Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, July 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries
Numbers 19

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22


Numbers 18:1-32; Numbers 19:1-22


The statutes of chapter 18, are related to the rebellion of Korah by a clause in Numbers 18:5, "Ye shall keep the charge of the sanctuary and the charge of the altar: that there be wrath no more upon the children of Israel." The enactments are directed anew against any intrusion into the sacred service by those who are not Levites, and into the priesthood by those who are not Aaronites. It is clearly implied that the ministry of the tabernacle is held under a grave responsibility. The "iniquity of the sanctuary" and the "iniquity of the priesthood" have to be borne; and the Aaronites alone are commissioned to bear that iniquity. The Levites, though they serve, are not to touch the holy vessels lest they die. The priesthood, "for everything of the altar, and for that within the veil," is given to the Aaronites as a service of gift.

A certain "iniquity," corresponding to the holiness of the tabernacle and its vessels, attends the service which is to be done by the priests. Their entrance into the sacred tent is an approach to Jehovah, and from His purity there is thrown a defilement on human life. The idea thus represented is capable of fine spiritual realisation. With this embodied in the law and worship, there is no need to look in any other direction for that evangelical poverty of spirit which the better Israelites of an after time knew. Here prophecy found in the law a germ of deep religious feeling which, rising above tabernacle and altar, became the holy fear of Him who inhabits eternity. The creation throughout its whole range, in the very act of receiving existence, comes into contrast with the creative Will and is on a lower moral plane, to which the Divine purity does not accompany it. The seraphim of Isaiah’s vision feel this severance to a certain extent. They are so far apart from God that His holiness is not enjoyed unconsciously, as the element of life. It shines above them and determines their attitude and the terms of their praise. With their wings they cover their faces, and they cry to each other, "Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory." Even they "bear the iniquity" of the great temple of the world in which they minister. On fallen man that iniquity lies with almost crushing weight. "Woe is me!" says the prophet, "for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts." Thus the soul is brought into that profound consciousness of defect and pollution which is the preparation for reverent service of the Highest. The attribute of holiness remains with God always, and His mercy in forgiving sin in no way detracts from it. The eternity of God sets Him so far above transitory men that He can extend compassion to them. "Art Thou not from everlasting, O Jehovah my God, mine Holy One? We shall not die." But His touch is, to the sinful earth, almost destruction. When the Lord the God of hosts toucheth the land it melteth, and all that dwell therein mourn. {Amos 9:12} When a people falls from righteousness the Divine holiness burns against it like a consuming fire. "We are all become as one that is unclean, and all our righteousnesses are as a polluted garment: and we all do fade as a leaf, and our iniquities like the wind take us away Thou hast hid Thy face from us, and hast consumed us by means of our iniquities" (Isaiah 64:6-7).

The idea of the identification with the Holy God of the sanctuary dedicated to Him, so that from the porch of it falls the shadow of iniquity, is still further carried out in Numbers 18:1, where it is declared that Aaron and his sons shall "bear the iniquity" of their priesthood. The meaning is that the priesthood as an abstract thing, an office held from Jehovah and for Him, has a holiness like the sanctuary, and that the entrance into it of a man like Aaron brings to light his human imperfection and taint. And this corresponds to a consciousness which every one who deals with sacred truth and undertakes the conduct of Divine worship in the right spirit is bound to have. Entering on those exalted duties he "bears his iniquity." The sense of daring intrusion may almost keep back a man who knows that he has received a Divine call. To the heavenly muse the poet can but reply:-

"I am not worthy even to speak

Of Thy prevailing mysteries;

For I am but an earthly muse

And darken sanctities with song."

With regard to the Levites whom Aaron is to bring near "that they may be joined unto him," it is singular that their duties and the restrictions put on them are detailed here as if now for the first time this branch of the sacred ministry was being organised. In the actual development of things this may be true. Difficulties had to be overcome, the nature of the statutes and ordinances had to be explained. Now the time of practical initiation may have arrived. On the other hand, the attempt of Korah to press into the priesthood may have made necessary a recapitulation of the law of Levitical service.

