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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 19

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-22

General Means of Purification for those Defiled by Touching the Dead

Numbers 19:1-22

1, 2And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, 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. 3And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, 1that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face: 4And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood 2directly before the 3tabernacle of the congregation seven 5times. And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn: 6And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. 7Then 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. 8And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even. 9And 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 of 4separation: 5it is a purification for sin. 10And 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.

11He that toucheth the dead body of any 6man shall be unclean seven days. Hebrews 12:0 shall 7purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he fpurify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean. 13Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and 8purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of dseparation was not sprinkled upon him, 14he 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 9 is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 15And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon 16it, is unclean. And 10whosoever 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. 17And for an unclean person they shall take of the 11ashes 12of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and 13running water shall be put thereto in a vessel: 18And 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 14a bone, or lone slain, or l one dead, or la grave: 19And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day: and on the seventh day he shall 15purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even. 20But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not f purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from 16among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the Lord: the water of dseparation hath not been sprinkled upon him: he is unclean. 21And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, 17that he that sprinkleth the water of dseparation shall wash his clothes: and he that toucheth the water of dseparation shall be unclean until even. 22And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.


[Numbers 19:13; Numbers 19:20. כִּי מֵי נִדָּה לֹא־זרַ֗ק עָלָיו. “This is the only instance of מַיִם being construed with a verb in the singular” (Maurer). Such is Ewald’s construction also (see § 318 a), who refers it to a rule that “plurals whose meaning appears as a singular gradually come to be joined with the (verb in the) singular. But the solitariness of this (supposed) instance in the case of מַיִם shows that the word retained tenaciously its plural notion, and that in its case there was no gradual change to a use in the singular. The construction given by Naegelsbach, § 100, 2, sis better. The passive in Hebrew may receive the accusative of the remoter and of the nearer object. In the case before us it is the nearer object. As Naegelsbach says: “it seems that in this case the passive includes the notion of its active.” Accordingly the construction would be: for one did not sprinkle the water of purification upon him. But our passive with the object changed to subject, as in the text, correctly renders the meaning.—Tr.]


Once more the legislation reminds us of the great fatality occasioned by the rebellion of Koran. After this dreadful mortality it became apparent, that it would be impossible to attend to the purification of the persons defiled by corpses by the individual purifications heretofore prescribed. The most numerous priesthood would not suffice for this. Hence a general means of purification is instituted, the sprinkling of the defiled with the ashes of the red heifer dissolved in living water. Compare Keil in loc. This institution appears so strange that investigation has been very busy with it. See the literary references in Keil and Knobel in loc.

The very fact, however, that a previously existing custom is made an ordinance leads us to go back to the former elements. It is a fine trait of pious humanity that the declaration of the defilement by the dead comes out so gently and gradually. No doubt the defilement by the dead is indirectly included in the law of the guilt-offering (Leviticus 5:2-3), but not so definitely affirmed. One might indeed, by too great severity, easily do injury to the duties of love and compassion. But in the law for the priests (Leviticus 21:0) the assumption necessarily crops out that contact with dead bodies occasions defilement. So, too, in the law for the Nazirites (6). Here, too, the defilement is fixed at seven days. Thus the ordinance, taken quite generally, is here fixed, and further on with more exact specifications in Numbers 31:19; Numbers 31:24. Here a double absolution is commanded, viz., on the third and on the seventh day of exclusion from the congregation. As regards the rite of absolution, the law goes back to what was prescribed with reference to purifying lepers and leprous houses (Leviticus 14:0). In the latter case, the material to be sprinkled was the blood of a slaughtered bird dropped into living water into which the other bird has been dipped, combined with cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet. Here we have again the living (running) water, only the admixture is not blood but ashes, yet ashes of the blood-colored young cow, and then the additions, cedar-wood, hyssop and scarlet, which are burned in the burning of the cow. But the symbolism is meant to be the same. The red color of the heifer may therefore be better referred to the blood-color than to the color of blooming life. But we must consider that the fresh blood makes the blooming color of life (see below). And if the additions, cedar-wood, etc., symbolize life itself, then the blood, consequently, too, the blood-color, must signify the surrender of life.

