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ORDINANCE OF THE RED HEIFER
This law concerning the offering of the red heifer is unusual in all of its circumstances, but it is consistent with the character of the book of Numbers, where the wilderness journey is seen to take its toll in the death of many people. Any contact with dead body was contact with corruption. It is typical of moral corruption which is morally defiling to one who associates with it. There must be some method of purification from this.
A heifer, the female, is used, a contrast to the burnt offering which always required a male, for this was to satisfy the claims of God. But the offering of the red heifer was to meet the state of one who was defiled. Being red would emphasize the conspicuous character of the defilement. It must also be without blemish or defect, for it speaks of Christ (v.2). It must also never have borne a yoke, for a yoke infers a restraint upon the will, which was never true of Christ. When He says, "My yoke is easy and My burden it light" (Matthew 11:30), this is not a burden He assumes, but one He places upon a believer. The will of the Lord Jesus is perfect, and needs no restraint.
This heifer was not offered on the altar, but given to Eleazar, who took it outside the camp and slaughtered it there (v.3). Then he took some of its blood and sprinkled it seven times in front of the tabernacle (v.4). Following this the heifer was burned, still outside the camp (v.5). We are reminded that the sin offering on the great day of atonement was totally burned "outside the camp" (Leviticus 16:27), but it was first killed on the altar and its blood brought into the holiest of all and sprinkled seven times before and on the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:11; Leviticus 16:14).
Thus there are many differences, and verse 6 adds to these, for the priest threw into the fire that was burning the heifer, cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet. Cedar is the most stately and exalted of the trees and hyssop the lowliest shrub. Thus, whether a person is proud and exalted or lowly and despised, the flesh is the same in all mankind: whether great or small, we all need the same sacrifice. The scarlet again reminds us that our defilement is conspicuous. Association with corruption is serious, though the affected person was certainly not dead himself.
Even a priest, in making the offering of the red heifer, was in some measure affected by his identification with the defilement for which he made the offering, and had to wash his clothes, then was still unclean until the evening (v.7). Also, the one who burned the animal was affected in the same way (v.8). This is a strong warning to us that even in dealing righteously with defilement we cannot but be adversely affected. If we wrestled with a coal miner just come out of the mine we should become just as dirty as if we embraced him. Thus, in judging sin in others we are faced with the stern necessity of judging ourselves.
A man who was clean then was to gather the ashes of the heifer and store them outside the camp in a clean place (v.9). This again was a totally unusual thing, but the ashes were kept there to be used with water for the purifying of those who might be defiled by contact with a dead body. Thus a new sacrifice, just as today in every case of our being purified from defilement, we are reminded of the great value of the one sacrifice of Christ.
After thus, even the man who gathered the ashes became unclean by his association with this whole process, and after washing his clothes, remained unclean till evening (v.10). Thus the seriousness of the question of association is pressed upon us.
One who touched the dead body of anyone was ceremonially unclean for seven days. This of course is only typical of moral uncleanness, which we ourselves might contract by our contact with the corruption of death. There are many dead bodies in Christendom, of those who profess Christianity, but are dead toward God -- the religions of Mormonism, so called Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses and many more. These are deadly counterfeits, and if a believer associates with them, he cannot but be defiled. He may speak with individuals to see to bring them to the Lord, but to identify himself in fellowship with such groups is in practice approving of their corruption is deeply defiling.
God requires a complete purification from such contacts as implied in the seven days (v.11). The one who had touched a dead body was to purify himself on the third day with the water mixed with ashes from the red heifer, and again on the seventh day. Then he would be clean (v.12). One would therefore have to be completely separated from such dead bodies before being received to the fellowship of the Lord's people. If one would not purify himself, he would be cut off in death (v.13), a solemn sentence, but he would not be fit for fellowship of Israel.
If one died in a tent, all who came into the tent would be unclean seven days. Even every opened vessel in the tent would be unclean. Or if one touched a person who had died or was killed in the open field, he was unclean for seven days (v.16).
For purification some of the ashes of the heifer was put in a vessel and running water put on the ashes (v.17). Thus, together with the reminder of the sacrifice it was necessary to combine that which speaks of the Word of God energized by the Spirit of God. Water alone symbolizes the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26), but when running ("living" as it can be translated), this involves the activity of the Spirit (John 7:38-39). Restoring cannot be apart from the Word of God, and the work of the Spirit must be in this too.
A clean person then was to dip hyssop in the water, sprinkle it on the tent and all the vessels and all persons who had been defiled. This was done on the third day and also on the seventh day. This person after that must wash his clothes and bather in water, and at evening would be clean. Thus, even the one who was instrumental in restoring those defiled would require purifying himself.
But verse 20 insists that one who was defiled and refused purification would be cut off in death because he had defiled the sanctuary of the Lord (v.20). As to the one who sprinkled the water, it is again insisted that he himself must be purified, and also that whatever the unclean person touched would be unclean until the evening, though in these cases (vs..21-22) no death penalty is mentioned for any infraction.
We may wonder as to the practical value of all this to the people of Israel. Having so many rules and regulations, did they keep them all? And if not keeping them, did they always suffer the penalties that were threatened? The answer to both of these is certainly, No. In fact the significance of these things is specially for our admonition today, as 1 Corinthians 10:11 declares. We are not expected to carry these things out literally, but the spiritual and moral significance of them should be greatly impressed on the hearts of all Christians.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Numbers 19". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29