For the support of the Aaronites the heave offerings, "even all the hallowed things of the children of Israel" were to be given "by reason of the anointing." The meal offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings, as most holy, were to be for the male Aaronites alone: heave offerings of sacrifice, again, "all the wave offerings," were to be used by the Aaronites and their families, the reservation being made that only those without ceremonial defilement should eat of them. The first-fruits of the oil and vintage and the first ripe of all fruits in the land were other perquisites. Further, the firstborn of man and of beast were to be nominally devoted; but firstborn children were to be redeemed for five shekels, and the firstlings of unclean beasts were also to be redeemed. The children of Aaron were to have no inheritance in the land. In these ways however, and by the payment to the priests of the tenth part of the tithes collected by the Levites, ample provision was made for them.

For the Levites, nine-tenths of all tithes of produce would appear to have been not only sufficient, but far more than their proportion. According to the numbers reported in this book, twenty-two thousand Levites-about twelve thousand of them adult men-were to receive tithes from six hundred thousand. This would make the provision for the Levite as much as for any five men of the tribes. An explanation is suggested that the regular payment of tithes could not be reckoned upon. There would always be Israelites who resented an obligation like this; and as the duty of paying tithes, though enjoined in the law, was a moral one, not enforced by penalty, the Levites were really in many periods of the history of Israel in a state of poverty. It was a complaint of Malachi even after the captivity, when the law was in force, that the tithes were not brought to the temple storehouses. The Deuteronomie laws of tithing, moreover, are different from those given in Numbers. While here we read of a single tithe which is to be for the Levites, which, if paid, would be more than sufficient for them, Deuteronomy speaks of an annual tithe of produce to be eaten by the people at the central sanctuary by way of a festival, to which children, servants, and Levites were to be invited. Each third year a special tithe was to be used in feasting, not necessarily at the sanctuary, and again the Levites were to have their share. It is supposed by some that there were two annual tithings and in the third year three tithings of the produce of the land. But this seems far more than even a specially fertile country could bear. There was no rent to be paid, of course; and if the tithes were used in a festival no great difficulty might be found. But it is clear at all events that more dependence was placed on the free will of the people than on the law; and the Levites and priests must have suffered when religion fell into neglect. Israel was not ideally generous.


The statute of Numbers 19:1-22 is peculiar, and the rites it enjoins are full of symbolism. It is implied that water alone was unable to remove the defilement caused by touching a dead body; but at the same time the taint was so common and might be incurred so far from the sanctuary that sacrifice could not always be exacted. In order to meet the case an animal was to be offered, and the residue of its burning was to be kept for use whenever the defilement of death had to be taken away.

A red heifer was to be chosen, the colour of the animal pointing to the hue of blood. The heifer was to be free from blemish, a type of vigorous and prolific life. The charge of the sacrifice was to be given to Eleazer the priest, though the high-priest himself might not undertake a duty the performance of which caused uncleanness. The ceremonies must take place not only outside the tabernacle court, but outside the camp, that the intensity of the uncleanness to be transferred to the animal and purged by the sacrifice may be clearly understood. The heifer being slain, the priest takes of its blood and sprinkles it towards the tent of meeting seven times, in lieu of the ordinary sprinkling on the altar. The whole animal is then burnt, and while the flame ascends the virtue of the residuent ashes is symbolically increased by certain other elements. These are cedarwood, which was believed to have special medicinal qualities, and also may have been chosen on account of the long life of the tree; some threads of scarlet wool which would represent the arterial blood, instinct with vital power; and hyssop which was employed in purification.

The priest, having presided at the sacrifice, was to wash his clothes in water and bathe, his flesh and hold himself unclean till the even. The assistant who fed the fire was in like manner unclean. These were both to withdraw; and one who was clean was to gather the ashes of the burning and, having provided some clean vessel within the camp, he was to store up the purifying ashes for future use by the people. Finally, the person who did this last duty, having become tainted like the others, was to wash his clothes and be unclean for the day. The ashes were to be used by mixing them with water to make "water for pollution"; that is, water to take away pollution. Special care was to be exercised that only living water, or water from a flowing stream, should be used for this purpose. It was to be applied to the defiled person, vessel, or tent, by means of hyssop. But, again, the man who used the water of purification in this way was to wash his clothes and be unclean until even.

