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: This introduces a different kind of offering, unique in the Old Testament. This red heifer would not be killed to drain and offer its blood at the altar. Instead, it would be wholly burned, and the remaining ashes were added to water to be used for ritual cleansing.
i. A heifer is a cow which has never been pregnant, and thus cannot yet give milk. The Hebrew text does not specifically state that this had to be a heifer, simply a young female cow, red in color.
ii. “Heifer (RSV) is more accurately rendered ‘cow’ by the neb. However, if it had never been used for ploughing or pulling a cart (Numbers 19:2), it must have been relatively young, hence the traditional English translation.” (Wenham)
iii. When it came to choosing an animal used for sacrifice in ancient Israel, “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 animal even rarer. This red heifer, therefore, would be valuable, rare, and in some sense pure, having never been mated.
i. “The heifer was to be without spot – having no mixture of any other colour. Plutarch remarks…that if there was a single hair in the animal either white or black, it marred the sacrifice.” (Clarke)
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. That he may take it outside the camp, and it shall be slaughtered before him: This was more of a slaughtering than a sacrifice. Most of the blood of this heifer remained with the animal at its burning. A small amount of blood was sprinkled in the direction of the front of the tabernacle of meeting, as the animal was slaughtered outside the camp.
i. The procedure for this offering was dramatically different than every other under the Law of Moses. It was a sacrifice, but it was a unique kind of sacrifice in many ways.
· This offering demanded an animal of a specific color.
· This offering demanded a female cow, not a male bull.
· This offering was slaughtered, not sacrificed.
· This offering was killed outside the camp, not at the altar.
· This offering was burned whole, not cut into pieces.
· This offering’s blood was not drained from the animal.
· This offering’s blood was not applied to the altar but sprinkled toward the tabernacle.
ii. Its blood…shall be burned: Unlike every other sacrifice in the Old Testament, the blood of the red heifer was burnt along with the sacrifice, instead of being completely drained out at the neck and poured out at the altar. Blood was included in the ashes remaining 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 red heifer was burnt, the priest would also put cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet into the fire. The ashes remaining from the midst of the fire included the carcass of the animal, its blood, and the wood and hyssop and scarlet.
i. In Leviticus 14:4-6, each of these three items was used in the cleansing ceremony for a leper and each has special significance.
ii. Cedar wood is resistant to disease and rot and is well known for its quality, preciousness, and fragrant aroma. These properties may be the reason for including it here – as well as a symbolic reference to the wood of the cross. Some suppose the cross Jesus was crucified on was made of cedar wood.
iii. Because hyssop was used for the cleansing ceremony for lepers, when David asked God purge me with hyssop in Psalm 51:7, he associated himself with the leper who needed cleansing. As well, on the cross Jesus was offered a drink from a hyssop branch (John 19:29).
iv. Scarlet, the color of blood, was used in the veil and curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31), in the garments of the high priest (Exodus 28:5-6), and for the covering for the table of showbread (Numbers 4:8). Scarlet was the sign of Rahab’s salvation (Joshua 2:21), and the color of the “king’s robe” mockingly set on Jesus by Roman soldiers (Matthew 27:28).
v. “According to Maimonides, the cedar wood was taken in logs and bound round with hyssop, and then afterwards the whole enveloped in scarlet; so what was seen by the people was the scarlet which was at once the emblem of sin and its punishment.” (Spurgeon)
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. This ash was gathered and sprinkled in water bit by bit to make water suited for purification ceremonies.
i. The water of purification was only made effective when the ash remains of the red heifer (along with the cedar, hyssop, and scarlet) were added to the water.
