There were at least four once-for-all national sacrifices for Israel in the Old Testament. There was the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, by which they were delivered from Egypt, and which became an annual festival, but only as a memorial of the original deliverance; the covenant sacrifices in Exodus 19 and 24; the sacrifice of a sucking lamb by Samuel in 1 Samuel 7:9-11, and the sacrifice of the red heifer which concerns us now. This in no way slights the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, for the others mentioned were but typical, whereas His was substantial, the reality of which the others were but shadows. The writer to the Hebrews impresses this upon us when he alludes to the red heifer in the words of Hebrews 9:13, “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Note the link between the blood of bulls and goats of the Day of Atonement ceremony, (as compared to the blood of goats and calves of the Day of the Covenant ceremony, Hebrews 9:12, Exodus 19), and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean. In physical terms it was water that was sprinkled in Numbers 19, but the writer to the Hebrews is concerned with that which underlay and gave value to the water, namely the ashes of an accepted sin offering. The ineffectiveness in a final sense of the Day of Atonement sacrifices is seen in the fact that they were offered year by year continually; that they were retrospective, dealing with the sins of the nation after the event; and that they only purified externally and ritually, “the purifying of the flesh”, whereas the blood of Christ reaches deep within, to “purge the conscience”. In the intervening period until the next national atonement day, there was provision for defilement as it occurred, in the form of the red heifer offering to which we now turn. Notice first of all the setting in which the offering is detailed. Remarkably, it is found in the book of Numbers, the wilderness book. There were three classes of people banished from the camp of Israel, namely, lepers and those with an issue of blood, whose case is dealt with in the book of Leviticus, in chapters 13,14, and 15, and those defiled by the dead. The latter class is dealt with in the wilderness book, the Book of Numbers. The Jews gave titles to the books culled from the first words, and so they entitled the third book of Moses, “In the wilderness”. Whereas Exodus chapters 12-40 cover only 18 months, and the book of Leviticus only 1 month, Numbers covers 38 years 9 months of the movement of Israel through the desert, see 10:11 and Deuteronomy 1:3. The reason for the long length of time spent in the wilderness, (even though the journey from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea should only have taken eleven days, Deuteronomy 1:2), was that in chapter 14 they had refused the land of promise after the spies had viewed it for forty days, so they were condemned to spend a total of forty years in the wilderness. Psalm 95 is based on that period, and is quoted by the writer to the Hebrews in his second warning passage in chapters three and four. His phrase is, “Their carcases fell in the wilderness”, 3:17. All who were twenty years old and upward at the beginning of the wilderness journey were condemned to die in the desert because of their refusal of the land. Only Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies, were excepted. So it was that the wilderness became a vast graveyard, full of the bones and corpses of dead apostate Israelites. It is this situation that is addressed in the chapter before us, because the special need was for cleansing after contact with death in some form. With these things in mind, we turn to the detail of Numbers chapter 19. The chapter may be looked at from five viewpoints, medically, morally, typically, spiritually, and prophetically. First, medically, because the presence of so many dead bodies presented a health risk, especially to a tented multitude in hot desert conditions. Second, there was the moral lesson being taught the younger generation, as they were constantly reminded of the penalty for not listening to the voice of the Lord, see Numbers 14:22; Hebrews 3:7,8. Third, there is the typical application of the chapter, which we are encouraged to make by the reference in Hebrews 9:13. Fourth, there is the spiritual application, which we may make as we apply the lessons to ourselves in our own day. Then there is the prophetical view, for the ashes of the heifer are “laid up for the children of Israel”, so that however long the interval between the sacrifice and the realisation of defilement, the remedy is available. The nation of Israel in a day to come will find that the work of Christ at Calvary, done so many centuries before, still avails to cleanse the defiled, see Ezekiel 36:16-29. We may divide the chapter as follows:
|Verses 1 and 2||The selection of the heifer.|
|Verses 3-8||The sacrifice of the heifer.|
|Verses 9-10||The saving of the ashes of the heifer.|
|Verses 11-16||The specifying of the uncleanness to be dealt with by the ashes of the heifer.|
|Verses 17-22||The sprinkling of the Israelite with the ashes of the heifer.|
THE WORDS OF THE BIBLE, THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES, AS FOUND IN THE BOOK OF NUMBERS CHAPTER 19, VERSES 1 TO 10:
19:1 And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,
19:2 This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:
19:3 And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face: 19:4 And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:
19:5 And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:
19:6 And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.
19:7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.
19:8 And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even.
19:9 And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin.
19:10 And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.
Verses 1 and 2 THE SELECTION OF THE HEIFER
And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:
We notice in verse 1 that a word comes to Moses and Aaron as those who receive instruction from God, and then the heifer is brought to them in recognition of that fact by the people. The latter learn by this to recognise and respond to the word of God, in contrast to the older generation that refused the word of God. It is Aaron’s son Eleazar who officiates in the ceremony, however, and Moses and Aaron are not mentioned again in the chapter. We are reminded of the fact that neither Moses nor Aaron entered the land of promise, although for a different reason than the majority of Israel. They both failed to fully comply with the word of God in the matter of the water from the rock in chapter 20, and hence were barred from the land, 20:12. How serious is the refusal to hear the word of God! Let us take note, and if necessary take action.
