Remember the good old days where you could cure a disease simply by waiting a week for it to go away on its own, waiting another week to be sure, washing in a river without soap now that you’re already healed, and finally having a priest slit the throats of a couple birds? You know, just like how John Snow would have done? Well, here in Numbers 19:1-10, God gives us new rules for making people clean. Well, they’re not really new, they’re in fact very similar to the voodoo ritual of Leviticus, but this time they involve a cow rather than birds.

God demands that Eleazar take to the outskirts of camp a red heifer that is young, blemish free, and has never before been yoked (all unnecessary for what’s about to happen). Eleazar is to have it sliced up, then he must sprinkle its blood toward the tent seven times, and finally burn its body along with some cedar, hyssop, and scarlet wool. Eleazar must then wash his bloody robes and be unclean for the rest of the day. Next, the ashes of the red (what, brown isn’t good enough for God?) heifer are moved to a clean place to be stored outside of camp, a process that makes the mover unclean for a day as well.

When a person is to be purified, they are to add ashes of the burned animal to water to use in the purification process, and then they will be made clean. And you know what, this type of cleaning might actually work for a change! Not very well mind you, but better than all the ways before it! You see, if the ashes are high in potassium, they can be distilled into potash which can be used to make, among other things, the detergent lye. Now, God doesn’t say anything about heating the water to leech the lye out of the ashes, but there is still a possibility that bathing in these ashes could actually make you clean, which we’ll discuss further tomorrow.

So, should we run around shouting “OMG, the bible totally invented soap!”? Well, the Young-Earth Creationist believe Moses wrote Numbers around 1500 BCE, but biblical historians, who actually use evidence outside of the bible for their estimates, put the oldest parts of Numbers around 900 BCE, though they think the majority of it was written centuries later with it being finalized around 500 BCE. But even if we go with the oldest dates, the Babylonians have been making soap since around 2800 BCE! As usual, the bible is late to the party.



Belg writes:


I feel so ashamed, when you mentioned Jon Snow, I started trying to remember where in SoIaF he cut birds...

Maju writes:


I wouldn't use lye to wash people before combining it with fats and therefore making the non-aggressive soap, much better suited. Lye would destroy your tissues.

Anyhow they are not even in that stage: from ashes to soap there's a long chemical way: ashes → potash → lye → soap. Too long!

And anyhow they do not mean to clean your body but your "soul". It's all merely symbolic and pointlessly arbitrary.

What is not so arbitrary is making people feel "dirty" or "sinful": shame is the best way to force people to do as you, the authority, says. Culpability is a step beyond shame: it internalizes shame according to certain values and detaches it from actual socially meaningful shame.


Oh the irony!