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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(properly אֵפֶר , e'pher, from its whiteness, σποδός; twice עָפָר, aphar', Numbers 19:17; 2 Kings 23:4, elsewhere "dust;" also דֶּשֶׁן, de'shen, lit. fatness, i.e. the fat ashes from the victims of the altar, Leviticus 1:16; Leviticus 4:12; Leviticus 6:10-11; 1 Kings 13:3; 1 Kings 13:5; or of corpses burnt, Jeremiah 31:40, ashes being used as a manure for land, Plin. 17:9. In 1 Kings 20:38; 1 Kings 20:41, אֲפֶר, apher', incorrectly rendered "ashes," signifies a covering for the head or turban, Sept. τελαμών, and so the Chaldee and Abulwalid represent it by this latter word, which in Syriac means a priestly tiara; New Test. σποδός ). (See ASH-CAKE).
In general, respecting the Biblical mention of ashes (דֶּשֶׁן, de'shen; אֵפֶר, epher), the following things deserve notice:
(1.) As the ashes of the sacrifices consumed upon the altar of burnt- offerings accumulated continually (Leviticus 6:3 sq.), they were from time to time removed so as to cleanse (דִּשֵּׁן ) the altar. For this purpose there were in the sanctuary shovels (יָעִים ) and ash-pots (סִירוֹת ) of brass (Exodus 27:3; Exodus 33). The performance of this office (by the priests) is not prescribed in the law; but, according to the Mishna (Tamid, i and ii), the scouring of the altar was as. signed by lot to a priest, who, after the top of the altar had been cleared of coals, etc., swept the ashes together into a heap (תִּפּוּחִ, apple, from its shape), and (according to the rabbins) took the greatest part of it away (for some of the ashes must always be allowed to remain), in order that they might be carried out of the city to a spot undisturbed by the wind. Only on high festivals the ashes were suffered to lie upon the altar as an ornament (Mishna, Tamid, ii, 2). Also upon the altar of incense ashes gradually accumulated; and the removal of these was likewise apportioned among the priests by lot. The priest to whom this function fell gathered them in a basket, and then, after another priest had used a part in cleansing the candlestick, carried out and poured the contents on the floor of the porch (Mishna, Tamid, iii, 9; 6:1; i, 4). (See ALTAR).
(2.) On the expiatory ashes of the red heifer (אֵפֶר, Numbers 19), (See PURIFICATION).
(3.) In deep affliction persons were accustomed, as an act suitable to the violence of internal emotions, to scatter dust or ashes (אֵפֶר ) on their heads or in their hair, and to sit, or lie, or even roll in ashes, whence ashes became the symbol of penitential mourning (Job 42:6; Matthew 11:21). (See GRIEF). The Mishna (Taamith, ii, 1) mentions a custom of covering the ark that contained the law with ashes on fast-days, and the rabbins even allude to a ceremonial sprinkling of persons with ashes on the same occasions (see Bartenora, on Taamith ii). (See generally Reinhard, De sacco et cinere, Vitemb. 1698; Plade, De cineris usu lugentibus, Hafn. 1713; Schmid, De cinerum in sacris usu, Lips. 1722; Carpzov, Cinerum ap. Heb. usus, Rost. 1739; Quanat, De cinere in sacris Hebr. Regiom. 1713; Goetze, De cinerum in sacris usu, Lips. 1722.)
(4.) The ancient Persians had a punishment which consisted in executing certain criminals by stifling them in ashes (Valerius Maximus, 9:2). Thus the wicked Menelaus was despatched, who caused the troubles which had disquieted Judaea (2 Maccabees 13:5-6), being thrown headlong into a tower fifty cubits deep, which was filled with ashes to a certain height. The action of the criminal to disengage himself plunged him still deeper in the whirling ashes; and this agitation was increased by a wheel, which kept them in continual movement till he was entirely choked. (See EXECUTION).
Ashes were a symbol of human frailty (Genesis 18:27); of deep humiliation (Esther 4:1; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13; Job 42:6; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3); a ceremonial mode of purification (Hebrews 9:13; Numbers 19:17); they are likened to hoar-frost (Psalms 147:16). In Ezekiel 27:30, we find the mourning Tyrians described as wallowing in ashes; and we. may remark that the Greeks had the like custom of strewing themselves with ashes in mourning (Homer, Iliad, 18:22; Odyss. 24:315; comp. Virgil, En. 10:844, and Ovid's Metam. 8:528). Job 2:8, "And he sat down among the ashes." So Ulysses in Odyssey, 7:153 (see also Iliad, 18:26). Psalms 102:9, "I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping," i.e. I have eaten the bread of humiliation, and drunk the water of affliction; ashes being the emblem of the one, and tears the consequence of the other (see Home, in loc.). So Isaiah 61:3, "A beautiful crown instead of ashes" (see Lowth's note). See 2 Samuel 14:2; Judith 10:3. Isaiah 44:20, "He feedeth on ashes," i.e. on that which affords no nourishment; a proverbial expression for using ineffectual means, and bestowing labor to no purpose. In the same sense Hosea says (Hosea 12:1), " Ephraim feedeth on wind" (see Lowth, in loc.). (See MOURNING).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Ashes'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/a/ashes.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.