from the conflagration
Gather and guard
To bring life to death
the outside in
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After 4 chapters revolving around the position of the priests, we seem to come back to Leviticus, with a detailed description of the ritual for purification after contact with death.
This seems to continue the recreation of the death of Nadab and Avihu during the consecration of the Dwelling. Just as Aaron's two sons were "consumed" for "coming close" and "bringing alien fire" into the sanctuary, Korah's 250 men were "consumed" for "coming close" and "bringing alien fire." What followed in Leviticus was a series of rituals designed to define how one "come close" without being consumed. One cannot "come in" to the inner sanctum casually. There must always be a careful definition of what is outside, what is in, and how one traverses that dangerous doorway.
The ritual of the Red Heifer also revolves around "going outside" the camp; and around how one can be "in the presence (nohah) of the Tent of Meeting" even when one is outside. As in the case of Leviticus, there must be a passage before coming back in: "he must wash his clothes and await the evening."
Here though, it is not only closeness that is being addressed, but also the dangerous mix between death and life that has dominated these chapters: Korah "descends living to the underworld, while Aaron must use the incense to "stand between the living and the dead." ""Behold, we are dying! We are lost, we are all lost," cry the children of Israel.
Here,the ritual promises purification from contact with death. Yet it also hints that death and life are always touching. The ashes of the Red Heifer, "consumed by fire" as were Korah's men and Nadab and Avihu, is mixed with "living waters"--fiery death intermixing with watery life. Word games highlight this paradoxical intertwining. "Hatat"--which until now has indicated "sin", or "sin offering" here refers to "cleansing" "purification"; Nidda, which until now has referred to ritual impurity, now becomes the name of the water that grants purity.
In a final closing for these terriblechapters, the ashes of the Red Heifer, what is left of the fire, are here given to the children of Israel for keeping (mishmeret). If the priests were given the guardianship (mishmeret) of the altar; and the Levites guard (mishmeret) the Tent of Meeting, the children of Israel are here given to guard the ashes of what has been lost. Yet it is these ashes that allow entrance into the Tent from "outside."]