We come now to the description of the animal that God specified in this instance. A red heifer is required. Significantly, the word for red is the same as the word for Adam. The first man Adam had been formed by God as a potter forms the red clay, Genesis 2:7. Not only is Adam a proper name, but it is a race-name too, for all descend from the first man. (Unbelievers speak of different races of men, but there is but one according to Scripture, see Acts 17:26). In Romans 5 the apostle traces the entrance of death into the world to one man, Adam. By failing to obey the word of God, sin came into the world. It is not simply that sin was now present upon the earth, but that Adam passed on the sin-principle to his offspring, so that death passes upon the world of men by reason of their birth. This would have been forcibly brought home to the Israelites as they made their way to Canaan, for the desert was strewn with the carcases of apostates, who had gone back on their commitment to God so far as to refuse the land He had promised to their forefathers. Hence the warning given by the writer to the Hebrews, lest there be found amongst them any with an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. Notice the emphasis on the fact that He is the living God, in contrast to those who were spiritually dead despite their profession, and then physically dead also. An “Adam-heifer” is thus required by God to deal with the consequences of death in the desert.
We may see in this a foreshadowing of what Christ would do when He died, for Romans 6:6 says that our old man was crucified with Christ, indicating that in His death the Lord Jesus took account of what we were in Adam, and dealt with it. The particular need in Numbers 19, however, is for a clearing from uncleanness of those who unwittingly have come across the consequences of apostasy in others. And the lesson is not hard to draw in our day. We as believers are surrounded by those who make religious profession of some degree or other. It is manifest that with some there is a full-scale renunciation of that which is properly Christian, and true believers need to clear themselves of any trace of contamination from such a source. We need to make sure that it is well-known that assembly believers have no sympathy with corrupt Christendom. Only so shall the Lord’s people be free from guilt by association. Remember the words of 2 Corinthians 6:17, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”
The animal required is a female, however, introducing the passive thought. The man who became unclean by touching a dead body or a bone, did not actively set out to touch the unclean item; he was passive in the matter. Nevertheless he constituted a health risk to his fellow Israelites. The gravity with which God viewed the presence of death in the camp of Israel must be emphasised, especially if it came because of apostasy, which He hates. Adam in the garden was only required to be passive to obey God. He was simply commanded to refrain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Alas! he was active, and deliberately transgressed in full knowledge of what he was doing. The last Adam was marked by passive subjection to His Father’s will, “Not My will, but Thine be done”, and this subjection led Him to accomplish the act of righteousness of dealing with our sin at Calvary which directly countered the sin of Adam, Romans 5:19. There was not a shred of that independence and self-will which marked Adam. The red heifer was to be without spot, indicating there was no flaw by descent in the animal. There is no flaw by descent in Christ, either. He has no physical link with Adam through Joseph, although he, importantly, was His legal father, giving Him the direct line of descent from David and Abraham.
It is interesting to note the change of wording in Matthew 1 when the birth of Christ is mentioned. From Abraham down to Joseph it was a man begetting, but then it is “Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ”. The word for born is the same as that which has been used for begat throughout the chapter. The only difference is that it is now passive- Mary was the one through whom the begetting became a possibility. Christ is the long-promised seed of the woman, and this as a result of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary for conception, and the power of the Highest overshadowing her for protection until her child was born. That Holy Thing that was born of her was called the Son of God because He has united Deity with a holy nature, yet remains what He ever was, the Son of God. The angel insists that the Holy Thing born may still rightly be called the Son of God, for His incarnation has not taken away from His Deity. In fact it is true to say that He has added to His Deity by becoming man, for He who is ever in the form of God took upon Himself the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men, Philippians 2:7.
Luke sees the importance of showing that this man is indeed different, so he brings in the genealogy of Christ just before He begins His public ministry, and traces it right back to Adam. Matthew gives the genealogy of Christ beginning at Abraham, and then moves forward through time, for the Messiah was the hope for the future. Luke, however, travels back in time until he reaches the first man. But it is Adam the son of God that Luke goes back to, for creatorially God is Adam’s father, just as all men are the offspring of God by creation, Acts 17:28. It is worthy of notice that the Devil does not think that this is what the title Son means when used of Christ, for his first temptation begins- “If Thou be the Son of God”. If Christ were only Son as Adam was son, then this temptation would have been pointless, for neither Adam nor any other mere man can turn a stone into bread. The Devil knew the sonship of Christ was different. Luke deliberately challenges Satan to be defeated by Christ the Second Man, where he succeeded before with the first man, and this is what happened. The manhood of Christ is not capable of sinning. He was put to the most severe testing in the wilderness by possibly the most intelligent, and certainly the most wicked created being, yet ever distanced Himself from any thought that sin was an option.