This then leads to a further necessary distinction, viz., between death itself and the dead. Death is not only pure in itself, but also purifying (Romans 5:7), but all that may be called a corpse is unclean, yea, it may even become poison; and not only in a symbolical sense, but also in a physical it is unclean. We must emphasize this distinction, since Keil in many ways confounds, or at least confuse, death itself, and that which is dead, “that death and mortal corruption as the embodiment (?) of sin defiles and excludes from communion with the holy God, was a view banded down from the earliest times, from the fall of Adam and its consequences. The whole congregation incurred danger of being infected with the defilement of death.” It is a fact that all antiquity saw in death itself a sort of expiation, in the death of one devoted to God the actual expiation. But it is likewise a fact, that all antiquity instinctively saw in the corpses a monstrous peril for the living, and primarily in a physical sense. Everything that, as lifeless stuff, is severed from the actual man, by digestion or disease, and finally by the process of dying, threatens to react against life as a poison, unless it be given back to the elements, the chemical cosmos for dissolution, by the earth or by fire. Hence the defilement by corpses forms the central point of impurity. But this has a great meaning also in a symbolical sense. If it is wicked to wish to rob the living body of truth of a drop of blood, not to speak of a pound of flesh from the side of the heart, it is just as senseless to wish to preserve the dead elements, even though it were done by embalming in beautiful forms, whether of style or of party. Thus the custom of antiquity observed the most various degrees according to which touching the dead was regarded as defiling. See in Knobel, p. 95 sqq., a discussion of this. “The Egyptians appear to have had less stringent notions in this respect,” writes Knobel; he might know that the Egyptians, with their worship of the dead, with their embalming corpses for the mummy pits, represented decidedly the absolute conservatism in this respect. In our time it is known how fearfully a little pestilential poison, or cholera poison may react among the ranks of the living.

And yet the Israelites should bury their dead with sympathy and honorably. Hence only the high-priests and the Nazirites were unconditionally restrained from burials, the ordinary priest to a limited extent, the rest of the people not at all. Rather it is assumed that, according to the law of love, defilements must be unavoidable and occur frequently, so that the exaction of purification can only be met by a general means of purifying. Hence this means is called a fixed statute. Thus a pure life is assured, and also provision is made for the promptings of humanity, and the red heifer (as in the case of the jealousy-offering) is an evidence of a marvelous, deep penetration of the theocratic spirit. It is a monument of divine wisdom in the removal of apparent collisions within the law or in duty.

Numbers 19:1-2. The Red Heifer.—“This is חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה a statute of instruction. This combination of the two words commonly used for law and statute, is probably intended to give emphasis to the design of the law about to be given, to point it out as one of great importance, but not as a decretum absque ulla ratione, as the Rabbins suppose,” Keil. We would read: an ordinance for securing the Torah. Without this expedient, for instance, the law of purification would have occasioned endless offences on the right hand and on the left. The cow, δάμαλις, juvenca, must be red, free from blemish, not yet subjected to the yoke; all traits of the freshest life. Concerning תְּמִימָה see Keil, [who says that “אֲדֻמָּה, ‘of a red color,’ is not to be connected with תמימה in the sense of “quite red,” as the Rabbins interpret it; but תמימה, integra, is to be taken by itself, and the words which follow, ‘wherein is no blemish,’ to be regarded as defining it still more precisely.”—Tr.]. But it may be questioned whether the Rabbins are not right in this instance.

“The sacrificial beast must not be a bullock, as in the case of the usual sin-offerings of the congregation (Leviticus 4:14), but a female beast, because the female sex is the one that bears offspring.” Much more likely, because the purification was always to be applied only to a certain “number of persons of the nation” (Knobel), as indeed also the sins of individuals were expiated by a female sacrificial beast (Leviticus 4:27). Moreover, in this case, it is not a major trespass that is expiated, but a collective expiation is instituted, that shall constitute a substitute for expiations of the individual defilements (Leviticus 5:6). Hence one may not say, the slaughter of the heifer is called, Numbers 19:9; Numbers 19:17, a sin-offering, “in order to remind the congregation that death is the wages of sin.” Of course all sacrifices served that purpose in various senses; but here the beast is called sin-offering, because, as general sin-offering, it was to comprehend all individual sin-offerings with reference to defilement by corpses. “The antidote against the defilement of death (!) should be taken from a sin-offering.” It would be nearer the mark to say: death was to be put to death by this death of the most perfect blooming life; but what is spoken of here is an antidote against the effect of corpses. An elixir of life is prepared from the ashes of the most beautiful form of life, that is to deprive of its power the defiling (noxious) effects of the form of death, of the corpse. “Of a red color, not because the blood-red points to sin (Hengstenberg, following the Rabbins and earlier theologians), but as the color of the most intense life, that has its seat in the blood, and appears in the redness of the face (the cheeks, lips) (Baehr, Kurtz, Leyrer, et al.),” Keil.

