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Friday, December 1st, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 19

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-22



Numbers 19:1

And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron. On the addition of the second name see on Numbers 18:1. There is no note of time in connection with this chapter, but internal evidence points strongly to the supposition that it belongs to the early days of wandering after the ban. It belongs to a period when death had resumed his normal, and more than his normal, power over the children of Israel; when, having been for a short time expelled (except in a limited number of cases—see above on Numbers 10:28), he had come back with frightful rigour to reign over a doomed generation. It belongs also, as it would seem, to a time when the daily, monthly, and even annual routine of sacrifice and purgation was suspended through poverty, distress, and disfavour with God. It tells of the mercy and condescension which did not leave even the rebellious and excommunicate without some simple remedy, some easily-obtainable solace, for the one religious distress which must of necessity press upon them daily and hourly, not only as Israelites, but as children of the East, sharing the ordinary superstitions of the age. Through the valley of the shadow of death they were doomed at Kadesh to walk, while their fellows fell beside them one by one, until the reek and taint of death passed upon the whole congregation. Almost all nations have had, as is well known, an instinctive horror of death, which has every. where demanded separation and purification on the part of those who have come in contact with it. And this religious horror had not been combated, but, on the contrary, fostered and deepened by the Mosaic legislation. The law everywhere encouraged the idea that sin and death were essentially connected, and that disease and death spread their infection in the spiritual as well as in the natural order of things. Life and death were the two opposite poles under the law, as under the gospel; but the eye of faith was fixed upon natural life and natural death, and was not trained to look beyond. It could never have occurred to a Jew to say, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." To die, however nobly, was not only to be cut off from God oneself, but to become a curse and a danger and a cause of religious defilement to those around. There is, therefore, a beautiful consistency between this enactment and the circumstances of the time on the one hand, between this enactment and the revealed character of God on the other hand. Although they were his covenant people no more, since they were under sentence of death, yet, like others, and more than others, they had religious horrors and religious fears—not very spiritual, perhaps, but very real to them; these horrors and fears cried to him piteously for relief, and that relief he was careful to give. They must die, but they need not suffer daily torment of death; they must not worship him in the splendid and perfect order of his appointed ritual, but they should at least have the rites which should make life tolerable to them. It appears to be a mistake to connect this ordinance especially with the plague which occurred after the rebellion of Korah. It was not an exceptional calamity, the effects of which might indeed be widespread, but would be soon over, which the people had to dread exceedingly; it was the daily mortality always going on in every camp under all circumstances. If only the elder generation died off in the wilderness, this alone would yield nearly 100 victims every day, and by each of these a considerable number of the survivors must have been defiled. Thus, in the absence of special provision, one of two things must have happened: either the unhappy people would have grown callous and indifferent to the awful presence of death; or, more probably, a dark cloud of religious horror and depression would have permanently enveloped them.

Numbers 19:2

This is the ordinance of the law. חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה. Law-statute: an unusual combination only found elsewhere in Numbers 31:21, which also concerns legal purifications. A red heifer. This offering was obviously intended, apart from its symbolic significance, to be studiedly simple and cheap. In contradiction to the many and costly and ever-repeated sacrifices of the Sinaitic legislation, this was a single individual, a female, and of the most common description: red is the most ordinary colour of cattle, and a young heifer is of less value than any other beast of its kind. The ingenuity indeed of the Jews heaped around the choice of this animal a multitude of precise requirements, and supplemented the prescribed ritual with many ceremonies, some of which are incorporated by the Targums with the sacred text; but even so they could not destroy the remarkable contrast between the simplicity of this offering and the elaborate complexity of those ordained at Sinai. Only six red heifers are said to have been needed during the whole of Jewish history, so far-reaching and so long-enduring were the uses and advantages of a single immolation. It is evident that this ordinance had for its distinguishing character oneness as opposed to multiplicity, simplicity contrasted with elaborateness. Without spot, wherein is no blemish. See on Le Numbers 4:8. However little, comparatively speaking, the victim might cost them, it must yet be perfect of its kind. The later Jews held that three white hairs together on any part of the body made it unfit for the purpose. On the sex and color of the offering see below. Upon which never came yoke. Cf. Deuteronomy 21:3; 1 Samuel 6:7. The imposition of the yoke, according to the common sentiment of all nations, was a species of degradation, and therefore inconsistent with the ideal of what was fit to be offered in rids ease. That the matter was wholly one of sentiment is nothing to the point: God doth not care for oxen of any kind, but he doth care that man should give him what is, whether in fact or in fancy, the best of its sort.

Numbers 19:3

Unto Eleazar the priest. Possibly in order that Aaron himself might not be associated with dearly, even in this indirect way (see Numbers 19:6). In after times, however, it was usually the high priest who officiated on this occasion, and therefore it is quite as likely that Eleazar was designated because he was already beginning to take the place of his father in his especial duties. Without the camp. The bodies of those animals which were offered for the sin of the congregation were always burnt outside the camp, the law thus testifying that sin and death had no proper place within the city of God. In this case, however, the whole sacrifice was performed outside the camp, and was only brought into relation with the national sanctuary by the sprinkling of the blood in that direction. Various symbolic reasons have been assigned to this fact, but none are satisfactory except the following:—

1. It served to intensify the conviction, which the whole of this ordinance was intended to bring home to the minds of men, that death was an awful thing, and that everything connected with it was wholly foreign to the presence and habitation of the living God.

2. It served to mark with more emphasis the contrast between this one offering, which was perhaps almost the only one they had in the wilderness, and those which ought to have been offered continually according to the Levitical ordinances. The red heifer stood quite outside the number of ordinary victims as demanded by the law, and therefore it was not slain at any hallowed altar, nor, necessarily, by any hallowed hand.