This is the truth the expression “without sin” in Hebrews 4:15 conveys. There is no spot in Christ, and He is totally free from the entail of Adam’s sin, yet He is true man, for as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He has taken part likewise of the same, Hebrews 2:14. He is fully qualified, therefore, to deal with the question of Adam’s sin by His death. He is as much a man as men of Adam’s race are, but not such as they are, in terms of their sin. Ruth found she had a kinsman in Boaz, but she also found there was one nearer than he. It was only when the nearest kinsman defaulted that the second man could act as redeemer. So Adam is nearer to us in the sense that we are sinners as he was, but since he has defaulted, and disqualified himself from acting for God, the Second Man is free to step in and become our Kinsman Redeemer.
The red heifer was to be without blemish as well, meaning that it must not have had its coat damaged in any way. This tells of the blameless character of the Lord Jesus. He was blamed for many things, but the three-fold word of the Father from heaven to Him publicly, assures us He was well pleasing to heaven, even though earth found fault. It is expressly said of the majority of Israel as they passed through the wilderness, that with them God was not well-pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness, 1 Corinthians 10:5. Their behaviour left much to be desired, and it is no surprise that they were cut off. The Son of God, in marked contrast, passed through this wilderness world blemish free, for He was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens”, Hebrews 7:26. There is a further description of the red heifer.
It must never have had a yoke upon it. Peter spoke of the yoke in Acts 15:10 when he rebuked the Judaisers for wanting to put believers under the law. He protested, saying, “Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear”. Just as a yoke was put upon an ox to force it to do the will of its master, so Israel were yoked to the law to make them do the will of God. Now Christ was made under the law, was circumcised the eighth day to signify this, and He magnified the law and made it honourable as Isaiah said He would, Isaiah 42:21. Yet for all that He did not need the coercion of the law to do the will of His Father. It is noticeable that when speaking of doing the will of God in Hebrews 10, the writer, relating Psalm 40 to Christ, omits the words “Yea, thy law is within My heart”. Like the ark in the tabernacle, which contained within it the unbroken tables of the law, Christ faithfully safeguarded all the commandments of the law. Yet whereas the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came, and are still maintained, by Jesus Christ, John 1:17.
Verses 3-8 THE SACRIFICE OF THE HEIFER
Verse 3 And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face:
Having been selected by the nation, the heifer is brought to Eleazar the priest. The word came to Moses and Aaron, but the work fell to Eleazar, Aaron’s son, the high priest in waiting. Eleazar is expressly spoken of in Numbers 32:29 as passing over the Jordan. He becomes a figure of Christ as one who having made sacrifice at Calvary, “crossed the Jordan” to resurrection ground, and then “passed into the heavens”, Hebrews 4:14. He is spoken of as the apostle (like Moses), and high priest, (like Aaron), of our profession, but whereas they did not enter the land, He did, (like Eleazar).
The animal is next taken outside the camp, for it was there that those defiled by the dead were sent according to Numbers 5:1-4. The sacrifice that is to be their substitute must take the same place. So Christ also made His way outside the city walls of Jerusalem to the outside place, the place of the outcast. There had been no room for Him in the inn at His birth, no room for Him in the synagogue of Nazareth, no room for Him in the temple, and now there was no room for Him in the city. He deliberately moves outside, however, that He might deal with that which causes men to be cast out from the presence of God. He was “numbered with the transgressors; and He bare the sin of many”, Isaiah 53:12. It is noteworthy that much of the action in this chapter is carried out by unnamed persons. “One shall slay her”, verse 3; “one shall burn”, verse 5; “a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes”, verse 9; “they shall take the ashes”, verse 17; “a clean person shall sprinkle”, verse 18. Since only those who were holy were allowed to touch the holy things, we must assume that these unnamed persons are Levites.
This would explain the emphasis on the Levites throughout the book up to this point. The mention of the fact that they were not numbered for war, but were to attend to the tabernacle, especially when it was moved, 1:47-51, 2:33; their ministry unto Aaron as priest, and their genealogy as those thus called, and their respective tasks when the tabernacle was transported, 3:1-4:49; their consecration to the Lord, and their substitution for the firstborn in Israel, 8:5-26; and their being joined to Aaron in the service of the tabernacle, 18:1-7, and the provision for their support in 18:21-32. Hebrews 7:28 makes it very clear that the priesthood of Christ did not begin until the law-age was finished, and this happened when He died. The fact is that the priest and Levite were needed in the Old Testament because of the deficiency of the law-system. There is no such deficiency with Christ. He does not need priesthood, either of Himself or others, to enable Him to offer the supreme and final sacrifice. He offered Himself without spot to God, doing what no animal was able to do, namely, present Himself for sacrifice.
