Procure ... a red heifer that is free from every blemish and defect and on which no yoke has ever been laid. .... Then the heifer shall be burned ... with its hide and flesh, its blood and offal. ... Take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet yarn and throw them into the fire in which the heifer is being burned. ...The procedure for using the ashes to make lustral water is not described, but anybody who touched the ashes or touched the resultant lustral water would become unclean:
Gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them in a clean place outside the camp. There they are to be kept for preparing lustral water. (Numbers 19: 2-9)
He who has gathered up the ashes of the heifer shall also wash his garments and be unclean until evening. ....Testing for Adultery: One use of the lustral water -- to determine whether a woman has committed adultery -- is described in Numbers, Chapter 5:
One who sprinkles the lustral water shall wash his garments, and anyone who comes in contact with this water shall be unclean until evening. Moreover, whatever the unclean person touches becomes unclean itself, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean until evening. (Numbers 19: 10, 21-22)
If a man is overcome by a feeling of jealousy that makes him suspect his wife, whether she was actually impure or not, he shall bring his wife to the priest ....In this situation, the lustral water was used for drinking, not for washing. The reason for mixing ashes into the water was so that the water would taste bitter and (if the woman was guilty) would cause swelling, infection and sterility.
The priest shall ... in an earthen vessel ... put some holy water. Then ... the priest shall ... adjure the woman, saying to her:
If no other man has had intercourse with you, and you have not gone astray by impurity while under the authority of your husband, be immune to the curse brought by this bitter water.The priest shall ... have the woman drink, so that it may go into her with all its bitter curse. ... Once she has done so, if she has been impure and unfaithful to her husband, this bitter water that brings a curse will go into her, and her belly will swell and her thighs will waste away, so that she will become an example of imprecation among her people.
But if you have gone astray while under the authority of your husband and have acted impurely by letting a man other than your husband have intercourse with you .... may the Lord make you an example of malediction and imprecation among your people by causing your thighs to waste away and your belly to swell.
May this water, then, that brings a curse, enter your body to make your belly swell and your thighs waste away! ...
If, however, the woman has not defiled herself, but is still pure, she will be immune and will still be able to bear children.
Therefore, the lustral water was not an extraordinarily clean water; rather it was an extraordinarily dirty water. That is why anyone who touched the ashes or the lustral water became unclean.
Lustral water was a diagnostic substance that identified people who were unclean. Apparently, the idea was that if the person was possessed by a demon, then the lustral water interacted with that demon in an obvious manner, but if the person was not possessed by a demon, then the water passed through the person without consequences. The lustral water did not purify a person, but it purified a community by enabling the community to identify and isolate its people who were possessed by demons.
The Golden Calf: The book of Exodus, Chapter 32, tells how a mixture of ashes and water was used to purify the Hebrews while they were wandering in the Sinai Desert. On one occasion, while Moses was up on Mount Sinai meeting with God for a long time, the Hebrews thought that Moses never would return, so they made a gold statue of a calf. Then they began to worship the calf. When God saw what the Hebrews were doing, He decided to destroy them, but Moses convinced God to forgive them.
Then Moses came down from the mountain and rebuked the Hebrews. He took their calf statue and melted it down to metal ash. He mixed this ash into water and ordered all the Hebrews to drink the ash-and-water mixture.
Then Moses ordered the Levites, the priest tribe, to arm themselves with swords and to go through the Hebrews' camp and to massacre a lot of the Hebrews. By the end of the day, the Levites had massacred about 3,000 of the Hebrews. Apparently, the massacred Hebrews were those who had most actively worshiped the golden calf and so subsequently had showed visible physical consequences from drinking the ash-and-water mixture.
Lustral Water as Lie Detector: The use of lustral water to examine a woman who was accused of adultery but who denied the adultery involved an elaborate procedure that probably compelled confessions from most women who were guilty. In the passage above, from Numbers, Chapter 5, I omitted some of the procedure, because I wanted the reader to focus on the role played by the lustral water. Now I will quote the passage more completely, and I want the reader to pay attention to the various procedures that would intimidate a guilty woman into a confession, even before she drank the lustral water:
He [the suspicious husband] shall bring his wife to the priest and shall take along as an offering for her a tenth of an ephah of barley meal. ....We can imagine that most women who really were guilty of adultery would have broken down and confessed sometime during this intimidating procedure, before the last step when they were supposed to drink the water. Therefore, this procedure probably was quite effective. The procedure identified the women who really had committed adultery, and the procedure did not cause any serious harm to innocent women who did complete the procedure and drink the water.
