One of the interesting aspects of God’s laws are the details, what some consider boring. To be honest, it can painstakingly comprehensive. Numbers 19 doesn’t disappoint:
- A red heifer without defects, blemishes and never used for common labor (v. 2).
- The heifer is taken outside the camp (unlike other sin offerings) and slaughtered before the high priest (v. 3).
- The priest is to dip his fingers in its blood and sprinkle toward the tent of meeting seven times (v. 4).
- The red heifer is burned – skin, flesh, blood and dung (v. 5).
- The priest is to take cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet yarn, to be thrown into the fire consuming the heifer (v. 6).
- The priest was to wash his clothes and take a bath before coming back into the camp (v. 7).
- A man who is clean is to gather up the ashes of the heifer and put someone outside the camp in a clean place (v. 9).
- The ashes will be used with water for impurity for Israel as a sin offering (v. 9).
Holy cow! (see what I did there) Are you serious!? There is a lot of things going on here. Rest assured, this wasn’t busy work. Everything had a purpose. Let’s start with what led up to this chapter.
Chapter 18 dealt with the duties of the priests and Levites. A theme develops, warnings, about doing wrong and dying (18:3, 7, 22, 32). Sin, defilement and death is the theme of the red heifer. The author intended these two chapters to go together.
After reading the long list of details in preparing the red heifer, we are given two examples of how the ashes and water were used.
- Purification for someone who came in contact with a dead body (19:11-13).
- Purification after being in a tent with a dead body (19:14-22).
Have you picked up how often laws were given about being around dead things?
- You can’t go near dead bodies (Lev. 21:11);
- Being defiled by a dead body would make someone unclean for Passover (Num. 9:6);
- A dead body was not allowed to hang on a tree all night (Deut. 21:23),
- Etc., etc., etc.
You get the idea. I don’t believe any sane person likes being around death, and the Law took dead things very seriously. The question is why? We will get to this soon.
There have been many interpretations about the heifer being red. Some believe it represents the sinfulness of humanity (i.e., Isa. 1:18). Some believe it represents the color of the blood of sacrifice. And there is even those who teach the color represents humanity. The Hebrew word for red (אדס) is the word for humanity (אדס). Therefore, they believe the red heifer represents Jesus’ suffering for sinful humanity, which is definitely a part of what is happening. The problem is the author doesn’t tell us out right.
BUT, there are clues.
We discover something interesting in verse 17, which was the second example. The ashes are not called ashes (אפר), as in verse 9, the author uses the word powder (עפד) or dust. Let you mind begin to tap into Genesis 2-3 as we continue. The other is the word used to describe the water in verse 17 – running (‘ח) water. We have actually talked about this word before, it means “life, living”. Suddenly the ashes and the water have been elevated. What is it about death, dust and life that should draw us back to creation and the Fall?
Genesis 2:7, Then the LORD God formed man out of the dust (אפע) from the ground and breathed the breath of life (‘ח) into his nostrils, and the man become a living (‘ח) being.(emphasis mine)
The Creator took the dust of the earth to form man and breathed life into him!
This was Yahweh’s blessing upon humanity. Adam was placed in the garden of Eden and given EVERY good tree of the garden but one – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequences for doing so were laid out – death (Gen. 2:17). I think everyone knows what happened next. Now watch as dust and life were transformed after the Fall.
Genesis 3:19, You will eat bread/ by the sweat of your brow/ until you return to the ground,/ since you were taken from it./ For you are dust (עפד),/ and you will return to dust (עפד).” (emphasis mine)
Genesis 3:24, He drove man out and stationed the cherubim and the flaming, whirling sword east of the garden of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life (חי). (emphasis mine)
The ashes of the red heifer represent the return to dust, which was the consequence of sin. Like the sacrifice of the red heifer, Adam and Eve were taken outside of the garden – banished. The Fall was the ultimate defilement of God’s good creation and blessing to humanity. This is why death was such a big deal. This is why Yahweh gave so many instructions surrounding dead bodies. It did not mean someone had sinned if they had come in contact with something dead, but as a reminder that death is defilement, impurity and the enemy of humanity. It was not a part of the Creator’s plan for us. Death is not in the LORD’s DNA. Death is a curse, therefore, life was a blessing. And the focus of the first covenant of Yahweh was life!
The red heifer was a reminder of the importance of dealing with sin. It must be cleansed by living (‘ח) water. It isn’t a coincidence this account is similar to the purification of Israel after their sin with the golden calf.
Exodus 32:20, Then they took the calf they had made, burned it up, and ground it to powder. He scattered the powder over the surface of the water and forced the Israelites to drink the water. (emphasis mine)
Now watch this: the writer of Hebrews makes a connection with the red heifer. It speaks of the Messiah who came and, through His death/sacrifice, entered into the most holy place for humanity.
Hebrews 9:13-14, For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow, sprinkling those who are defiled, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offer Himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God? (emphasis mine)
Do you see it? The blood of Christ brings more than outward purification – it inwardly cleanses the conscious (the part of humanity that determines right and wrong). The death of Jesus inaugurated the new covenant (Heb. 9:15) which came with the promise of forgiveness of sins and the law written on our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). No more bloody sacrifices of the red heifer! Through the death of Jesus we are cleansed from dead works which defile and separate humanity from God. Like the red heifer, Jesus was taken outside to suffer for our sins (Heb. 13:12). More importantly, we serve the living God. Life and death. Dust and living water. Jesus is the greater, better way. In Him we are redeemed from the curse – death!
I Corinthians 15:54b-57, …Death has been swallowed up/ in victory./ Death, where is your victory?/ Death, where is your sting?/ Now the sting of death is sin,/ and the power of sin is the law./ But thanks be to God, who gives us/ the victory/ through our Lord Jesus Christ!
*All Scripture quoted from the Holman Christian Standard Bible
*Blog resources: The Pentateuch as Narrative by John H. Sailhamer; Word studies from The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon of the Old Testament and Lexicon Theological Wordbook.