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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 19

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-10

The Israelites burned the red heifer to obtain ashes that they would add to the water of purification to make it more effective ritually as a cleansing agent. A heifer is a young female cow older than a calf. The priest killed it as a sin offering (Numbers 19:9; Numbers 19:17). Probably God required a female because the female was the bearer of life, and continued life is what this sacrifice provided. The Lord may have intended the red color to emphasize sin or perhaps the vitality of the heifer’s life. The animal was in its full strength having never borne a yoke. Of course, it was to be without a blemish (Numbers 19:2).

The Israelites were to slay the animal outside the camp because of its connection with sin and death. The high priest was to observe the slaying making sure the person in charge did it properly. This was a very important sacrifice. The sprinkling of the blood shows that this slaying was a sin offering. The animal died for the sin of the congregation (Numbers 19:4).

The offerers burned every sin offering for the whole congregation, including this one, outside the camp (Numbers 19:5). This one provided cleansing from the contamination of death that the nation had contracted through the death of its people. The heifer represented the Israelites who had died as a result of sin.

Cedar wood was not as subject to decay as most other woods and so represented the continuance of life. It was also aromatic when burnt and was probably either the common brown-berried cedar or the Phoenician juniper. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Trees," by F. N. Hepper.] Hyssop stood for purification from corruption, and the priests used it to apply blood, as in the Passover ritual. Scarlet wool symbolized the strong vital energy connected with blood (cf. Leviticus 14:6). All of these elements combined to signify all that strengthened life. The person in charge added these elements to the heifer ashes as the heifer was burning.

The priest collected and kept the ashes of the heifer for this offering. He combined them with the cleansing water as needed (Numbers 19:9) for the purification of unclean individuals in the nation. The sacrifice symbolically strengthened the life of the living Israelites and removed the uncleanness caused by contact with their dead brethren. Ashes, which normally defiled the clean, in this case purified the unclean. God, who is sovereign, has the authority to abrogate what is normal.

Verses 1-22

The law of purification from the uncleanness of death ch. 19

God gave this law so the nation might maintain purity as the older generation died off in the wilderness. Its purpose was not to remove sin itself but to remove the uncleanness that death represented because of its connection with sin. It was especially appropriate that God gave this law after the death of the approximately 15,000 who died as a result of Korah’s rebellion (ch. 16). Special provisions for cleansing were necessary in view of the large number of corpses.

Verses 11-22

Numbers 19:11-13 explain the general rules for the use of this water. Numbers 19:14-22 give a more specific description of the application of the general rules. Numbers 19:17-19 record the ceremony of purification.

"Animals are clean and unclean, not because they necessarily will or will not make a person sick if they are used as food; they are clean and unclean primarily because God desired his people to live in a world of discrimination (see esp. Leviticus 11:44-47). We may look back from a twentieth-century understanding of infection and disease and remark, ’How kind it was of God that some of the animals he declared to be unclean to Israel are foods that might be conveyers of disease.’ But the principal issue is distinction, discrimination, the marking out of that which is different from something else." [Note: Allen, pp. 861-62.]

Nonetheless we should not discount God’s care for His people’s physical welfare even though that may have been His secondary reason for legislating as He did.

"God recognized that the incubation period for most bacteria is within seven days. This means that after exposure to a disease, a person will know within seven days whether the disease is contracted. . . .

". . . the ’unclean’ provision of seven days was practical for most acute, bacterial diseases fatal in that day.

"Hand washing and clothes washing with proper drying were prescribed in Numbers 19:19 . . . Numbers 19:21 notes that ’anyone who touches the water of cleansing will be unclean till evening.’ These provisions recognize that not only is washing important in mechanically cleansing one from microbes, but drying (’until evening’) is also essential. Pathogenic microbes can live in moisture that remains on skin, dying when the skin is eventually dried. Furthermore Numbers 19:13; Numbers 19:18-21 refers to the provision of ’sprinkling’ the water, which indicates the need for running water, not stagnant water. Again this is a more effective means of cleansing, though more cumbersome.

"Did the average Israelite understand the significance of this preventive medical standard God imposed? No doubt he did not. However, God knew and in His wisdom cared for His people." [Note: Jay D. Fawver and R. Larry Overstreet, "Moses and Preventive Medicine," Bibliotheca Sacra 147:587 (July-September 1990):280-81.]

This sacrifice, then, was a kind of instant sin offering and provided for the cleansing of those who had become ceremonially unclean through contact with a corpse. The unclean person who refused to purify himself would suffer death (Numbers 19:13; Numbers 19:20). To refuse cleansing was to repudiate the divine revelation concerning the relationship of sin and death. This sacrifice kept the Israelites free from the defilement that would hinder their fellowship with God (cf. 1 John 1:7-9; Hebrews 9:13-14). Jacob Milgrom believed this offering was thought to exorcize a demon that came with corpse contamination. [Note: Jacob Milgrom, "The Paradox of the Red Cow (Num. xix)," Vetus Testamentum 31:1 (1981):62-72.]

"This chapter provides an alternative remedy which marked the seriousness of the pollution caused by death, yet dealt with it without the cost and inconvenience of sacrifice. Instead, those who have come in contact with the dead can be treated with a concoction of water that contains all the ingredients of a sin offering." [Note: G. Wenham, Numbers, p. 146.]

"The writer’s concern for the ritual of the red heifer at this point in the narrative . . . finds its roots in the earliest narratives of Genesis where death itself is viewed as the ultimate defilement of God’s good creation. As such his point appears to be to show that just as in the beginning, so now among God’s covenant people, death is the arch enemy." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 395.]

This sacrifice is similar to the sacrifice of Christ that cleanses the Christian from the defilement that we contract as we live in the world (1 John 1:9).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-19.html. 2012.
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