3. It served to prefigure in a wonderful and indeed startling way the sacrifice of Christ outside the gate. In later days the heifer was conducted upon a double tier of arches over the ravine of Kedron to the opposite slope of Olivet. That he may bring her forth … and one shall slay her. The nominative to both these verbs is alike unexpressed. Septuagint, καὶ ἐξάξουσιν … καὶ σφάξουσιν. In the practice of later ages the high priest led her out, and another priest killed her in his presence, but it was not so commanded.

Numbers 19:4

And Eleazar … shall … sprinkle of her blood directly before (אֵל־נֹכַח פְּנֵי) the tabernacle. By this act the death of the heifer became a sacrificial offering. The sprinkling in the direction of the sanctuary intimated that the offering was made to him that dwelt therein, and the "seven times" was the ordinary number of perfect performance (Le Numbers 4:17, &c.).

Numbers 19:5

One shall burn the heifer. See on Exodus 29:14. And her blood. In all other cases the blood was poured away beside the altar, because in the blood was the life, and the life was given to God in exchange for the life of the offerer. This great truth, which underlay all animal sacrifices, was represented in this case by the sprinkling towards the sanctuary. The rest of the blood was burnt with the carcass, either because outside the holy precincts there was no consecrated earth to receive the blood, or in order that the virtue of the blood might in a figure pass into the ashes and add to their efficacy.

Numbers 19:6

Cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop. See on Le Numbers 14:4-6 for the significance of these things. The antiseptic and medicinal qualities of the cedar (Juniperus oxycedrus) and hyssop (probably Capparis spinosa) make their use readily intelligible; the symbolism of the "scarlet" is much more obscure.

Numbers 19:7

The priest shall be unclean until the even, i.e; the priest who superintended the sacrifice, and dipped his finger in the blood. Every one of these details was devised in order to express the intensely infectious character of death in its moral aspect. The very ashes, which were so widely potent for cleansing (Numbers 19:10), and the cleansing water itself (Numbers 19:19), made every one that touched them, even for the purifying of another, himself unclean. At the same time the ashes, while, as it were, so redolent of death that they must be kept outside the camp, were most holy, and were to be laid up by a clean man in a clean place (Numbers 19:9). These contradictions find their true explanation only when we consider them as foreshadowing the mysteries of the atonement.

Numbers 19:9

For a water of separation, i.e; a water which should remedy the state of legal separation due to the defilement of death, just as in Numbers 8:1-26 the water of purification from sin is called the water of sin.

Numbers 19:10

It shall be unto the children of Israel … a statute for ever. This may refer only to the former part of the verse, according to the analogy of Numbers 19:21, or it may refer to the whole ordinance of the red heifer.

Numbers 19:11

Shall be unclean seven days. The fact of defilement by contact with the dead had been mentioned before (Le Numbers 21:1; Numbers 5:2; Numbers 6:6; Numbers 9:6), and had no doubt been recognized as a religious pollution from ancient times; but the exact period of consequent uncleanness is here definitely fixed.

Numbers 19:12

With it. בּו i.e; as the sense clearly demands, with the water of separation.

Numbers 19:13

Defileth the tabernacle of the Lord. On the bearing of this remarkable announcement see Le Numbers 15:31. The uncleanness of death was not simply a personal matter, it involved, if not duly purged, the whole congregation, and reached even to God himself, for its defilement spread to the sanctuary. Cut off from Israel, i.e; excommunicate on earth, and liable to the direct visitation of Heaven (cf. Genesis 17:14).

Numbers 19:14

This is the law. הַתּוֹרָה. By this law the extent of the infection is rigidly defined, as its duration by the last. In a tent. This fixes the date of the law as given in the wilderness, but it leaves in some uncertainty the rule as to settled habitations. The Septuagint, however, has here ἐν οἰκίᾳ, and therefore it would appear that the law was transferred without modification from the tent to the house. In the case of large houses with many inhabitants, some relaxation of the strictness must have been found necessary.

Numbers 19:15

Which hath no covering bound upon it. So the Septuagint (ὅσα οὐχὶ δεσμὸν καταδέδεται ἐπ αὐτῷ), and this is the sense. In the Hebrew פָּתִיל, a string, stands in apposition to חָּמִיד, a covering. If the vessel was open, its contents were polluted by the odour of death.

Numbers 19:16

One that is slain with a sword. This would apply especially, it would seem, to the field of battle; but the law must certainly have been relaxed in the case of soldiers. Or a bone of a man, or a grave. Thus the defilement was extended to the mouldering remains of humanity, anti even to the tombs (μνήματα. Cf. Luke 11:44) which held them.

Numbers 19:17

Running water. Septuagint, ὕδωρ ζῶν (cf. Le Numbers 14:5; John 4:10).

Numbers 19:18

Shall take hyssop. See Exodus 12:22, and cf. Psalms 51:7.

Numbers 19:19

On the third day, and on the seventh day. The twice-repeated application of holy water marked the clinging nature of the pollution to be removed; so also the repetition of the threat in the following verse marked the heinousness of the neglect to seek its removal.

Numbers 19:21

It shall be a perpetual statute. This formula usually emphasizes something of solemn importance. In this case, as apparently above in Numbers 19:10, the regulations thus enforced might seem of trifling moment. But the whole design of this ordinance, down to its minutest detail, was to stamp upon physical death a far-reaching power of defiling and separating from God, which extended even to the very means Divinely appointed as a remedy. The Jew, whose religious feelings were modeled upon this law, must have felt himself entangled in the meshes of a net so widely cast about him that he could hardly quite escape it by extreme caution and multiplied observances; he might indeed exclaim, unless habit hardened him to it, "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"