ii. This water of purification was necessary because of sin and its many effects. “The most serious and obvious type of human uncleanness was that caused by death. Anyone who touched a corpse or a human bone or a grave, or entered the tent of a dead man, became unclean (Numbers 19:14-16). Furthermore, this uncleanness was contagious: anything the unclean man touched would itself become unclean and infect others (Numbers 19:22; cf. Leviticus 15).” (Wenham)
iii. This water of purification showed God’s kindness in providing another way of cleansing from ritual impurity. Leviticus gives a ritual for cleansing that included washing in water and waiting until evening (Leviticus 11:28, 11:39-40, 15:16-18). In more serious cases (such as contact with a dead body), one must wait seven days and then offer an animal sacrifice (Leviticus 14:10-32). This provides an alternative to the long and expensive ritual described in Leviticus 14. With the water of purification, instead of being cleansed by a sin offering, the unclean person was sprinkled with water that included all the ingredients of a sin offering.
iv. Taken together the offering of the red heifer and the water of purification associated with that offering are a powerful picture pointing to the perfect work of Jesus Christ.
· Like the red heifer, Jesus was “red” in His sacrifice, “Christ covered with his own blood.” (Trapp)
· Like the red heifer, Jesus was pure and without spot.
· Like the red heifer, Jesus was never under the yoke (of sin).
· Like the red heifer, Jesus was sacrificed outside the camp.
· Like the red heifer, the sacrifice of Jesus was unique.
· Like the red heifer, Jesus was completely offered.
· Like the red heifer, the sacrifice of Jesus is effective for all who claim it, including the stranger and sojourner (Numbers 19:10).
v. The water of purification made with the ashes of the red heifer did not create a different purification from ritual uncleanness. In some sense, it did what the longer, more costly, and more elaborate ceremony of Leviticus 14 did. Instead, this water of purification made a better way (more accessible and virtually instant) to ritually purify even the most unclean ones among God’s people. It did this by building on existing principles of sacrifice, but making a different offering, one that did not need to be constantly repeated, but only referred to again and again. One might say that the water of purification offered a better way to be made clean, something of a God-approved shortcut – but it wasn’t easy for the red heifer. The red heifer and water of purification are a wonderful illustration of the perfect work of Jesus Christ on the cross, as a substitute for His people (Hebrews 9:13-14). In both cases, a better sacrifice replaced a previous system for cleansing.
vi. Sometimes there are modern news stories about rabbis searching for and (perhaps) finding a perfect red heifer, suitable for this ceremony in a restored priestly service and temple. While this is an interesting thought, it is helpful to remember that in the Bible, there is nothing necessary about the water of purification made by the ashes of the burning of the red heifer. What it accomplished had already been made possible by a longer and more costly routine described in Leviticus 14.
B. Other laws of purification.
1. (11-13) The worst kind of ritual impurity: touching a dead human body.
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: After giving the provision of the cleansing water made with the ashes of the red heifer, God immediately mentioned the most extreme situation requiring ritual purification – contact with a dead human body.
i. To be ceremonially unclean was not “sin,” as we might think of it. To be unclean in this sense meant that one was kept apart from the community of worship in Israel until they were ceremonially purified.
ii. Priests were made unclean by contact with the dead (Leviticus 22:1-4), and Nazirites could not go near a dead body (Numbers 6:6) or their vow would be ended. For those who were not priests or Nazirites, contact with a dead body made them unclean for seven days, when they had to live outside the camp (Leviticus 5:2-3).
iii. Adam Clarke observed that the time of uncleanness after touching a dead human body was longer than that of touching an animal carcass: “How low does this lay man! He who touched a dead beast was only unclean for one day, Leviticus 11:24, 27, 39; but he who touches a dead man is unclean for seven days. This was certainly designed to mark the peculiar impurity of man, and to show his sinfulness – seven times worse than the vilest animal!” (Clarke)
b. If he does not purify himself…. that person shall be cut off: One who was unclean needed purification and could not ignore their condition. However, they were still part of the nation – unless they refused to address their unclean condition.
i. A parallel to this idea is found in John 13:5-11. When Peter asked Jesus to wash him completely, Jesus said He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean (John 13:10).