Numbers 19:3-10. The preparation of the water of purification.—In this business as in Numbers 17:1, Eleazer must take the place of his father, since the latter, as high-priest, must keep away from everything connected with corpses, although the high-priest himself administered the sin-offering of a general sort (Leviticus 4:16). Moreover the whole act must be performed outside of the camp, for the heifer is originally no sacrifice, but only the young, fresh blood is made a substitute for many sacrifices. And one shall bring her forth, etc. The leading out and the slaughtering of the beast was to be attended to by any one, not by the priest. Sprinkle of her blood seven times, etc. (as in Leviticus 4:17); this the priest did, and with that what was slaughtered was a sin-offering, distinct from a curse-offering, incorporated in the sphere of sacrifices. It is a new feature here, that a sprinkling of blood toward the front of the Tabernacle from a distance, should avail the same as a sprinkling inside of the fore-court. All aspirations after the true life, even outside of the Theocracy and the Church, tend to Jehovah, and are accepted of Him. According to Keil, “the victim was to represent those members of the congregation who had fallen victims to temporal death as the wages of sin, and as such were separated from the earthly Theocracy.” This would be more according to 1 Peter 3:4., than one could demand from the Old Testament: but corpses are what are spoken of here, and not death. The dead person is purified from his corpse. After the sprinkling, the entire heifer is burnt, all the ingredients of this fresh life turn to ashes, Numbers 19:5. Does not this mean: all perishableness of earthly life serves, in the fire of God’s government, to abolish the curse of perishableness? Here with the rest is consumed the life of the life, the blood; along with the rest are burned the symbolical attributes of life, cedar-wood as macrobiotic life [longevity], hyssop as life renewed by purification; scarlet wool as the transit of the life through the blood, all which constitutes a concentration toward imperishable life, the sublime life. The persons that perform this ceremony, the priest, the burner, the gatherer of the ashes, have become unclean, but only for one day, because they have performed an act of purification without the camp; Knobel says: “because they acted for those that were unclean;” Keil: the uncleanness of sin and of death had passed over to the sin-offering. One cannot so explain in this way the words: he that toucheth the water of purification shall be unclean until even, Numbers 19:21; even the water for sprinkling rendered any one unclean that touched it, although as means of purification it was pure. He is unclean, even if he was not unclean, in so far as he is subjected to the rite of purification. The precious material of the ashes is treasured up in a clean place, but, which is very remarkable, outside the camp. A confession that the Levitical cultus in itself cannot annul the effects of death.

Numbers 19:11-13. The use. Whoever has become defiled from a corpse is unclean seven days. He must purify himself by an absolution (done by sprinkling) on the third and seventh day. In case he omits to do this, he defiles the dwelling of Jehovah and incurs the penalty of death.

Numbers 19:14-22. Nearer definitions: presence in or entrance into a tent of one dead defiles. Every vessel in the tent not closed by a cord becomes unclean. Any one that touches a dead person in the field, or a bone, or even a grave. In each case a portion of ashes is combined with living water and made into water for sprinkling. It is worthy of remark that no priest, no Levite is necessary, only a man that is clean is requisite to sprinkle the tent, the vessels, the defiled men. Free as this form was, its observance was to be correspondingly strict. The penalty of non-performance, which had as its effect the defilement of the Sanctuary, was death. Moreover, the man that accomplished the purification became unclean till evening; not less did every one and everything whom the unclean person touched become unclean till evening. This in legal form is the expression of the reminder of an unspotted and imperishable life. In a symbolical sense, then, the endeavor after complete purity of life is a statute for all time. The first sprinkling occurs on the third day, for the purification must proceed from the spirit; the second on the seventh day, on the day of the Sabbath number, of completed work of purification until the celebration of purity.


Chap. 19. The water of sprinkling. The blessing of the most blooming life should deprive of its power the defiling intercourse with the world of the dead, with corpses. The adjustment between piety toward the dead and care for the living. Once again: let one carefully discriminate between death itself and the bones of the dead, corpses. Ashes and water, two combined factors of the purifying preservation of life, emblems of all disinfection in the simplest fundamental form.


[1]and one shall bring.

[2]in the direction toward.

[3]Tent of Meeting.

[4]purification [literally: “water of uncleanness,” i.e., for removing uncleanness; similarly “water of sin,” Numbers 8:7.—Tr.]

[5]it is a sin offering.

[6]Heb. soul of man.




[10]whosoever in the open field toucheth, etc.

[11]Heb. dust.

[12]of the burning of the sin-offering.

[13]Heb. living water shall be given.


[15]absolve him; and he shall wash, etc.

[16]the midst of the assembly.


Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-19.html. 1857-84.
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