Verse 4 And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:
The blood, (being the evidence that an acceptable sacrifice has been slain), is now taken, and sprinkled by Eleazar towards the face or front of the tabernacle of the congregation, seven times. It is important to remember that the tabernacle proper, the “Mishcan”, the immediate presence of God, was the innermost curtain of the building. The curtains of goats hair formed a tent, “ohel”, for this tabernacle, as Exodus 26:7 makes clear. The rams’ skins dyed red were a covering for this tent, and the badgers’ skins were a covering over all. The boards of the tabernacle were simply pillars to support the innermost curtain, the tabernacle. That they were not the tabernacle itself is seen in Numbers 3:25,36. In verse 25 the Gershonites have charge of the tabernacle. In verse 36 the Merarites have charge of the boards of the tabernacle. Not the boards consisting of the tabernacle, but the boards belonging to the tabernacle, in the sense that they were necessary to hold the tabernacle up. Returning to Numbers 19:4 where the blood is sprinkled directly before the tent of the congregation. This tent of the congregation was the goats’ hair curtains which covered the linen curtains, thus protecting them. It should be noticed where the apostrophe is placed in the words goats’, rams’ and badgers’. That it is at the end shows that more than one animal is in view in each case. Now goat’s hair can either be plucked from a living goat, or from a dead one. And both a living and a dead goat featured in the Day of Atonement ceremony. The one was sent away into the wilderness bearing its symbolic load of sin, and the other was slain and its blood sprinkled in the Holiest of All. The tent of the congregation was a reminder of this, and performed a two-fold function, for it protected the congregation, being the tent of the congregation, and it protected the linen curtains. God dwelt amongst His people only because the question of their defiling sin was dealt with each Day of Atonement, and this was signified by the protection the goats’ hair curtains provided for His dwelling-place. Now in what way could the blood of the red heifer be sprinkled towards the tent of the congregation, if it was covered over by the rams’ skins and the badgers’ skins? The answer is found in the fact that one of the sections of goats’ hair was visible at the front, being folded in half and hung over the entrance to the tabernacle. This ensured that the need for atonement was always kept in view. Every time the people looked toward the tabernacle they would be reminded of it. So the blood is sprinkled in relation to the acknowledged need for atonement.
The fact that Eleazar only used his finger shows that the emphasis at this point is on the quality of the blood. Sometimes blood was poured out, and this signified the abundance of the provision, the quantity of it, so to speak. With Christ, of course, there is both the quality, for His blood is precious to God, and abundant provision, for He tasted death for every man, Hebrews 2:9, and put away sin in its totality, Hebrews 9:26. The blood was sprinkled seven times, not only to ensure that the action was seen by the Israelites, but also to emphasise the sufficiency of what was being provided for cleansing. The Hebrew word for seven means fulness or completeness.
Verse 5 And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:
The next stage in the ritual is that the heifer is burned, again in the sight of Eleazar, acting for God in the matter. On a practical level, this is in fact the incineration of the animal, thus ensuring that it is completely germ-free. On a spiritual level the heifer must be burnt, for it represents that which man has become through Adam’s fall, and that merits the unsparing judgement of God. For the word for burn used here means to burn up, thus indicating God’s displeasure at death and sin.
This is in addition to the killing of the animal, and shows us in typical fashion the need, not only of the death of the Lord Jesus to set aside Adam and his race, but also of His bearing of wrath before He died, which is figured in the flames of the fire. Adam and his race are by nature children of wrath, Ephesians 2:2, yet Christ was prepared to endure wrath in Calvary’s dark night, that those who believe may be shown mercy. What is burnt up is now specified. The skin, flesh, the blood, and the dung are all totally consumed. The offering is a substitute for the man who is defiled. Being defiled, the man merits the judgement of God, and every part of him does so.
The skin of an animal is that which corresponds to the clothing of a man. Clothing in Scripture speaks of character, those features which mark him personally. We are reminded of Isaiah 64:6, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”. Next the flesh of the animal, which tells of the nature, what a person is within. This too must be burnt, for the apostle states that “in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing”, Romans 7:18. Then the blood. This forcibly presents to us a very important truth, that once this heifer has been sacrificed, there will not need to be a further sacrifice to yield blood to be sprinkled. This is the only time when sacrificial blood was burnt. This comes close to the truth of Hebrews 9, and the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. This lesson is re-inforced in verse 6, as we shall see. Finally, the dung of the animal is burnt up. Now we may easily connect this with that which is distasteful and abhorrent about the flesh, but we must remember that the apostle counted all his attainments in the religious sphere as dung, Philippians 3:8. Anything which supplants Christ is abhorrent to God, and merits His fiery indignation.
Verse 6 And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.
Then a strange thing happened, for the priest took cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet, and cast them into the burning of the heifer. In the midst, thus ensuring that they did not escape the fire. These three items have been met with before, in Leviticus 14. Two of them are also present in Exodus 24 but not mentioned. It is not until we reach Hebrews 9:19 that we learn that when Moses sprinkled the people and the book with blood, he used scarlet wool and hyssop. Quite possibly the hyssop was tied together by the scarlet wool to make a convenient sprinkler. Certainly in Leviticus 14 the cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop were used to sprinkle the leper.