ii. “The feet want constant washing. The daily defilement of our daily walk through an ungodly world brings upon us the daily necessity of being cleaned from fresh sin, and that the mighty Master supplies to us.” (Spurgeon)
c. Defiles the tabernacle of the LORD: These laws were relevant to all of 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 an impure believer may defile the dwelling place of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
2. (14-16) More on ritual uncleanness from 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 contacted a dead body was also a helpful public health measure. Those who were potentially contaminated would be set aside until it could be seen whether they had 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 carry disease-causing organisms. If near a dead body, those vessels were declared unclean and thus destroyed, reducing the danger of contagious disease.
c. Shall be unclean: One reason a dead body was considered unclean was to communicate the idea that death is the result of sin and the positive proof of sin (Genesis 2:15-17, Romans 5:12). Death is something 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 someone touched a dead human, he was unclean for seven days. In the Law of Moses, there was more potential contamination from death among humans than among animals.
ii. Spiritually speaking, our contact with a dead body also makes us unclean. In Romans 7:24, Paul cried out in frustration at his defeat by 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 for us.
3. (17-19) The application of the cleansing water made with 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 (Numbers 19:9) were sprinkled in fresh running water, and this water was used for the ceremonies of purification.
i. Running water: “Special care was to be exercised that only living water, or water from a flowing stream, should be used for this purpose.” (Watson)
ii. Together, the ashes and the water are “Signifying the ashes of Christ’s merit, and the water of his Spirit.” (Trapp)
iii. In this picture, it can be observed that the running water alone, by itself, did not have the power to cleanse. It had to be joined with the ashes of the heifer. This illustrates the truth that reference to the work of the Holy Spirit or the word of God alone, without reference to the offering of Jesus Christ on the cross, is empty (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). As well, the presentation of the work of Jesus is of little use without the power of the Holy Spirit. We need both the work of Jesus and the work of the Spirit with the word of God.
b. And at evening he shall be clean: Thus, ashes of the red heifer combined with water to bring ceremonial cleansing. It could cleanse even the uncleanness brought about by death.
i. This was a powerful prophetic picture of the work of Jesus under the new covenant. One can say that the ashes of the red heifer point to the work of Jesus (see the explanation on Numbers 19:3-10). The water points to the work of the word of God and Spirit of God (Ephesians 5:26, John 7:38-39). The person and work of Jesus Christ, together with the work of God’s Spirit through the word of God, bring cleansing – even from the power and impurity of death.
ii. The work of Jesus can cleanse the conscience from dead works: 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 over time. He must do something, and he must do what God says must be done to be clean. His own plans or efforts to cleanse 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.
i. These laws of ritual purity communicated many important and enduring principles.
· The distinction must be made between the clean and the unclean. This means that not everything is the same; there is a difference between the clean and the unclean.
· Ritual uncleanness is the individual’s responsibility, but it matters to the whole community.
· Ritual impurity must be recognized and dealt with.
· One can be polluted by the uncleanness of the world.
· God graciously offered an immediate and “easy” way to be cleansed (it wasn’t “easy” for the red heifer).
· The cleansing comes by reference back to a past offering.
· The cleansing comes both by the remains of the past offering and by running, living water.
· The ashes of the red heifer and the entire sacrificial system look forward to the perfect work of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:13-14).
ii. “As the men of the old covenant had in this ritual an ever-ready means of bodily purification, so we are reminded that ‘the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7).” (Wenham)
iii. “We should perpetually seek fresh cleansing in the precious blood of Christ. He is represented in this heifer without spot, slain in its prime, whose ashes were mingled in running water to testify their perpetual efficacy and freshness.” (Maclaren)
iv. “From all the sins I ever shall commit there is a purification laid by to cleanse me. The seven times sprinkled blood has put these sins away before the judgment-seat of God, and the ashes which are laid by shall put my sin away from my conscience, purging it from dead works.” (Spurgeon)