Hans-Jürgen Zobel discusses how a Hebrew word used in the Bible and other literature includes ritual washings.

Hans-Jürgen Zobel

Hans-Jürgen Zobel, “רָחַץ,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, 16 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2004), 13:459–467 (Logos ed.)

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Hans-Jürgen Zobel
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1. Etymology. The root rḥṣ with the same or similar meaning is found also in Ugaritic (rḥṣ, “wash”), Arabic (raḥaḍa, “wash”), Old South Arabic, (rḥḍ, “wash”), Akkadian (raḫāsu, “flood, flush”), and Ethiopic (raḥĕḍa, “sweat”), as well as in Egyptian Aramaic and in Aramaic papyri (rḥʿ, “wash”), and in Egyptian (rḫt, “wash”).

The variation in the second radical (ḥ/ḫ) raises the question of the root’s original form. If we accept the common assumption that an original ḥ became ḫ in Akkadian and Egyptian, we must posit an assimilation occasioned by the ṣ or ḍ. If, however, the ḫ is original, we would be dealing with a dissimilation to ḥ, likewise under the influence of the third emphatic radical.

2. Occurrences and Meaning. The root rḥṣ occurs 72 times in the OT, including two occurrences of the pual and one of the hithpael. In addition, there are two occurrences each of the nouns raḥaṣ, “washing,” and raḥṣâ, “pond” (NRSV “washing”). The semantic field includes the verbs kbs, “wash,” šṭp, “rinse,” ṭhr, “be clean,” ṭmʾ, “be unclean,” qdš, “sanctify,” and ṭbl, “immerse,” as well as swk, “anoint,” and kḥl, “paint.” It also includes the terms ṣōʾâ, “filth,” and dām, “bloodguilt.” In parallel we find zkh, “purify,” zkk, “cleanse,” and dwḥ, “rinse,” as well as ṭnp, “befoul.”

In the Ugaritic texts we find 24 occurrences of the verbal root in the G and Gt stems. One of the duties of a son, for example, is to wash his father’s garment (rḥṣ npṣh) when it is dirty. El orders Keret to stop mourning his childlessness and prepare to offer sacrifice: “Wash yourself and paint yourself (trtḥṣ wtʾdm), wash your hands (rḥṣ ydk), your arms, [your] fingers up to the shoulder.” We are also told that the king washed himself (yrtḥṣ mlk).

Most of the occurrences have to do with ʿAnat. After horrible carnage, “virgin ʿAnat washed her hand in a basin” (bṣʿ trḥṣ ydh btlt ʿnt); “she washed her hand of the blood of the warriors, her fingers of the blood of the squires.” “Water was drawn, and she washed herself with the dew of heaven, with the fat of the earth” ([t]ḥs pn mh wtrḥṣ [t]l šmn ʾrṣ). Another text also says that virgin ʿAnat washed herself (trtḥṣ btlt ʿnt). Yet another text says that Pǵt, the daughter of Danel, “washes and paints herself” (trtḥ[ṣ] wtʾdm) before setting out to avenge the death of brother Aqhat. One problematic text appears to mean “and she sat upon the serpent and washed herself” (wtṯb ʿl bṯnt trtḥ[ṣ?]). It is also noteworthy that Šʿtqt came when Keret died, sat down, and “washed him [clean] of sweat” (trḥṣ nn bdʿt), then force-fed him and thus snatched him back from death. Washing—as this text makes clear—is something that the living do and is associated with life. Dirt and the cold sweat of death, blood and the outward signs of mourning, are washed away. Washing is among the preparations for offering sacrifice or more generally for carrying out a divine command. Washing is both an everyday action and a ceremony that was “a commonplace in Semitic religions.” Washing is done with water; afterward, both men and women may paint themselves with cosmetics.

The Samaria ostraca often contain the phrase nbl šmn rḥṣ, “a jar of oil for washing,” referring to purified oil meant for cosmetic purposes.

The two occurrences in the Elephantine ostraca are not entirely clear. One text reads ʾrḥʿh, another either trḥʿnh or trḥmnh. There are four additional occurrences in the Testament of Levi from the Cairo Genizah, referring to the ritual ablutions of the priests (T. Levi 35:4, 8; 36:2, 10).

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain 18 occurrences of the verb (15 in the Temple Scroll, plus 1QM 14:2; CD 10:11; 11:1) and one of the noun (1QS 3:5).

3. LXX. To translate rḥṣ the LXX uses loúein 41 times, níptein 18 times, and plýnein 6 times. We also find apoloúein (Job 9:30), aponíptein (Prov. 30:12), ekplýnein (Isa. 4:4), and cheín (Job 29:6). The LXX omits the passage Ex. 40:30–32, with 3 occurrences of the verb. The noun raḥṣâ is translated with tó loutrón. Ps. 60:10(Eng. 8) = 108:10(9) is not translated literally.

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