Here in Numbers 19 these items are deliberately burnt, repeating the lesson we learnt when the blood was burnt, namely that there was no need to have recourse to the sprinkling of blood again. The water of separation would be enough to deal with defilement. We know that Solomon wrote about many things, and the writer of the Book of Kings summarises them with the words, “from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon, to the hyssop that springeth out of the wall”, 1 Kings 4:33. Now the fact that the sprinkler facilitated the sprinkling of the leper, and ensured that he was rendered fit to be re-instated in Israel, would suggest to us that there is something about Christ in these three things, for He alone makes the restoration of the sinner a possibility. Is He not like the cedar? and did He not become like the hyssop? And was it not our sins, which were as scarlet, Isaiah 1:18 that which caused He who was like the cedar tree to become like the hyssop? And is it not true that as a result of His work, our sins, which were as scarlet, have become as white as wool? In other words, have been completely removed? We rejoice that these things are so.
The cedar tree is that strong, majestic, storm-defying tree which clothes and crowns the slopes, whose excellent wood Solomon used to line his temple. How fitting a symbol of Christ, who being in the form of God, can justly have applied to Him the language of Isaiah 57:15, “that high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy”. What Divine strength and majesty marks Him! How futile the attempts of men and Satan to uproot Him! But He who possessed the form of God eternally, added to Himself the form of a servant. He did this by being made in the likeness of men. Not content with this, having been found by men as one who was in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself still further in His obedience to His Father. The extent of that obedience is seen in that He endured a cross-death, with all its shame.
As He made His way outside the city walls of Jerusalem, what was springing out of those walls? The hyssop of which His ancestor had spoken long before. Hyssop, the lowly shrub, yielding its bitterness through bruising- fit symbol of Him who was bruised for our iniquities in Calvary’s low place. Just as the burning of the cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet added to the burning of the heifer, so the features of Christ they symbolised added value to His sacrifice.
There is an important principle to be noticed in connection with the burning of the cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop, and it is this. Once a person has truly known cleansing from sin through the blood of Christ, there is no need for that process to be repeated. Just as the work of Christ was once for all, so the cleansing is once for all. The apostle John emphasises this when he speaks of true believers walking in the light, just as Israel walked in the light of the pillar of fire, the priests walked in the light of the lampstand in the Holy Place, and the High Priest walked in the light of the Shekinah glory in the Holiest of All. But on what basis? For Israel, it was the blood of atonement; for believers it is the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, “which cleanseth us from all sin”. Only because the blood of Christ has this character can we move in the light of God’s presence.
The blood is not constantly applied, but it is constantly effective in God’s mind, and His people are maintained before Him, despite the fact that they are still in the old body, and often fail. As we shall see, even though there has been the once-for-all cancellation of sin’s guilt, there still needs to be the day-by-day cleansing from sin’s defilement.
Verses 7 and 8 Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even. And he that burneth shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even.
This is a startling thing, that even the priest was rendered unclean by the ritual. At the medical level, we can understand that simply going outside the camp puts the priest in danger himself. He must therefore take steps to cleanse himself from defilement. He does not need to have the ashes sprinkled upon him however, since he has not touched a primary source of infection. It must be said, however, that when the leper was dealt with in Leviticus 13 and 14, the priest went outside the camp, but is not said to need to wash his clothes, or bathe, and be unclean until even, as is the case in the chapter before us. And in the matter of those with an issue of blood, the other group which had to be excluded from the camp, the ritual took place in front of the tabernacle. This highlights for us the extreme nature of the defilement in this instance. Leprosy and haemorrhage are clearly not so infectious.
Verses 9-10 THE SAVING OF THE ASHES OF THE HEIFER
Verses 9 and 10 And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin. And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.
The ashes now claim our attention. A clean person gathers them up from where they were burnt, and lays them up in a clean place. The man and the place must both be clean, lest they infect the all-important ashes. This clean place would be a designated spot outside the camp that was protected in some way from defilement. The ashes are thus preserved for use when the need arose. We see a prophetical aspect to things here, for the reminders of the accepted sin offering of Christ, as represented by the ashes, are held in reserve by God, so that when the nation repents they may come into the good of what their Messiah did for them long ago. Then will come to pass the words of Ezekiel 36, and God will sprinkle clean water upon them and they will be clean, after the defilement contracted by being amongst the Gentiles for so long. The ashes are convincing proof that a suitable sin offering has been made. Yet the very thing that was evidence of their defilement and failure, was the provision made by God for their defilement.
The cleansing was not automatic, however. The fact that the ashes had been laid up was not enough, for they were not religious relics, but Divine provision, to be availed of when necessary. The ashes of the heifer must be sprinkled on the unclean, as Hebrews 9:13 indicates. Not the ashes alone, but water that has been brought into contact with them. Now the water was to be running water, or literally “living water”, not scooped from some stagnant pool which was likely to be defiled, but fresh water. No doubt from the rock that supplied them with water. So two opposite things are brought together, ashes, the sign of death, and living water.