The priest shall first have the woman come forward and stand before the Lord.
In an earthen vessel he shall meanwhile put some holy water, as well as some dust that he has taken from the floor of the Dwelling [Temple].
Then, as the woman stands before the Lord, the priest shall uncover her head and place in her hands the cereal offering of her appeal, that is, the cereal offering of jealousy, while he himself shall hold the bitter water that brings a curse.
Then he shall adjure the woman, saying to her:
If no other man has had intercourse with you, and you have not gone astray by impurity while under the authority of your husband, be immune to the curse brought by this bitter water.And the woman shall say, "Amen, amen!"
But if you have gone astray while under the authority of your husband and have acted impurely by letting a man other than your husband have intercourse with you ... may the Lord make you an example of malediction and imprecation among your people by causing your thighs waste away and your belly to swell!
May this water, then, that brings a curse, enter your body to make your body swell and your thighs waste away!"
The priest shall put these imprecations in writing and shall then wash them off into the bitter water, which he is to have the woman drink, so that it may go into her with all its bitter curse.
But first he shall take the cereal offering of jealousy from the woman's hand, and having waved this offering before the Lord, shall put it near the altar, where he shall take a handful of the cereal offering as its token offering and burn it on the altar.
Only then shall he have the woman drink the water. (Numbers 5: 15-26)
Lustral Water as a Purifier: The scriptures detail only the use of lustral waters to test women for adultery, but we can assume that this procedure essentially was applied in other, varied situations, where various people were accused of various crimes. The more the procedure was used, the more false results there would be. In particular, there would be false negatives -- cases where really guilty people drank the lustral water and suffered no physical consequences and therefore were deemed to be innocent of the accusations.
We can imagine that eventually the procedure was re-interpreted. Drinking the lustral water had four possible effects:
1) If you were guilty, drinking the lustral water might cause physical consequences that would expose your guilt to other people.And so, we can suppose, drinking lustral water eventually became most commonly a method of moral self-purification. The method was not used only on a person who was accused by others. Rather, the method could be used whenever a person blamed himself for his own moral failings and wanted to repent and purify himself.
2) If you were innocent, drinking the lustral water might cause no consequences, which would prove your innocence.
3) If you were guilty, drinking the lustral water might cause no physical consequence, but if you inwardly acknowledged and repented your guilt, then the lustral water purified you.
4) If you were innocent of the particular accusation, then drinking the lustral water might cause physical consequences, but that was because you were guilty of some other sin that you should repent. If you did repent all your sins, then the lustral water purified you.
The Wedding at Cana: As I pointed out earlier, the first chapters of John discuss various purification methods, and Chapter 2 begins with the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. This miracle was done in large, stone waterpots that were used "for Jewish ceremonial purposes." Other translations say that the waterpots were used "for ceremonial washing" or "for Jewish rites of purification" and similar such expressions.
Therefore, the original story perhaps was understood by the first Christians more as a parable about lustral water and less as a miracle story proving Jesus's divinity. Lustral water tasted bad, because it was a mixture of water and ash from a burned cow. Jesus turned this bitter, sobering lustral water into a delicious, intoxicating wine. He made the drinking of "lustral water" into an joyful, celebratory experience.
Summary: The making and use of lustral water was an ancient practice that was attributed to Moses. During the wandering in the Sinai Desert, Moses ground a golden calf into metal ash and mixed the ash with water and caused all the Hebrews to drink the mixture. The Hebrews who subsequently showed physical consequences were massacred.
In the following generations, a red heifer was burned to ash, and the ash was mixed with water. This mixture was used in a lie-detection procedure in, for example, cases where women were accused of adultery.
Eventually, drinking lustral water became a method of self-purification for any person who considered himself sinful and wanted to repent all his sins and purify himself.
The story about the wedding at Cana is not so much a miracle story as it is a story about lustral water.