Numbers 19:1-22


We have in this chapter, spiritually, death, and the remedy for death. Death is treated of not as the mere physical change which is the end of life, nor as the social and domestic loss which breaks so many hearts and causes so many tears to flow, but as the inseparable companion and, as it were, alter ego of sin, whose dark shadow does not merely blight, but pollutes, which shuts out not so much the light of life as the light of God. It is death, not as he is to the dead, but as he is to the living, and to them in their religious life. It is true that according to the letter it is physical death only which is spoken of, and the ceremonial uncleanness which ensued upon contact with it. It is true also that this uncleanness, so minutely regulated, and so held in abhorrence, was a matter of superstition. The last relics of religious feeling (or, upon another view, its first dawnings) in the lowest savages take the form of a superstitious dread of the lifeless remains of the departed and of their resting-place. There is in truth nothing in the touch of the dead which can infect or contaminate the living, or affect in the least their moral and spiritual condition. Nevertheless, most of the nations (and especially the Egyptians) elaborated the primitive superstition of their forefathers into a code of religions sentiment and observance which took a firm hold of the popular mind. It pleased God to adopt this primitive and widespread superstition (as in so many other cases) into his own Divine legislation, and to make it a vehicle of deep and important spiritual truths, and an instrument for preparing the national mind and conscience for the glorious revelation of life and incorruption through Christ. Only in the light of the gospel can the treatment of death in this chapter be edifying or indeed intelligible, for otherwise it were only the imposition of a ceremonial yoke, extremely burdensome in itself, and grounded upon a painful superstition. But it is sufficient to point out that death is only treated of in connection with its remedy, even as eternal death is only clearly revealed in that gospel which tells us of everlasting life. In this remedy for death we have one of the most remarkable types of the atonement, and of its application to the cleansing of individual souls, to be found in the Old Testament. The very exceptional character of the ordinance, and its isolation from the body of the Mosaic legislation; the singular and apparently contradictory character of its details, as well as the great importance assigned to it both in the ordinance itself and in the practice of the Jews; would have led us to look for some eminent and distinctive foreshadowings of the one Sacrifice once offered. The New Testament confirms this natural expectation, not indeed dwelling upon details, but ranking "the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean" side by side with "the blood of bulls and of goats," as typifying the more prevailing expiation made by Christ. We have, therefore, in this ordinance Christ himself in the oneness of his election and sacrifice; Christ in the perfectness, freedom, and gentleness of his untainted life; Christ in many circumstances of his rejection and death; Christ in the enduring effects of his expiation to do away the contagion and terror of spiritual death; in a word, we have him who by dying overcame death, and delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. In drawing out this great type we may consider—

1. The circumstances under which the ordinance was given.

2. The choice of the victim.

3. The manner of sacrifice.

4. The application of its cleansing virtue.


1. That the ordinance of the red heifer was given not at Sinai, but in the wilderness of Paran, the region of exile, of wandering; the land of the shadow of death, which was but the ante-chamber of the tomb and of eternal darkness to that generation. The whole Levitical system had been given in the wilderness, but in the wilderness as a land of liberty to serve God, and as the threshold of the promised land of life flowing with milk and honey. Even so Christ was given to us when we lay in darkness and the shadow of death, living in a world whose prince was Satan, wherein was no rest, and wherefrom was no escape, save into the gloomier land beyond the grave.

2. That it was given at a time who, Israel lay under condemnation for rebellion, and under sentence of death; when death, who had been restrained for a season, was let loose upon them with multiplied terrors to prey upon them until they were consumed, filling the minds of them that lived with horror and despair. Even so Christ was given unto a dying race, lying under the wrath of God for sin, and in perpetual bondage through certain fear of coming death. Death was the universal tyrant whose terror sickened the boldest heart and saddened the uneasy mirth of the gayest.

3. That it was given at a time when the routine of sacrifices and holy rites was abandoned, partly as out of their power to maintain, partly as useless for such as were alienated from God and appointed to die. How should men eat the passover who had but escaped from Egypt to perish miserably in a howling wilderness? Even so Christ was given to a race which had little belief and less comfort in its religious rites, Jewish or Gentile; which knew itself alienated from God, excluded from heaven; which had tried all outward and formal rites, and found that they could not deliver from the fear of death. Even the Divinely-given, religious system of Moses had not a word to say about the life to come, could not whisper one syllable of comfort to the dying soul.


1. That the victim was (so far as could possibly be) one, and one only; in striking contrast to the multiplicity and constant repetition (with its consequent difficulty and expense) of the ordinary sacrifices of the law. One red heifer availed for centuries. Only six are said to have been required during the whole of Jewish history; for the smallest quantity of the ashes availed to impart the cleansing virtue to the holy water. Had it indeed been possible to preserve the ashes from unavoidable waste, no second red heifer would ever have needed to be offered. Even so the sacrifice of Christ is one, and only one, as opposed to all the offerings of the law; and this because the availing power of it and the cleansing virtue of his atonement endure for ever, without the slightest loss of efficacy or possibility of being exhausted.

2. That the victim was a heifer, not a male animal, as in almost all other cases. Even so we may believe with reverence that there was a distinctly feminine side to the character of Christ, a tenderness and gentleness which might have been counted weakness had it not been united with so much masculine force of command and energy of will. And this was necessary to the perfect Man; for whereas Eve was taken from out of Adam after his creation, this points to the subtraction from the ideal man of some elements of his nature, so that man and woman only represent between them a complete humanity. As, therefore, we ever find in the greatest men some strongly-marked feminine traits of character, so we may believe that in Christ, who was the second Adam, and (in a special sense) the seed of the woman, this feminine side of the perfect ideal was fully restored.

3. That the victim was red. Even so our Lord, as touching his bodily nature, was of that common earth, which is red, from which Adam took his name. Moreover, he was red in the blood of his passion, as the prophet testifies (Isaiah 63:1, Isaiah 63:2; Revelation 19:13).

4. That it was without blemish. A matter about which the Jews took incredible pains, three hairs together of any but the one colour being held fatal to the choice. Even so our Lord, even by the testimony of Jews and heathens, was without fault and irreproachable (John 7:46; John 18:23; John 19:4; 1 Peter 2:22).

