The Red Heifer Ritual
1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 2 “This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord has commanded: ‘Instruct the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without blemish, which has no defect and has never carried a yoke. 3 You must give it to Eleazar the priest so that he can take it outside the camp, and it must be slaughtered before him. 4 Eleazar the priest is to take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of the blood seven times directly in front of the tent of meeting. 5 Then the heifer must be burned in his sight – its skin, its flesh, its blood, and its offal is to be burned. 6 And the priest must take cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool and throw them into the midst of the fire where the heifer is burning. 7 Then the priest must wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, but the priest will be ceremonially unclean until evening. 8 The one who burns it must wash his clothes in water and bathe himself in water. He will be ceremonially unclean until evening.
9 “‘Then a man who is ceremonially clean must gather up the ashes of the red heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They must be kept for the community of the Israelites for use in the water of purification – it is a purification for sin. 10 The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer must wash his clothes and be ceremonially unclean until evening. This will be a permanent ordinance both for the Israelites and the resident foreigner who lives among them.
Purification from Uncleanness
11 “‘Whoever touches the corpse of any person will be ceremonially unclean seven days. 12 He must purify himself with water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and the seventh day, then he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches the corpse of any dead person and does not purify himself defiles the tabernacle of the Lord. And that person must be cut off from Israel, because the water of purification was not sprinkled on him. He will be unclean; his uncleanness remains on him.
14 “‘This is the law: When a man dies in a tent, anyone who comes into the tent and all who are in the tent will be ceremonially unclean seven days. 15 And every open container that has no covering fastened on it is unclean. 16 And whoever touches the body of someone killed with a sword in the open fields, or the body of someone who died of natural causes, or a human bone, or a grave, will be unclean seven days.
17 “‘For a ceremonially unclean person you must take some of the ashes of the heifer burnt for purification from sin and pour fresh running water over them in a vessel. 18 Then a ceremonially clean person must take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all its furnishings, and on the people who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, or one killed, or one who died, or a grave. 19 And the clean person must sprinkle the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he must purify him, and then he must wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and he will be clean in the evening. 20 But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself, that person must be cut off from among the community, because he has polluted the sanctuary of the Lord; the water of purification was not sprinkled on him, so he is unclean.
21 “‘So this will be a perpetual ordinance for them: The one who sprinkles the water of purification must wash his clothes, and the one who touches the water of purification will be unclean until evening. 22 And whatever the unclean person touches will be unclean, and the person who touches it will be unclean until evening.’”
C H Spurgeon
Numbers 19:1. And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, —
This ordinance was not given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but in the wilderness of Paran, after the people had broken their covenant with God, and were condemned to die. You know that the 90th Psalm — that dolorous dirge which we read at funerals, — called, “a prayer of Moses the man of God.” Well might he write that Psalm, for he lived among a generation of people who were all doomed to die within a short time, and to die in the wilderness. This ordinance was especially appointed to meet the cases of those who were rendered unclean by the frequent deaths which occurred. There was to be a simple and easy way of purification for them; and the teaching of this chapter to us is that, inasmuch as we dwell in a sinful world, there needs to be some simple and ready method of cleansing us, that we may be able to draw near to God.
Numbers 19:2-3. 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: 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:
This was not a usual sacrifice, for the beasts offered were as a rule males; but this was to be a special sacrifice. It was not to be killed by the priest, as other sacrificial offerings were; but the Lord said, “One shall slay her before his face.”
Numbers 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:
This makes it a sacrifice; otherwise, it scarcely deserves the name.
Numbers 19:5-6. And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn: and the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.
All was to be burnt, and then the ashes, the essence and product of it, were to be preserved to make the water of purification needed to remove those constant defilements which fell upon the people of the camp. So, the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, which are the very essence of him, are perpetually preserved for the removal of our daily pollution. There was also the essence of cedar wood; that is, the emblem of fragrant immortality, for cedar was an unrotting wood. “And hyssop, and scarlet.” There must be the humble hyssop used, yet there must be some degree of royalty about the sacrifice, as the scarlet colour imported; and all this is mixed with the blood and the flesh and the skin of the creature, to make the ashes of purification.
Numbers 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.
What a strange sacrifice was this, for even when it was offered it seemed to make unclean all those who had anything to do with it!
Numbers 19:8-9. And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even. And a man that is clean-
Now we come to the merit of Christ, for who is clean except Christ?
Numbers 19:9. 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.
This ceremonial does not represent the putting away of sin, that typified in the slaying of the victims; but it represents that daily cleansing which the children of God need, the perpetual efficacy of the merit of Christ; for this red heifer was probably killed only once in the wilderness. According to Jewish tradition, there never have been more than six killed. I cannot tell whether that is true or not; but certainly the ashes of one single beast would last for a long time if they were only to be mixed with water, and then the water to be sprinkled upon the unclean. So this ordinance is meant to represent the standing merit, the perpetual purifying of believers by the sacrifice of Christ enabling them to come to the worship of God, and to mingle with holy men, and even with holy angels, without defiling them. In the fullest sense, it may be said of our Lord’s atoning sacrifice, “It is a purification for sin.”
Numbers 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.
That was the remedy ordained by the Lord for purifying the defiled; now notice what made this remedy so necessary.
Numbers 19:11-12. 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.
I wonder whether that is a revelation of our being justified through the resurrection of Christ, which took place on the third day after his death, and then our being brought into perfect rest, which represents the seventh day, through the wondrous purifying of our great Sacrifice, the Lamb of God.
Numbers 19:13-14. 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. 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.
Think, dear friends, what a solemn and yet what an irksome ordinance this must have been! Why, according to this regulation, Joseph could not have gone to see his father Jacob, and to be present at his death, without being defiled. You could not have watched over your consumptive child, or have nursed your dying mother, without becoming defiled, if you had been subject to this law; and everything that was in the tent, or in the house, became defiled, too.
Numbers 19:15-16. 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.
This law was indeed a yoke of bondage which our fathers were not able to bear. It was meant to teach us how easily we can be defiled. Anywhere they went, these people might touch a bone or touch a grave, and then they were defiled, and you and I, watch as carefully as we may, will find ourselves touching some of the dead works of sin, and becoming defiled. It is a happy circumstance for us that there is the means of purification always at hand; we may ever go to the precious blood of Jesus, and may once again be washed clean, and be made fit to go up to the house of the Lord.
Numbers 19:17-22. 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. 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.
This ordinance was partly sanitary. The Egyptians were accustomed to keep their dead in their houses, preserved as mummies. No Jew could do that, for he would be defiled. Other nations were accustomed to bury their dead, as we once did, within the city walls, or round their own places of worship, as if to bring death as near as they could to themselves. No Jew could do this, for he was defiled if he even passed over a grave; so they were driven to what God intended they should have, — that is, extramural interments, and to keep the graveyard as far as they could away from the abodes of the living. The spiritual meaning of this regulation is that we must watch with great care against every occasion for sin; and, inasmuch as there will be these occasions and we shall be defiled, we must constantly go to the Lord with a prayer like that of David in the 51st Psalm, which we will now read.