Here we have an extra-sacerdotal rite, not of worship-for as ordinarily used there was no prayer to God, nor perhaps even the thought of appeal to God. It was religious, for the sense of defilement belonged to religion; but when under the necessity of the occasion any one applied the water of purification, his sense of acting the priestly part was reduced to the lowest point. The efficacy came through the action of the accredited priest when the heifer was sacrificed, it might be a year previously. So, although provision was made for needs occurring far from the sanctuary, no opening was left for any one to claim the power belonging to the sacerdotal.office. And in order to make this still more sure it was enacted (Numbers 19:21), that though the sprinkled water of purification cleansed the unclean, any one who touched it being himself clean should de facto be defiled. The water was declared so sacred that unless in cases where it was really required no one would be disposed to meddle with it. The sanctity of the tabernacle and the priesthood was symbolically carried forth to the most distant parts of the land. All were to be on their guard lest they should incur the judgment of God by abusing that which had ceremonial holiness and power.

The idea here is in a sense directly opposite to that which we associate with the sacred word, by which Divine will is communicated and souls are begotten anew. To use that word, to make it known abroad is the duty of every one who has heard and believed. He diffuses blessing and is himself blessed. There is no strict law hedging about with precautions the happy privilege of conveying to the sin-defiled the message of forgiveness and life. And yet may we not call to recollection here the words of Paul, "I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage; lest by any means, after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected." In a spiritual sense they should be clean who bear the vessels of the Lord; and every deed done, every word spoken in the sacred Name, if not with purity of purpose and singleness of heart, involves in guilt him who acts and speaks. The privilege has its accompanying danger; and the more widely it is used in the thousand organisations within and without the Church, the more carefully do all who use it need to guard the sanctity of the message and the Name. "In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some unto honour, and some unto dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these"-the profane babblings of those who do not handle the word of God aright-"he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, meet for the Master’s use, prepared unto every good work."


The statute of the water of purification stands closely related to one form of uncleanness, that occasioned by death. When death took place in a tent, every one who came into the tent and every one who was in the tent, every open vessel that had no covering bound upon it, and the tent itself (Numbers 19:18) were defiled; and the taint could not be removed in less than seven days. Whoever in the open field touched one who had been slain with a sword, or had otherwise died, or touched the bone of a man, or a grave contracted like defilement. For purification the sacred water had to be sprinkled on the defiled person, on the third day and again on the seventh day. Not only the aspersion with sacred water, but, in addition, cleansing of clothes and of the body was necessary, in order to complete the removal of the taint. And further, while any one was unclean from this cause, if he touched another, his touch carried defilement that continued to the close of the day. To neglect the statute of purification was to defile the tabernacle of Jehovah: he who did so was to be cut off from his people.

The law was made stringent, as we have already seen, partly no doubt for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease. And to that extent the preservation of health was presented as a religious duty; for only in that sense can we understand the statement that he who did not purify himself defiled the tabernacle of Jehovah. Yet the stringency cannot be altogether due to this, for a bone or a grave would not often communicate infection. The general principle must be received by way of explanation, that death is peculiarly repugnant to the life of God, and therefore contact with it, in any form, takes away the right of approach to the sanctuary. That this idea goes back to the fall and the death penalty then pronounced might seem a reasonable conclusion. But the same thought does not apply to the defilement connected with birth. If the statute regarding uncleanness by death rested on the connection of death with sin, making "death and mortal corruption an embodiment of sin," the thought was obscured by many other laws regarding uncleanness. The aim we must believe was to make the theocratic oversight of the people penetrate as many as possible of the incidents and contingencies of their existence.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 19". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/numbers-19.html.
Ads FreeProfile