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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Numbers 19

Verse 1

This short chapter deals entirely with the ceremonial sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer for the removal of sin, particularly the cleansing of defilement derived from touching corpses and things related to them.

The critical approach to this chapter is that of searching all ancient history for the purpose of finding "similar rites" in many ancient nations. It is true, of course, that many ancient peoples, such as the Navajo Indians of North America, the Basutos of South Africa, the Zulus, the Tibetans, and the Madangs of Borneo, and certain segments of ancient Roman, Greek, and Persian societies, practiced some form of "washing" or "bathing" which became a formal means of cleansing from contact with the dead. Gray has an extensive account of these.[1] In spite of the existence of such ceremonies, there is hardly any similarity between what is written here and any of those rites. Besides, it is quite possible, as Adam Clarke said, that "it is very likely that the Gentiles learned of these rites from the patriarchs, and we need not wonder at finding coincidences."[2]

As for the reason this particular method of cleansing from pollution deriving from contact with the dead appears just here in Moses' narrative, that is quite apparent. Of course, more elaborate laws for the removal of such uncleanness had already been given in Leviticus, especially the great services of the Day of Atonement, but, due to the sentence of God pronounced upon that whole generation in Numbers 14, and with a greatly increased number of dead that resulted from it, a special provision was required in Israel's circumstance at that time. The estimated number of the older part of that generation, sentenced to die within a thirty-eight year period would have augmented the number of the dying by at least a hundred every day. Besides that, "It even appears that the normal ceremonial observances in the wilderness at this time, even the routine sacrifices, were suspended through the poverty, distress, and disfavor with God under which they lived";[3] and this chapter gives every evidence of being a "short-form" substitute for the more elaborate ceremonies intended.

And what a blessing this proved to be! This ceremony was cheap, the red heifer being the commonest of beasts, and even that was provided at public expense, and the ashes of one red heifer properly preserved and economically used would last an indefinite time for a whole people. If there was ever a "short form," this was it.

Nevertheless, Christ left not himself without witness even in this emergency situation, for, as we shall point out a little later, there were indelible foreshadowings of the true Saviour in this sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer. It is significant that the introduction of this chapter at a period shortly after the sentence of death on older Israel strongly favors this view of it.

"And Jehovah spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, This is the statute of the law which Jehovah 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, and he shall bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face: and Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 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. 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 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 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 for impurity: it is a sin-offering. 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 forever."

That this ceremony was in some respects a composite is evident in the appearance of cedar, hyssop, and scarlet, conspicuous devices appearing in connection with the cleansing of lepers and other rites mentioned in Leviticus. But here, the only use of these items was that of identifying them with the ashes of the red heifer, showing that this ceremonial was probably "an interim arrangement," despite its being a statute forever (Numbers 19:10). "Forever" most certainly applies to the typology of this whole ceremony.

"Red heifer ..." We disagree with the renditions given by some that make this "red cow." The animal is certainly not called a "red cow" in the N.T., and despite the fact that the word "cow" can occasionally mean an older animal, even one with a calf (1 Samuel 6:7), Keil stated that the word for "heifer" here "does not generally mean cow, but a young cow, a heifer."[4] The N.T. confirms Keil's opinion on this (Hebrews 9:13).

"Red ..." is the color here specified, but "Hebrew terms for color were not precise."[5] Certain brownish-red colors were also called "red." The N.T. reference made no reference to the heifer's being "red." As for why this was named, no dogmatic answer seems possible. Some have supposed that this was the common color of most cattle, being therefore cheap, or of low price, but most scholars believe it was due to this being the color of blood, which is most certainly symbolized in the ceremony. Wade thought it was because the earth is red, beneath which the dead are buried.[6] "It foreshadows man's body, even as the very name "Adam" alludes to the red earth of which man's body is made."[7] Jamieson thought red was the specified color of the heifer because of its resemblance and difference exhibited in it to the "red bull offered as an annual sacrifice by the Egyptians."[8] The most likely meaning is that which associates the color with blood.