This water is called the water of separation, because it separated the Israelite from his defilement when he used it. Of course, no amount of water is going to remove some deadly infection contracted by touching a putrefying dead body. So this is where the promise of God comes in, for He had pledged to not put the diseases of Egypt upon His people, provided they were obedient to His word, Exodus 15:26. The man is put to the test, therefore. He has been defiled. Will he avail himself of the Divinely-provided remedy, or will he fail to hear the voice of God, as his elders did when they refused the land? If he does fail to obey, then on the seventh day he is still unclean, and poses a risk to his fellow Israelites, and an affront to God.
THE WORDS OF THE BIBLE, THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES, AS FOUND IN THE BOOK OF NUMBERS CHAPTER 19, VERSES 11 TO 22:
19:11 He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.
19:12 He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.
19:13 Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.
19:14 This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 19:15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.
19:16 And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
19:17 And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:
19:18 And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave:
19:19 And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.
19:20 But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean.
19:21 And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even. 19:22 And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.
Verses 11-16 THE SPECIFYING OF THE SINS TO BE DEALT WITH
Verses 11-13 He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days. He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean. Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.
We come now to the procedure to be followed. Two particular days are specified, the third day and the seventh day, with the implication that there was a first day. Presumably the first day is the day when the defiled man has been banished outside the camp. Having assessed the situation on the second day, he loses no time, if he is wise, in seeking the remedy that is laid up for him in the form of the water of separation. If he is not wise, the third day passes by, and he has refused the appeal of God in the words, “today, if ye will hear My voice, harden not your hearts”. The word “today” is referred to seven times in Hebrews 3 and 4, and reminds us that many in Israel were found to be still unclean after God had constantly appealed to them. They were unclean on the seventh day because they had not listened to His voice.
The Christian has a first day and a third day. Our first contact with Christ is at the cross. This becomes our first day, as we realise that when Christ was crucified, our old man, ourselves considered as to our links with Adam, was crucified in company with Him. Acting upon this realisation, we got ourselves baptized, so that we might be associated with Christ in His state of death in the tomb, with the question of former associations dealt with. We had a third day also, for, coming up out of the watery grave of the baptismal waters, we were associated with His resurrection, which of course took place on the third day after His crucifixion. This process has life-long implications, for we henceforth are to reckon ourselves to be dead indeed, (that is, in reality and not just in theory), unto sin, but alive unto God because of the link we have with Christ, the Last Adam.
The apostle reminds us that before we were saved we yielded our members as servants to uncleanness, and the end of those things was death, Romans 6:19,21. Sadly, it is possible for us to do the same after we have been saved. We see that this is true because the apostle has to exhort us to not yield our members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, Romans 6:13. It is possible, then, to have uncleanness upon us as those who are “third day men”, even though in principle we have begun to walk in newness of life. This needs to be remedied, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of others, lest they unwittingly be defiled by our uncleanness, but also, most importantly, because uncleanness not dealt with “defileth the tabernacle of the Lord”, Numbers 19:13. So it is that in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 the apostle appeals to the believers to not be associated with unbelievers, “What agreement hath the temple of God with idols, for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; And I will be their God, and they shall be my people”. This is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:33. Next comes a quotation from Isaiah 52:11, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; And I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty”.
First there comes the promise of God’s presence. Next comes the condition on which this is to be known, namely separation. Then comes the personal appeal of the apostle “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and the spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God”. The concern of the apostle is that believers in the local assembly should realise that just as defilement affected the tabernacle, the place where God dwelt amongst His earthly people, so defilement affects the dwelling-place of God today, the local assembly.
Hence the appeal of the apostle that we cleanse ourselves. There are two sorts of filthiness. That of the flesh, the defilement from base passions and lusts. That of the spirit, the defilement of things in the religious sphere that we have already thought of in connection with the burning of the dung of the animal. The apostle reminds the Corinthians, (many of whom had been idol worshippers, and some of whom, strangely, seemed still to have had contact with such things), that the temple of God can have no fellowship with idols, for that is defilement of the spirit. What if this cleansing is not done? If the first day is our first contact with Christ, then may we suggest that the seventh day is the believer’s last day upon earth, the end of his cycle of time down here. How solemn to go into eternity with these things not dealt with!
Such is the grace of God in Christ, that the work of Christ at Calvary allows God to reckon righteous all who truly believe the gospel. Judicially, all is settled, but practically, there may be things still to be dealt with at the Judgement Seat of Christ, where things done in the body, whether they are good or bad, will be brought out into the light if they have not been confessed. “Every one of us shall give account of ourselves before God”, Romans 14:12. “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad”, 2 Corinthians 5:10.
