Friday, February 22, 2019

The Ancient Antecedents of Ash Wednesday

Alice C. Linsley

The association of animal sacrifice and ashes at the archaic places of worship is well attested. The oldest places of worship were at elevated sites near permanent water sources. The Bible refers to these as the "high places." Many of these were fortified sites with a temple tended by priests. There are hundreds of such sites: Karnak, Karkor, Karameh, Karampetsos, Karambet, Karoutes, etc. In Sumerian, é-kur refers to a mountain house or an elevated temple.

At the places of burnt offering ashes were gathered and used to purify. This explains why the term kar is often associated with charcoal and soot. In Magyar/Hungarian, the word korom refers to soot, as does the Korean word kurim. The Turkish kara means black.

The ashes from the burnt offerings were used to purify (lustration). In Numbers 9:19, we read how the ashes of the sacrificed red heifer were used for "water of lustration." This explains why there is a linguistic relationship between the ancient word for high place and words for ashes or charcoal.

In Dravidian, car means "sheltered together" and kari refers to a river. In Manding, kara means "to assemble." Among the Nilotic Luo, kar specifies a place with boundaries such as mud ramparts or stone fortifications. In Akkadian, a ruined high place was called karmu. There likely is a connection between karmu (ruin) and the Magyar/Hungarian word hamu (ashes).

In the biblical literature we find many figures offering burnt sacrifice on mountains. Noah and Abraham offered burnt sacrifices on mountains. The practice is older than Judaism. In ancient texts a caste of priests known as Habiru, Hapiru, or Abrutu offered blood sacrifice on mountains. In Leviticus 6:2-3, we read that the priest is to lift the ashes from the fire that consumed the burnt offering… and place them near the altar. The sacrifice in Hebrew is called korban, from karov קרוב meaning "near." All the verbs that derive from the root of that word - קרב - mean "to come near, to approach".

In our time, the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality and renew our hope of bodily resurrection. That hope comes through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Messiah who offered himself on a hill shaped like a skull. His third-day resurrection testifies to the miracle of dry bones that live again. This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: "I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life." (Ezekiel 37:5)

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