If you touch a corpse, you become impure. In order to become pure, you need to have the water of purification sprinkled on you. But the person who sprinkles the water of purification on you becomes impure in the process. Also, anyone who is sprinkled by the water of purification, which is used to make them pure, becomes impure.
What the hell did I just read?
Taken literally, Numbers 19:17-22 appears to make an endless cycle of people being made unclean by the very act that’s supposed to make them clean! But when you try to tease the meaning out of this mess, you find that there are two types of “unclean,” those that occur from normal activities like having a leper spit in your face, and those that are especially dirty, like standing several feet away from a person who died of heart failure. Naturally, standing next to someone who died of natural causes requires a special form of cleaning and has nothing to due with a fearful superstition of death.
So what is the full process like? Well, let’s say you were at your great-grandfather’s bedside, and he died. You would be considered “special unclean” and be ushered to the outskirts of camp where you would remain for a week. You wouldn’t be allowed to take anything with you or even kiss your family good-bye, because anything you touch becomes unclean as well. On the third day of your banishment, a clean priest would come to you and sprinkle you with the water or purification by dipping a hyssop branch into a jar full of river water and dead animal ashes, and swinging it toward you to get you wet. In doing this, the priest would be considered “regular unclean” for the rest of the day, and must bathe and wash his clothes. On the seventh day, the priest, now clean again, sprinkles you with the water, and is “regular unclean” again, and must bathe and wash his clothes. Finally, on the morning of the eighth day, you can return to your home and get back to working your animals and fields which have been neglected for an entire week because God just wasn’t capable of understanding different causes of death. Lastly, if you are clean, and you touch the water of purification, you are “regular unclean,” and must wash your clothes and bathe.
If, for some reason, you were not able to purify yourself on the third and seventh days, we’re told that you have defiled the sanctuary of the Lord, and will be banished, and that these statutes will be the law forever, amen! Let’s just hope the priests don’t have a grudge against you, because your fate is certainly in their hands!