The term often employed in the Scriptures for the residue from the burning of materials, frequently having symbolic or figurative connotations. The word “ashes” renders two Hebrew words. One (ʼeʹpher; Nu 19:9) is also translated “powder.” (Mal 4:3) Deʹshen, besides denoting “fatty ashes,” may also refer to “fatness.” (Le 1:16; Isa 55:2) The Greek noun spo·dosʹ means “ashes” (Mt 11:21), while the verb te·phroʹo means “reduce to ashes.” (2Pe 2:6) The residue from burning could also be referred to as dust (ʽa·pharʹ).—Nu 19:17; 2Ki 23:4.
Each day a Levitical priest removed the fatty ashes (deʹshen) resulting from the burning of animal sacrifices upon the altar and took them “out to a clean place outside the camp.” (Le 6:9-11) According to Numbers chapter 19, a sound red cow without defect and upon which no yoke had come was also slaughtered and burned outside the camp. The ashes of this “sin offering” were deposited in a clean place outside the camp (Nu 19:9) and thus a portion was available for mixing with water to be sprinkled on unclean persons or things to purify them. (Nu 19:17) The apostle Paul referred to the figurative cleansing of the flesh by “the ashes [Gr., spo·dosʹ] of a heifer” to highlight the far greater cleansing of “consciences from dead works” possible through “the blood of the Christ.”—Heb 9:13, 14.
Jeremiah 31:40 refers to “the low plain of the carcasses and of the fatty ashes [wehad·deʹshen],” apparently a part of the valley of the son of Hinnom. Until relatively recent times a mound of ashes near the Kidron Valley was a familiar landmark. It is said to have been about 150 m long, 60 m wide, and 18 m deep (490 × 200 × 60 ft) and is considered by some to relate to the place mentioned by Jeremiah. A part of the valley of the son of Hinnom could have been set aside for the disposal of ashes left after burning sacrifices (Le 4:12), before Josiah made Topheth in the valley unfit for worship. (2Ki 23:10) But animal carcasses and the dead bodies of vile criminals might also have been cast into the valley, and a mound there might even include the ashes of humans once sacrificed in false religious rites.—Jer 32:35.
In Biblical times it was customary to burn captured cities, so that ‘reducing a place to ashes’ was indicative of its complete destruction, as is shown in the cases of Tyre, Sodom, and Gomorrah.—Eze 28:18; 2Pe 2:6.
Ashes also served as a figure of what was insignificant or valueless, Abraham acknowledging before Jehovah, for instance, “I am dust and ashes.” (Ge 18:27; see also Isa 44:20; Job 30:19.) And Job likened the sayings of his false comforters to “proverbs of ashes.”—Job 13:12.
It was a practice in Biblical days to sit in ashes or to scatter them upon oneself in symbol of mourning, humiliation, and repentance. (Es 4:1-3; Jer 6:26; 2Sa 13:19) Deep misery and affliction are figuratively linked with the ‘eating of ashes’ (Ps 102:9), and afflicted Job sat “in among the ashes.”—Job 2:8.
Sackcloth and ashes were sometimes associated with fasting, weeping, or sorrow. (Es 4:3; Isa 58:5; Eze 27:30, 31; Da 9:3) A national example of humiliation and repentance is furnished in the case of Nineveh in Jonah’s day, even her king covering himself with sackcloth and sitting down in the ashes. (Jon 3:5, 6) Repenting in sackcloth and ashes was a circumstance referred to by Jesus Christ (Mt 11:21), and in answering Jehovah, Job contritely declared: “I do repent in dust and ashes.”—Job 42:6.
During the 70-year desolation of Judah, the Jews in Babylon mourned over the desolation of Zion or Jerusalem and its temple. But through Isaiah assurance had been given that under the power of Jehovah’s spirit there would be action “to assign to those mourning over Zion, to give them a headdress instead of ashes.” Jesus Christ applied the passage of Isaiah 61:1-3 to himself as the Messianic Liberator who would be instrumental in relieving greater spiritual desolation and mourning. (Lu 4:16-21) It was also foretold that the wicked would become like pulverized, powdery ashes to the righteous, for Malachi wrote: “‘And you people will certainly tread down the wicked ones, for they will become as powder [ʼeʹpher] under the soles of your feet in the day on which I am acting,’ Jehovah of armies has said.”—Mal 4:3.