"There was a very good reason for this rite. When the children of Israel were on the march, and a man sinned, they could not stop right there and put up the tabernacle and offer the prescribed offerings, etc."[9] The generation to which these instructions were issued were already condemned, with death multiplying fantastically around them day by day, and yet it was most necessary that the instruction of those coming of age should continue, and that the long period of thirty-eight years should not result in the total forgetfulness of God by the younger ones who would yet inherit Canaan. The sacrifices in general were omitted; they did not circumcise their children; and it seems certain that many of the more elaborate ceremonies ordained earlier were not observed at all, or at least only occasionally during the wanderings. Note that the Scriptures called this period, "their wanderings," contrasting with "their journeyings" earlier. At this point, they were not really "going" anywhere. "The offering of this sacrifice `for sin' (Numbers 19:9) was marvelous; it kept them sweet on the wilderness march. This was their deodorant for the wilderness wanderings."[10]


As for what was symbolized by this ceremony, we reject as sheer nonsense the critical dictum that, "It is suggestive of pure magic."[11] Some find traces of demonology here, but as Gray said, "In none of these passages is there any suggestion that demonological beliefs ... were held by the Hebrews."[12] That there was indeed a genuine and pertinent symbolism in this ceremony is certain in the light of Hebrews 9:13; 13:11. In that N.T. passage the sprinkling of the ashes of the heifer is ranked with all the other sacrifices as typical of the blood of Christ, the detail of the heifer's being burnt "without (outside) the camp" being applied specifically as a prophecy of Christ's suffering "without the camp."

Also, note that this effective remedy of sin was not provided by the Jewish priesthood. The essential items of the ceremony were performed by "another" and "one" in the presence of Eleazar, the priest Eleazar being a spectator. So it was in the death of Christ that "others" at the instigation of the priesthood achieved the murder of Jesus on the Cross. Thus, the Mosaic system did not provide the effective remedy for sin; it was provided by one not even belonging to the tribe of Levi "in their presence" and in spite of their disapproval and opposition.

The perfection of the red heifer as being without spot or blemish carries exactly the same symbol of all the other Hebrew sacrifices that pointed to the coming of the sinless One who would make the true atonement, this being particularly noticeable in the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." The numerous mysteries about this rite should not obscure the essential beauty and effectiveness of such symbolism.

Verse 11

"He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days: the same shall purify himself therewith 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 a dead person, the body of a man that hath died, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of Jehovah; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water for impurity was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him."

"Unclean seven days ..." (Numbers 19:11). It will be remembered from Leviticus that uncleanness incurred by touching the dead body of an unclean animal lasted only "until even," but here the uncleanness from touching the corpse of a human being lasted "seven days." What a comment is this upon contamination in mankind resulting from his rebellion against God.

"The same shall purify himself ..." (Numbers 19:12). Note how the priesthood is so effectively by-passed, no priest whatever being involved. This has to be considered typical of the Kingdom of God in which all the members are a royal priesthood, having no need whatever of any other mediator, except Jesus Christ alone.

The mention of uncleanness from touching the dead is extensively mentioned in Leviticus, where, it will be remembered, the priests could not suffer such contamination for any except their closest families, and the High Priest could not suffer it for any one. Aaron was not even allowed to touch the bodies of Nadab and Abihu.

"The water for impurity ... sprinkled upon him ..." (Numbers 19:13). This "sprinkling" was no minimal affair. "It consisted of throwing the purifying water over the unclean person, the word meaning to `throw in handfuls,' or `bowlfuls'."[13]

Verse 14

"This is the law when a man dieth in a tent: everyone that cometh into the tent, and every one 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 in the open field toucheth one that is slain with the sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. And for the unclean they shall take of the ashes of the burning of the sin-offering; 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 the bone, or the slain, or the dead, or the 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 him; and he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even."

"When a man dieth in a tent ..." (Numbers 19:14). This does not restrict the legislation to tent-dwellers, being rather a reflection of the wilderness habitation of Israel when the law was given. "The LXX has `house' here instead of tent, and it appears that the law was transferred without modification from tent-dwellers to house-dwellers."[14]

Numbers 19:16 includes the bones, and presumably any other human relics, as well as graves as sources of uncleanness. It was from this that the Pharisees of Jesus' day whitewashed all the graves to prevent one's accidentally incurring uncleanness by unintentionally touching, or walking over one.

"And the clean person ..." (Numbers 19:19). Note that the priests were not even necessary in the cleansing ceremonies connected with the whole house (Matthew 23:7).

Verse 20

"But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of Jehovah: the water for impurity hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean. And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them: and he that sprinkleth the water for impurity shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water for impurity shall be unclean until even. And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall he unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even."

Another of the mysteries of this ceremony appears here. Why should the one sprinkling the water of impurity be unclean, whereas it was the same water that purified the unclean person? We have discovered no reasonable solution of such questions, of which there are several in this chapter. Perhaps it was designed to contain elements of mystery beyond the powers of full human comprehension. The best comment we have seen on this was that of Jamieson:

"It taught that the purifying efficacy was not inherent in the ceremony itself, but arose from the Divine appointment, as in other ordinances of religion, which are effective means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, but solely from the grace of God."[15]

Without a doubt, it was this "short-form" ceremony that principally achieved the continued purity of Israel during the wanderings, enabling them, at last to enter the Promised Land as God had promised.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.