Numbers 19:1. The people had complained of the strictness of the law which forbade their near approach to the tabernacle, (Numbers 17:13,) and the sudden death of so many by the late plague had put such numbers of their friends and relations into a state of legal uncleanness, which rendered them incapable of approaching it, and filled them with a fear of perishing in their uncleanness; in answer, therefore, to their complaints, and to free them from this fear, they are here shown how they might be purified from the greatest legal uncleanness, so as to approach God in his ordinances and among his people, without either fear or danger.
Numbers 19:2. This is the law which the Lord hath commanded — Or rather, had commanded. For it is probable that the water of purification had been made before, although the manner of making it is here first described. That they bring thee a red heifer — Provided at the expense of the congregation, because they were all to have a joint interest in it; as all believers, the spiritual Israel, have in Christ, typified by it. Here a question arises, why this sacrifice (if it may be so called) must be a heifer, when in other cases bullocks are appointed, and, in general, the male is preferred to the female. According to St. Austin and Theodoret, the weaker sex was to signify that infirmity of the flesh wherewith Christ was clothed. But the reason which Dr. Spencer assigns seems to be more plausible, which is, that it was in opposition to the Egyptian superstition. For though the Egyptians offered bullocks in sacrifice, they had cows in great veneration; as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Ælian, Porphyry, and others, unanimously declare. Porphyry says they would rather have eaten human flesh than that of cows. In order, therefore, to expose this folly of Egypt in the eyes of the Israelites, God directs Moses to appoint one solemn institution wherein a heifer was to be the victim. A red heifer — A fit colour to shadow forth the nature of sin, and the blood of Christ, from which this water and all other rites had their purifying virtue. The Jews say, that it was necessary the heifer should be entirely red, without the least mixture of any other colour, and that if but two hairs were black or white it was unfit for this sacrifice. Without spot — Hebrew, תמימה, temima, perfect; wherein is no blemish — Thus typifying the spotless purity and sinless perfection of the Lord Jesus. Upon which never came yoke — This was not necessary in other sacrifices; but may here be considered as signifying the perfect freedom of the Lord Jesus from every obligation to undertake our cause and die in our stead, save that which love laid him under. For when he said, Lo, I come, he was bound by no other cords than those of his great love to us.
Numbers 19:3. Ye shall give her unto Eleazar — Who was the second priest, and in some cases the deputy of the high-priest. To him this service was committed, and not to Aaron, because it was not fit that Aaron should be engaged in any thing that would render him ceremonially unclean, although but till the evening, Numbers 19:8. Yet as it was an affair of great moment, especially as typifying the sufferings and death of Christ, and purification through his blood, it was proper it should be performed by him who was next to Aaron in dignity. The chief priests of our Lord’s time had the principal hand in his death. That he may bring her forth without the camp — Partly because this heifer was reputed an unclean and accursed thing, being laden with the sins of all the people, and partly to signify that Christ should suffer without the gate, (Hebrews 13:12,) in the place where malefactors suffered.
Numbers 19:4. Sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle — This made it in some sort an expiation of sin; for the sprinkling of the blood before the Lord was the chief solemnity in all the sacrifices of atonement: therefore, though this was not done at the altar, yet, being done toward the sanctuary, it was intimated hereby that the virtue and validity of it depended upon the sanctuary, and were derived from it. Thus, in the satisfaction that was made to God by the death of Christ, our great High- Priest, who, by the eternal Spirit, (called, Luke 12:20, the finger of God,) offered himself without spot to God; he did, as it were, sprinkle his own blood directly before the sanctuary, when he said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” This also signifies how necessary it was, to the purifying our hearts, that satisfaction should be made to divine justice. This sprinkling of the blood put virtue into the ashes.
Numbers 19:5-6. One shall burn the heifer in his sight — This typified the extreme sufferings of our Lord, both in soul and body, as a sacrifice made by fire. Cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet — These were used in the cleansing of lepers, (Leviticus 14:6-7,) and were all here burned, and, as it were, offered to God, that they might be sanctified to this holy use in future.
Numbers 19:7. The priest shall be unclean — Partly to teach us the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood, in which the priest himself was defiled by some parts of his work, and partly to show that Christ himself, though he had no sin of his own, yet was reputed by men, and judged by God, as a sinful person, by reason of our sins, which were laid upon him.
Numbers 19:9. A man shall gather up the ashes — The ashes of the heifer were separated as well as they could be from the ashes of the wood wherewith it was burned, were pounded and sifted, and laid up for the use of the congregation as there was occasion, not only for that generation, but for posterity; for the ashes of this one heifer, the Jews tell us, were sufficient to season as many vessels of water as the people of Israel would need for many ages. Nay, they say this one served till the captivity, near one thousand years, and that there never was another heifer burned fill the time of Ezra. But to this tradition of theirs, grounded probably on the silence of ancient records, there seems to be no good reason to give credit, since, in the latter ages of their church, when they had more full records, they find an account of eight burned between Ezra’s time and the destruction of the second temple, which was only a space of about five hundred years. In the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, however, offered only once for all, we have an inexhaustible fund of merit, to which, by faith, his church may have recourse from generation to generation, for the purification of their consciences from dead works.
Numbers 19:12. He shall purify himself with it — With the water of separation. On the third day — To typify Christ’s resurrection on that day, by which we are cleansed or sanctified.
Numbers 19:13. Whosoever toucheth — If this transgression be done presumptuously; for if it was done ignorantly, he was only to offer a sacrifice. Defileth the tabernacle — By approaching to it in his uncleanness: for holy things or places were ceremonially defiled with the touch of any unclean person or thing. Is upon him — He continues in his guilt, not now to be washed away by this water, but to be punished by cutting off.
Numbers 19:16-17. With a sword — Or by any other violent way. Running water — Waters flowing from a spring or river, which are the purest. These manifestly signify God’s Spirit, which is oft compared to water, and by which alone, through the sacrifice of Christ, true purification is obtained. Those who promise themselves benefit by the righteousness of Christ, while they submit not to the influence of his Spirit, do but deceive themselves, for they cannot be purified by the ashes, otherwise than in the running water.
Numbers 19:18. A clean person shall take hyssop — In allusion to this David prays, Purge me with hyssop. Faith is the bunch of hyssop, wherewith the conscience is sprinkled and the heart purified. And the blood of Christ, being applied by faith, is termed, (Hebrews 12:24,) the blood of sprinkling, and with it we are said to be sprinkled from an evil conscience, (Hebrews 10:22,) that is, we are freed from the burden of distress, which arises from a sense of our guilt. And it is foretold that Christ should sprinkle many nations, Isaiah 52:15.
Numbers 19:20-21. That shall not purify himself — Shall contemptuously refuse to submit to this way of purification. Shall wash his clothes — Because he is unclean. It is strange, that the same water should cleanse one person, and defile another. But God would have it so, to teach us that it did not cleanse by any virtue in itself, or in the work done, but only by virtue of God’s appointment; and to show that the efficacy of God’s ordinances doth not depend upon the person or quality of his ministers, because the same person who was polluted himself could and did, in the use of God’s appointed means, cleanse others. He that toucheth the water — Either by sprinkling of it, or by being sprinkled with it; for even he that was cleansed by it was not fully cleansed as soon as he was sprinkled, but only at the even of that day.
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Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 19". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany