Numbers 19 – Laws of Purification
A. Provision for purification – the ashes from the sacrifice of a red heifer.
1. (1-2) The taking of a red heifer.
Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never come.”
a. That they bring you a red heifer: A heifer is a cow which has never been pregnant, and thus cannot yet give milk. They had to find one with a red color – which, of course, would be somewhat rare.
i. “Normally the animal’s colour did not matter. This one had to be red to resemble blood.” (Wenham)
b. Without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never come: These requirements made this particular animal even rarer. This red heifer, therefore, would be valuable, rare, and pure (because she had not yet been impregnated).
2. (3-10) The sacrifice, burning, and gathering of ashes from the red heifer.
You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may take it outside the camp, and it shall be slaughtered before him; and Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood seven times directly in front of the tabernacle of meeting. Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight: its hide, its flesh, its blood, and its offal shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet, and cast them into the midst of the fire burning the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes, he shall bathe in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp; the priest shall be unclean until evening. And the one who burns it shall wash his clothes in water, bathe in water, and shall be unclean until evening. Then a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and store them outside the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for the water of purification; it is for purifying from sin. And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until evening. It shall be a statute forever to the children of Israel and to the stranger who dwells among them.
a. Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight: its hide, its flesh, its blood, and its offal shall be burned: The red heifer would be sacrificed in the customary fashion, with a bit of blood being sprinkled on the altar. Yet, the complete carcass of the animal was burnt, and the ashes gathered by one observing the cleansing ceremonies before and after the gathering of ashes.
i. Its blood… shall be burned: Unlike every other sacrifice in the Old Testament, the blood of the red heifer is burnt along with the sacrifice, instead of being completely drained out at the jugular. Blood was to be part of the ashes that would come forth from the burning of the carcass of the red heifer.
b. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet, and cast them into the midst of the fire burning the heifer: When the heifer was burnt, the priest would also put cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet into the fire.
i. In Leviticus 14:4-6, each of these three items are used in the cleansing ceremony for a leper. Each of these items has a special significance.
ii. Cedar is extremely resistant to disease and rot and is well known for its quality and preciousness. These properties may be the reason for including it here – as well as a symbolic reference to the wood of the cross. Some even think the cross Jesus was crucified on was made of cedar.
iii. Hyssop was used not only with the cleansing ceremony for lepers, but also Jesus was offered drink from a hyssop branch on the cross (Matthew 27:48), and when David said purge me with hyssop in Psalm 51:7, he was admitted he was as bad as a leper.
iv. Scarlet, the color of blood, pictures the cleansing blood of Jesus on the cross. Scarlet was used in the veil and curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31), in the garments of the high priest (Exodus 28:5-6), the covering for the table of showbread (Numbers 4:8), the sign of Rahab’s salvation (Joshua 2:21), and the color of the mocking “king’s robe” put on Jesus at His torture by the soldiers (Matthew 27:28).
c. They shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for the water of purification; it is for purifying from sin: The residue from the burning of the carcass, the cedar, the hyssop, and the scarlet fabric together would produce a lot of ash, and the ash was to be gathered and sprinkled in water bit by bit to make water fit for purification.
B. Other laws of purification.
1. (11-13) Touching dead bodies makes one ceremonially unclean.
He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days. He shall purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. Whoever touches the body of anyone who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD. That person shall be cut off from Israel. He shall be unclean, because the water of purification was not sprinkled on him; his uncleanness is still on him.
a. He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days: To be ceremonially unclean was not “sin,” as we might think of it; it meant that one was barred from their regular fellowship with and worship of God, and their fellowship with God’s people, until they were made clean.
b. I he does not purify himself… that person shall be cut off: One who was unclean needed purification, and could not ignore their condition, but was still part of the nation – unless they refused to correct their unclean condition.
i. A wonderful parallel is found in John 13:5-11; if we are “bathed” by Jesus, we need only to have our feet washed, as they become unclean in the normal practice of life. Yet, if we do not let Jesus “wash” us, we have no part with Him. We must receive the beautiful once-for-all cleansing Jesus brings to us when we are born again; yet continually come to Him to be cleansed of the “day-to-day” things.
c. Defiles the tabernacle of the LORD: These laws were relevant to all in Israel, but especially to priests, who had the potential to defile the tabernacle of the LORD. Under the New Covenant, the Christian also has a special call to purity because we can also defile the dwelling place of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
2. (14-16) How to handle a dead body.
This is the law when a man dies in a tent: All who come into the tent and all who are in the tent shall be unclean seven days; and every open vessel, which has no cover fastened on it, is unclean. Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain by a sword or who has died, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
a. This is the law when a man dies in a tent: The practice of quarantining all those who come into contact with a dead body was a wonderful public health measure as well. Those potentially contaminated would be set aside until it could be seen if they contracted a disease from the dead body.
b. Every open vessel, which has no cover fastened on it, is unclean: In fact, this principle extended to every open vessel – which could potentially harbor disease causing organisms. If near a dead body, those vessels would be declared unclean and thus destroyed, reducing the danger of communicable disease.
c. Shall be unclean: What was inherently unclean about a dead body? Simply that death is the result and positive proof of sin (Genesis 2:15-17, Romans 5:12). Death is like sin made visible.
i. If someone touched the carcass of a dead animal, he was unclean for less than one day (Leviticus 11:24, 27, 39). But if one touched a dead human, he was unclean for seven days! Man is indeed greater than the animals – especially greater in sin.
ii. Our contact with a dead body also makes us unclean. In Romans 7:24, Paul cries out in frustration of defeat in sin: Who will deliver me from this body of death? We can only be delivered from the body of death if we receive and walk in the precious work of Jesus on our behalf.
3. (17-19) The purpose for the ashes of the red heifer.
And for an unclean person they shall take some of the ashes of the heifer burnt for purification from sin, and running water shall be put on them in a vessel. A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, on the persons who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, the slain, the dead, or a grave. The clean person shall sprinkle the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, wash his clothes, and bathe in water; and at evening he shall be clean.
a. They shall take some of the ashes of the heifer: The ashes of the red heifer, described earlier in the chapter, were sprinkled in fresh water, and this water was used for purification.
b. And at evening he shall be clean: Thus, ashes of the red heifer (which the ingredients all speak of the work of Jesus on our behalf), combined with water (which speaks of the work of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit) combine together to bring cleansing. It can cleanse even the uncleanness brought about by death.
i. All this cleansing is a precious picture; but the reality is in Jesus: For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
4. (20-22) The nature of uncleanness.
But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself, that person shall be cut off from among the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD. The water of purification has not been sprinkled on him; he is unclean. It shall be a perpetual statute for them. He who sprinkles the water of purification shall wash his clothes; and he who touches the water of purification shall be unclean until evening. Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches it shall be unclean until evening.
a. The man who is unclean and does not purify himself: This shows that uncleanness cannot correct itself. The unclean man will not just become clean. He must do something, and he must do what God says must be done in order to be clean. His own plans or schemes for cleansing mean nothing.
b. He who sprinkles the water of purification: Those who help others to become clean must walk in cleanness themselves. The one who regards the water of cleansing as a common thing (he who touches the water of purification) will himself be regarded as unclean.
c. Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean: Uncleanness was easily transmitted, but cleanness had to be deliberately sought.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission