The disorderly body: considerations of The Book of Numbers, 19 and ritual impurity after contact with a corpse
Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis
This article deals with the idea of ritual bodily impurity after coming into contact with a corpse in the Hebrew Bible. The evanescence and impermanence of the human body testifies to the mortality of the human being. In that way, the human body symbolizes both life and death at the same time; both conditions are perceivable in it. In Judaism, the dead body is considered as ritually impure. Although, in this context it might be better to substitute the term 'ritually damaged' for 'ritually
... for 'ritually impure': ritual impurity does not refer to hygienic or moral impurity, but rather to an incapability of exercising—and living—religion. Ritual purity is considered as a prerequisite for the execution of ritual acts and obligations. The dead body depends on a sphere which causes the greatest uncertainty because it is not accessible for the living. According to Mary Douglas's concepts, the dead body is considered ritually impure because it does not answer to the imagined order anymore, or rather because it cannot take part in this order anymore. This is impurity imagined as a kind of contagious illness, which is carried by the body. This article deals with the ritual of the red heifer in Numbers 19. Here we find the description of the preparation of a fluid that is to help clear the ritual impurity out of a living body after it has come into contact with a corpse. For the preparation of this fluid a living creature – a faultless red heifer – must be killed. According to the description, the people who are involved in the preparation of the fluid will be ritually impure until the end of the day. The ritual impurity acquired after coming into contact with a corpse continues as long as the ritual of the Red Heifer remains unexecuted, but at least for seven days.