5. That no yoke had ever come upon it. The innocent freedom of its young life had never been harshly bent to the purposes and plans of others. Even so our Lord was never under any yoke of constraint, nor was any other will ever imposed upon him. It is true that he made himself obedient to his Father in all things, to his earthly parents within their proper sphere, and to his enemies in his appointed sufferings; but all this was purely voluntary, and it was of the essence of his perfect sacrifice that no constraint of any sort was ever put upon him. It was his own will which accepted the will of others, as shaping for him his life and destiny.


1. That the red heifer was led outside the camp (or city) of God to die in an unhallowed place—a thing absolutely singular, even among sacrifices for sin. Even so our Lord, by whose death we are restored to life, suffered without the gate (Hebrews 13:12); partly because be was despised and rejected, but partly because he was an anathema, made a curse for us, concentrating upon himself all our sin and death; partly also because he died not for that nation only (whose home and heritage was the holy city), but for the whole wide world beyond.

2. That the heifer was delivered to the chief priest, and by him led forth to die, but slain by other hands before his face. Even so our Lord was delivered unto Caiaphas and the Jewish priesthood, and by them was he brought unto his death; but he was crucified by alien hands, not theirs,—God so over-ruling it (John 18:31),—yet in their presence, and with their sanction and desire.

3. That the death of the heifer was not in appearance sacrificial, but became so when its blood was sprinkled towards the sanctuary by the finger of, the priest. Even so the death of Christ upon the cross was not made an atoning sacrifice by its outward incidents, or even by its extreme injustice, or by the hatred of the Truth which prompted it; for then it had been only a murder, or a martyrdom, and not equal to many ethers in the cruelty shown or the suffering patiently endured; but it became a true propitiatory sacrifice by virtue of the deliberate will and purpose of Christ, whereby he (being Priest as well as Victim) offered his sufferings and death in holy submission and with devout gladness to the Father. As the priest sprinkled of the blood with his own finger towards the sanctuary, and made it a sacrifice, so Christ, by his will to suffer for us and to be our atonement with God, imparted an intention or direction to his death which made it in the deepest sense a sacrifice (Luke 12:50; John 17:19; Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:8-10).

4. That the heifer was wholly consumed with fire, as was the case with all sin offerings for the sins of many, as a thing wholly due unto God. Even so Christ was wholly given up by himself unto that God who is a consuming fire, a fire of wrath against sin, a fire of love towards the sinner. In this flame of Divine zeal against sin, of Divine zeal for souls, was Christ wholly consumed, nothing in him remaining indifferent, nothing escaping the agony and the cross (cf. John 2:17).

5. That, contrary to the universal rule, the blood of the heifer was not poured away, but was burnt with the carcass, and so was represented in the ashes. Even so "the precious blood" of Christ which he shed for our redemption did not pass away; the cleansing virtue of it and the abiding strength of it remain for ever in the means and ministries of grace which we owe to his atoning death.

6. That cedar, hyssop, and scarlet were mingled in the burning. Even so there are for ever mingled in the passion of Christ, never to be lost sight of if we would view it aright, these three elements: fragrance and incorruption, cleansing efficacy, martial and royal grandeur. If we omit any of these we do wrong to the full glory of the cross; for these three belong to him, as the Prophet, the fragrance of whose holy teachings has filled the world; as the Priest, who only can purge us with hyssop that we may be clean; as the King, who never reigned more gloriously than on the tree (see So Numbers 3:11; Matthew 27:28; Colossians 2:15).

7. That the priest himself and the man that slew the heifer became unclean, contrary to the usual rule. Even so the Jewish priesthood and the heathen soldiery who slew our Lord, albeit he died for them as well as for others, yet incurred a fearful guilt thereby (Acts 2:23).


1. That the ashes were, so far as could be presented to the senses, the indestructible residue of the entire victim. including its blood, after the sacrifice was completed. Even so the whole merits of Christ—the entire value and efficacy of his self-sacrifice, of his life given for us, of all that he was, and did, and suffered—remain ever, and abide with us, and are available for our cleansing.

2. That the ashes of the heifer were laid up, but not by the priest, or by any one concerned in its death, without the camp in a clean place. Even so the merits of Christ and the efficacy of his sacrifice are preserved for ever; yet not in the Jerusalem below, nor by any agency of them that slew him; but he himself (see 4.) hath laid them up for the use of all nations in the Church which is "clean," as governed and sanctified by his Holy Spirit.

3. That the ashes of the heifer when mixed with "living water" were made a purification for sin unto Israel to deliver them from the bondage of death. Even so the merits of Christ and the virtue of his atonement are available for all, through the operation of the Holy Spirit (John 4:10; John 7:38), to purify front all sin, and to set free from the power of death.

4. That when any unclean person was to be purged, it must be done by "a clean person," not by any one having need of cleansing himself. Even so the cleansing efficacy of Christ's atonement must be applied to the sinful soul only by one that is clean, and not by any one under like condemnation with himself. And this "clean person" can only be Christ himself, who only is holy, harmless, and undefiled (Job 14:4; Job 15:14; Romans 3:23; Galatians 3:22); wherefore the sprinkling of purification from sin and death can only be effected by Christ himself.

5. That the clean person did not apply the water for purification with his finger, as when the priest sprinkled the blood, but by means of hyssop, a lowly herb used as an aspergillum (cf. Exo 12:22; 1 Kings 4:33; Psalms 51:7). Even so it hath pleased the Lord to apply the cleansing virtue of his blood and passion to souls unclean not directly and personally, as he offered his sacrifice of himself to the Father, but through lowly means and ministries of grace, by means of which he himself is pleased to work (cf. John 4:1, John 4:2; John 13:20; John 20:21-23; 1Co 10:16; 2 Corinthians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 4:7; Galatians 3:27).

