Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Chukat Ox-Bow

In Numbers on June 29, 2012 at 6:40 am

I’m reading The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.  Its one of the books that cemented Clark’s reputation as a westerner, though he was actually a Mainer who spent a fair amount of his life on the east coast.  Its a study in mob justice at a very granular level, exploring the diverse personalities of the members of a would-be (but arguably not quite) posse on the hunt for rustlers who shot a ranch hand dead.  The book was also made into a superb movie with Henry Fonda.

For me, this experience has been a study in the difference between “reading” and “watching.”  The movie is fantastic.  Have seen it, and will see it again.  Its a discussion piece in its own right.  The book, though, is simply incredible, because Clark does a fantastic job letting you into his mind, and letting you into the mind of his characters.  More importantly, he leaves it up to the reader to come at the text from his or her own point of view, letting the reader’s individual background shape the experience in the mob, asking the questions “who do you identify with?” and “who don’t you understand?”

Here’s a phrase that caught me:

Pete had had a wife once, but not since he’d lived here, and he’d been alone so long he’d got to thinking differently from the rest of us. It’s queer how clearly I remember the way Pete just sat there and let us go. To see him just sit and go on with his own thoughts, made me understand for the first time what we were really going to do, so my breath and blood came quicker by the minute. (p.96)

By now you may be wondering, what the hell am I talking about? Consider the following from our text:

In the open, anyone who touches a person who was killed or who died naturally, or human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

-Numbers 19.16

The red calf is considered one of the strangest of commandments in the Torah. It confounds all attempts at understanding. The sages attempted to explain it, but it is ultimately what we call a “chook” (with a soft “ch” on top of the tongue), or a law with no clear reason for being. The only two things we know for sure are, first, it simply is and, second, it has something to do with cleansing the uncleanness of death.

The mandate is to burn the remains of a perfect red calf, mix those remains with water, and sprinkle those unclean by a corpse with this solution to make them clean again.

How does spraying yourself with water mixed with burnt cow remains (poop included!) make you clean? The text very clearly says that the water of lustration (i.e. water + burnt red calf remains) will make the unclean clean, and make the clean unclean. How can something make clean the unclean, and make the unclean clean? Is the water of lustration the biblical mathematical negation? Do two negatives make a positive, and a positive and negative make a negative?

I wonder if the case of The Ox-Bow Incident has anything to do with this, in light of the fact that the first condition for “in the open” is contact with “a person who was killed.” Now, the likelihood of coming into contact with a dead person in the open has existed in varying degrees throughout history based on who and where you are (e.g. does a civilian librarian have any more or less chance than a soldier?). I think “the person who as killed” refers to the fact that the killer as well, whatever the intent, is unclean and responsible for “cleansing” as well.

Would this serve as a way to identify killers? Would this be a sort of “brown letter”? Perhaps, but they would mix with everyone else outside the camp who were unclean. Perhaps the ritual is meant to lend some structure to natural considerations in the matter of life and death?

When a loved one dies, is your first response to “go out with the peeps” or take time to yourself? The status of being “unclean” is extended to anyone who was in the same tent as a corpse, so the cleansing period need not be solitary. Groups are therefore given consideration. That being said, is it a natural inclination to “take some distance” after such an event? Are seeking refuge by oneself or seeking refuge with family two different forms of taking some distance? Perhaps being put outside the camp (not to be confused with not taken care off!) is a way to provide people with this distance.

How would the ritual itself play into this? I think it would help the people involved track their time and, perhaps, to sanctify the time in mourning. The time limit would help people realize, in a concrete way, that they need time, but also that there is an expectation to rejoin society. Those who don’t rejoin society cut themselves off (“But the man that shall be unclean…shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly”).

Still, this fails to explain the bizarre nature of the ritual itself and doesn’t answer the questions put before. How does sprinkling yourself with something that makes you unclean, make you clean? How does touching something that makes you clean, make you unclean? Do two negatives make a positive, and a positive and negative make a negative?

I would like to propose the idea that, in addition to lending structure, the ritual is meant to lend gravity to the matter of life and death. It is meant to prevent cases such as that of Jephthah, who rashly offers to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to God, only to see his daughter run out to greet him. I think it is also meant to make would-be avengers think twice about their plans, about their inclination to go against the mores of their communities to satisfy their own bloodlust, and the potential consequences.

The characters of the Ox-Bow Incident find three men who they think are the rustlers and promptly lynch them, only to find shortly afterwards that the men they’d found were complete innocents. If only they’d stopped and thought!

Would the knowledge of certain consequences of their actions, being sprinkled with water mixed with burnt cow remains, have deterred them from their intent and spared innocent life? Would seeing the pile of burnt cow remains outside the camp have helped them realize what they were really going to do? Would it have helped them think a little differently?

In this case, could the negative have kept the positive positive?

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