Verses 14-16 This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean.And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
In verses 11 and 13 there were general statements about the dead body of a man., but in verses 14-16 the details are given. There are two categories, defilement in a tent, or in the open field. First, in a tent. A man dies in a tent, and he, all that is in the tent, and all that come into the tent, are unclean for seven days. If the water of separation is used, then after the seven days there is cleansing, whether for persons or objects. The objects in a tent include vessels, no doubt containing food. If the vessel is covered, then there is no need for it to be cleansed. Second, those in the open fields, whether slain by the sword, a carcase lying on the surface, or a long-dead person, with only bones remaining, or a grave. There is increasing distance between the death occurring and the defilement being contracted. There is one whose death is so recent that its cause can be ascertained. Then one who has been dead long enough so that cause of death is uncertain. Then the carcase is so long decomposed that only bones remain, and finally, all has crumbled to dust, leaving only the grave.
The lesson is simple. No matter how distant we are from the death that caused the defilement, there is still the need to remedy it. We must not think that the passage of time deals with the matter. There is defilement amongst the professed people of God, and there is defilement from the world, for “the field is the world”, Matthew 13:38. . David had reminded the nation that the mistakes of their forbears had a lesson, “after so long a time”, Hebrews 4:7, and this also applied to the Hebrews in AD 68, many years after they, as a nation, had rejected Christ. It was some 40 years since John the Baptist had called them to prepare for the coming King and His kingdom. Those who refused his word were like those who rejected Joshua and Caleb’s word, and failed to enter into the land.
The writer to the Hebrews is anxious that the next generation should not make the same mistake. Because it was failure to listen to the voice of God that was the root of their sin in refusing the land, the writer to the Hebrews warns that “the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do”. Notice the features of the word of God. It is quick, that is, living; it is powerful or energetic; it sharper than a two-edged sword, and it is a divider. All these things have relevance in the matter of the disobedience of Israel when they refused the land. The living word of God came to them in the form of the faithful testimony of Caleb and Joshua. The writer to the Hebrews calls this “gospel”, Hebrews 4:2. Refusal of this word resulted in death in the wilderness for them. The word of God came to them in the form of encouragement to enter the land, assuring them He had power to bring them in, despite the formidable enemies that occupied the land. They refused the powerful word of God. When they did this, they found that the word of God was like a sharp sword, and meted out judgement to them for rebelling against Him. Far from falling by a literal sword in Canaan, as they feared, Numbers 14:3, they fell by a spiritual sword in the wilderness. No wonder special mention is made of a person slain by the sword, in Numbers 19:16.
The word of God also discerns and distinguishes, dividing between that which is merely emotional, of the soul, such as national and religious pride, and that which is spiritual, which will take the form of obedience to His word. It can also distinguish between the joints and the marrow. That is, the outward part of the bone and the inward. The joint is that which facilitates outward action, whereas the marrow of the bone produces white blood cells to fight infection, red blood cells to carry oxygen, and platelets to stop bleeding, thus maintaining the life of the soul. The people were marked by inactivity when God instructed them to enter the land, and carnal activity when they went up in their own strength afterwards and were utterly defeated, Numbers 14:40-45. The word of God is able to distinguish between fleshly activity or inactivity, and the sort of exercise of heart which marked Caleb and Joshua. They trusted in the Lord with all their heart, and found that as Proverbs 3 went on to promise, it was marrow to their bones, Proverbs 3:5,8. It was not the bones of Caleb and Joshua that Israelites were defiled by as they made their way through the desert.
The word of God also discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart. It can expose the thoughts of men, and the intentions they formulate after they have had those thoughts. Again the inner and outer is in view. Hebrews 3 speaks of the evil heart of unbelief that marked those who rejected the land. Numbers 14 records how these same people had the intention to go into the land on their own initiative, with disastrous results. The word of God discerned both their thoughts, and the intents of their hearts. Not only could defilement come upon them in the open field, but it could also invade their tents. There is nothing hid from the word of God here either, for the Lord knows what happens in the tents of Israel, and they are exposed to view beneath His all-seeing eye. When death came in a tent, then all in the tent, all that came into the tent, were to be counted unclean. There is special mention of vessel which had no covering bound upon them. It is implied that that if a vessel has a covering upon it, then it is not unclean. The defilement would not have come into contact with the food in the vessel. There is here a practical lesson in hygiene for the Israelites. There is no way of knowing when death will strike, so meticulous care must be taken at all times. There is a spiritual lesson too, for the food for the household of faith should always be kept free from the defilement that is prevalent in the world, and especially in the religious world, with its lethal mix of Judaism and paganism.
Verses 17-22 THE SPRINKLING OF THE ASHES OF THE HEIFER
Verses 17-19 And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched a bone, or one slain, or one dead, or a grave: And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.
Notice the “of”, in the expression “they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin”, so only a portion of the ashes is used, leaving the rest for another act of cleansing. There is no blood involved in this personal part of the ceremony. The blood comes to the fore when the national need is addressed. It is not here a question of guilt for sin committed, but defilement.