6. That the unclean person was to be sprinkled on the third day and on the seventh day ere he was wholly cleansed from the savour of death. Even so must the cleansing virtue of the atonement come unto us in the twofold power,

(1) of the resurrection, wherein we rise from the death of sin unto the active life of righteousness;

(2) of the holy sabbath, wherein we rest from our own works by renouncing self and living for God and for our neighbour. The cleansing which has not this double moral aspect is not perfect—the savour of death is not taken away. Nor is the order inverted because the third day (of resurrection) comes before the seventh (of rest); for as a fact the activities of the new life in Christ do precede in the soul the cessation of the old life, which is the spiritual sabbath.


1. That the Jews were taught most emphatically and most minutely to regard death as a foul and horrible thing, the slightest contact with which alienated from God and banished from his worship. Even so are we taught that death is the shadow of sin (Romans 5:12) and the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), and the active enemy of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 6:8; Revelation 20:14), and that the death of Christ was an awful mystery connected with his being made "sin" and "a curse" for us (Matthew 27:46, and the Passion Psalms passim). Yet in the law the horror is concentrated upon physical death, whereas in the gospel it is removed from this and attached to the second death, of the soul.

2. That whoso came into contact, even indirectly, with the dead, or even entered a tent where any corpse lay, was unclean a whole seven days. Far from being able to give any of his own life to the deceased, he himself was infected with his death. Even so are we powerless of ourselves to do good to the spiritually dead beside us, but rather are certain to catch front them the contagion of their death. None can live (naturally) among those that are dead in trespasses and sins without to some extent becoming like them.

3. That this rule applied as much to the Levitical priests as to any other; nay, the very high priest who superintended the sacrifice, and the man who applied the holy water, became themselves unclean. Even so there is none of us, whatever his office may be, or howsoever he may be occupied about religious things, that does not contract defilement from the dead world and the dead works which are around him. Our Lord alone could utterly disregard the infection of death, because in his inherent holiness he was proof against its infection.

4. That there was no cleansing for those defiled with death but by means of the sprinkling of the ashes. Even so there is no deliverance from the sentence and savour of death which hath passed upon us but through the sprinkling of the blood of Christ.

5. That if any was not purified in the appointed way, he did not simply forego a great benefit to himself, he incurred the wrath of God as one that wantonly defiled his sanctuary. Even so that Christian who will not seek cleansing for his uncleanness and the hallowing of the precious blood does not only sin against his own soul, remaining in alienation from his God; he grieves the Spirit of God, and provokes him to anger, as one that despises his goodness, and mars by his state and example the sanctity of God's living temple, which is the Church (Matthew 22:11-13; John 13:8, John 13:10, John 13:11; 1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Corinthians 3:17; Ephesians 2:20-22; Hebrews 10:29).


Numbers 19:1-10, Numbers 19:17-19


This law respecting, the purification of one who has contracted uncleanness by contact with the dead must have been familiar to every Israelite. Death with impartial foot visits every house. No one can long remain a stranger to it. There is evidence, moreover, that this law did not fail to impress devout hearts, deepening in them the feeling' of impurity before God and unfitness for his presence, and at the same time awakening the hope that there is in the grace of God a remedy for uncleanness. Hence David's prayer, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean." The law gives direction regarding—


1. It was water, pure spring water (Numbers 19:17). A most natural symbol, much used in the Levitical lustrations, and which is still in use in the Christian Church. At the door of the sanctuary there is still a laver. In the sacrament of baptism Christ says to every candidate for admission into his house, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me."

2. In the present instance the ashes of a sin offering were mingled with the water. A heifer was procured at the expense of the congregation,—red, unblemished, on which never yoke had come,—and it was slain as a sacrifice. The red heifer was a true sin offering. It is so named in Numbers 19:9, Numbers 19:17 (Hebrew). But in several respects it differed remarkably from all the other sin offerings. Although the priest was to see it slain, and with his own finger sprinkled its blood toward the holy place, he was forbidden to slay it himself; it was slain not at the altar, but outside the camp, and the carcass was wholly consumed without being either flayed, or cleaned, or divided, or laid out in order. Besides, every one who took part in the sacrificial act was thereby rendered unclean; for which reason Eleazar, not Aaron, was to do the priest's part—the high priest might not defile himself for any cause. The ashes of this singular offering were carefully preserved to be used to communicate purifying virtue to the water required for lustration from time to time. None of these details is without meaning, if we could only get at it. The points of chief importance are these:—

(1) The sin offering prefigured Christ in his offering himself without spot to God (Hebrews 9:14). The singular rule which forbade the slaying of the red heifer within the precinct of the camp, who does not see in it a prophecy of the fact that the Just One suffered the reproachful death of a malefactor without the gate of Jerusalem? (Hebrews 13:12, Hebrews 13:13).

(2) Without prior expiation there could be no purification, and, conversely, expiation being made, the way was open for purification. So when Christ had once offered himself without spot to God, provision was thereby made for purging our consciences. There is a cleansing virtue in the blood of Christ. The man who believes in Christ is not only pardoned, but is so purified in his conscience that he no longer shrinks in shame from the eye of God, but draws near with holy confidence.

II. THE PURIFYING RITE (Numbers 19:17-19). Nothing could be more simple. A few particles of the ashes of the sin offering were put into a vessel of spring water; this was sprinkled with a bunch of hyssop on the unclean person on the third day and. again on the seventh, an act which any clean person could perform in any town; by this act the uncleanness was removed. A simple rite, but not, therefore, optional.

Willful neglect was a presumptuous sin.

General lessons:—

1. There is something in sin which unfits for the society of God. One of the chief lessons of the ceremonial law. When the grace of God touches the heart, one of its first effects is to open the heart to feel this. "Lord, I am vile." As habits of personal cleanliness make a man loathe himself when he has been touched with filth, so the grace of God makes a man loathe himself for sin.

2. There is provision in Christ for making men clean. His blood purges the conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

3. Of this provision we must not omit to avail ourselves. Willful neglect of the blood of sprinkling is presumptuous sin.—B.

