Book of Numbers Chapter Nineteen Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
The Red Heifer
Verses 1-2: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2 'This is the statute of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect and on which a yoke has never been placed.'" Much has been said, historically and in recent times, about the "red heifer" of these verses. According to the Jewish Mishnah, the ceremony of the red heifer described in this chapter, has only been performed nine times in the history of Israel. Further, it is believed by many that after the tenth such sacrifice, the Messiah will appear. And it does refer to Him, because, as we will see in Verses 11 and 13, this chapter is all about the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. The one who touches death becomes unclean, which is very important because this strange world is full of death. The person who gives flowers to his sweetheart gives death because those flowers, cut from the plant, are no longer alive, though they are beautiful at the moment. The heifer was not to be a bullock, but instead a perfect young female, an adolescent cow not yet crippled by labor under the yoke. The Messiah would enter humanity through a young, pure human mother.
Verses 3-5: "You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence. 4 Next Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5 Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its hide and its flesh and its blood, with its refuse, shall be burned." As the Lord's words to Moses and Aaron continue, we learn that the red heifer was not to be sacrificed by Aaron the high priest, but instead by his surviving eldest son, Eleazar. Aaron, as high priest, could not "go near any dead body," even to attend the funerals of close relatives, as seen in Exodus 21:10-12. Eleazar was to perform the rituals of these verses, intended to deal with the touch of death in our lives. Death and sin have been linked together within our race since the Fall of mankind. In 1 Corinthians 15:56-57, we find that "the sting of death is sin," but mercifully the context continues, "thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Our Lord is the Victor over sin and death, pictured in the red heifer of these verses—bringing life and forgiveness to humanity. And notice that He died "outside the camp" for you and me (Hebrews 13:12-13).
Verse 6: "The priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet material and cast it into the midst of the burning heifer." Hyssop is an herb related to the mint family, used in Exodus 12:22 as a sort of brush to mark Israeli doorposts with the blood of the Passover lamb. Cedar wood speaks of the cross of Jesus Christ and the scarlet material depicts His blood, shed for you and me. Hindsight is better than foresight, and the priest, Eleazar, not knowing the future, understood little of the nature of this sacrifice and yet he acted in faith, and since God knows everything and we don't, faith in the Lord is always more effective than sight.
This sacrifice reached ahead through the centuries, presenting Christ, the Messiah, who would be born of a woman and become the Representative of God to mankind and mankind to God, dying for the sins of the world. Verses 7-10: "The priest shall then wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward come into the camp, but the priest shall be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns it shall also wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, and shall be unclean until evening. 9 Now a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, and the congregation of the sons of Israel shall keep it as water to remove impurity; it is purification from sin. 10 The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening; and it shall be a perpetual statute to the sons of Israel and to the alien who sojourns among them." It's a rare person who comes close to grasping the holiness of God, who is utterly set apart from the sin of this world. The men of these verses, the priest and others who participated in this sacrifice, touched an animal depicting the Lord who had not yet appeared to take away sin. Their hands, unknown to them, reached through time and touched the cross of Jesus Christ. We turn to the Lord and are baptized, recognizing that we are not clean without Him. When we confess in prayer, we touch Christ and His cross. We see our sin, understanding that in Him, in faith through His grace, we are washed and made clean, rescued from death and given LIFE by Almighty God, whoever we may be and whatever we have done.
The Lord continued speaking to Moses and Aaron, in Verses 11-13: "The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. 12 That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and 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. 13 Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him." Can you imagine the fear this people lived under? Caring for a child or elderly parent during a severe illness could result in death. They might die. You might fling yourself onto your loved one as an expression of grief, and then be expelled from the nation if you didn't respond fully and correctly to the Law of the Red Heifer. Thanks be to God that He has intervened in history and taken us, through the cross, out of the Law and into Grace, when we merely accept and trust in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. A writer much later than Moses, a Jew we call Paul the Apostle, came to understand this, and wrote: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2). These symbols portray Christ.
Verses 14-16: "This is the law when a man dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean for seven days. 15 Every open vessel, which has no covering tied down on it, shall be unclean. 16 Also, anyone who in the open field touches one who has been slain with a sword or who has died naturally, or a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for seven days." As of the year 2012, the World Health Organization estimated that, worldwide, 56 million people were dying every year. We are surrounded by death to a much greater extent than we understand because the vast majority of those deaths are completely unknown to us. Many of the deaths in today's world seem to matter less because they are distant—not our nation or family. Israel had a much greater awareness of the deaths around them because even though they had grown into the millions, those in the various tribes were all closely related. Every death matters when it is your relative who dies. A death in the tent next to you or out in the field where you were both working, would draw you to rush to them and see if you could help. But there was also the Law, declaring you to be "unclean" when you reached out and touched the person who fell.
Verses 17-19: "Then for the unclean person they shall take some of the ashes of the burnt purification from sin and flowing water shall be added to them in a vessel. 18 A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one slain or the one dying naturally or the grave. 19 Then the clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him from uncleanness, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and shall be clean by evening." Water is seen in baptism, an earthly picture of something that occurs in eternity—salvation—symbolized by water. Jesus Christ, who was utterly destroyed physically when He died for our sins, is alive and He washes the very center of our being. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, He gives us "living water" (John 4:10,14). The ashes here speak of the "heifer," picturing the Lord's death—He was destroyed on our behalf. The "water" that washes us is the "living water" that comes from God.
Verse 20: "But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean." It was true then and it is now—grieving people don't function well. For many it would be an unclimbable mountain to perform all the steps of this purification process. And yet, the problems of humanity are allowed so we will turn to the Lord in our sorrow, though some will not trust in Him. We are to have faith in Him who can and at some point will—change this world, your life, with a word. Therefore, in Verses 21-22: "So it shall be a perpetual statute for them. And he who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. 22 Furthermore, anything that the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches it shall be unclean until evening.'" Our predicament continues, providing fertile ground in which our faith in the Lord can grow.
The Red Heifer is seen in Hebrews 9:13-14, along with other sacrifices of Israel—"For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" We all need to see that the sacrifices of Israel point to Someone from eternity, the Reality behind all the deaths—He gave His body, His blood, dying to save those who will trust in Him.
Lord, You left the purity, holiness and love of heaven to be sacrificed on our behalf. Thank You for this red heifer, helping us understand our need for faith in You and what You have done. I confess my sin, Lord. I have touched death and I am unclean. Please deliver me from dead works that I might serve the living God. In Jesus Name. Amen.