The counterpart to this is the first chapter of John’s first epistle, where the question of defilement comes up, with the double mention of cleansing. John is not concerned with the judicial side of things, but with the fact that walking in the light necessarily shows up defilement. So sin in that context is defilement, which hinders communion, for God can only presence Himself with those who are pure.
We come now to the sprinkling of the water of separation. The man is going to be separated from his defilement by the use of two things, namely, ashes and water. The ashes are evidence of death having taken place. Death, that is, of a suitable substitute which had no liability to death because of breeding or behaviour. The water, as we have seen, is living or running water. We have already noted that the word of God is called “quick” meaning living, in Hebrews 4:12. So this gives us the clue as to the meaning here. The people are vulnerable to defilement because the word of God had not been obeyed in the matter of entering the land. They must disassociate themselves from the attitude of their forefathers if they are to know cleansing. They do this by the use of living water, water which has no trace of defilement, for it is not from some contaminated stagnant pool, but from a running stream.
This water is applied by the use of hyssop. The materials for the sprinkling of blood have been burnt in the former part of the ceremony, but water needs to be sprinkled, so hyssop alone is used. Hyssop was one of the bitter herbs used at the Passover meal, which in that context spoke of the bitterness of their experiences as slaves in Egypt. Here it is the symbol of that repentance which befits those who have endangered the health of the camp of Israel, and more importantly, have brought into the camp that which reminds God of the disobedience of their fathers. The word of God having done its convicting work, the unclean man moves to deal with his defilement. By the application of that which speaks of an accepted sin offering, the defilement is removed by God.
There is still more personal responsibility for the man however, for he is now required to wash his clothes, bathe his flesh in water, and wait until evening to be clean. From a medical standpoint this was necessary to ensure that no trace of the germ which caused the infection still remained on either his clothes or his person, and that the water that ensured this was perfectly dried up on his skin and clothing. The spiritual application of all this is important.
When we realise we are defiled by some manifestation of sin, the word of God needs to be applied to that situation. With repentance because of our lapse, we need to have recourse to the provision God has made for this sort of situation. We are encouraged as we do so that the work of Calvary still maintains God’s people in their position before Him. Nothing can ever undermine the true believer’s position before God- it is settled for eternity. Present condition should not be confused with eternal position, however, and if we fail we must take steps to deal with the matter. The word of God for that particular failure must be applied, and in this manner the defilement is dealt with. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”, 1 John 1:9. We need to “wash our clothes”, also, for clothing indicates character in the Scriptures, and there needs to be a change of attitude to the things that have led us into defilement. This is vitally important, since as we have seen in the chapter, defilement in the camp directly affects the tabernacle, significantly called here the sanctuary, or Holy Place.
That is why in 2 Corinthians 6:16 the apostle reminds the believers that as an assembly they were a temple of God, and He was pleased to dwell amongst them if only they maintained separation lest they be defiled, and if they cleansed themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit if they did become defiled. The man was also to bathe his flesh in water, so that there was an overall application of the “water of the word” to his whole person.
We need to apply the word of God to ourselves overall, for there is no part of us that should be outside of the regulation of the word of God. We are expected to yield our members as instruments of righteousness unto God, and as servants to righteousness unto holiness, Romans 6:13, 19. If we fail to do so, then we shall yield our members servants to uncleanness unto iniquity, and thereby will be in need of cleansing.
Verses 20-22 But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean. And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even. And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.
The closing verses of the chapter are intensely solemn, for they repeat what has already been stated in verses 12 and 13, namely that one who refused the remedy provided was to be cut off from Israel as being a threat to them both physically and spiritually. He was thereby put into the same position as those who had refused the land, for he too, like them, perished in the wilderness. Now true believers are eternally secure, but we must not neglect the application of this. For it is possible to let the seventh day pass, and be found in an unclean state. If the first day is our start with Christ at the cross, as we suggested in connection with verse 11, then the seventh day must represent our last day of opportunity before we either pass into eternity via death, or because the Lord comes.
How solemn to allow this deadline to pass, without recourse to the Divine provision! Indeed if we are set upon such a course, then maybe the Lord will deal with us as He dealt with some at Corinth, as 1 Corinthians 11:29-34 describes. One final point. It was, and is, a great puzzle to the rabbis in Israel, as to why ashes which dealt with defilement made the one who touched them unclean, as verse 21 says they did. Looking at this matter from the medical viewpoint, it is easy to see that if an infected person was being dealt with according to this ritual, then given the highly contagious nature of some organisms, the clean person himself might have transmitted to him the same defilement, and the organism might also infect the water of separation itself. He did not need to go through the whole ritual, because he had been acting in obedience to God, and therefore could claim the promise of Exodus 15:26. Nor did he need to worry that the water of purification was physically defiled, for it was the spiritual meaning of the water that mattered, not the actual water itself.
Believers are thankful that they have One who acts on their behalf, who sanctifies and cleanses by the washing of water by the word, Ephesians 5:26, and who washes our feet so that we may continue to have part with Him, John 13:8. He can never be defiled, for He passed through this unclean world without a spot or blemish upon Him or in Him.