Numbers 19:11


The law of Moses was a yoke which neither the fathers of the nation nor their descendants were able to bear. It would be difficult to name any part of the law in regard to which Peter's saying was more applicable than it is to the regulations here laid down regarding defilement by the dead. They must have been not only irksome in a high degree, but trying to some of the purest and most tender of the natural affections.


1. Contact with a dead body rendered the person unclean, and so disabled him from enjoying the privileges of the sanctuary. Many an Israelite would, like Jacob, desire that a beloved son should be with him when he died, to hear his last words and put his hand upon his eyes. Many a Joseph would covet the honour of paying this last tribute of filial affection. Yet the son who closed his father's eyes found himself branded by the law as unclean, so that if it happened to be the passover time, he could not keep the feast. The same unwelcome disability befell any one who, walking in the field, came upon a dead body and did his duty by it as a good citizen. When a company of neighbours assembled to comfort some Martha or Mary whose brother had died, and to bear the mortal remains to the burial-place, this act of neighbourly kindness rendered every one of them unclean. Our Lord, when he entered the chamber of death in Jairus' house, and when he touched the bier at the gate of Nain, thereby took upon himself legal defilement and its consequences. Not only so; if a man happened to touch a grave or a human bone, he contracted defilement, and would have been chargeable with presumptuous sin, as a defiler of the sanctuary, if he had ventured thereafter to set foot within the house of the Lord.

2. The defilement consequent on contact with the dead was defilement of the graver sort. Many forms of defilement only disabled till sunset, and were removed by simply washing the person with water. Defilement by the dead lasted a whole week, and could be removed only by the sprinkling of the water of purification on the third and the seventh days: an irksome rule.

3. Hence all specially devoted persons in Israel were forbidden to pay the last offices of kindness to deceased friends. A priest might not defile himself for any except his nearest blood relations: his father, or mother, or brother, or unmarried sister. As for the high priest, he was forbidden to defile himself even for these. And the same stringent prohibition applied to the Nazarite also.


1. According to some it was simply a sanitary regulation. The suggestion is not to be wholly set aside. So long as this law was in force extramural interment must have been the rule. No city in Israel contained a crowded burial-ground, diffusing pestilence within its walls, nor was any synagogue made a place of interment. Much less did the Israelites ever revert to the Egyptian custom of giving a place within their houses to the embalmed; bodies of deceased friends. In these respects the provisions of the Mosaic law anticipated by 3000 years the teaching of our modern sanitary science. However, this intention of the law was certainly not the principal one.

2. Another view of it is suggested by Hebrews 9:14 : "The blood of Christ shall purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." Dead works are works which have in them no breath of spiritual life. Transgressions of God's law are dead works; so also are "duties" not animated with a loving regard for the glory of God. Such works are dead, and, being dead, defile the conscience, so that it needs to be purified by the blood of Christ.

3. But the chief reason of the law is, without doubt, to be sought in the principle that death is the wages of sin. This principle, taught so plainly in Romans 5:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, was not unknown to the Old Testament Church. It is taught in the story of the Fall, and is implied in Psalms 90:1-17, "the prayer of Moses." The habit of making light of death—as if it were no evil at ,all, but rather the welcome riddance of the soul from a burdensome and unfit companion—was not learned from the word of God. The Bible teaches us to regard the body as the fitting dwelling-place of the soul, and necessary to the completeness of our nature. That separation of body and soul which takes place in death, it teaches us to regard as penal. Death, accordingly, is the awful effect and memorial of sin, and contact with the dead causes defilement. Blessed be God, the gospel invites us to look on a brighter scene. If the law admonished men that the wages of sin is death, the gospel bears witness that God in Christ offers to us a gift of eternal life. To say this is not to disparage the law. Bright objects show best on a dark ground. The gospel is appreciated rightly by those only who have laid to heart the teachings of the law. Still it is not the dark ground that we are invited to gaze upon so much as the bright object to whose beauty it serves for a foil. The relation between the law we have been considering and the grace of Christ is strikingly seen in the story of the raising of Jairus's daughter, and of the widow's son at Nain. In both instances Christ was careful to touch the dead body; and in both instances the effect immediately wrought proclaimed the intention of the act. From the dead there went out no real defiling influence on the Lord. On the contrary, from him there went forth power to raise the dead. In Christ grace reigns through righteousness unto life; he is the Conqueror of death.—B.


Numbers 19:1-22


The extreme difficulty of applying the details of this chapter to the spiritual truths of which they were a shadow forbids us attempting more than a general application of the narrative.

I. GREAT CARE WAS NEEDED IN PROVIDING THIS SIN OFFERING (for so it is called in Numbers 19:9, Numbers 19:17). There were precepts as to the victim's sex, age, colour, freedom from blemish, and from compulsory labour. There were further minute requirements as to the method of killing and burning. The animal, first killed as a sacrifice, was to be utterly consumed. No ordinary pure water, but water impregnated with ashes, might serve as a medium of purification. These typical facts are applicable to the means of purification provided in the gospel. Christ was no ordinary sacrifice, but "without blemish," "separate from sinners," voluntary (John 10:18), appointed to death in a particular manner (John 12:32, John 12:33); a complete sacrifice, vicarious, for all the congregation (1 Timothy 2:6; 1 John 2:2), in order that God might thus provide the means of complete purification (Hebrews 9:13, Hebrews 9:14).

II. DEFILEMENT WAS INCURRED IN THE PURIFYING PROCESS. This was shown in various ways. The heifer was not killed before the altar, but outside the camp. The high priest was to have nothing to do with it, nor was even Eleazar to kill it himself. The blood was not brought into the tabernacle, but sprinkled at a distance, in the direction of it. The priest that sprinkled the blood and burnt the cedar wood was defiled. The man that burned the carcass was defiled. The man, ceremonially clean, who collected the ashes became unclean. Even the "clean" man who sprinkled the unclean with the purifying water became himself unclean. Thus God seeks by type and symbol, "line upon line," to impress on us the truth that sin is "exceeding sinful." And we are reminded that even our sinless Priest and Sacrifice needed to be "made sin" for us in order that we might be cleansed from all unrighteousness and made "the righteousness of God in him."

