used to counteract
the impurity caused by exposure to a human corpse. Like many other biblical
ritual texts, this one is relatively rich in details on ritual practice, but
offers little that might be termed “interpretation” of the various ritual
actions. In response to this conceptual gap, various attempts have been made to
specify the “meaning(s)” of the actions and objects. Giving special attention to
the blood manipulation component of the ritual complex (Num 19:4), this paper
explores a variety of theoretical questions about the interpretation of ritual
activity represented in biblical ritual texts. It highlights the significance of
the textuality of our access to biblical ritual, the need to fill gaps while
interpreting biblical ritual texts, and points to the value of considering the
indexical qualities of ritual actions.

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