I am looking at some of the details of Jacob Milgrom’s treatment of Leviticus in his one volume Continental Commentary.
He talks about the red cow or red heifer paradox. According to Numbers 19:6 ff. a red cow was burnt like an offering. They kept the ashes and used them to mix with water for purification ceremonies later. The paradox is that the priest who touched these ashes became unclean, yet the ashes made others clean.
The red cow is not mentioned in Leviticus, but Milgrom thinks the laws about purification (sin) offerings there give an insight into resolving the paradox. Purification offerings apparently always make the one who prepares them unclean (Leviticus 16:28, also 6:27-28). So we should see the red cow offering as a purification offering.
But Milgrom has argued that the purification offerings were to purify objects and not people. Yet the water made with the red cow offering was sprinkled on people to make them clean. Specifically, the water purified people who had come into contact with corpses.
The red cow ritual seems superstitious. It reminds one of voodoo or something. And Milgrom agrees that its roots go back to a pagan practice that washed away bad spirits with a kind of magical detergent. Milgrom says that the priests were making a concession to the psychological and emotional reaction of horror that people often have when coming into contact with death. Examples from the writings of Josephus show that the Jews really did have an aversion to tombs and death.
So, although the priest’s own theology would have said there was no magic involved, they made a concession to the popular need to feel cleansed as well as to be cleansed. Milgrom thinks the sprinkling of water mixed with ashes was for a an emotional (we might say pastoral) purpose helping people come to terms with the impact of dead bodies.
And the fact that older pagan rituals were sometimes modified and used by the priests sheds light on the scapegoat ritual and rituals of cleansing from leprosy as well.