III. THE PURIFICATION PROVIDED WAS IN PERPETUAL DEMAND. "Deaths oft" compelled frequent contact with the dead. A corpse, even a bone or a grave, was sufficient to cause defilement. As death is the penalty of sin, in this way too God taught the defiling effect of sin, and therefore the need of perpetual purifications (Hebrews 10:1, Hebrews 10:2). These are still needed even by Christians who have been justified and have exercised "repentance from dead works" (John 13:10; Hebrews 6:1).

Thus we learn—

1. The fearfully polluting character of sin. Its contagion spreads to all who are susceptible. It exerts its baneful effects on that part of the creation incapable of guilt (Romans 8:20-22), and even on the sinless Son of God when he comes into contact with it as a Saviour (Isaiah 53:5, Isa 53:6; 1 Peter 2:24, &c.).

2. The mysterious method of purification. Some of these ceremonies are "hard to be understood," and we have some difficulty in knowing exactly how to apply them to the truths respecting spiritual purification in the gospel. Just so in "the mystery of godliness" itself there are "secret things which belong unto the Lord our God." But we may be satisfied because the way of salvation is "the gospel of God," the Lamb slain is "the Lamb of God," the atonement is God's atonement. In the purification of our consciences "from dead works" we have the best proof of "the mystery of the gospel" (Ephesians 1:8, Ephesians 1:9; Ephesians 6:19) being "the power of God," &c. (Romans 1:16).

3. Our entire dependence on this purification. The thoughtless touching of a dead man's bone defiled, and the man who neglected the water of purifying was "cut off." So with sinners, who should not dare to plead forgetfulness (Psalms 19:12), but who may be cleansed from every sin. But without this cleansing they too will be "cut off" (1 John 1:7-10).—P.


Numbers 19:1-22


In the laws given to the Israelites there is much said concerning uncleanness. The ceremonial difference between the unclean and the clean sets forth the real difference between the sinful and the sinless. This difference was therefore as important in its way, and as much requiring attention, as that between the holy and the profane. In the Book of Leviticus a large section (chapters 11-15) is exclusively occupied with regulations on the subject, pointing out how uncleanness was caused, and how to be removed—oftentimes very easily caused, but never easy, and often very tedious, to remove. It was a charge brought against the priests long after (Ezekiel 22:26) that they showed no difference between the unclean and the clean. Already in this Book of Numbers one kind of defilement, that contracted by contact with the dead, has been referred to thrice (Numbers 5:2; Numbers 6:6-12; Numbers 9:6-8). In the second of these instances the defilement came as a hindrance to the Nazarite in fulfilling his vow, and the manner of his cleansing was carefully indicated. Here in Numbers 19:1-22 we come to a very elaborate provision for defilement by the dead in general. The immediate occasion of this provision may have been the sudden and simultaneous death of nearly 15,000 of the people, by which many were of necessity defiled, and placed in great difficulties as to their extrication from defilement. But whatever the occasion, the contents of this chapter show very impressively and suggestively the way in which God looks on death.

I. We gather from this chapter sow UTTERLY OBNOXIOUS DEATH IS TO GOD. The person who has come in contact with it, however lightly or casually,—it may have been unconsciously,—is thereby unclean. Unlike the leper, he may feel no difference in himself, but he is unclean. Notice further why death is so obnoxious to God. It is the great and crowning consequence of sin in this world. Sin not only spoils life while it lasts, but brings it to a melancholy, painful, and in most cases premature end. Consider how much of human life, that might be so glorifying to God, so useful to man, and so happy in the experience of it, is nipped in the earliest bud. Doubtless God sees in death abominations of which we have hardly any sense at all. It is obnoxious to us as interfering with our plans, robbing us of our joys, and taking away the only thing that nature gives us, temporal life. We look at death too much as a cause. God would have us well to understand that its great power as a cause comes from what it is as an effect. In one sense we may say the uncleanness of leprosy was less offensive than that of death, for the power of sin was less evident in a disease of the living person than when life was altogether gone. Every instance of death is a fresh defiance, and apparently a successful one, of the ever-living God. Death seems to wait on every new-born child, saying, "Thou art mine."

II. WE SHOULD SO CORRECT OUR THOUGHTS THAT DEATH MAY BECOME OBNOXIOUS TO US IN THE SAME WAY AS IT IS TO GOD. Do not be contented to talk of death as coming through disease, accident, or old age. Behind all instruments look for the wielding hand of sin. Ask yourself if egress from this world would not be a very different sort of thing if man bad continued unfallen. To a sinless nature, how. gentle, painless, glorious, and exultant might be the process of exchanging the service of earth for the service of a still higher state! Death in its pain and gloom and disturbing consequences to survivors is something quite foreign to the original constitution of human nature. Only by learning to look on death as God by his own example would have us look, shall we find the true remedy against it, both in its actual power and in the terrors which the anticipation of it so often inspires.

III. OCCASION IS GIVEN FOR MUCH HUMILITY AND SELF-ABHORRENCE AS WE CONSIDER THE HOLD WHICH SIN HAS ON OUR MORTAL BODIES. The agonizing appeal of sin-burdened humanity is, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Every consideration should be welcomed which will make us feel more deeply and abidingly the dreadful power of sin, the impossibility of getting rid of all its consequences until we are passed out of the present life. Does not a fair consideration of this ceremonial uncleanness for the dead body go far to settle the oft-debated point as to the possibility of complete holiness in this world? How can there be complete holiness when this supreme effect of sin, temporal death, remains undestroyed? What a thought for a devout Israelite, a man of the spirit of the Psalmist, that, solicitous as he might be all through life to keep in the way of God's commandments, nevertheless, when life had left the body, he would inevitably be the means of defilement to others!

