Joel Humann ends his dissertation on Numbers 19 by drawing attention to the cosmological dimensions of the ritual of the red cow. He finds conceptual and verbal links back to Genesis 1-3, allusions that explain the details of the rite and its overall thrust.
The sprinkling of the corpse-defiled person on the third and seventh days, for instance, takes us back to the creation week: “What is thematised in this return to the third day is a cleansing or ‘purging’ rather than a re-creation per se, for God is not depicted as creating anything new, but rather ‘renewing’ the universe which he has created. If the may-niddah is understood as homologous with the narratives of cosmic destruction and renewal, a recapitulation of the cosmic purgation at the level of the individual, then the two-stage process becomes explicable. The application of the waters on the third day has its analogue in the third day of creation—when the separation of the waters brought forth the dry land from out of the primordial abyss. The seventh day represents the fullness and completion of this renewal of creation” (244-5).
The preparation of the waters for impurity take us back to the creation and expulsion of Adam from the garden. The cow’s color (“red”) doesn’t signify blood; instead, it forms a punning link between edom (red), adam (man), adamah (ground) and dam (blood). The cow’s color is the first hint that we’re back in Genesis 2-3.
Humann goes on: “Symbolic of the punishment of ha-adam,the entire cow is to be annihilated by burning (saraph) outside of the Tabernacle precincts and the camp of Israel—reduced to ash (‘epher),the “dust” . . . of the earth outside of Eden from which ha-adam has been taken and to which he must inevitably return. Rooted in these keyword associations, the parallels of the rite to the narrative of man’s expulsion and mortality extend to other aspects. Obviously, there is the spatial dimension. The Tabernacle in the midst of the wilderness is, as has been seen, a symbol of archetypal Eden in the midst of which is the garden and the tree of life, the fruit of which gives immortality. The holiness spectrum is analogous to this spatial arrangement—on the one end of the spectrum is the most holy place corresponding to the centre of the garden, the tree of life and the presence of God; on the other is the wilderness, the realm of death and complete alienation from God” (257-8).
In this way, the ritual becomes “a symbolic analogue to the narrative of man’s expulsion from Eden. For the ritual is, as has been noted, the only instance of a chattat sacrifice where slaughter occurs ‘outside the camp’ (Num 19.3), the nether-region between the community of Israel gathered around the Tabernacle and the desolation of the wilderness, the realm of death and uncreation. It is spatially here, like the man, that the heifer is returned to . . . the dust of the earth like the man condemned to die outside of Eden” (257-8).
The animal must be without blemish, like sinless Adam (259). She must never have born a yoke, again a symbol of Adam in his prelapsarian state (260). Humann suggests that the fact that the animal is a female bovine (unparalleled in the law) points to the duo of Adam and Eve, and the fact that the destruction of Adam (back to the dust) is tied to a promise of future generation (childbirth for Eve).
Humann writes, “The expulsion from the garden is a fate shared by both the man and the woman (ha-ishah). The relationship of the ceremonial aspects of the Red Heifer to the punishment of the man are clear (Gen 3.17–19); the punishment culminates with the return to the dust of the ground. But the woman is also, uniquely, assured of posterity (zera’,Gen 3.15) And so ‘the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’ (Gen 3.20). As an analogue to the man and the woman, the heifer participates in this paradox. Condemned to die in the manner of her husband, outside of Eden, she nevertheless is the source of life. So also the heifer, reduced to dust outside of the sanctuary and the encampment of Israel, brings about separation from the impurity of death, reintegration with Israel and renewed access to the sanctuary, the source of life. Just as the old generation of Israel, which dies in the wilderness outside of the promised land, gives birth to the new; just as the man and the woman, condemned to die outside of Eden, have hope in the promise given to Eve, the mother of all the living; so also the heifer, turned to dust outside the camp, gives new life to those who are overcome by the shadow of death” (260).
And as the ritual embodies hope for humanity’s future, it also expresses hope for Israel’s future. The generation that returns to the dust is not the end. Out of that corpse, Yahweh the God of life will raise a new Israel who will enter the Eden of the land.