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Bible Commentaries

Adam Clarke Commentary

Numbers 19

Verse 1

CHAPTER XIX

The ordinance of the red heifer, 1, 2.

She shall be slain by Eleazar without the camp, and her blood

sprinkled before the tabernacle, 3, 4.

Her whole body and appurtenance shall be reduced to ashes, and

while burning, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop, shall be thrown

into the fire, 5, 6.

The priest, and he that burns her, to bathe themselves, and be

reputed unclean till the evening, 7, 8.

Her ashes to be laid up for a water of purification, 9.

How, and in what cases it is to be applied, 10-13.

The law concerning him who dies in a tent, or who is killed in

the open field, 14-16.

How the persons, tent, and vessels are to be purified by the

application of these ashes, 17-19.

The unclean person who does not apply them, to be cut off from

the congregation, 20.

This is to be a perpetual statute, 21, 22.

NOTES ON CHAP. XIX

Verse 2

Verse Numbers 19:2. Speak unto the children of Israel that they bring thee, c. — The ordinance of the red heifer was a sacrifice of general application. All the people were to have an interest in it, and therefore the people at large are to provide the sacrifice. This Jewish rite certainly had a reference to things done under the Gospel, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has remarked: "For if," says he, "the blood of bulls and of goats," alluding, probably, to the sin-offerings and the scape-goat, "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!" Hebrews 9:13-14. As the principal stress of the allusion here is to the ordinance of the red heifer, we may certainly conclude that it was designed to typify the sacrifice of our blessed Lord.

We may remark several curious particulars in this ordinance.

1. A heifer was appointed for a sacrifice, probably, in opposition to the Egyptian superstition which held these sacred, and actually worshipped their great goddess Isis under this form; and this appears the more likely because males in general were preferred for sacrifice, yet here the female is chosen.

2. It was to be a red heifer, because red bulls were sacrificed to appease the evil demon Typhon, worshipped among the Egyptians. See Spencer.

3. The heifer was to be without spot - having no mixture of any other colour. Plutarch remarks, De Iside et de Osiride, that if there was a single hair in the animal either white or black, it marred the sacrifice. See Calmet, and Numbers 8:7.

4. Without blemish - having no kind of imperfection in her body; the other, probably, applying to the hair or colour.

5. On which never came yoke, because any animal which had been used for any common purpose was deemed improper to be offered in sacrifice to God. The heathens, who appear to have borrowed much from the Hebrews, were very scrupulous in this particular. Neither the Greeks nor Romans, nor indeed the Egyptians, would offer an animal in sacrifice that had been employed for agricultural purposes. Of this we have the most positive evidence from Homer, Porphyry, Virgil, and Macrobius.

Just such a sacrifice as that prescribed here, does Diomede vow to offer to Pallas. - Iliad, lib. x., ver. 291.


Ὡς νυν μοι εθελουσα παριστασο, και με φυλασσε·

Σοι δ' αυ εγω ῥεξω βουν ηνιν ευρυμετωπον,

Αδμητην, ἡν ουπω ὑπο ζυγον ηγαγεν ανηρ·

Την τοι εγω ῥεξω, χρυσον κερασιν περιχευας.

"So now be present, O celestial maid;

So still continue to the race thine aid;

A yearling heifer falls beneath the stroke,

Untamed, unconscious of the galling yoke,

With ample forehead and with spreading horns,

Whose tapering tops refulgent gold adorns."

Altered from POPE.


In the very same words Nestor, Odyss., lib. iii., ver. 382, promises a similar sacrifice to Pallas.

The Romans had the same religion with the Greeks, and consequently the same kind of sacrifices; so Virgil, Georg. iv., ver. 550.


Quatuor eximios praestanti corpore tauros

Ducit, et intacta totidem cervice juveneas.

"---------From his herd he culls

For slaughter four the fairest of his bulls;

Four heifers from his female stock he took,

All fair, and all unknowing of the yoke."

- DRYDEN.


It is very likely that the Gentiles learnt their first sacrificial rites from the patriarchs; and on this account we need not wonder to find so many coincidences in the sacrificial system of the patriarchs and Jews, and all the neighbouring nations.

Verse 9

Verse Numbers 19:9. For a water of separation — That is, the ashes were to be kept, in order to be mixed with water, Numbers 19:17, and sprinkled on those who had contracted any legal defilement.

Verse 11

Verse Numbers 19:11. He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days. — How low does this lay man! He who touched a dead beast was only unclean for one day, Leviticus 11:24; Leviticus 11:27; Leviticus 11:39; 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! O thou son of the morning, how art thou fallen!

Verse 12

Verse Numbers 19:12. He shall purify himself with itיתחטא בו yithchatta bo, literally, he shall sin himself with it. This Hebrew form of speech is common enough among us in other matters. Thus to fleece, to bark, and to skin, do not signify to add a fleece, another bark, or a skin, but to take one away; therefore, to sin himself, in the Hebrew idiom, is not to add sin, but to take it away, to purify. The verb חטא chata signifies to miss the mark, to sin, to purify from sin, and to make a sin-offering. Genesis 13:13.

THE Hebrews generally sacrificed males, no matter of what colour; but here a heifer, and a heifer of a red colour, is ordered. The reason of these circumstances is not very well known.

"The rabbins, with all their boldness," says Calmet, "who stick at nothing when it is necessary to explain what they do not understand, declare that the cause of this law is entirely unknown; and that Solomon, with all his wisdom, could not find it out."

Several fathers, as well modern as ancient, profess to understand the whole clearly.

1. The red heifer with them signifies the flesh of our Lord, formed out of an earthly substance.

2. Being without spot, c., the infinite holiness of Christ.

3. The sex of the animal, the infirmity of our flesh, with which he clothed himself.

4. The red colour, his passion.

5. Being unyoked, his being righteous in all his conduct, and never under the yoke of sin.

6. Eleazar's sacrificing the heifer instead of Aaron, Numbers 19:3, signifies the change of the priesthood from the family of Aaron, in order that a new and more perfect priesthood might take place.

7. The red heifer being taken without the camp (Numbers 19:3) to be slain, points out the crucifixion of our Lord without the city.

8. The complete consuming of the heifer by fire, the complete offering of the whole body and soul of Christ as a sacrifice to God for the sin of man: for as the heifer was without blemish, the whole might be offered to God and as Christ was immaculate, his whole body and soul were made a sacrifice for sin.

9. As the fire of this sacrifice ascended up to God, so it points out the resurrection and ascension of our blessed Lord.

10. And as the ashes of this victim communicated a legal purity to those who were defiled, so true repentance, signified by those ashes, is necessary for the expiation of the offences committed after baptism. A great part of this is true in itself; but how little evidence is there that all these things were intended in the ordinance of the red heifer? Numbers 8:7.

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Bibliographical Information
Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/acc/numbers-19.html. 1832.