IV. THERE IS POINTED OUT TO US THE TRUE MODE OF TRIUMPH OVER DEATH. Death can be conquered only in one way, by conquering sin. He who destroys the power of sin in a human life destroys the power of death. The raising of Lazarus was not so much a triumph over death as a humiliation of him who has the power of death, an intimation that the secret of his power was known and vulnerable. Lazarus was raised, but died again in the course of mortal nature, and only as he believed in Jesus to the attainment of eternal life did he gain the real triumph over death. If then by any means our life here is becoming more and more free from sin, more abundant in holy service, then in the same proportion the hellish glory of' death is dimmed. The physical circumstances of death are not the chief thing to be considered, but what sort of future lies beyond. If it is to be a continuance, improvement, and perfecting of the spiritual life of Christ's people here, then where is the triumph of death? To have been transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to have found our chief occupation and delight in the affairs of the kingdom of heaven, may not indeed take away the terrors of death, but they do effectually destroy its power.

V. The very fact of death being so obnoxious to God SHOULD FILL US WITH HOPE FOR ITS REMOVAL. Is it not a great deal to know that what is peculiarly dreaded by us is peculiarly hateful to him? Is there not a sort of assurance that God's wisdom and power will be steadily directed to the removal of what is so hateful?—Y.

We have now to notice the way in which this defilement was removed—by sprinkling over the defiled person running water mingled with the ashes, prepared in a peculiar way, of a slain heifer.

I. THE PREPARATION WAS VERY ELABORATE. It needed great care in its details, and was, therefore, very easily spoiled. There has been much discussion, with little agreement, over the significance of many of the details, the truth being that there is not sufficient information for us to discern reasons which may have been clear enough to those who had to obey the command, though even to them the purpose of many details was doubtless utterly obscure, and even intentionally so. What room is there for faith if we are to know the why and wherefore at every step? One thing is certain, that if any detail had been neglected, the whole symbolic action would have failed. The water would be sprinkled in vain. God would intimate in no doubtful way that the defiled person remained defiled still. So when we turn from the shadow to the substance, from the cleansing of the death-defiled body to that of the death-defiled person to whom the body belonged, we find Christ complying in the strictest manner with the minutest matters of detail; and doing so, this indicated his equal compliance inwardly with every requirement of the law of God considered as having to do with the spirit. Thrice we know did God intimate his satisfaction with his Son, as one who in all things was carrying out his purposes—twice in express terms (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5), and the third time implying the same thing not less significantly (John 12:28). Then also we are called to notice how many prophecies as to matters of detail, such as places, circumstances, &c; had to be fulfilled. As in the preparing of the heifer the commands of God had to be accomplished, so in the preparing of Jesus for his great cleansing work the prophecies of God had to be accomplished.

II. THE DEVOTED ANIMAL WAS IN A TYPICAL SENSE VERY PECULIAR. There is the selection of one kind of animal, one sex in that kind, one colour, all absence of blemish, and complete freedom from the yoke. May we not say that to find all these marks in one animal was indication of some special provision from on high? "It must be a red heifer, because of the rarity of the colour, that it might be the more remarkable. The Jews say, if but two hairs were black or white, it was unlawful." Whether this were so or not. we have in this remarkable typical animal a suggestion of him who in his person, works, claims, and influence is totally unlike any one else who has ever taken part in human affairs. As the heifer was without spot or blemish, so far as human eye could discern, so Jesus was faultless in the presence of God's glory. And just as the combination in the heifer of all that God required was a great help to the people in believing in the cleansing efficacy of the ashes, so we, regarding Jesus in all the peculiarities which center and unite in him, may well apply ourselves with fresh confidence and gratitude to the blood that cleanseth from all sin.

III. THE ASHES WERE RESERVED FOR PERMANENT USE (Numbers 19:9). It is of course an exaggeration to say that the ashes of this first heifer served for the cleansings of a thousand years, but doubtless they served a long time, thus sufficiently indicating the cleansing power that flows from him who died once for all. We stand in the succession to many generations who have applied themselves to the one fountain opened for sin and uncleanness. Where the earliest believers stood, submitting the impurity of their hearts to Jesus, we also stand, and the evident result to them, as seen in the record of their experience, may well give joy and assurance to us.

IV. Only, WE MUST MAKE LIKE CLOSENESS AND FIDELITY OF APPLICATION. Consider what was required from these death-defiled ones. For seven days they were unclean, and on the third day as well as the seventh they were to be sprinkled. To prepare the sprinkling agent was no light or easy matter, so that its virtue might be sure. But even when prepared it required repeated applications. Thus to be cleansed from sin requires a searching process, indicated in the New Testament by the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire. There must be a discerning of the thoughts and intents of the heart, and a rigorous, uncompromising dealing with them. Let none apply himself to the cleansing which Christ provides unless he is ready for a thorough examination of his nature, a disclosure of many deep-seated abominations, and a tearing away from his life of much that he has cherished and for a time may sadly miss.

V. THERE IS NO CLEANSING EXCEPT IN STRICT OBEDIENCE TO GOD'S APPOINTMENT. The defiled one could not invent a purification of his own, nor could he go on as if defilement were a harmless, evanescent trifle. He might indeed say, "What the worse am I for touching the dead?" judging by his own present feelings and ignorance of consequences. Nor might any immediate obvious difference appear between the defiled and the cleansed; nevertheless, there was a difference which God himself would make very plain and bitter in the event of persevering disobedience. So between the conscious and confessing sinner who, humbly believing, is being washed in the blood of Christ, and the careless, defiant sinner who neglects it as a mere imagination, there may seem little or nothing of difference. But the difference is that between heaven and bell, and God will make it clear in due time.

Note the connection of the following passage with the whole chapter:—"If the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:13, Hebrews 9:14).—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 19". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-19.html. 1897.
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